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Jonathan P.A. Sell (Alcalá) talks about his experience of translating pro-Franco memoirs of the Spanish Civil war

As children we have all felt the allure of the liverish reds or pumpkin oranges of river-bed and rock-pool pebbles. We have all, too, been disappointed once, removed from their liquid habitats and arranged on a windowsill to dry, those pebbles lose their sheen to become nondescript stones that gather dust before being chucked out into the garden. Change pebble for source text and rock pool or riverbed for source culture and you have a metaphor for what the less optimistic believe happens when translating a piece of literature from one language to another (1). The source culture is the environment in which the literary text is constituted and which is, in its turn and in the reciprocal manner of natural relations, reconstituted—albeit minimally, imperceptibly—by it. Outside the culture and the linguistic community which are its natural habitat, translated from one language to another, the literary text is left to flounder like a fish out of water until, starved of the oxygen that once sustained it, the scales turn lacklustre, the fins cease to flap, and, having reached the end of its shelf-life, it is de-catalogued and sent for pulping. What distinguishes literary texts from others, we are led to believe, is their quotient of art, their beauty; and it is their art or beauty that gets lost on translation. As Gilles Ménage put it in the eighteenth century, if the target text is faithful on the semantic level, it will be aesthetically ugly; if beautiful as a piece of art, it will be unfaithful in terms of meaning—Ménage’s belle infidèle (2). In Robert Frost’s terms, “poetry […] is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation” (3).

The more optimistic think otherwise. While aware that translation is a matter of losses and gains, they consider that, on the whole, “a live dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4), a dull stone on the windowsill is preferable to no stone at all. Casting their eye over the ranks of landmark translations, they admit that, of course, the King James Bible, Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses, Thomas Shelton’s Don Quixote or Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are no substitute for the real thing, but they are a great deal better than nothing. For the optimists believe that a pebble can be transferred from one riverbed to another, where, although the quality of the light and the chemical constitutents of the water will alter the sheen and the hue, the pebble may still glimmer, its colour may still entice and, in its own small way, the course of the new river will be ever so slightly altered. Translation is adaptation, they say, intoning piously the hoary old adage, but it is also co-adaptation: the text will be modified on assimilation into the target culture, but that culture will be modified too.

It was the optimistic view that I used to take when teaching my students of literary translation. However, recent experience of the reception of two translations of my own suggests that the strength of target culture currents may simply sweep foreign elements away. As member of a Spanish government-funded research project, the goal of which was to make available to Spanish readers forgotten texts written in English by witnesses of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), it was my job to produce editions and translations of two books, Eleonora Tennant’s Spanish Journey (1936) and Florence Farmborough’s The Life and People of National Spain (1938). The first point to be made here is that neither work can press any serious claim to literary status; indeed, when translating both, I often found the temptation to improve the originals hard to resist. That said, both editions were attractively produced and marketed for educated readers of literary memoirs and/or Civil War history.

Both Tennant and Farmborough made Franco’s cause their own; indeed, Farmborough, nursing heroine of the First World War, was the English-language broadcaster on Franco’s National Radio. Both were ferociously anti-communist and believed quite sincerely that Franco, Mussolini and Hitler would act as a bulwark against Russia in defence of a way of life and, in the case of the family Tennant married into, a business empire they held dear. Both were ideologically antipathetic to their translator (I had picked the two shortest straws when at the project’s planning stage the various texts to be translated were shared out) and it would have been easy for me to research and write respective historical and biographical introductions which peddled preconceived ideas and conformed to comfortable stereotypes. However, I felt it was my job to make an impartial contribution to the historical record and to give my authors a fair hearing. What counted was their testimony, what mattered that my translations should convey that testimony as accurately and accessibly as possible and that my introductions and notes should furnish Spanish readers with all the information necessary for them to see the texts in their contexts and draw their own conclusions.

In fact, as I discovered while working on both authors, what was most interesting about their largely propagandising testimonies was not the content or the opinions voiced, but the voices themselves, the voices of two extraordinarily independent women with very human concerns and hearts in the right place. The lesson I myself had extracted from editing and translating their texts was that for all the extremity of their political positions or the unfortunate directions their anxieties led them to pursue, both Tennant and Farmborough had a right to be heard and, above all, to be understood. In this sense, both their works translated into Spanish would, I fondly hoped, ever so slightly alter the course of the current of received opinion about the Spanish Civil War.

