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Interview | Tim Gutteridge, translator

Tim Gutteridge has been a full-time translator since 1999, and works on a wide range of texts, including literary fiction, theatre, TV scripts, comics, academic articles and corporate communications. His recent translations include The Mountain That Eats Men by Ander Izagirre and the stage plays Jauría (Jordi Casanovas) and Tenant (Paco Gámez). His translation of Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosende, is published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Tell us a little bit about yourself
I was born and brought up in Scotland but I live in Cadiz, in the south of Spain, with my teenage kids and my two dogs.

When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
I was a big Moomins fan. I can still remember that sensation of disappearing into another world, an odd mixture of the comforting and the disconcerting.

You’re relatively new to literary translation but you have a long career behind you in other fields of translation. Why did you decide to get into literary translation? What are the similarities and differences between literary and non-literary translation?
I’ve been working as a translator since 1999 but I’ve only been doing literary translation since 2016. The move into literary work was, in equal parts, the world’s most boring midlife crisis and the world’s worst retirement plan. Instead of snorting coke and getting into polyamory I decided I’d like to translate fey literary novellas. And instead of having a decent pension pot, I decided to try to find some work I’d be happy doing after I’d passed retirement age.

I’m now at the stage where the majority of my work is literary, at least by my rather liberal definition, which includes novels and plays but also non-fiction, TV scripts, comics, marketing material for publishers . . . And I continue to do a fair amount of non-literary work: academic articles, corporate communications and so on.

I really dislike the division between the worlds of literary and non-literary translation, and I make a continuous effort to bridge that divide. The underlying skills are the same. All translation, I think, is about engaging in an activity that is simultaneously an act of reading and of writing. Bad translation happens when you lose sight of that or over-privilege one aspect at the expense of the other.

Tell us about some of the more challenging works you have translated, and why that was so?
I don’t generally find texts difficult per se. I’m an optimistic translator – or just shockingly oblivious to my own shortcomings. But perhaps the most challenging text I’ve had to translate recently was a sample of a historical novel. The opening chapter combined a lot of nineteenth century maritime vocabulary with an extended orgy in which the author had cunningly exploited an aspect of Spanish grammar (the way inflected verbs allow you to omit pronouns) to be deliberately unclear about who was doing what to whom. To make matters worse, the narrator was delirious, making it even harder to work out what was going on.

You seem to have a particular fondness for writing from South America. Have you ever lived on that continent?
My first book translation was The Mountain That Eats Men by Ander Izagirre (Zed Books, 2019), a non-fiction piece about Bolivia (although Ander is from the Basque Country) but I have to confess that I’ve never been to South America. I actually try to focus on writing from Spain, partly because it’s where I live and where I can make connections with authors, agents and publishers but also because Latin America is very fashionable at the moment – and it sometimes feels like there are too many people vying for access. However, the reality is that Spain and Latin America are intertwined culturally and linguistically, so it’s almost impossible to separate them out.

Translating literature in terms of fidelity to the original, lexicon, content, localization, the period and the author’s meaning is tricky. What were the particular issues you had to deal with when translating Mercedes Rosende’s thriller, Crocodile Tears into English?
Perhaps the challenge I enjoyed most came from the descriptive passages. I love that process of imagining a scene in order to recreate it. And, as you say, it’s often about word choice. In Crocodile Tears there’s a church scene in which there is a reference to “el sonido de los pasos de los fieles impuntuales” (literally, “the sound of the steps of the unpunctual faithful”, although it reads much better in Spanish). I translated that as “the muffled footsteps of tardy believers”. In my translation, “muffled” doesn’t correspond directly to anything in the source text (I’ve taken the liberty of adding it in for atmosphere) and I loved the combination “tardy believers”. I’m wary of the whole notion of translation as a creative act, though. You sometimes get the feeling, as a translator, that you are creating something truly wonderful – and then you have to remind yourself that the really hard work has been done by the author and you are, at best, doing it some kind of justice in your translation.

