Peter Bush on translating IN DIAMOND SQUARE by Merce Rodoreda

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Earlier this year we published a new translation of one of the most important novels in Catalan literature, In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda. Michael Eaude wrote in the Independent, Peter Bush ‘has taken enormous pains to capture its world. A translator like this is essential if books from a stateless culture like Catalan are to be ushered successfully on to the stage of world literature . . . The fierce beauty of Rodoreda’s writing makes it one of the masterpieces of modern European literature.’

Peter Bush writes here of translating this incredible book:

When I read La plaça del Diamant (In Diamond Square) for the first time, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what finally happened to war widow, Pidgey, and her children in the wake of the Spanish civil war. I started it at 3pm, after lunch, and finished it at 9.30, in time for dinner, Barcelona-style. I’d just moved to live in that city and was catching up on Catalan literature. It was only when I came to translate the novel a few years later that the life story of the girl from Gràcia struck a deeper, personal chord. Continuously reading as a professional doesn’t mean that reading becomes a clinical process. You still react emotionally while you repeatedly engage with the language you are transforming, making hundreds of thousands of changes…

As I reread the story of Pidgey’s struggle for survival during wartime on the home front, I was reminded of the way my mum would tell me about her six years bringing up two daughters in a small rural town – alien to her, a lass from a tenement in the centre of Sheffield – when my dad was away being a nurse in northern France and the deserts of the Middle East. She told me of the fortunes being made on the black market by uncles who were small farmers, but couldn’t find the occasional egg for her young daughters, the tussles with aunts, the evacuated family that came to lodge, the bombs…  Sometimes reading sparks these very personal connections, but not always. It helped me understand that Mercè Rodoreda’s novel wasn’t only about women at the home front in Barcelona; behind her heroine stood the women she had met in France during the Occupations on her many flights from the Nazis and her struggle to make a living, and, more generally, women left to cope, wherever, in bellicose times.

Then there was also the little matter of the two translations that already existed that I would only read once I’d as good as finished mine. I only knew their titles – Eda O’Shiel Sagarra’s The Pigeon Girl and David Rosenthal’s The Time of the Doves – and that I wanted ‘Diamond Square’ in my title, and that the birds that flutter and die throughout to be very definitely pigeons, and not doves, with all the positive and negative connotations those birds evoke – their iridescent rainbow plumage and dirty bombing habits.

Individual memories and literary choices! What to do about ‘Colometa’ the nickname the narrator is given by her first love, the boisterous carpenter, Quimet, and his too. If you don’t translate names when they are highly symbolic, then they may have an exotic, foreign ring, and the resonances a Catalan reader feels are lost. So I opted for ‘Pidgey’ and ‘Joe’. Reading Pidgey on every other page when the young wife is worrying about feeding her children, surrounded by pigeon feed, pigeon shit and broody hens must be more powerful than a repetition of ‘Colometa’. Similarly with a working-class Joe rather than ‘Quimet’, diminutive for ‘Quim’ (with all its sexual innuendo for English readers that is non-existent in Catalan) from Joaquim. That’s what I wanted to feel and hear as a reader, and as a translator, you are your first reader. You can’t create for that mythical ‘general’ reader, ‘mid-Atlantic’ audience or conventional English literary taste. Otherwise, why translate at all?


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