Unfortunately, my hopes were misplaced. That current is heavily politicised, its course contested by the grandchildren of the Nationalists and Republicans who fought it out in Spain’s tragically fratricidal conflict. The losers of the war have become the victors of the peace and it is hard to question the prevailing “history” of the sad events that divided families, villages, cities and nation. That history is the politically correct one, the “progressivist” one, the one democrats in general and, in particular, the parties of the left and the centre (which includes the moderate left and the soft right) are duty-bound to conserve intact. Thus, researchers who dig up data from the archives corroborating stories of the “Red Terror” find themselves branded as fascists and blackballed in academic circles. Thus, my attempts as translator to add to the historical record two new voices by mediating between Tennant and Farmborough and their historical and vital contexts on the one hand and, on the other, twenty-first century Spanish readers and theirs, have come to a sorry end.

Given the prevailing “history”, the publication of Civil War testimony written by Republican sympathisers is a prospering cottage industry. Less usual is the publication of similar material by pro-Nationalists. The fact that my authors were not only pro-Nationalist but also women meant that they attracted a certain amount of media interest. I was invited to take part in a radio-chat on Spain’s leading private channel, Cadena Ser, part of the pro-Socialist Party media giant, Prisa. Intent on emphasising the deep human and historical interest of the translated works, I feared the worst when I saw the programme’s blog trail the chat under the title “Franco’s groupies” (“Las grupis de Franco”). My authors had already been made to fit the stereotypes and, as a corollary, turned into objects of progressivist ridicule; my efforts during the programme to reset the scales met with considerable resistance from the anchorman, who had already written his story. The two books were also featured in a cultural space on Cadena Ser’s rival, Onda Cero. There, the centre-right orientation of the channel could be detected in its title, “Franco’s cheerleaders” (“Las cheerleaders de Franco”), “cheerleaders” being a rather more positive sobriquet than “groupie”. The participants in the programme tended to focus on anecdotal details rather than big pictures and replaced Cadena Ser’s scoffing belittlement with wry amusement. According to which side of the political fence one was on, Tennant and Farmborough had either to be dismissed with scorn as unwelcome guests or excused with the exculpatory smiles of hosts apologising for the presence of eccentric or undesirable members of the family.

As the political atmosphere became increasingly highly-charged in the wake of the unofficial referendum about Catalonian Independence, a columnist in the right-wing daily newspaper ABC noted how the term “fascist” was becoming order of the day for anyone who stood up for the state of law and recommended adopting Farmborough’s “fun” rhetoric as an antidote to the resuscitation of Franco as the favourite bogeyman of the left. A little earlier, as controversy raged over the new socialist government’s plans to disinter Franco’s corpse from the megalomaniac Valley of the Fallen, in his column for the right-wing daily El Mundo, the well-known writer Fernando Sánchez Drago quoted Tennant’s work as evidence of the Red Terror. With the so-called Historical Memory Act (Ley de Memoria Histórica) in their hands, the socialists’ planned profanation of Franco’s tomb was just another in a long line of left-wing anti-clerical outrages typified by the burning of churches and murder of priests and nuns during the Civil War, as attested by Tennant. Sánchez Drago appeared not to have read (or to have forgotten) my introduction’s account of how the testimony of foreign observers was often written for them by press officers at the Nationalist Press and Propaganda Delegation.

So my own attempts to enhance Spain’s historical memory, to ever-so-slightly alter the course of received historical opinion by adding to it the voices of two witnesses to the Civil War, were stymied by the force of a highly-politicised current whose lines are already well-drawn and inflexible. Sadly, those lines reproduce the battle-lines which fissured the Spanish nation during the Civil War and still scar the collective subconscious. And while a new ultra-right-wing party emerges onto the hustings and into the regional parliament of Andalusia, as a translator I register the irony that under the name of “Vox” (= voice), that party’s natural constituency is unwilling to give a fair hearing even to those voices who represented its cause eighty years ago. As translator, too, I register the tragedy that those who claim to stand for the values of progress, democracy and civil liberties are similarly deaf to voices that form part of the very historical memory they allegedly defend.

In short, it will take more than a couple of pebbles to change the course of Spain’s history. The force of received opinion is so strong, the banks so heavily reinforced by the concrete of ideological inflexibility, that Tennant and Farmborough will soon be carried away to the sea of oblivion. And could they take a peek as they rush downstream, they would easily recognise the river’s route, flowing as it does between the same lines they reported in their testimonies which, now translated, few are disposed to heed.

Jonathan P.A. SellUniversity of Alcalá, Spain

(1) The metaphor is from Eamon Grennan’s introduction to Giacomo Leopardi’s Selected Poems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. XVIII-XIX. See Franco Nasi, Traduzione estremi (Macerata: Quodlibet, 2015), pp. 143-4.
(2) Ménage is quoted in Amparo Hurtado Albir, La notion de fidélité en traduction (Paris, Didier Érudition, 1990), p. 231.
(3) Robert Frost, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1961), p. 7.