Eva Baltasar: Permafrost | featured image

Spanish Poet Eva Baltasar’s Novel ‘Permafrost’ and the Art of Translation

Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost is an aesthetic novel that underscores the magnificence of a poet successfully translating poetic awareness into prose.

Eva Baltasar
And Other Stories
30 Apr 2021

Artful Translations

Readers are doubtless familiar with the obligation of translators to sometimes replace a word in the original language with another that, although it conveys a completely different meaning, better retains the cognitive association the original intended. Sanches frames this in a musical context: a word or phrase must not only generate a similar association in the reader’s mind, but it must retain the rhythm of the original text as well. “What should I prioritize?” she asks. “Does the image take precedence over the music, or do I do my best to maintain both?”

All of this draws the translated work irrevocably farther from the original, but that is not a bad thing. Indeed, ‘translation’ is perhaps not even the best term for what translators do, Sanches observes. “Would translation be quite so controversial if we were to simply call it something else? Would people still enter a translated text with as much suspicion if we called our little art something like ‘versioning’ or ‘againing’?”

Sanches’ observations bring to mind the work of Haruki Murakami, a writer and passionate jazz fan (and musician). In the excellent study of Murakami’s work Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2005, Vintage UK) produced by his own translator Jay Rubin. Rubin explores the famous writer’s fidelity to musical rhythm, one that very much echoes that of Baltasar. “Rhythm is perhaps the most important element of [Murakami’s] prose,” Rubin writes. “He enjoys the music of words, and he senses an affinity between his stylistic rhythms and the beat of jazz…[for Murakami] music is the best means of entry into the deep recesses of the unconscious, that timeless other world within our psyche.”

Murakami – who is a writer, musician, and translator as well — has reflected on the infinitely variable versions of a text that emerge when it is translated from Japanese to English, then English to German, and then perhaps from German back into Japanese again. A translated text bears an undeniable lineage to the original, and yet no text is simply an echo of the original, just as no child is an identical echo of their parent. Each translation takes on a character of its own, and offers us a different dimension of the original story.

This line of thinking suggests that no story is ever complete. Each translation provides us with a different facet of the whole – Sanches uses the analogy of people looking up at different faces of the moon from different points on Earth. It’s not unusual for an author to publish multiple books retelling the same story from the perspective of different characters. This is common in contemporary Japanese literature but is also the premise of older works such as Lawrence Durrell’s acclaimed Alexandria Quartet. Translating is perhaps a similar process, and maybe as readers we ought to start recognizing this.

Sanches reflects on alternative labels for the work that translators do: ‘versioning’, ‘againing.’ Taking a cue from Murakami and his literary jazz metaphors, one might also label this work ‘riffing’ off the original: proceeding from a shared point of origin, yet producing something infinitely variable in the process. Riffing could continue endlessly, producing infinitely new variables – in the case of classic texts rooted in mythology like the Iliad, this is actually what’s happened.

In the excellent 2014 collection The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation (National Endowment for the Arts), contributor and translator Gregory Pardlo defines “style” as “the unique musicality” each writer has. In translation, he asserts, this quality is more important than whatever the author is trying to say. Other translators have also addressed their ‘art’ – Sanches calls it a ‘craft’ – in musical terms. Angela Rodel, a translator of Bulgarian fiction, talks about her work as helping writers “find their ‘sound’ in English…trying to make the text itself sing, without changing the key entirely or tripping up the beat.”

Considering a text in musical terms allows for a different appreciation of the work, in some ways. As I read Permafrost, it kept bringing stubbornly to mind Bernardine Evaristo’s superb 2001 poetry novel The Emperor’s Babe (still my favourite work by her). The two texts are profoundly different – one set in Roman Britain, the other in contemporary Spain; one written in verse, the other in prose. Superficially everything about the two books is different, and yet their rhythm is profoundly similar.

There is something about the jauntiness of the two, their dark humour, the fact one can perceive these two women across two millennia rolling their eyes at everything that happens to them while never losing a detached sense of self-contained superiority. The two works share a rhythm, and reading one brought instantly to mind the other, which I hadn’t touched since it was published two decades ago. In music – especially folk music – it is not uncommon for two entirely different songs to share the same melody. Each tells a different story – one might be tragic, the other humorous – and yet they use the same melody to convey those stories. Such is the case with these two works.

Sanches’ essay is the icing on the cake, and Permafrost a feast for the aesthetic senses. Its rhythmic prose lifts the soul, while its darkly witty storytelling lays claim to women’s freedom in the modern world.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.