Saramago: run-on paragraphs and the art of translation

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Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago

I recently finished Death With Interruptions, by José Saramago. This is my second Saramago book. I think I may have discovered him through Ursula Le Guin’s blog. The Notebook didn’t really draw me in, but I went on to read All The Names, which did. I found myself wishing the other day, as I was reading Death With Interruptions, that I could read Saramago in the language in which it was written—Portuguese. Long ago, I was living in Spain and was getting pretty comfortable with Spanish (mostly lost now). I will always remember how mind opening it was to read a book in its original language, that I had formerly read in English. Or more interesting yet, reading a book that I had formerly read in English translation, i.e., Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being—but this time in Spanish.

The art of the translator is not celebrated enough. To convey nuance, tone, and expression, to choose appropriate slang and context. It must be especially tough with an author like Saramago who runs on sentences and paragraphs for pages, who seems to only loosely follow punctuation and grammar rules. Or maybe it is just that he has his own rules, and quotation marks and paragraph returns are not included. I especially admired that in Death With Interruptions, there is a page in the book that says to the reader something like, hey, you remember that guy I mentioned on page X, yeah, that guy, well… And sure enough, if you flip to page X, it’s the page where that character was mentioned. It’s pretty cool to think they have to keep those two pages in sync throughout different versions and language translations! Hmm, the same person translated both books: Margaret Jull Costa. Nicely done. I think. I’ll never really know unless I learn to read Portuguese.

It’s like watching a foreign film. After a while, your brain stops trying so hard and you’re able to read the subtitles and follow the flow without consciously thinking about it. When I read Saramago, at first I’m annoyed that everything seems to run together, but after a while I find that I’m engaged and am able to follow different trains of thought, action, and dialog without all of the usual markers. And it is more intimate, somehow. What it lacks in clarity, it makes up for in feeling and perspective.

Do I get José Saramago? I doubt it. I don’t pretend to understand what the whole long metaphor means about death taking a holiday in a certain country and then changing her mind and giving everyone about to die a week’s notice with violet-colored letters, and then falling in love with somebody to whom she can’t seem to deliver his death notice… I can guess at the meaning, see a glimpse of what he might have been intending, and that’s it. But I love that both Death With Interruptions and All Then Names make me think about death in a way that I haven’t before. And prompt me to think about language in ways I haven’t before. That’s why I pulled this quote out the other day, and I don’t mind repeating it here:

It’s called metamorphosis, everyone knows that, said the apprentice philosopher condescendingly, That’s a very fine-sounding word, full of promises and certainties, you say metamorphosis and move on, it seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what the things are really like, nor even what their real names are, because the names you gave them are just that, the names you gave them, …

Do you ever hear a word, and it just doesn’t sound right? You roll it over and over on your tongue, and it just sounds strange that day. Or you see it written, and you wonder why you never noticed the shape the letters make together. We rarely ever stop to separate out the sound or shape of the word from the meaning of the word. In fact, for me, the same words can sometimes seem like different words in my brain according to the context they are used in. This seems true to me—”words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves.” Of course. We do our damnedest but we have only brushed the surface of the truth of the thing that we are describing.

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2 responses

  1. I too have considered the art of translation when it comes to this book. In a book club of about 8, only three of us finished the book. (I didn’t even notice the lack of paragraphs or quotation marks until it was mentioned at book club. I did notice the lack of capitalization though.)

    I wonder if another translator may have done more justice to bring the humor to life in the English language, although I am not sure how blatant the language in the original is. Seems to me there were some poignant moments and some moments of obvious humor (death writing the editor of the paper that corrected her letter). However, although obviously absurd, many of the edicts and much of the other communication from the government was so dry that it was hard to read at all. I believe that (in addition to the lack of punctuation) was what caused so many folks in my book club to abandon the text. The humor just didn’t shine through, and I bet it could have with another translator. If one got far enough to read death’s letter to the editor, the lack of punctuation in the text made more sense.

    I wish that I could read the original with a knowledge of Portuguese. It would probably take a lifetime of language study to understand all the subtleties of the original text as a non-native speaker.