on translations: i’m reading renaildo arenas’ memoir/autobiography of his life in castro’s cuba, “before night falls.” it is captivating, infuriating, stunning, sad. what amazes me is his almost mythic happiness–which is not to say that he is a happy fool, but that he survives a harrowing coming-of-age to be thrust into a life of desperation; jailed, banned, watched, and abused by the state. through it all, though, he finds friendship and love, not to mention as much homo-sex as one man could possibly handle without being a professional sex worker. it must be the weather.
one thing that impressed me from the beginning is his writing style: short declarative sentences. he refrains from embellishment and this almost journalistic approach to his writing creates a sense of urgency that motivates the reader to turn page after page–with some breathlessness at the sheer horror of his life as an ‘out’ homosexual in castro’s cuba.
but then i remembered i was reading a translation and i wondered if i was reading his style or the translator’s. unless i learn to read/speak spanish better than i do (which is currently is limited to “hasta la vista, baby” and “llave las copas, you bastards”) i won’t know his original use of language, his grammar, the roll and lilt of alliteration, or the sound of his voice. now i am reading someone’s interpretation of his voice and i wonder/worry that i’m missing out on the true story.
reading a translation is a leap of faith that you’re receiving the grammatical intent and language usage of the author. i’ve done my share of reading in a foreign language (french) and i can tell you there are differences in translations, some good, some not so good, but acceptable, and some just plain awful. which you as the reader of the translation may or may not realize.
for instance, i struggled to read “chez swann” by marcel proust in its original french just as i struggled to read c.k. scott montcrieff’s translation, “swann’s way.” giving up on both. should i try lydia davis’ translation, which many critics deem the superior or enright’s? what about the recent (this century) translation by seven different translators of the seven different volumes? sigh.
but i’m not faced with that problem with arenas. and please don’t think i’m complaining, i’m not. it’s just that for the complexity of emotions he describes, the language is surprisingly simple. and perhaps that’s his intent; the simple language underlining the weight of his struggle to survive in a repressive regime. but i’ll never know and it bothers me.