Universitat Autònoma Barcelona, Spain
by Lluïsa Schlesier Corrales. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.
Translated with introduction and notes by Luz Mar González-Arias
Oviedo: KRK Ediciones, 2018. 141 pp.
Un almuerzo literario y otros cuentos contains Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s first translated short stories into Spanish. Her introduction to Spanish readers could not have taken place at a more propitious moment: 2018 has been a pivotal year for feminism both in Spain and in Ireland. In Spain on 8 March, women flooded the streets of the country’s main cities like a purple wave; a historic strike and huge demonstrations brought the country to a halt and forced it to listen to women’s demands for equal rights and an end to gender-based violence. In Ireland on 25 May, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment (removing the constitutional ban on abortion) established a new landmark in female rights.
The three short stories that make up this collection revolve around female characters and the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated society. The publication of this beautifully bound little book is in itself a revindication of the importance of women writers in the Irish tradition, a tradition in which, as González-Arias comments in her introduction, they have been neglected for a long time and still remain practically invisible outside Ireland (12).
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (b. 1954, Dublin) is one of the most interesting and intelligent voices of her generation, as González-Arias expresses it (12). Although she is recognised as a master of the short story, Ní Dhuibhne has also written “variously as a folklorist, dramatist, … novelist, editor, literary historian and – under the pseudonym Elizabeth O’Hara – children’s author”, as Anne Fogarty informs us in the preface of Midwife to the Fairies (ix). In addition, growing up in a bi-lingual home, Ní Dhuibhne writes her work both in English and in Irish. Among the many awards that Ní Dhuibhne has won (The Bisto Book of the Year Award; the Reader’s Association of Ireland Awards; the Stewart Parker Award for Drama; the Butler Award for Prose; several Oireachtas awards; the Henessy Hall of Fame award for lifetime achievement and a shortlisting for the Orange Prize for Fiction), the most noteworthy is the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature (2015), as recipients to-date have mostly been men.
The three stories that make up Almuerzo are “Un almuerzo literario” (“A Literary Lunch, published in 2012), “¡Bota salta y bota por de Valera!” (“Wuff Wuff Wuff for de Valera”, published first in 2001 and again in 2003) and “Los pavos reales” (“Peacocks”, 2003). Each of these has been wonderfully translated by Dr Luz Mar González-Arias, senior lecturer of English Philology in the Department of English, French and German Philology at the University of Oviedo. González-Arias also provides the concise yet highly informative introduction, in which she offers a brief overview of each story and reviews the historical and cultural context of which they form part. This, I find, greatly facilitates the understanding of these stories for those unfamiliar with Irish culture or Ní Dhuibhne’s work, making them available to a far larger Spanish readership. Additionally, González-Arias comments on the challenges in translating each story and justifies a number of her choices, illustrating how she bridged the gap between the Irish and Spanish cultures. Each of the stories is accompanied by a series of explanatory notes that, without ever being overwhelming, clarify cultural concepts that might be unknown to the non-specialist Spanish reader and which enable a far fuller experience of the text. In this review, I have chosen to focus precisely on this aspect, the translation of the stories, rather than on their content, thus providing my impressions primarily as a Spanish reader of these texts.
Set in the Dublin of the Celtic Tiger years, “Un almuerzo literario” “explores the power mechanisms and gender dynamics in the world of cultural organisations and literary awards” (González-Arias, 14-15). In the story, the members of a literary committee are having lunch at a prominent restaurant, after voting which writers will receive the committee’s latest bursary. It soon becomes evident, however, that it is the committee leader, Alan King, who alone holds almost tyrannical power over the Dublin literary scene. Francie Briody, an unsuccessful middle-aged writer, seethes at the thought that his dream of becoming a full-time writer depends exclusively on Alan King’s approval. Pam, the newest member on the committee, after unsuccessfully trying to intercede in Francie’s favour, unknowingly irritates Alan by expressing her concern that they might have elected the wrong people for the bursary. To my mind, González-Arias has excellently rendered the essential fabric of “A Literary Lunch” through her translation: the puns, the premonitory images that foreshadow the ending of the story, the dry humour, all are successfully accounted for in the Spanish version. Two examples: Pam, Mary and Jane discuss the latest production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Abbey Theatre in a witty and snappy manner that is perfectly reflected in the Spanish. The same is true for the humorous confusion that ensues when the women, who can’t really hear what the men are saying (as they have been strategically exiled to opposite ends of the table), realise that the men have ordered expensive starters, while they only have a soup. The brilliance of these ironic exchanges is wonderfully caught in this version, and so I would certainly say that González-Arias has fully succeeded in overcoming one of the main challenges that she identifies (18-19) in translating this particular story. The second challenge that she remarks on, recreating Dublin’s particular atmosphere during the years of the Celtic Tiger, is amply overcome through the notes González-Arias provides both in the introduction and throughout the story. Indeed, through the immediacy and effectiveness of this version, I would also suggest that the Spanish reader might very well connect the unbridled consumerism and carefree spending on evidence here with the pre-crisis years in Spain itself, which in the collective memory are sometimes thought of as a time of serenity, growth and abundance. Additionally, each character’s particular voice has been most successfully rendered: Alan’s rather contemptuous tone is easily distinguished from Pam’s more hesitant words, as well as from Francie’s cynical brooding. Likewise, certain minute alterations, such as changing an Aldi bag for a Lidl bag, far from affecting the content of the story actually bring the text much closer to Spanish readers and facilitate their fuller identification with the text.
