[Musings] Translation as Pretence and Performance

  • onMarch 16, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byJavier Marías


Translation is an activity to which we are so accustomed that we often forget and lose sight of some of its most essential and integral characteristics, one of which is its undoubted artificiality, the inescapable fact that it is a pretence, a sham, an act. Faced with a text by Dickens or Flaubert (for example) in Spanish, our innocent or naïve response is to believe – as we do – that it was actually written by Dickens or Flaubert and that we are reading their actual words. Common sense alone will tell us that this is quite impossible: not only could Dickens never have expressed himself in that language, he could never have expressed himself in that way; he would never have used certain words that appear in the text and which are only conceivable in Spanish, nor would he have written certain sentences using a syntactic construction unique to Spanish and unimaginable in English, nor employed idioms and turns of phrase he couldn’t possibly know and which, even if he had, it would never have occurred to him to use, because they form part of a language and a system of thought different from those inhabited by him and his prose. To believe that what we are reading in Spanish continues to be the work of Dickens is, when you think about it and seen from a rigorously theoretical perspective, arrant nonsense.

And yet this, in practice, is what people do believe – or, rather, they behave as if they did – and it’s undeniable that the work in question does continue to belong – if it belongs to anyone – more to the English novelist than to anyone else, even the translator. Certain purists and other scrupulous people claim that one can only read poets in their own language. This, albeit arguable, view, is one that is nevertheless often heard, yet one rarely hears anyone admit or regret that they haven’t read Tolstoy or Turgenev because they were unable to read them in the original Russian. Translation, then, is universally accepted – with the inevitable exceptions – as a true and adequate reflection of almost any text. Now, what lies behind this acceptance of translation as a valid means of knowing a literary work when, from one point of view – rather unimaginative, it’s true, but not entirely to be dismissed – it is undeniable that nothing could be so at odds with the essence of that work than its supposed transposition into another language and, therefore, its renunciation or abandonment of the language in which it was conceived and written? How is it possible unreservedly to accept a translation when one knows that what characterizes and distinguishes a literary work is, in large measure, not to say primarily, the language in which it has its home and that has made its existence possible?

This question, given that it was solved and settled centuries ago, may seem inadmissible or futile. But it is perhaps worth looking into the reasons for that age-old solution. It is due, I think, to the establishment and acceptance of certain conventions, so deeply rooted – so taken for granted, so taken as read – that their existence is often forgotten both by translators and by readers. Everyone knows, we all know, that a translated work is not and cannot be exactly the same as the work of the author who wrote it: the brutal shift involved in the change of languages makes this impossible, prevents it from being the same work. It is clearly something else, and yet since time immemorial, people have pretended, have made believe that it is the same. That’s why, as I see it, one could compare the activity of translation with any of the usual modes of performance, both those with centuries of tradition behind them and the more modern varieties, because they all require similar conventions in order to exist.

In the theatre, for example, it’s obvious that what is represented on the stage isn’t real, indeed, the inevitable inadequacies of the scenery tell us so or, at the very least, remind us of this. A backdrop of trees is not intended to be taken as a group of real trees, and yet we accept them as such because of their context; we accept as a door something that our senses tell us is just a piece of painted cardboard that doesn’t open onto any room at all; we ignore the fact that no water comes out of a tap when one of the characters turns it on; we’re not surprised to see a famous actor disguised as Tamburlaine: we accept him as Tamburlaine for as long as the play lasts, even though we know he isn’t Tamburlaine. The same thing happens at the cinema, where the capacity for visual suggestion is far greater: and yet, were we not predisposed to immerse ourselves in a film, we would be unable to forget that we’d travelled to the cinema especially to see those images or that we were seated in a darkened room or that someone was sitting next to us or that the shifts of perspective happening before our eyes bear no relation to what our eyes are capable of in reality. We accept all this as natural because it’s part of an accepted convention. The theatre- or cinema-goer knows that in order to take part in, enjoy, understand and believe in the work being shown, you have to suspend your usual sense of reality for the two hours that the show lasts. You must be prepared – this is what the convention demands – to accept as trees something your eyes know to be a mere expanse of canvas, to perceive as a door what is mere cardboard, to imagine water coming out of a tap, and to ignore the fact that Tamburlaine has the face of a particular actor. Equally, we could say that someone looking at a painting sees volumes, shadows and dimensions that could never exist on a flat surface, and that being in close, permanent contact with the pages of a book in no way prevents us from experiencing passionately and innocently the adventures of Jim Hawkins or the misadventures of Madame Bovary.

