The Business of Translation

by Julio Cortázar

From Revista Cromos, Bogotá, Colombia
Translated from the Spanish by Lesley Salas and Ramiro Arango
Reprinted from
Translorial, VoI. 4, Nos. 4-5

An author begins to receive royalties or he doesn’t, and if he does, they are almost always late, which is why a writer who is not the son of a petroleum-financed sheik or Henry Ford III will spend a good part of his life making his living however he can. (Fallacies of language: Why not “pauperties” of an author? Why not “breaking” a living? The obstinate hypocrisy of that vocabulary which conspires with the worst of society those three- or four-syllable deceivers.)

Anyway, I mean to say that since I never expected any royalties (and maybe that’s why they came to me; indirect advice to many an over-anxious young writer), I spent a good part of my now many decades translating books, birth certificates, patents, consular invoices and reports from the Director General of UNESCO, the latter in collaboration with many and jovial Catalan, Ecuadorean, Argentine, Basque and Galician colleagues. An unspeaking dragoman, in my youth I experienced moments of delight while translating books such as Mémoires d’Adrian by Marguerite Yourcenar or L’immoraliste by André Gide, and years later I paid for these in days of horror or lethargy spent before reports by UN experts in the spheres (as they would put it) of sociology/literacy/irrigation/mass communication (sic) media/library economics/heavy water atomic reactors, etc. that, in general, deserved the denomination “unformative” rather than “informative.”

What has stayed with me from all this is a love for the subtle transmigrations and transgressions that operate in translation: the losses, the eliminations, sometimes the happy paraphrase and sometimes the foot in the mouth as far as it will go. In the mirror of translation, nothing is reflected from the original in full; absolute equivalents never go beyond the most embryonic, such as writing “Tomorrow is Thursday” for “Demain, c’est jeudi.” And we’re not even talking about the more subtle distortion imposed by historical and cultural evolution. Borges showed this better than anyone in “Pierre Ménard, Author of the Quijote,” which contains not even a translation but a literal reproduction that is nevertheless completely different from the original text.

The day when, thanks to my outstanding merits, I went from being a translator to an editor for international organizations, the comparison of others’ interpretations gave me moments not easily forgotten.

One example that already belongs to our professional folklore comes from the following text in French: “Comme disait feu le président Roosevelt, rien n’est à craindre hormis la cralnte elle-même.” This was blithely translated into Spanish as: “Como decia con ardor el presidente Roosevelt, el miedo a las hormigas lo crean ellas mismas.”* It must be admitted that the translation is richer and more metaphysical than the original, something equally noticeable in the case of a report on study grants given by the US to Mexico in which the word “scholarship” was understood as a ship loaded with scholars, nonchalantly put to sea to navigate its way though page after page….

*Translators’ note: The French can be rendered in English as: “As the late President Roosevelt used to say, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” The Spanish sentence means: “As President Roosevelt used to say ardently, the fear of ants is created by ants themselves.” This unfortunate error occurred because the French word hormis (“except”) resembles the Spanish word hormiga (“ant”).

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Late Summer/Fall 1982 issue of Translorial. Ramiro Arango was Vice President of NCTA at the time, and Lesley Salas, shown in that issue in a photo taken by NCTA founder Tom Bauman, was Translorial’s new editor. Part 2 of the translation of this article was to have appeared in the following issue, but Vol. 4, No. 6 is missing from our archive. We’ll try to locate Part 2 for a future re-release. Stay tuned.