At first it had no name. It was the thing itself, the vivid thing. It was his friend. On windy days it danced, demented, waving wild arms, or in the silence of evening drowsed and dreamed, swaying in the blue, the goldeny air. Even at night it did not go away. Wrapped in his truckle bed, he could hear it stirring darkly outside in the dark, all the long night long. There were others, nearer to him, more vivid still than this, they came and went, talking, but they were wholly familiar, almost a part of himself, while it, steadfast and aloof, belonged to the mysterious outside, to the wind and the weather and the goldeny blue air. It was part of the world, and yet it was his friend.
Look, Nicolas, look! See the big tree!
Tree. That was its name. And also: the linden. They were nice words. He had known them a long time before he knew what they meant. They did not mean themselves, they were nothing in themselves, they meant the dancing singing thing outside. In wind, in silence, at night, in the changing air, it changed and yet was changelessly the tree, the linden tree. That was strange.
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. And then there were the names that signified no substantial thing, as linden and tree signified that dark dancer. His mother asked him who did he love the best. Love did not dance, nor tap the window with frantic fingers, love had no leafy arms to shake, yet when she spoke that name that named nothing, some impalpable but real thing within him responded as if to a summons, as if it had heard its name spoken. That was very strange.
He soon forgot about these enigmatic matters, and learned to talk as others talked, full of conviction, unquestioningly.
The sky is blue, the sun is gold, the linden tree is green. Day is light, it ends, night falls, and then it is dark. You sleep, and in the morning wake again. But a day will come when you will not wake. That is death. Death is sad. Sadness is what happiness is not. And so on. How simple it all was, after all! There was no need even to think about it. He had only to be, and life would do the rest, would send day to follow day until there were no days left, for him, and then he would go to Heaven and be an angel. Hell was under the ground.
Matthew Mark Luke and John
Bless the bed that I lie on
If I die before I wake
Ask holy God my soul to take
He peered from behind clasped hands at his mother kneeling beside him in the candlelight. Under a burnished coif of coiled hair her face was pale and still, like the face of the Madonna in the picture. Her eyes were closed, and her lips moved, mouthing mutely the pious lines as he recited them aloud. When he stumbled on the hard words she bore him up gently, in a wonderfully gentle voice. He loved her the best, he said. She rocked him in her arms and sang a song.
See saw Margery Daw
This little chicken
Got lost in the straw
Al principio, no tenía nombre. Era la cosa misma, la cosa viva. Era su amigo. En días de viento, bailaba enloquecido, agitaba sus brazos salvajes, o en el silencio de la tarde, dormitaba y soñaba, se balanceaba en el dorado aire azul. Ni siquiera por las noches se iba. Calientito en cama, podía escucharlo moverse sombríamente afuera en la oscuridad, toda la larga noche. Había otros, más cercanos a él, más vivos aún, iban y venían hablando, pero le eran totalmente conocidos, eran casi una parte sí mismo, mientras ésta, inquebrantable y distante, pertenecía al misterioso exterior, al viento, al clima y al dorado aire azul. Era un pedazo del mundo, y aun así era su amigo.
¡Nicolás, mira, mira! ¡Ve qué árbol tan grande!
Árbol. Ése era su nombre. Y también: el tilo. Eran palabras muy lindas. Él las conocía mucho tiempo antes de saber su significado. Por sí mismas no tenían significado, ellas eran nada por sí mismas, ellas significaban la cosa que baila y canta allá fuera. En el viento, en silencio, de noche, en el viento mutable, la cosa cambió y aun así inmutablemente era el árbol, el tilo. Era extraño.
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. Y luego estaban las palabras que nombraban las cosas sin sustancia, así como tilo o árbol nombran a ese bailarín oscuro. Su madre le preguntaba a quién amaba más. Amor no bailaba, ni tocaba por la ventana con dedos frenéticos; Amor no tenía brazos frondosos para sacudir, sin embargo, cuando ella pronunciaba ese nombre que nombraba nada, algo impalpable pero real dentro de él respondía como a un llamado, como si hubiera escuchado su nombre. Eso era muy extraño.
Pronto él se olvidó de estas cuestiones enigmáticas y aprendió a hablar como los demás, lleno de convicción, incuestionable.
El cielo es azul, el sol dorado, el tilo verde. El día es luz, termina, cae la noche y luego es oscuridad. Duermes, y en la mañana despiertas de nuevo. Pero llegará un día en que no despertarás. Eso es la muerte. La muerte es triste. Tristeza es aquello que la felicidad no es y así sucesivamente. No había necesidad de ni si quiera pensarlo. Él debía limitarse a ser y la vida haría el resto, mandaría el día seguido de otro día hasta que no haya más días, para él, y luego él iría al cielo y sería un ángel. El infierno estaba bajo tierra.
Mateo, Marcos, Lucas y Juan
bendecid la cama en la que duermo
si muero antes de despertar
pedidle al señor que tome mi alma.
Por detrás de sus manos entrelazadas, él miraba a su madre arrodillada frente a él a la luz de la vela. Bajo el cabello enroscado en una cofia brillante, su rostro era pálido y sosegado, como el rostro de la Madona en la imagen. Sus ojos estaban cerrados, los labios en movimiento articulaban mudos las sagradas líneas al tiempo que él las recitaba en voz alta. Cuando tropezaba con las palabras difíciles, ella lo hacía seguir con dulzura, con una maravillosa voz gentil. Le dijo que la amaba más que a nadie; ella lo arrulló en sus brazos y le cantó una canción.
Margery Daw, sube y baja
se perdió en la paja.
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.