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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism / translation

Javier Marías's Debt
to Translation

Gareth J. Wood

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To purchase Javier Marías's Debt to Translation

Title: Javier Marías's Debt to Translation
Author: Gareth J. Wood
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 326 pages
Availability: Javier Marías's Debt to Translation - US
Javier Marías's Debt to Translation - UK
Javier Marías's Debt to Translation - Canada
Javier Marías's Debt to Translation - India
  • Sterne, Browne, Nabokov

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Our Assessment:

A- : useful approach; insightful and well-done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       With his 2011 novel The Infatuations -- on top of the magnum opus trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow -- Javier Marías has surely finally sealed his hold as internationally recognized 'literary' (for want of a better word) author of the top rank -- almost certain now to annually be among the dozen names mooted as 'leading Nobel Prize contender' until his death (or until he takes the prize). In the United States, where his career has been carefully and patiently nurtured by publisher New Directions, this shift in stature (and the size of his print-runs) is marked by his move to the bigger (publishing) leagues with the 2013 US publication of The Infatuations by Random House-imprint Knopf (and a big chunk of the backlist moving to Vintage).
       Setting several of his novels in England and clearly influenced by English-language works of literature, Marías has always displayed a strong connection to the language and culture; it also sets him somewhat apart from much modern Spanish writing -- so much so that, as Gareth Wood notes, as late as 1995 Marías bemoaned the fact that: "the Spanish literary establishment still considered him a British writer who happened to write in Spanish". In Javier Marías's Debt to Translation Wood examines Marías' career and work in light of and connection to his translations (all from the English) -- an approach that proves illuminating.
       Woods' monograph also works as a larger study of Marías' life and work. In the absence of a full-fledged biography -- which, when it comes, should make for a fascinating read: few authors have led (and are leading) such interesting literary lives -- Javier Marías's Debt to Translation actually serves as a good introductory overview -- a great primer (though, given the price of the volume, one that will presumably not reach many readers who are not scholars (who in turn are presumably already familiar with much of the material and details)). The discussion of Marías' own engagement with publishing apart from his own creative writing is of particular interest. Marías variously worked in publishing: at Anagrama, for example, with Luis Goytisolo and Juan Benet, where, Wood reports: "Marías was able proudly to claim the distinction of enabling the first publication of Thomas Bernhard in Spanish" in the late 1970s, but more significantly with his own Reino de Redonda publications.
       The writer-as-translator is a relatively rare phenomenon in the English-speaking world: Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, J.M.Coetzee, and Harry Mathews are among the few prominent English-speaking writers who have also translated significant work. Elsewhere, translation by writers is commonplace; examples range from Murakami Haruki (who has translated works such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby) or Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek (Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow) to someone like French author (Christophe) Claro. As Wood notes, Spanish literature had become relatively sclerotic under (and also even in oppositional reaction to) Franco; translation -- bringing in foreign fiction and the ideas and stylistic variety that came with it was obviously one way to enliven it again. It's noteworthy, however, that Marías even complained of -- and himself took a very different approach to -- the:

