Jull Costa spoke about Saramago this past Monday night at the Book Club of California in San Francisco as part of a lecture series put on by the Center for the Art of Translation, and I was fortunate enough to attend. CAT has promised to post audio of the event on its website, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here other than to say: when the audio gets posted, go to the site, listen to the talk. It’s illuminating, moving, and you’ll have a chance to hear a magnificent reading voice (would that Jull Costa would now make audio-books of her translated works...).
Sounding out each word as though it were a privilege and pleasure to do so, Jull Costa led the rapt audience through Saramago’s life and work, illustrating it with passages from his books. Thoughout her wide-ranging discussion of Saramago’s work, Jull Costa almost never explicitly spoke about herself or her own work, instead managing to convey aspects of Saramago’s writing to which a sensitive translator would need to respond – his background and philosophy, his idiosyncratic style, the tiny arsenal of punctuation he put to use, his democratic refusal to capitalize proper names in his late work, his long sentences (about which Jull Costa offered a magnanimously delivered critique of people who whine about long sentences).
While reading a moving passage from Saramago’s Nobel acceptance speech about his illiterate grandparents, Jull Costa’s voice broke slightly. A sniffling sound made me turn my head to find both of my companions – and many others in the room – with moist eyes. It was clear that for Jull Costa translation is not merely a job or an exercise, but a means of reading sensitively, deeply, respectfully. At the end of her talk, one was left with Jose Saramago. Without having been self-effacing or trumpeting her talents, Jull Costa had simply conveyed, beautifully, Saramago’s words, and through them, why Saramago matters, and why having his work available in English matters. In response to a question, her admission that her pleasure in translating wasn’t out of a particular interest in Spanish or Portuguese literature so much as it was an interest in the English language elicited a palpable reaction. Even if this seemed an obvious point, I felt I’d had an epiphany: a great translator is, first and foremost, a great reader – and, following that, a great writer as well.
Now that she has come to the end of Saramago, with her translation of his 1980 novel, Raised from the Ground, due out in December, Jull Costa is currently working on previously untranslated works by Benito Pérez Galdós and Leopoldo Alas. I’d brought along one of her translations for her to sign, and when I put it before her, she placed both hands on the book and said it was perhaps her favorite novel: The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz. Later, I noticed that she’d signed the book in a manner that reflected the impression of modesty, humility and generosity that she had conveyed in her talk: a bit off to the side, in small script, as though acknowledging her role but also underscoring the respect in which she holds those writers whose work she has so generously made available to us.