A long walk to hope. A long walk to salvation.
(The experience of translating A long walk to water)
For Isabel Campoy, my fairy godmother
The experience of translating is magical. And multifaceted. Sometimes (very seldom, actually) it’s simple; sometimes (that is, almost all the time), it’s terribly complicated. And this doesn’t necessarily entail that it’s a “difficult” text with hyper-technical vocabulary. Paradoxically, those are usually the easiest to translate. Technical terms usually remain the same. In other endeavors that might seem simpler, what eludes us are the subtleties the text calls for, or that we demand of ourselves. I need this word, not that one. The words dodge our grasp, or hide from us or refuse to come forward. Almost always at some point the heavens open, and Saint Jerome himself, with collegial complicity, slips us what we’ve been looking for. (There are also translator angels who whisper words to us as we sleep, and then what an epic awakening we have…).
We crossers of bridges live between two languages (in my case, English and Spanish). Sometimes we end up stuck in a limbo that’s just a tad hallucinatory. But as history shows, we always emerge at the right moment, and nearly always with the necessary word.
There’s one thing that any seasoned translator knows: every translation leaves you richer. Without fail. With more words, with the endowment derived from the work of translating about cities, contracts, syndromes, policies, the Dinka tribe. To say nothing of the intellectual challenge posed by neologisms. The experience of translating is vast and splendid and nourishing. We discovered all this when we were just raw novice translators. We’re still discovering it now (and more intensely) with almost 40 years on the job.
One fine day my screen flashed with an opportunity long dreamt of: a proposal to translate A long walk to water (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HMH) into Spanish. I read that it’s a New York Times best-seller. That it’s a short novel written by Linda Sue Park, award-winning American author of children’s and young adult literature. And I wonder, what have I done to deserve this?
I don’t read more because I want to be a virgin to this story, and because I face up to translations without introductions. None of that “how do you do? I’m the translator, get ready for a journey into Spanish.” I translate without anesthesia, without further ado, without reading the story through beforehand. I dive straight in, no shyness or squirming to avoid the cold water, right off the highest diving board. Olympically yours.
Translating this novel has been one of the most moving things that’s ever happened to me. Although it was months ago that I made the final click on the last SEND to deliver my translation to the publisher, I’m still discovering how alive it is, throbbing more warmly than ever in my heart as I fly towards the UAE (invited by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi to give a talk).
We tend to be ignorant of the African continent. It’s made up of mysterious lands about which all we “know” (as TV taught us when we were kids), is that Johnny Weissmuller and his ape companion Cheetah are somewhere out there. Down the years some of us may have the luck to enhance our view through readings or travel, though in general the focus stays on a couple of zones: North Africa (with Egypt, which I’ve always admired), its regions so touched by things Spanish, and to the south… an unexpected trip to Pretoria, Zulus, Durban and the vestiges, still recent, of the incomprehensible apartheid. Between these scattered points, nothing. Unforgivable ignorance.
The plane’s map tells me what cities we’re flying over. Juba! I read with sudden excitement. For a while there’s nothing to look at but desert in all directions. Sudan. The Nile. Before Salva Dut, the Nile had been the river of my beloved Egyptians. Now, it had become another obstacle faced by the great Salva, leader of children, hunter of dreams, worker of wonders. My heart wilted as I realized what the journey of the Lost Children must have been like. I felt guilty for having been born in this game of snakes and ladders that is life with a such a handsome tally of advantages. I dearly hope that the experience of having “met” Salva may have made me a somewhat better person. That would be another one of Salva’s achievements.
These are two terribly harsh stories proceeding in different times; about two people to whom the very same fate that has graced me with good fortune has allotted them hunger, war, disease and death, cruel boundaries, and the desiccation of their lands and their dreams.
Linda Sue Park’s literary style is beautiful: plain, compelling, gripping. Musical. Which meant that the main challenge was to rewrite (to try to rewrite) the story of Salva and Nya with the same measure of skill. Out of respect for the author.
Her descriptions are precise and lovely. It was essential to translate the text without leaving any possible “noise” that might distract a Spanish-speaking reader. To be tough, engaging, steady, intimating or explicit, just as the author had been.
A number of times the novel takes our breath away. It’s almost impossible to stop reading. And so it’s indispensable for the translator to stay close to the reader in order to move her to joy, fear, relief and excitement, just as the author has done.
I tried to use as few translator’s notes as I could in order not to hinder the narrative. Right or wrong, I feel that having to explain myself in a note is somehow a dismal failure on my part, though of course sometimes there’s no choice. “Good morning, auntie,” says Salva at one point. A dear colleague from Kenya explained to me that in certain parts of Africa it’s common to address ladies as “auntie” or “mother.” I think it makes sense to interrupt the reader and take him down to the foot of the page, so that’s what I do.
I hope I have been worthy of the task of translating this story that is so wrenching, yet at the same time inspires such hope. Behold, there are people in this world like Salva.
Always the translator, I can’t fail to note the knowing wink of one of the words in this novel: the name of Salva Dut. I wonder if Salva has any idea that the Spanish language lends enchantment to the story as the very name of Salva* resonates with hope.
Translated by Kevin Mathewson
Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella
* Translator’s note: The verb salvar in Spanish means to save, or rescue