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You may have heard the Italian expression “Traduttori, traditori” (translators, traitors), which refers to the impossibility of translating a text into another language without “betraying” the original or losing the nuances and magic of the writer’s voice and language. 

However, the translator tries to “evoke” the same sensations that the author wanted to imprint on the text and to do so as faithfully as possible, avoiding “literalism” if necessary. And the fun and the drama are that we only notice this “mediation” when we read a bad and unnatural translation. 

A good translator is sometimes a ghost -we notice it like a breeze in the prose-. And also a writer. 

In fact, many authors combine the writing of their own works with literary translation, as is the Spaniard Javier Calvo case, translator of Chuck Palahniuk, or David Foster Wallace, among many others. Or, much earlier, Borges, who in addition to translating Poe, also translated a multitude of authors, from Virginia Woolf to Faulkner, passing through H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. 

Borges himself thought that translation was not a mere transfer of a text from one language to another, but a “transformation,” and sometimes surpasses the original. And Nobel laureates such as the Portuguese Saramago spent a lot of time defending the work and recognition of their works’ translators. 

Traduttore, autore

The British chapter of the prestigious Pen Club, the world writers’ association, has just announced the winners of the Pen Translates Awards 2021, including a handful of works of indisputable literary quality translated from Spanish into English. 

Among them is Rooftop (La Azotea), by Uruguayan writer Fernanda Trías and translated into English by Annie McDermott for Charco Press. A harrowing story whose protagonist is a woman, Clara, locked up with her father, daughter, and a caged canary in her own house. 

The non-fiction work A Feminist Reading of Debt, by Argentinians Luci Cavallero and Verónica Gago, translated from Spanish by Liz Mason-Deese for Pluto Press. And In exile, by Brazilian Sheyla Smanioto, translated from Portuguese by Sophie Lewis and Laura Garmeson for Boiler House Press. 

Among the works originating in Spain, the translation by Kevin Dunn for Jonathan Cape of Easy Reading (Lectura Fácil), by Cristina Morales – National Prize for Literature in 2019 – stands out. An incredibly complicated book because its protagonists are a group of Spanish women who suffer from a “mental disability” and live in a supervised flat. 

In Oldladyvoice (Voz de Vieja) and with the superb translation by Charlotte Whittle for And Other Stories, the writer Elisa Victoria puts us in the shoes of a nine-year-old girl in a story of initiation -as well as the literary debut- as tender as it is funny.  

English PEN’s Director of Translation and International, Will Forrester, said in a statement that the fifteen winning books – from 14 countries and in 12 languages – “are significant works of literature. They are remarkably varied, but they are united in being astonishingly good”. 

Forrester also welcomed the fact that PEN Translate continues to “encourage internationalism, diversity, talent and literary quality in the UK market, especially at a time when the circulation of literature and ideas across borders is so vital. These books will leave their mark for years to come,” he concluded.

For the rest of the prize-winning works, including for the first time authors from Guinea, Algeria, and Benin, books translated from Gun (spoken in Benin) and Kurmanji (Turkish Kurdish), see HERE.

In a global world, translators build bridges, bring continents together and shed light on great literary talents and stories we would otherwise not be able to read.