I clearly recall the day I first became truly aware of myself, I mean of myself as something that everything else was not. As a boy I liked best those dead intervals of the year when one season had ended and the next had not yet begun, and all was grey and hushed and still, and out of the stillness and the hush something would seem to approach me, some small, soft, tentative thing, and offer itself to my attention. This day of which I speak I was walking along the main street of the town. It was November, or March, not cold, but neutral. From a lowering sky fine rain was falling, so fine as to be hardly felt. It was morning, and the housewives were out, with their shopping bags and headscarves. A questing dog trotted busily past me looking neither to right nor left, following a straight line drawn invisibly on the pavement. There was a smell of smoke and butcher’s meat, and a brackish smell of the sea, and, as always in the town in those days, the faint sweet stench of pig-swill. The open doorway of a hardware shop breathed brownly at me as I went past. Taking in all this, I experienced something to which the only name I could give was happiness, although it was not happiness, it was more and less than happiness. What had occurred? What in that commonplace scene before me, the ordinary sights and sounds and smells of the town, had made this unexpected thing, whatever it was, burgeon suddenly inside me like the possibility of an answer to all the nameless yearnings of my life? Everything was the same now as it had been before, the housewives, that busy dog, the same, and yet in some way transfigured. Along with the happiness went a feeling of anxiety. It was as if I were carrying some frail vessel that it was my task to protect, like the boy in the story told to us in religious class who carried the Host through the licentious streets of ancient Rome hidden inside his tunic; in my case, however, it seemed I was myself the precious vessel. Yes, that was it, it was I that was happening here. I did not know exactly what this meant, but surely, I told myself, surely it must mean something. And so I went on, in happy puzzlement, under the small rain, bearing the mystery of myself in my heart.
Was it that same phial of precious ichor, still inside me, that spilled in the cinema that afternoon, and that I carry in me yet, and that yet will overflow at the slightest movement, the slightest misbeat of my heart?
Recuerdo con claridad el día en que de verdad fui consciente de mí mismo, es decir, consciente de que soy lo que lo demás no es. Cuando niño gustaba mucho de esos intervalos muertos del año cuando una estación ya había terminado y la siguiente aún no comenzaba, y todo era gris y silencioso y quieto, y de la quietud y el silencio, algo parecía avecinarse, algo pequeño, suave, vacilante y se ofrecía a mi atención. En el día del que hablo, yo estaba caminando por la calle principal del pueblo. Era noviembre, o marzo, no estaba frio, sino neutro. De un cielo encapotado caía una fina llovizna, tan fina que era casi imperceptible. Era de mañana y las amas de casa estaban fuera, con sus bolsas de mandado y pañoletas. Un perro en plena expedición pasó trotando, muy ocupado, frente a mí sin ver ni a la derecha ni a la izquierda siguió por una invisible línea recta sobre el pavimento. Había un olor a humo y a carnicería, y un salobre olor a mar, y, como de costumbre en el pueblo en ese entonces, la vaga pestilencia dulce de la bazofia. Cuando pasé, la entrada abierta de una ferretería exhaló su aliento marrón hacía mí. Mientras asimilaba todo esto, experimenté algo que sólo podría nombrar como felicidad, aunque no era felicidad, era más o menos como la felicidad. ¿Qué había ocurrido? En esa escena tan cotidiana que presenciaba: las visiones y los sonidos y los olores habituales del pueblo, ¿qué había hecho que lo inesperado, fuese lo que fuese, floreciera de repente dentro de mí cual la posibilidad de una respuesta a todos los anhelos indescriptibles de mi vida? Todo era lo mismo ahora como lo fue antes, las amas de casa, aquel perro ocupado; lo mismo, pero de alguna manera transfigurado. Un sentimiento de ansiedad acompañaba a la felicidad. Era como si cargara una frágil vasija a la que tuviera, como tarea, proteger, como el chico de la historia que nos contaron en la clase de religión, quien llevaba la hostia oculta bajo su túnica por las calles promiscuas de la antigua Roma; en mi caso, sin embargo, parecía que yo era la vasija preciosa. Sí, eso era, yo era lo que estaba pasando aquí. No sabía exactamente lo que eso significaba, pero de seguro, me dije a mí mismo, de seguro debía significar algo. Y entonces continué, con feliz asombro, bajo la llovizna, cargando el misterio de mí mismo en mi corazón.
¿Era ése el mismo vial de precioso icor, aun dentro de mí, que se derramó en el cine esa tarde, y que yo todavía cargaba conmigo, y que con el más ligero movimiento se derramaría, se derramaría con el más ligero latir de mi corazón?