Well, in my view, the way in which a reader reads a translation belongs to that same realm of experience: we, the reader, know that Dickens could not possibly have written the sentences we’re reading in Spanish, nevertheless, we make believe that those words were written by Dickens, in his own hand, and to do this we must deliberately suspend all knowledge that any transfer or mediation has taken place: that is, we must accept that we are reading the words of a linguistically gifted Dickens, as well as the bizarre idea that this is how Dickens would sound if his work had undergone a miracle similar to that which occurred to the apostles after Pentecost, when they spoke in their own language – the only one they knew – but each person listening heard them speaking in his or her own tongue.

Now, for such an attitude to be possible in any kind of performance, and for the spectator happily to accept the conventions that allow such a phenomenon to occur, and for it to be both effective and natural, the people putting on the performance must, of course, do all they can to make the illusion believable. They can’t rely solely on the spectator being in the right frame of mind, they have to confirm and maintain that frame of mind. That’s what lies behind the painted backdrop of trees and the actor’s costume, even though neither can be relied on to deceive entirely; that’s the reason – in part – why they turn off the lights in a cinema, or put frames around pictures, isolating them – even if only fictitiously – from the equally flat wall that accommodates them. To continue with the example of the theatre, while we the spectators must be prepared to accept the convention, we must also be prepared to make the effort required to be convinced. There must be a desire on our part to believe. Or perhaps the convention consists precisely in our willingness to allow ourselves to be deceived whenever there is an attempt or an apparent attempt to deceive us, whenever we are offered the appearance of or an attempt at verisimilitude. As far as the spectator or viewer is concerned, the convention, the rules of the game, could be set out in the following terms: “I will believe that the trees on the set are real trees if you really want me to believe it, and if, by painting them and putting them on the stage, your intention was that I would believe them to be real. I will pretend that I believe this precisely because it seems to me that you have tried to make me believe it, and your confidence in your ability to deceive me convinces and encourages and allows me to deceive myself during the time stipulated by us for the pretence and the performance to last. However, it’s vital that you help me to do this; that is, in order for me to experience your simulation as real, my willingness and readiness are not enough: I need your willingness and readiness too, and it’s up to you to smooth the way so that I remain willing and ready. And if you prove too implausible, you will have demonstrated that you do not entirely believe in or are incapable of accepting and fulfilling the convention that I, in good faith, am prepared to embrace the moment the curtain goes up; should that happen, I, too, will have the right to reject it.”

So what happens, then, if we see translation, too, as pretence, as another kind of performance? As I said, every reader knows that the text has undergone a transformation that allows us to read what the author wrote in a language that we the reader do not know, while, at the same time, preventing us from knowing that text as it really is. Well, if we the readers are to ignore this fact, this knowledge, we, like the spectator or viewer, need to be convinced by the translator, who is, when you think about it, performing an operation as bold as it is bizarre, namely, giving someone who doesn’t know, say, English the ability to read English. Or to be more exact, the translator is trying to make the reader of his Spanish text believe he is reading in English even though he is, quite clearly, reading in Spanish. For such an absurdity (when seen from the point of view of common sense) to occur, a degree of verisimilitude is also required.

So, what form does that verisimilitude take in a translation? Here is what Octavio Paz had to say on the subject: “Performance requires not only a degree of agreement and affinity with what is being performed, but also conformity and, above all, likeness.” If we accept that definition, which seems to me pretty accurate, we are being presented with an apparently insoluble problem: how can an ordinary reader judge how “like” a translation is to the original if he cannot read the original to which he has access, or thinks or pretends he has access, only through its enactment as a translation? In order to take part in the game and to play his part in the convention agreed between him and the translator, the reader must not be continually reminded that what he is reading is just that, a translation: for him to forget this and put that idea on hold, he must be able to read the text as easily and naturally as he would in his own language; but, at the same time, and so that he can believe that he really is reading Dickens, that is, for that reading to be plausible, he should also be aware of “something” distinctly and unmistakably different from what he is used to finding in texts written originally in his own language. He must be aware of “something” which, without it constantly reminding him that he is reading a translation, allows him at the same time to sense, to intuit, that original text, which, as we have seen, he cannot know in any other way.

