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City Book, Country Book: Catalan Literature in Translation

  • By Mary Ann Newman
  • 7th April 2017
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We asked the speakers from our Translation from Outside the Metropolis event to explore the topic further. Here, Mary Ann Newman, a translator of Catalan and Spanish, explores rural and urban issues in Catalan literature.

When asked about the rural vs. urban divide in the context of the new populisms — merely a cruel and dissembling version of the old populisms — with regard to Catalan literature, I would have to say that there is no such thing.

The divides through Catalan history

When Catalan literature was resuscitated in the 19th century—in quickly successive movements known as the Renaixença (renascence) and modernisme (which came to be a catch-all term for romanticism, symbolism, naturalism, and all the variations on a literary aesthetics based in either the beauty or horror of nature—in a word, the sublime) the rural-urban divide was one of the defining characteristics of Catalan society. In the early 20th century a movement known as Noucentisme (1900-ism, as in the Italian Novecento) arose that espoused a Classic (vs. Romantic) aesthetic, based in formalism, tradition, and exaltation of the City, as opposed to spontaneity, originality, and nature. The chief explicator of this new aesthetic was Eugeni d’Ors, who sought to turn all of Catalonia, rural and urban, into a Catalunya-Ciutat, Catalonia-City. His plan for this new civilization would be enacted through libraries. Every town and village in Catalonia was to have a library, where working men and women, farm hands, or mechanics, could have access, in Catalan, either to poetry and history, or to manuals on animal husbandry and proper farming techniques.

Libraries and librarians

This energetic devotion to acculturation through public libraries was seen, not without reason, by successive dictatorships (Primo de Rivera, 1923-1930; Franco, 1939-1975) as an instrument of Catalanization. Both dictatorships disarticulated the networks of libraries centralized by the Biblioteca de Catalunya, remanding them to the provincial authorities—in Castillian, of course. Nevertheless, the heroic women trained in the Escola de Bibliotecàries continued to make contact under the radar. After Franco’s death, when funding for infrastructures flowed, this network provided a foundation for modernization. Libraries and bookstores flourished in small towns; farmers were university-educated. Migrant workers from Morocco or Senegal were integrated through their command of Catalan, which their children studied at school. Social cohesion through language is often more successful in the countryside than in the city. One might say that the countryside has been gentrified, in the modern sense of the word.

Urban and rural representations in literature

My experience as a translator has tended toward the singers of the city. I have translated the poetry of Josep Carner, who was one of the central figures of the abovementioned Noucentisme; a 1932 classic novel of Barcelona, Private Life, by Josep Maria de Sagarra—which celebrated the city by skewering it; and a collection of short stories and a novel by Quim Monzó, who is the quintessential portraitist of Barcelona life from the 80s to the present. Mercè Rodoreda, whose Barcelona masterpiece—The Time of the Doves, newly translated by Peter Bush as In Diamond Square—was written in the 60s continued to write through the 80s. She portrayed both city and country with mastery; in stories such as The Salamander, she portrayed, through the prism of a female character, an escape from the strictures of village life by a surreal transformation story.

Rural and small-town life, and the particular penuries visited on women, was brilliantly captured by Maria Barbal in her 1985 Stone in a Landslide. Jesús Moncada created a Catalan Yoknaptawpha in The Towpath (1988), when he evoked Mequinensa, a town destroyed by the construction of a dam, in which a present-day narration is entwined with memories of a lost way of life.

A third space

There is a third kind of space, however, that is neither urban nor rural, where societal schisms may reside today; these are the spaces caught between shrinking farmland and failing industrialization, where unregulated industries—from prostitution to gambling to contraband, etc.—thrive on the toil of citizens hanging on by a thread.

These “third spaces” on the margins of city and country also have their interpreters: in The Plague, a creative documentary (that combines real characters with fictional techniques), Neus Ballús has captured the entire gamut of the liminal: a Ukrainian wrestler, a Filipino caretaker, an old Catalan farmer lady forced to move to an assisted-living facility, a prostitute, and all the small farmers terrified by a plague of moths. In Joyce i les gallines (Joyce and the Hens) Anna Ballbona has focused on a part of Catalonia that is both suburban (a local train trip away from Barcelona, in effect, a bedroom community) and agricultural. The trope of the train allows her to travel from the town to the city, and even to Dublin, as even the liminal spaces are subject to globalization, and Francesc Serés defines similar journeys in La pell de la frontera (The Skin of the Border). And journeys also define another, in this case, pan-European, marginality, in the early 60s peripatetic existence of the long-haul truck drivers portrayed by Jordi Puntí, in Lost Luggage.

The sweet spot in translation

Catalan literature is in a sweet spot these days; enough books are now in print in English to be able to offer a complete course in 20th and 21st century fiction, driven by the good offices of both the Institut Ramon Llull, which funds translation, and a broad gamut of U.K. and U.S. publishers, more often than not independent presses. But, owing both to the vicissitudes of publishing and to the after-effects of Francoist autarky, Catalan books have been translated haphazardly, and familiarity with them on the part of critics is limited. Few reviewers have enough knowledge to associate Sagarra with Pla, or Rodoreda with Joan Sales. Books are treated as one-off events, rather than pieces of a larger landscape. Putting order into the chaos and cultivating a more nuanced understanding—a challenge certainly not limited to Catalan literature—is surely the next step for publishers. Translators have a major role to play in making available to publishers, reviewers, booksellers, and readers the special knowledge we have of the context, history, and language of the books in the original. Happily, this includes the entire brilliant gamut of Catalan literature, urban, rural, gentrified, or in between.

Mary Ann Newman translates from Catalan and Spanish. She has published short stories and a novel by Quim Monzó, non-fiction by Xavier Rubert de Ventós, and poetry by Josep Carner. Her most recent translation is Private Life, a 1932 Catalan classic by Josep Maria de Sagarra (Archipelago Books). She was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi in 1998. She is currently Executive Director of the Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the U.S., co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee, a member of the board of the Catalan Institute of America, a member of the North American Catalan Society, and a Visiting Scholar at the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies.

You can view the original event listing for Translation from Outside the Metropolis here.

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