lamentable and widespread tendency among translators to hispanisize foreign texts in such a way that any vestige of their nature as English, French or German works is lost
       Translation ran in the Marías' family, too: it was one of the few things his father could turn to, given the political situation under Franco -- and even his mother published a translation of selected letters by Napoleon in 1941. Other important Spanish writers -- notably Carmen Martín Gaite -- were also active translators (and, as Wood suggests, this aspect of modern Spanish literature has been woefully underexamined, particularly in considering the work and influence of prolific translator Martín Gaite).
       Wood focuses on three authors in particular: Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy Marías translated, Sir Thomas Browne, and Vladimir Nabokov. In each case, Wood examines the translations themselves, as well as the broader influence of the works (and, certainly in Nabokov's case, the life) of these authors. While he does not restrict himself to these case-studies -- there's a wealth of information extending beyond them -- they are the focus of the monograph.
       Amazingly, no Spanish translation of Tristram Shandy was available until 1975 -- and then three appeared within four years, with Marías' prize-winning one the last of the lot. That itself is a puzzling bit of literary coincidence -- why suddenly the interest in this book ? -- and Wood considers that as part of his closer examination of Marías' engagement with the text.
       The importance of Tristram Shandy -- and his own engagement with it -- is not to be underestimated, as Marías acknowledged even years later:
However, if I say that Tristram Shandy is my favourite book, it has not escaped me that this is precisely because I translated it, because every single one of its sentences, of the words that compose it ... not only passed before my eyes, but also through my understanding and my vigilant ear, and then over my own tongue (I mean Castilian, not the wet one), and were finally reordered and expressed on paper by my diligent and weary fingers.
       Wood does a nice job of connecting Marías' own writing with his translations, and admirably builds his discussions beyond their starting points. So Browne leads to the observation that:
Marías has done more than any other contemporary Spanish writer to renew the fortunes of the ghost as a vehicle for fiction.
       Wood elaborates by, among other things, noting that Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs Muir is Marías' favorite film -- and that his first published work was a ghost story he had written at age fourteen. It is in these many (and wide-ranging) details that this volume manages to also present a very rich portrait of the author.
       It is in a lot of the detail-work, literary and otherwise, that Wood really shines, even when it only has more indirectly to do with Marías himself: in considering Jorge Luis Borges' (inadequate) translation of Faulkner's The Wild Palms he readily dissects some of Efraím Kristal's specific criticism (in a book focused on Borges' translations !), notably by going back (as Kristal clearly failed to do) and finding that some of Borges' omissions can't be blamed on the translator, as it turns out that the 1939 Chatto & Windus UK edition Borges clearly relied on: "had been 'cleaned up' for British readers" (i.e. they were the ones who cut the sentences in question, not Borges).
       While not a gloss on Marías' books, Wood does offer insight into many of them (though the Spanish-title-abbreviations used to identify them -- CFM for Cuando fui mortal, for example -- without any list/bibliography that correlates the English with the Spanish titles anywhere in the book makes for a bit more work for English-speaking readers than necessary). As the title of final chapter -- 'The Culmination of his Art: Tu rostro mañana' -- suggests, Wood builds up to this magnum opus (The Infatuations makes the bibliography, but that's about the extent of it; otherwise it is out of the purview of this study), and offers his most detailed reading here. And while translation and its influences is consistently the focus, he extends his discussion to, for example, "examining Marías's journalistic output over the period of the novel's gestation". (Wood notes that Marías has positioned himself as a public figure (and not just as 'king of Redonda' ...), and for example that he does see to the collection and publication of his (large) journalistic output -- a part of his life/work that is not as immediately apparent or familiar to his English-speaking readers (despite a stint as columnist at The Believer) and also certainly worthy of more examination.)
       Javier Marías's Debt to Translation is a scholarly work, but it is a very good introduction to Javier Marías -- both the fascinating 'author' (in the broadest meaning of the term) and his intriguing work -- and can be highly recommended as such. It is also an interesting study of translation, in several respects: from general translation issues and observations to the specific influence Marías' own translation work has had on his writing to, more generally, the situation in Spain in the late Franco years and the time after.
       Yes, this is an academic monograph, but it is very readable and often highly entertaining -- there's a wealth of fascinating detail here even aside from the literary interpretation on offer, and even casual readers of Marías' work should find it insightful and very enjoyable. (Alas, the sticker price likely restricts its audience largely to academics and academic-library patrons.)
       Wood closes his book with the hope that his demonstration of "how rich the study of translation can be for students of Spanish literature in the modern period" might inspire some to undertake similar examinations of other Spanish authors (Martín Gaite !); certainly this book makes a good case for that, and suggests that similar work in other cultures and languages could also be very rewarding.

       [Pedantic copyediting note: this is a beautiful volume, and clearly a carefully written and edited work (and with a list price of US $110.00 it sure as hell should be). Nevertheless, one finds (on page 236) that most dreaded of all literary title-slips: yes, there's a reference to: "Finnegan's Wake". How can that happen in an 'Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monograph' -- or any scholarly (or, indeed, any) work ? Surely, this is -- along with the spelling of Poe's middle name -- one of those easily-made slips that every copyeditor (and regular editor, and author) knows to be on the look-out for and tries to avoid at all costs.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 April 2013

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Javier Marías's Debt to Translation: Javier Marías: Books by Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gareth J. Wood teaches at University College London.

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© 2013-2023 the complete review

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