It’s hard to say what that “something” is or should be, and I’m not going to try and explain it here: the questions provoked by that contradiction would be endless and this is not the place in which to address them (although one should remember, purely as a bibliographical note, that Walter Benjamin held that any translation from language A to language B makes tangible the existence of a third active presence and reveals the traces of what he called the “pure language” that precedes and underlies both languages). Nevertheless, in the light of that, it would not be out of place to say a few words about the advisability or not of literary translations preserving certain indefinable but unmistakable elements of the original, which would give the reader some sense of what the original is like.

In this respect, for example, it is often said that Spanish is being undermined by the overwhelming and indiscriminate invasion of English words and constructions, and there are those who say that these additions are contributing to a deterioration, not only in the standard of the very translations from English that introduced them, but also in the general quality of spoken and written Spanish. There’s a lot of truth in this, and it is, alas, commonplace now to find such absurd redundancies as autoconsolarse or autodefenderse (I’ve even heard someone say autosuicidarse, which would mean a triple suicide), or with unnecessary and dangerous semantic shifts, such as the use of contemplar to mean “consider” or “to bear in mind”, or with ghastly, superfluous neologisms like liderar or implementar. However, being overzealous about protecting language from such evils often brings with it, as a consequence, the tendency for the translator to eliminate from the resulting text any vestige, any trace – whether tangible or not – that might remind the reader of the original language, which, although possibly correct in its literal or exact application in Spanish, might “jar” because it feels awkward or odd; such zeal brings with it a tendency to translate syntax, semantics and diction in an ultra-Spanish way. This, in my view (albeit for different reasons), is equally prejudicial to Spanish – or whatever the target language might be – and can, in the long run, lead to a grave impoverishment of the very language the translator is striving to preserve. Languages are enriched in all kinds of ways, but one of these is, undoubtedly, contact with and permeability to the uses and dictions of other languages, which are also in a state of permanent evolution. Any translator intent on trying maintain at all costs – simply out of a fear of dissipation – a rigid, stagnant Spanish into which he would have to translate the most diverse styles coming from the most diverse languages, runs the risk of producing a translation shorn of all the original language’s peculiarities. But it’s not only that: such an attitude, the implementation of such tendencies, would be to deny translation one of its essential and most inescapable characteristics: pretence and performance. No serious reader would be convinced or satisfied to read, say, Shakespeare as if he were Lope de Vega or Dickens as if he were Galdós. If the reader is to accept and join in the pretence, he should find, in the translated Shakespeare, elements and facets and constructions not usually found in his own language, things that may even seem odd and, dare I say it, wrong. That’s why, to achieve this, the translator needs his own language – the instrument he’s working with – to be as flexible, ample and open as possible: he needs a language that will, first and foremost, accommodate all possible languages with their respective, infinite particularities. Ultimately, the task of the translator is not a matter of allowing or providing the reader with a mere understanding of a text, but of incorporating that text into his own language. And to achieve this, just as the actor playing the role of Tamburlaine will only succeed when, in the eyes of the spectator, he appears to be Tamburlaine in both costume and interpretation, so the translator should appear to the reader as a Dickens or a Shakespeare risen from the dead, like a Dickens or a Shakespeare writing in fluent Spanish, but still, undeniably, paradoxically and quite naturally, writing in the most perfect English.


Javier Marías 
Presented at the First Iberoamerican Translators Congress (Primer Congreso Iberoamericano de Traductores) in Madrid on November 10, 1982. Published as “La traducción como fingimiento y representación” in Nueva Estafeta, January 1983.
Copyright © 1983 by Javier Marías
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


Javier Marías is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest novelists. He is the author of fifteen novels and several short story books, essays and columns. He has been translated into forty-six languages and published in fifty-nine countries, and more than eight million copies of his books have been sold worldwide. He has won the Nelly Sachs Award, the Comunidad de Madrid Award, the Grinzane Cavour Award, the Alberto Moravia Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Formentor among others. He has translated into Spanish works by Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Isak Dinesen, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. He received the Spanish National Translation Award for his translation of Tristram Shandy. He has been a lecturer at the University of Oxford, at universities in the United States and at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He is a member of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española.