Translating is a peculiar way of reading: as translators, we explore the text in all its intricacies and secret corners and we inevitably name the universe that is unfolding in front of us to render it into a new language. When translating Banville’s novels, every sentence becomes a discovery, a sort of epiphany that transforms every word into a device that reveals a hidden world, which language itself seems to fail to depict (See McMinn 183-190).
As well as young Copernicus leaves us yearning for a world untouched by language, only attainable by experience, translating Banville poses the challenge of naming in its most allusive and evocative sense: to translate a textual reality into words, to translate a text which suggests there is a disjunction between language and reality. In a similar manner as the narrators from both passages, translators inevitably accept the arbitrary nature of language and, at the same time, the fact that language is a way to experience the world. This anxiety towards language depicted in both texts can be perceived in the following sentence from Doctor Copernicus (1976):
Everything had a name, but although every name was nothing without the thing named, the thing cared nothing for its name, had no need of a name, and was itself only (3).
Banville shows that language is able to provide a high level of meaning through a sentence written only with semantically empty words such as “everything”, “name”, “thing”, “nothing”, “itself”; words that have a deictic function in language (Piñero 58), that is, they cannot be interpreted without other elements that surround the communicative situation which shed light on its meaning. For instance, the pronoun “it” cannot stand on its own without a previous referent; the word “thing” may mean tree as well as cat, or air or any other object that we may know. When translated into Spanish, the recreation of such economic use of language becomes a challenge because, although we have parallel deictic structures since we also have an inventory of demonstratives and pronouns, such sentence is pragmatically impossible to reconcile with our use of language without adding extra fully semantic words. On the other hand, in the cohesive level, Spanish does not tolerate repetition in contrast with English. However, some structural features of our Mexican variation may provide a similar pragmatic effect:
Todas las cosas tenían un nombre, pero, aunque todo nombre era nada sin lo nombrado, a las cosas no les importaba para nada su nombre, no necesitaban tener uno, y eran únicamente ellas mismas.
Through the use of plurals (“las cosas”), pronouns (“uno”, “nada”, “todas”, ellas), in combination with participles (“lo nombrado”) and verbal argumentative structures that require repetition of indirect object (“a las cosas”, “le”), my translation recovers as many non-lexical words that, oddly enough, reveal significance. Moreover, Banville’s syntax seems to revolve around the problematic act of defining: the sentence looks like a logical proposition that tries to reach a meaning beyond words that in the end becomes tautological by depriving words from their referent; nonetheless, the sentence becomes meaningful not only by the constant reflection on language in the text, but also by constantly using the verb “to be” not as a copulative verb (state), but as an active verb (action).
Be as a copulative verb has the function of expressing states and properties in relation with the subject, however, be can also have lexical features that express activities performed by an agent who has a certain degree of willingness in the action (Payne 266). In Banville’s writing, this use helps to create a sense of language being self-conscious, as well as it may suggest that language and the experience of “being” are disjointed. The beginning of the Eclipse (2000) fragment is a clear example of this:
I clearly recall the day I first became truly aware of myself, I mean of myself, as something that everything else was not. (30)
The verb “was” at the end of the sentence names the action of being and evokes action to a verb that is normally used to describe. In addition, in similar manner in Dr. Copernicus, language and syntax are disrupted. To recover this modality of verb to be in Spanish, several considerations have to be made, especially concerning syntax:
Recuerdo con claridad el día en que de verdad fui consciente de mí mismo, es decir, consiente de mí como algo que todo lo demás no es.
Recuerdo con claridad el día en que de verdad fui consiente de mí mismo, es decir, consciente de que soy lo que lo demás no es.
The first translation follows the source text’s syntax, but no action is perceived in the verb to be. In the second translation, however, the verb recovers its copulative function, and the lexical gap providing action to the verb is recovered by means of substituting part of the sentence and adding another be (soy).
Banville’s philosophy towards language seems to transform the word into a device that calls attention to the process of signification in which referentiality to the external word and autoreferentiality in language are involved. In Doctor Copernicus, the act of naming becomes a purposeless human act that, to the young Copernicus’ eyes, does not correspond to his immediate experience of the word, which is also rendered to us by language. In Eclipse, language becomes a means of self-discovery. Translating is a rather particular way of reading and by translating John Banville’s we try to capture a sense of ultimate experience that avoids being restrained by language.
Banville, John. Doctor Copernicus. Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador, 1988
Banville, John. Eclipse. New York: Vintage, 2001.
McMinn, Joseph. “Naming the World: Language and Experience in John Banville’s Fiction”. Irish University Review. Vol. 23, No. 2. Edinburgh University Press. Autumn- Winter 1993. Electronic Version < http://www.jstor.org/stable/25484560>
Payne, Thomas E. Understanding English Grammar. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2011. Electronic Version.
Piñero Piñero, Gracia, et. al. Lengua, lingüística y traducción. Granada; Comares, S. L., 2008.