We’re happy to share this recent translation of the Catalan magazine El Pais’s lovely interview with translator Peter Bush. Bush’s forthcoming translation of Josep Pla’s Life Embitters will be published by Archipelago May 5.
Pla ‘Against’ the Bloomsbury Group
“It was really difficult to translate Pla’s sequences of three or four adjectives, especially in his descriptions of landscape,” says Peter Bush (Spalding, UK, 1946), in the year he spent translating El quadern gris into English. “His is a kind of anti-baroque literary impressionism; I was reminded of Proust because there’s not a writer like him in the English-speaking world.” If pressed, Bush mentions the poetic side of D.H. Lawrence and the lyricism of John Clare. Two poets to connect with a narrator of prose? “Pla’s work is very poetic. And why is that? We need a good biography of Pla…”
He seems more enthusiastic speaking about the background to Pla’s work that he felt was “a revelation” than the difficulties of the translation. He does, however, highlight the expression “ ‘el meu país’ that Pla plays with, using it to speak of Palafrugell, as much as the lands of Catalonia or Spain; Pla leaves it in the air and I tried to maintain the ambiguity by sticking to ‘country’ as much as possible.”
The work of distilling Pla’s style into English took “six drafts” and Bush only looked at the French version (Gallimard) and the Spanish (Dionisio Ridruejo) at the end of the process “in order not to be unduly influenced”. In the last stage he could also consult the edition by Narcís Garolera with over 5000 changes. “Lots of grammatical detail that made no impact on the translation, though I did restore fragments cut by the censors”.
One of the Catalan writer’s great gifts is his use of a variety of registers. “He speaks about art, eroticism, and comments on everyday life in a lyric mode that can easily turn to comedy or irony, as when he describes life at university, scenes that reminded me of If, the film by Lindsey Anderson, or Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis”. He was struck by dialogues in a “Noël Coward” type parody. Or also the telling nature of short meditations or moral essays written in a subtle, condensed style. “Yes, Pla’s lexis can seem simple, but not his language.” And he has a simile: “He seems influenced by Dutch painting: apparently simple portraits with a complex, tricky perspective.”
As a translator he didn’t see evidence of the infinite patchwork with which Pla constructed The Gray Notebook over almost half a lifetime. “It’s perfect… One doesn’t notice the re-writing… I don’t understand why it has never been translated into English before.” But provides his own answer: “Pla was a politically uncomfortable figure, specialists in Catalan literature abroad were more at ease with Carner or Rodoreda.”
Bush knows what he is talking about. He is the translator, among others, of Juan Goytisolo, Valle-Inclán’s Tyrant Banderas and, from 2007, of Catalans like Quim Monzó, Mercè Rodoreda and his wife, Teresa Solana. “There’s nobody like Pla in Spanish literature at the time; in Cambridge, when I was a student, we were taught the Generation of 1898 and Ortega y Gasset!” Now he is an enthusiast for Catalan literature: in November his version of Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales (“a view of the civil war you don’t get from Orwell”) is out from the MacLehose Press and in April,2015, Archipelago Books will publish Pla’s Life Embitters.
In August Bush will return to England after ten years in Barcelona. And he wants to speak of these authors there: for the moment he hopes the Gray Notebook will be published in the UK: the rights are now only available in the USA where he has met “lots of young people” interested in Catalan literature. He already has a focus to promote them: “Watch out Bloomsbury, here comes the Ramblas’ Group.” And leading the way, Josep Pla.
By Carles Geli. Orginally published in El Pais, June 18, 2014. Translated from Catalan by Peter Bush.