Peter Bush, a translator of works from Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese to English, has received numerous awards including the 2009 Calouste Gulbenkian Portuguese Translation Prize for his translation of Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares; the 1997 Premio Valle-Inclán for his translation of The Marx Family Saga by Juan Goytisolo; the 1994 Outstanding Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association for his translation of The Old Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepúlveda; the 2011 Cruz de Oficial, Orden del Mérito Civil, awarded by King Juan Carlos of Spain, for contribution to the creation of cultural dialogue between UK and Spain; and the 2015 Creu de Sant Jordi, most distinguished award given by the Generalitat of Catalonia, for the translation and promotion of Catalan literature.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I had a happy childhood on council estates in Lincolnshire on the edge of the Fens.
My father was a typographer, so the house was full of newsprint every day. My grandfather was a shepherd and Dad didn’t want to work on the land. My mother came from a family that lived in a tenement in the centre of Sheffield. Her dad was a sawyer from the Rhonda Valley and her mother from the Irish community on Merseyside. In the UK translation starts with class, dialect and migration.
I’ve just moved to Oxford with my family after living in Barcelona for eleven years.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
My first exciting reads were adventure comics. I got really hooked on cliff-hangers. Then I moved on to Tarzan and Agatha Christie. At sixteen I loved Molière and Balzac.
Why do you translate?
I love the tussle with words, re-creating styles and bringing something from one culture into another that I want English readers to enjoy. A great way to pay the rent.
Your advice to new translators just starting out?
Read lots in English.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I began with two great writers, Juan Goytisolo, from Barcelona, and Juan Carlos Onetti, from Uruguay. That helped my street cred no end with Spanish and Latin American writers. Then I peppered publishers with ideas.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a commissioning editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
Many readers’ reports are written by translators, as publishers are often monolingual. Translators are important gatekeepers. Many small publishers couldn’t do translations without the grants, so they can be crucial.
What are you most proud of translating?
The most challenging books were perhaps Fernando de Rojas’s Celestina, Goytisolo’s Juan the Landless, Valle-Inclán’s Tyrant Banderas from Spanish; and Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, Mercè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square and Joan Sales’ Uncertain Glory from Catalan. But then there’s The Last Patriarch by Najat el Hachmi, a remarkable novel about a young girl’s journey from the Rif Valley to Vic; or Teresa Solana’s Shortcut to Paradise, a biting satire of the literary scene in Barcelona; or the five Mario Conde novels by Leonardo Padura and his bitter-sweet vision of the Cuban revolution. I could go on!
Each translation broadens your palette. The dialogues with different writers’ styles are part of a process of cross-fertilisation in your consciousness as a translator. So when I was asked if I was interested in tackling A Bad End by Fernando Royuela, I agreed as I saw it as extending my canon of Spanish baroque satirists in English!
What is your biggest failure?
I usually translate books that I like, that I feel have original literary value and I work on them intensely as a professional, that means writing and re-writing many times, then working with my editors. In the process, I have found only one or two that wilted but I did my best by them, and I could hardly tell you which, could I?
What are you working on at the moment?
A fascinating story from the French by Maël Renouard, The Ruins of the Führermuseum, a devastating philosophical essay, The Anamorphosis of a Victim about the narco murders in Mexico by Sergio González Rodríguez, Winds of the Night, Joan Sales’ sequel to Uncertain Glory, a grim account of the hungry 1940s & 1950s in Spain, and Jordi Carrión’s Bookshops, his journey round the world in eighty bookshops. All at different stages in the translation process. Variety is the spice in a translator’s life.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
The translating scene in the English-reading world has changed beyond recognition in the last thirty years and for the better. That said, sales are still generally small. English and American readers and their literary establishments cling to the belief that their world is self-sufficient whilst their own writers are read in translation the world over. An insularity lingering on in what are now the most cosmopolitan, multilingual places.
Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
I don’t think it’s a question just of books in translation, but of attitudes to what is seen as “foreign” or “alien” across the media. In the early 1990s I worked on a Channel 4 series, Rear Window, about international culture. There were a lot of documentaries and films with subtitles on Channel 4 and suddenly an executive decision was taken to axe most of them. Over the last couple of years there’s been a big increase in sub-titles series, so that’s another change for the better.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
Immensely, I started out on a typewriter and there’s no comparison. Research is also infinitely easier. I used to draw up a list of queries around book and then head to spend a day in the Reading Room at the British Museum . . .
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I don’t read ebooks. I spend enough time looking at a screen all day.
How involved are you in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I like to work with my publishers on that front. I’ve organised many tours – three with Juan Goytisolo. My work on Rear Window started from a proposal I made for a programme about him in Marrakesh, and followed that with ones on Chico Buarque and Eduardo Galeano. I’ve just done tours on the East and West coasts in the States to promote Pla’s The Gray Notebook.
I think social media can be important, but I can’t find the time to twitter or Facebook.
Your bedside reading?
Els convidats by Emili Teixidor.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
My wife, Teresa Solana, my three children and Miguel de Cervantes.
Your favourite prose author?
I don’t have one. It goes in phases. Now it’s Russians – Platonov, Grossman and Dostoyevski in the wonderful translations by Robert Chandler and Oliver Ready.
Your favourite poet?
Ditto. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Yeats, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Eliot . . .
Your heroes in real life?
Médecins sans Frontières, as I read of more hospitals being bombed in Syria by Putin and Assad.
Your chief characteristic?
Restlessness, in the positive sense, I hope, of never wanting to stand still in what interests me.
Your chief fault?
Your favourite motto?
Who thinks, drinks (from Celestina).
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