Guest Post: Jamming with Josep Pla and The Gray Notebook

by  Peter Bush

Over the last few years I’ve been thinking about translating and actually translating a classic of contemporary literature, Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook. It has never been translated into English: over a quarter of a million carefully chosen and weighted words drawing on the widest possible range of the Catalan language that Pla writes in. Catalan literature isn’t as widely read as it should be in the Hispanic world or by readers literature anywhere, whether in Catalan or English or Spanish translations. Lovers of modern art have been long familiar with Catalan painters Joan Miró or Salvador Dalí. I hope readers will soon be as at home with Catalan writers of their stature. The translation is in the final stages, so I’ll try to describe issues highlighted by a self-editing session from the past week.

Josep Pla wrote The Gray Notebook as a form of diary in 1918 and 1919 and started it on enforced leave from his Law degree when the University of Barcelona was shut down by an influenza epidemic. He is one of the few great autobiographical writers in the Hispanic literary tradition alongside Santa Teresa de Jesús and Juan Goytisolo. Pla is equally at ease describing the life of the family tortoise, the impact of early readings of Proust, hobos, taverns and fishing villages under changing Costa Brava skies, or satirising priests, professors and politicians, with the insights and humanity of a modern Montaigne. His range of themes, styles and vocabulary is immense, so I’m grateful to Google and Pla scholars but above all to the ten-volume Alcover-Moll Diccionari Català-Valencì-Balear that is great on examples and local words from different parts of the Catalan speaking world backed by illustrations. Some people think print dictionaries are fuddy-duddy. I don’t: they provide respite from the screen and allow for fruitful browsing of the bookish kind.

 Pla revised his opus for first publication in 1966. In my final phase of revision I’m consulting two previous translations when I’m not sure of a nuance. The Spanish translation by poet Dionisio Ridruejo and Gloria de Ros from 1966 in Carles de Casajuana’s 2008 edition and Serge Mestre’s French translation that came out with Gallimard in March this year. Narcís Garolera published a revised version of the Catalan original with over 5000 changes in October 2012, so I have to watch out or those too in case they have implications for the translation. Juggling with heavy tomes is good for the wrist muscles!

I spent one afternoon on an entry. On 29 May, 1918, a chemist by the name of Pere Poch turns up at Pla’s café. He runs a shop but at the age of thirty-five has one outstanding course to pass to get his pharmacy degree. He spends time away from his family trying to get through. Pla ironically suggests that though constant failure depresses Poch, – he runs a good pharmacist’s, so perhaps the qualification isn’t that vital – he actually likes philandering on his ‘pilgrimages’ to different centres of learning across the Peninsula. (Pla doesn’t say Spain, but the Peninsula. The book is littered with references to ‘el país’ that I translate usually as ‘country’. Catalan is a language without a country: Pla’s use of ‘país’ is a political statement.) To return to Poch, the exam failure has exam phobia and struggles to get out of bed on the day of the test:

Una pressió còsmica fortíssima el manté entre els llençols. Pensar en la paraula tècnica i sentir, inerts, tots els ressorts que produeixen la verticalitat li és el mateix.

 I’m looking at my most recent edit:

Intense pressure from the cosmos keeps him between the sheets. The very thought of the word ‘Technology’ kills dead every reflex that brings on verticality.

The only change introduced by Garolera is to remove the capital letter from Tècnica that represents the subject Poch can’t handle: Técnica Física y Farmaceútica – Technology in Physics and Pharmaceutics. The course basically involves describing in words the physical make-up and appearance of apparatus. Poch can handle the real items in practice but can’t paint them in words. A favourite Pla theme is the useless pedantry of pedagogy in peninsular academia.

The language of universities in 1918-1919 is Spanish, so in his many entries related to universities, subject titles are in Spanish and the short exchanges with professors are in Spanish, obviously in an ocean of Catalan. What’s the translator to do? One option would be to leave everything in Spanish and translate into English in footnotes or follow the French tradition of translating into French and adding a double asterisk to point up that in the original is in Spanish. I don’t like either option. Leaving all the Spanish in the text would be to highlight Spanish and footnotes look forbidding. So I translate mostly, sometimes include a key Spanish word, or add that a person is speaking in Spanish. The general issues around Catalan and Spanish can be picked up in the introduction.

Pla uses lots of superlatives that sound strong in Catalan but weak in English when replicated endlessly by ‘most’ or ‘very’ or ‘extremely’, so the translator must ring the changes: will using ‘from the cosmos’ rather than ‘cosmic’ work?

No readers are ever going to doubt that this is a work originally written in Catalan, what a translator doesn’t want them to doubt is that it is astonishingly subtle autobiographical writing, story-telling and comédie humaine sustained over 700 pages. Can it be done in English, at least a good way along the line? If translating is about not effacing, about carrying over literary originality into a new language, in this context, the irony, the second sentence as it stands misses out a level of irony. In the portrait of Poch, Pla uses  ‘ressort’ ironically that ‘reflex’ gets dimly; it’s as if he were a jack-in-the box trapped in his box: his ‘springs’ are paralysed (by fear of an exam about such technical devices) so he can’t get out of bed. The robotic humour is then intensified by the comic use of the abstract ‘verticalitat’. So then the question is: can English stand the use of the cognate ‘verticality’. Does it bring a smile or will the reader groan at the sight of a Latinate monstrosity? It certainly shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as a ‘Romance’ lexical item that Anglo-Saxon English simply can’t accommodate: it deserves its corner for the moment while ‘springs’ and ‘inerts’, (another item with a technological side) are on the scales:

The very thought of the word ‘technology’ jams the springs that should trigger his verticality.

come to mind: ‘kills dead’ must go with ‘reflexes’ and ‘springs’ brought ‘jams’ and ‘trigger’ that combine a snappy rhythm with technological connotation. For the moment, I decide to stick with ‘verticality’ as verbal joke made stronger by the three very physical words just introduced. Also it’s not an isolated sentence and its location in the surrounding entry plays a role that has already suggested two changes:

The mere thought of the word ‘technology’ jams the springs that should trigger verticality.

It’s still a work in progress – just – but final deadline is imminent and final decisions have to be reached and the work is long. Obviously, weighing up choices is time-consuming, though practice and concentration help accelerate the process – as does having an excellent editor.

To be published in spring 2014 in the New York Review of Books Classics series.

 © (Peter Bush) 2013

Peter Bush has lived and worked in Barcelona for the last ten years as a full-time literary translator. He was previously Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Recent translations include Tyrant Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán (NYRB) and In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (Virago).  He was awarded the 2012 Valle-Inclán Prize for Exiled from almost everywhere by Juan Goytisolo (Dalkey Archive).

Click here for a conversation between Peter Bush and Frank Wynne in the August issue of Bookslut. 

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