The second story in Almuerzo, “¡Bota salta y bota por de Valera!”, is set in the mid-twentieth century and tells the story of twin-sisters Pauline and the narrator, whose name we never discover. Coming from a poor, working-class family, the two sisters fight their way to Trinity College, wishing to break free from the mundane futures that would otherwise be set out for them. Nevertheless, Pauline’s aspirations are dashed as she becomes pregnant and cannot take on the costs of having an abortion in England. While Pauline spends the rest of her life taking care of her child, born with a severe mental condition, the narrator marries into a wealthy family and the sisters’ lives drift apart forever. The story is told in the first person by the narrator and her discourse consists of a constant comparison between her rather perfect life and Pauline’s completely unglamorous existence, which the narrator disdains and blames Pauline for. It is the faithful reproduction of the narrator’s speech that González-Arias sees as her greatest challenge (26). The narrator’s working-class upbringing, on the one hand, and her acquired upper-class status, on the other, render her speech inconsistent as she attempts to speak in a sophisticated manner, while constantly resorting to colloquial, sometimes even vulgar, language, as with the following: “We’re doing a safari in Zimbabwe and Emma loves animals and ecology and all that crap”, translated as “Nos vamos de safari a Zimbabue y Emma adora los animales y la ecología y toda esa mierda” (71) or “We got [the house] when his mother finally kicked the bucket last year”, rendered as “Nos la quedamos cuando su madre finalmente la palmó el año pasado” (89). Another added difficulty to the translation of this text is the use, at a certain point, that Pauline makes of an expression in Hiberno-English: “I’m after saying that already”. González-Arias indicates that she opted to translate this expression by creating a fictitious Spanish dialect, so as not to link the text to any particular area of the Iberian Peninsula, and delivered it thus: “eso ya me lo acabo de decir” (80). This, to a Spanish reader will certainly sound unfamiliar and possibly even incongruous, however, it is precisely what makes the translation successful, as it presumably will provoke in the reader the same estranging effect that Pauline’s sentence has on her professor and fellow students at Trinity. Likewise, as in the previous story, there are certain changes from the original to the translation, which, as I see it, help the Spanish reader to remain immersed in the text without the particularities of the original intruding into the textual experience, as for instance the translation of nursery rhymes (“‘In and out goes Mary Bluebell’. ‘Plainy packet a rinso’” rendered in Spanish as “‘Al pasar la barca, me dijo el lechero’. ‘Tengo una pelota que salta y requetebota’” (75)), or the translation of supermarket names (Superquinn becomes Aldi and Dunnes Stores, Carrefour). Once again, this strategy allows González-Arias to succeed in overcoming these challenges and results in a text fully consistent with the effect of the original. The narrator’s haughty tone and her phony-sophisticated speech have been delivered with precision and the impression – perfectly perceptible in the original text – that we are facing a narrator who is “selfish, shallow and lacking in solidarity” (González-Arias 26) remains intact throughout the translation.
The third and final story in the collection, “Los pavos reales”, focuses on the complex themes of mother-daughter relationships, sexual awakening and anorexia. Set in Spain, in two different time spans, this text tells the story of Anita, her partner Marcus and her daughter Aisling on a trip to Asturias. There, the family stays in a hotel in which Anita had worked as a maid twenty years earlier, when she was the same age her daughter is now. As Anita struggles to understand and deal with Aisling’s anorexia as well as her stubborn character and complicated moods, she also recalls her own dalliance with anorexia in her teenage years, her improbable friendship with Sharon, another maid at the hotel, and her first romantic relationship with Juan, all of which took place during those earlier years in Spain. The hardest challenge in translating “Peacocks” might have been to maintain the impression that the protagonist is an outsider, as all the Irish geographical and cultural elements present in the two first stories are no longer there. González-Arias explains how, in order to maintain Anita’s outsider gaze, for instance, she avoided using the specific Spanish terms for the ritual of pouring cider, as Anita would not be familiar with this. Similarly, the narrator’s comment that “dinnertime in Spain is ten o’clock”, delivered as “la hora de la cena en España es a las diez de la noche” (102), might seem unnecessary to a Spanish reader, but it reinforces the impression that the story is told from a foreigner’s perspective. Another similar instance occurs when, at a given point, Anita accidentally speaks to a taxi driver in English, and then corrects herself in Spanish: “‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘Nada’”. By leaving the first “nothing” untranslated, González-Arias once more exposes the clash of the two cultures: “Nothing – responde –. Nada” (138). Reading the text in Spanish, I never once doubted that I was learning about the story of three tourists visiting Asturias, discovering the different settings exactly as an outsider would.
In short, I believe that the reader will find Almuerzo to be an excellent translation of a unique work. González-Arias has skilfully managed to maintain the spirit of the original texts in her translation. In particular, apart from bringing Irish and Spanish cultures closer through the skilful approximation of Irish culture to Spanish readers (specialist and non-specialist alike), this translation also puts the focus on a writer whose name, despite her brilliant trajectory, is not as well-known as that of her male peers. This translation, consequently, is crucial when it comes to challenging the traditional male-dominated literary canon and in bringing light to those voices that have been ignored for too long: it is a celebration of female authorship and all that this implies, such as a different perspective, a different style and even a different vision of Ireland.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Midwife to the Fairies. New and Selected Stories. Cork: Attic Press, 2007 (2003).