Nuclear powers lobbing test missiles into the ocean. A miles-long crack gashing the Antarctic icecap. Mass shootings across the country. The headlines scream dystopia, inspiring our leading novelists to depict dire, near-future scenarios: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, among them. Spaniard Jesús Carrasco’s vivid, disquieting debut, Out in the Open, plumbs a similar tale, but one more rooted in reality than invention, illuminating both the art and science of literary translation.
Out in the Open tracks the flight of an unnamed boy across a vast, sunbaked plain studded with withered foliage and only trickles of water to quench his thirst. He’s on the run from his family and an unspeakable evil that Carrasco only gradually reveals, a sinister bailiff in (literally) hot pursuit. Carrasco captures the furnace of rural Spain with its severe climate, dead-end poverty, eccentric customs, and slavery to the Catholic Church. Early on the boy meets an elderly, feeble goatherd, and they cast their lots together, forging a friendship and aiming to escape to the cool sanctuary of the mountains, a herd of goats in tow. Margaret Jull Costa’s pitch-perfect translation evokes the textures and urgency of Carrasco’s prose, as in this scene, when the pair approach what they hope is an oasis: “A few yards away from a reed bed, on the edge of what must once have been a pond, stood two exhausted alder trees, their leaves all shriveled . . . on the other side, lines like isobars were etched on the dry, cracked bed of the pond, witnesses to its final death throes . . . The hot midday breeze made the reeds rustle, filling the air with a sound like delicate wooden bells. Coarse heads of hair waving like Tibetan prayer flags.”
Arguably the most prominent translator of Iberian literature into English, Jull Costa has worked with such luminaries as Javier Marías and José Saramago, but she found Out in the Open posed fresh challenges: “First, there was the Spanish title: Intemperie. The Latin etymology of intemeperie, which is intemperies, means both intemperate weather and violent or savage behavior. So that one-word title in Spanish sums up the entire novel, with its small hero exposed to the elements and to the most awful abuse. I tried alternatives: The Lost Boy, In the Wilderness, The Wilderness Boy . . . None really worked, and although Out in the Open loses any hint of savagery, it does, at least, combine the idea of being out in the elements and of secrets being exposed to public view.”
Despite Carrasco’s simple plot — a boy’s quest to survive despite brutal odds — the novel’s layers compelled the seasoned Jull Costa to seek assistance from Internet sources and the author himself, who now lives in Scotland. Language follows the brain’s wiring, which send complex signals along neurons that branch out in all directions and can jump-start contradictory impulses in a nanosecond. Hence the potential futility of Jull Costa’s craft. “The vocabulary! The book is full of detailed descriptions of everything from milking a goat to saddling a donkey. I don’t think I have ever felt more ignorant. I felt sometimes as if every word contained a trap, some meaning I didn’t know . . . for example, an encendedor de mecha turned out to be something called a rope lighter, used by soldiers in the trenches in the First World War and still apparently used by people heading off into the wild.”
As if every word contained a trap. Jull Costa’s trope unveils the high stakes: a translator must dance her way through a minefield of meaning. The legendary Edith Grossman, translator of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa as well as the acclaimed English-language version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, believes a confident eye and ear are the best tools for vibrant work: “I attempt to transfer the meaning, tone, and level of diction of the original into English. If the syntax, word order, tenses and so forth have to change to accomplish that, then I change them. As I’ve often said, you can’t make a translation with tracing paper.” A literal translation, Grossman asserts, “creates a counterfeit language that really isn’t at home anywhere.” Both translators acknowledge the trickiness of slang, so prevalent in American English, “because it dates quickly,” as Jull Costa observes. “With a writer like Passoa, I have to respect his oddities of expression by finding an equally odd construction in English.” Grossman echoes this view: “If there’s slang in the original, I look for equivalent slang in English.”
Over the past decade translations have spiked in popularity (and in sales) among American readers, with surprise bestsellers such as Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s hymn to himself, the six-volume My Struggle. Spanish-language translations have thrived, too, which Grossman attributes to the “Bolaño effect,” as well as the enduring influence of García Márquez. There’s also another medium fueling the surge of translation: social media, which are bridging national boundaries and allowing virtual communities to form almost overnight, from the political arena — the Arab Spring and Women’s Marches are recent examples — to the literary realm, with the rise of websites such as Literary Hub and, yes, the Barnes & Noble Review. Facebook, Instagram, and Google all provide links to translations, which may sound amusingly stilted in English but aren’t any less clumsy or ungrammatical than our blue state/red state Twitterwars.
Jull Costa and Grossman both point toward the essential role played by the receptor language, implicitly arguing that translations are judged by how gracefully they scan in English. (Grossman probes this idea further in her short yet magisterial Why Translation Matters.) Out in the Open unfolds like a stark, minimalist ballet, stripped of niceties, even as Jull Costa choreographs each moment elegantly, despite the violence, real and remembered, that come at the boy and old man. Festering wounds, slaughtered goats, the rasp of breath, body stench: all bring us fully into Carrasco’s fictional world. There’s a David Lynchian quality to the characters as well, among them the legless owner of a village commissary and the chain-smoking bailiff, whose lusts and crimes drive him to his own doom. Perhaps Jull Costa’s brightest accomplishment here is her skill in conjuring Carrasco’s mood and pacing, the taut suspense of withholding information that eventually trails back to the doors of the very institution that glues the culture together: “The dense atmosphere of an old sacristy, where the ceremonial robes had been woven at the very beginning of time and where the walls had for centuries absorbed the cries of altar boys, orphans and foundlings . . . Putrefaction now worming its way through unspeakable sins.”
In Jull Costa’s view, the “sheer physicality” of Carrasco’s writing sets the novel apart from anything in contemporary Spanish literature, notably in its climactic scenes, a blood-drenched, depraved confrontation between the boy and goatherd and their adversaries. American authors feel the need for a note of redemption, the faint music of uplift, even in a book as bleak as The Road. But Carrasco suffers no illusions: we’re headed into a future as starved and desolate as the plain the boy crosses, no authority to shield us, enemies hell-bent on our destruction. Only our compassion and the burning desire to live — plus a heaping helping of good luck — will ferry us to safety.