The most challenging issue in this text, I think, was how to approach the scenes where there was a lot of highly colloquial language: dialogue, slang, cursing and so on. Because these are short sections in a longer text it can be harder to establish and sustain individual voices. I translate a lot of plays and I tried to approach the colloquial sections in that spirit. For example, there’s one point where the heist is going wrong and one of the participants says, “mecagoenlaputa” (all run together in the original, to emphasize the speaker’s frustration: word for word, it means “I shit on the whore”; pragmatically, one might translate it as “fucking hell!”). In the end, I went for “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck”. The repetition of the English is almost the inverse of the inventiveness of the original but that was what worked in context.

What is the significance of the novel’s title, Crocodile Tears?
The original title is actually El miserere de los cocodrilos, a line from Oblación Abracadabra by Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reisig. And that’s echoed within the text by one of the villains, who listens to Vivaldi’s Miserere as he drives around organizing his criminal undertakings. But the phrase “crocodile tears” (lágrimas de cocodrilo) also appears in the novel: it’s something that is said to Ursula, the novel’s real star, by her father, an accusation that she is only feigning sadness to avoid punishment. And so, more generally, it raises the question of whose emotions – love, loyalty, sorrow, regret, faith – are real and whose are just for show. But you’ll have to read the book and then reach your own conclusions about that.

How involved are you in the promotion of the books you translate? Is social media as important as we are led to believe, or are there other ways to build a community online and promote the books you are passionate about?
I can’t really give a general answer to that. I do what I can – I’m quite active on Twitter, for example – but I think translators sometimes overestimate how much influence we have. We spend a lot of time telling each other about our books but I can’t imagine that has much influence on sales. I think it’s more about boosting our standing within the literary translation community. This book is definitely getting a lot of traction on social media and more widely but I think the main credit for that has to go to the publisher and their publicist, who have done a great job of getting it out to bloggers and reviewers and into the mainstream press. I really see my role as supporting that.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I’m not a massive party-goer – or that keen on hobnobbing with famous people (dead or alive). Over the last year I haven’t been able to travel I’ve been really lucky to have close friends that I have good relationships with via text or phone. It’s been a lifesaver – but I’ve also found myself yearning for their physical presence. So my first three guests would be three of those friends. As we’re talking about Crocodile Tears here, maybe my fourth guest would be the book’s author, Mercedes. We’ve built up a nice rapport via email, text and social media, and I’m sure we’d get on well in real life. My final guest, if I’m allowed to include fictional characters, would be Ursula López, the villainous heroine of Crocodile Tears. She’s a bit of a monster but I can’t help sympathizing with her. Also, when she’s not planning heists and generally getting revenge on the world for the way it’s mistreated her, she’s a translator – so we could always talk about that.

Your chief fault?
This question makes me think of that scene in Trainspotting, where Spud has a job interview and has to mess it up so he takes speed, and then starts going on about how he’s too much of a perfectionist. I have loads of faults but I wouldn’t dream of being so unkind to myself as to own up to them here!

Your chief characteristic?
An inability to give a straight answer to a simple question? See above. And below.

Who are your favourite authors?
I would have probably given you a completely different answer to this if we’d been doing this interview twelve  months ago, before Covid-19 arrived. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve really struggled to read fiction and that makes it hard for me to look back and identify my favourite authors. Will they still be my favourites when this is all over? Am I even the same reader I once was? I doubt it. Some non-fiction books I’ve really loved this year have been Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour, Rootbound by Alice Vincent, English Pastoral by James Rebanks, and Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash. I also finally got round to reading Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. They’re all books that, in different ways, are about looking for personal meaning and have a strong sense of place, and often of nature.

I’ve also found a place for comfort reading in the form of audiobooks. I relistened to the Harry Potter series in November and would often shout “Expeliarmus!” at the top of my voice while doing my household chores. I’ve calmed down a bit since then and am now on James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

Your motto?
“Be kind to yourself.”

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosende | Translated by Tim Gutteridge | Bitter Lemon Press 224 pages 14 January 2021 8.99 GBP | ISBN 9781913394431

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Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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