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Translation and witness

Dr. Robert Finley, Department of English
Memorial University of Newfoundland


I’ve had the great good fortune over the past few years to work with the Barcelona writer and scholar Dr. Marta Marín-Dòmine (Wilfred Laurier University) on a collaborative translation, the first translation into English, of the Catalan novel K.L. Reich, by Joaquim Amat-Piniella.1 K.L. Reich is a testimonial novel which bears witness to the experiences of the 10,000 Spanish Republican fighters who, refugees in France at the close of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, were swept up into the German concentration camp system, as communists and anarchists, when France was occupied by German invading forces in 1940. First drafted in 1946, immediately following Amat-Piniella’s liberation from the camps near Mauthausen on the Danube, it was not finally published until 1963, first in a Spanish translation, and then shortly afterwards in its original Catalan. The work has become perhaps the seminal text of the Spanish experience of the German camps, as well as a central text on the ideological contest between anarchism and communism so important to the history of the Spanish Civil War.

I took up my part in the collaborative project of its translation into English for a number of reasons, among them an interest in the Catalan language and its successful resistance to the assimilative forces of the Castilian Spanish that surrounds it geographically and has for long stretches of time suppressed it politically. Catalan is an old and tremendously resilient language. It lies at the juncture of Spanish, French, and Latin, though it leans closer to the Gallo-Romance line that includes French and Italian than to the Iberian-Romance heritage of the Castilian Spanish with which it has for some time been bound up politically. Because it shares so much with French, it shares a good deal, of course, with English, and so the original language of the book was both more familiar to me and more insistently present than I had expected it would be as we moved the text through a literal translation and on into the finished English text through many drafts and much conversation and exchange.

But translation is not, after all, chiefly about what’s familiar. Like its etymological sibling metaphor, translation denotes the carrying across from one place to another: a text richly displaced that hearkens to its origins and at the same time opens into a new context. In our translation, we wanted to respect and to trace that distance the text had travelled in order to conserve rather than erase the sense, for an English-speaking reader today, of a somewhat foreign sensibility at work in this Catalan novel from the 1940s. This began to occur quite naturally in our work with the text, where the English fell under the influence, one might say, of a gravitational force exerted by Catalan’s Latin heritage. The English text was tending to “lean” to this Romance side of English’s double lexicon anyway in keeping pace with Amat-Piniella’s precise descriptive language—his use of accurate but surprisingly specific terms like “occipital” in descriptions of the body, for example—and so we settled on a policy of working as closely as possible to the Latinate, with its clear ties to and echoes of the original Catalan, wherever possible.

As anyone who works with a different but related language knows, where one lexicon overlaps another in this way, a wonderful kind of resonance can start to sound between them. Where the same words appear in two languages, share the same root systems, but have perhaps diverged just slightly in usage or meaning between those languages as they have evolved over time, it can set something humming in the ear like the harmonic overtones that arise when two voices sing the same note: a third voice seems to materialize out of thin air. For myself I found that the constant work of testing shifts in the usage and meaning of words shared by the two languages opened my own language up, deepened it, made it more evocative; but it also began to tune my ear to a voice resonating behind the text and the work we were doing with it, a third voice, a collective voice outside of nationhood. In retrospect, this has seemed significant in regard to translation as a practice and to the theme of the book, which gives itself over in the end to the figure of the Everyman: “el triomf de l’Home,”  the triumph of the Man, as Amat-Piniella puts it, over the spirit of national socialism.

“My book does not seek to deepen wounds or differences, but to unite people before cruelty,” says Amat-Piniella about his work. This invitation, which is also the book’s invitation to the reader, is perhaps most properly represented in a Babel of languages: the camps themselves held so many voices, individuals from so many nations speaking so many languages, and so often unintelligible to each other except in their shared suffering. Here translation, or better, translations ranged side by side, far from being secondary or diminished versions of an original, can perhaps be thought of as a key part of the original text’s full realization, on the one hand returning the book’s story to the multitude of tongues which spoke and were silenced within the camps; and on the other, broadening the book’s call to bear witness to events which became our own unfortunate, universal, and collective inheritance when the camps were opened up in 1945.

Back to the note1 Joaquim Amat-Piniella, K. L. Reich. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014.