Spanish Language, Literature and Culture – intertwined in a profession of literary translator Ela Varošanec Krsnik
The Spanish language is the second most spoken language in the world and every year on 23rd April people around the globe gather to celebrate the Spanish Language Day when not only this beautiful language is put into focus but also the culture and literature which are connected with Spanish and Hispanic countries. There’s no better way to learn about the Spanish language and culture than from someone whose profession is directly connected with it. Ela Varošanec Krsnik, a young Croatian literary translator of famous Spanish and Hispanic authors, speaks about her journey of learning Spanish and becoming a literary translator.
Some of more well-known works she has translated from Spanish into her native Croatian language are El laberinto de los espíritus by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La Fila India by Antonio Ortuño, Museo animal by Carlos Fonseca, El Gran Libro de las Emociones by Judi Abbot and María Menéndez-Ponte, Temporada Kentuki by Samanta Schweblin, Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego by Mariana Enríquez, Signor Hoffman, Oh gueto mi amor, Duelo by Eduardo Halfon. Ela shares her stories about getting to know Hispanic culture and lifestyle.
FROM UNIVERSITY TO A MUSHROOM MUSEUM
Ela’s first encounter with studying Spanish was in classical grammar school where she learned Spanish along with English and German. After she graduated from high school, she started studying law. Having successfully completed the first year, her interests shifted. Being passionate about books and reading, she decided to study comparative literature and Spanish language at the university in Zagreb. Along her studies, Ela emphasizes the fact that she improved her knowledge of Spanish by volunteering and intepreting at various literary festivals and events organized by Instituto Cervantes in Zagreb and European Short Story Festival. However, it wasn’t until a volunteering experience in Spain that she started to truly appreciate the Spanish language. Throughout the experience of travelling to a small village in a rural part of Spain which is not a usual tourist destination, with 15 volunteers staying in a mushroom museum and giving tours in Spanish, she realized that the best way of learning a language is to immerse yourself in a natural environment.
DISCOVERING THE BEAUTIES AND CURIOSITIES OF MEXICAN CULTURE
Another opportunity to explore the language and culture yet in a different part of the world appeared a few years later when she spent 6 months studying at the university Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México in Mexico City. What was interesting about that prestigious private Mexican university was that its system is similar to universities in the USA, which enables students to work in teams and focus on practical knowledge. However, she felt that social class differences are blatantly obvious at the university as well as in the Mexican society in general. She thought it interesting that there was such a thing as obligatory volunteering at the prestigious university and that some students had never in their lives used public transport and therefore were terrified of using it as they were showing the guest students around. She also interestingly pointed out that she felt that public universities in Mexico are much more similar to European ones.
For Ela, life and people in Mexico were quite peculiar and surprising in many ways especially in comparison to her native Croatian culture. She got to know many parts of culture that help her understand and translate Spanish literary works easier. For example, one of the especially interesting cultural curiosities is the attitude of Mexicans to saying “no” or declining an invitation. They would rather simply not appear at an appointment than say that they won’t or can’t come. She also pointed out that many people have concerns about going out alone at night, saying it didn’t seem too dangerous to her personally. In addition, she says that it depends on the neighbourhoods you’re visiting and how you’re acting. Despite it generally being more dangerous than Croatia, especially with cases of robbery and weapon threats, some parts of Mexico City feel safer than some suburbs of major cities like London or Paris. Another thing she also liked was the hot food, mentioning her favourite Mexican specialty: tacos al pastor. Ela concluded that her stay in Mexico made a huge impression on her, she felt it was exaggerated and exciting in many ways which might also have to do with the fact that she was younger and the whole experience was a road trip studying type of stay with her visiting most of the states in Mexico. She felt like “it was hard to be impressed” after Mexico, but also that she never completely adjusted to Mexican culture.
INTERNSHIP IN SPAIN
Having completed her studies at the University of Zagreb, Ela did an internship at the University of Complutense, Madrid, Spain, which provided her with another perspective of Spanish culture. She emphasized that her quality of life was better in Spain than it was in Mexico but her motives for taking an internship in Spain were also very different. She was a bit older and she wanted to be closer to her Spanish friends who feel like a second family to her. Therefore she felt like she had a family there and was leading the more quiet life. While doing an internship she also took some classes, so she concluded that the culture and universities in Spain are quite similar to those in Croatia, saying she lived in a flat as normally as she would back home. After all the experince with Hispanic culture it was also clear that, when visiting Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, speaking Spanish is essentially a must, especially if you are staying for longer periods of time.
BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL LITERARY TRANSLATOR
Although she has translated books from English before, Ela’s first encounter with Spanish translation was a book by a famous writer Carlos Ruiz Zafrón, when she was recommended by a friend. While the studies of language and literature provide students with a lot of useful knowledge and prepare well for a profession of an interpreter, becoming a literary translator requires very complex skills which definitely include experience of living in a native speaking country. Only by being well acquainted with subtle cultural elements can a literary translator identify deeper and implied meanings in a text and be able to translate them faithfully. Ela recalls an example of that when in a book she was translating, a character says he’s eating grapes on a New Year’s Eve. Since Ela is familiar with the fact that eating grapes for New Year’s Eve is an important part of the celebration, she was able to address it and translate it appropriately. “I would thought it random information if I didn’t know the custom,” Ela said.
“The speakers of Spanish in all varieties accross the world show their smooth attitude to the truth, always trying to be more tentative than certain about the reality, which can be seen in the fact that there are 6 different words for “maybe” in Spanish and lots of uses of subjunctive forms. In addition, the Spanish speakers tend to use several expressions to express polite requests only in one sentences, in comparison to Croatian speakers who use a lot of imperatives.”
When asked about what she likes translating, she stresses that her favourite texts to translate are short stories, while she finds translating poetry the most challenging. She shared the experience of translating the best selling Spanish author Manuel Vilas’ book, Ordesa, essentially poetry in prose. She struggled as she does not translate poetry and there was vey little narration as such so language had priority over the story. Eventually, when the translation was publicly presented at the 9th World Literature Festival in Zagreb in September 2021, she saw people in the audience crying and she felt like she had done a good job. It is then that she realized that the translation was successful after all because people felt it, they connected with the stories. As we learned from Ela, Spanish is not an easy language to translate. What makes texts difficult to translate is constant use of idioms, metaphors, proverbs etc. Often there aren’t equivalents for these phrases in other languages, or there can be cases when a language has many synonyms for one word. When all this is considered, it’s not surprising that literary translators need a support of an editor and proof-reader to let them know if the translated literary work is understandable or not.
“It is hard to translate bad literature because there are no clear thoughts and you have to give meaning to beautiful words put together with unclear meaning.”
CONCLUSION: PROFESSION AND MISSION
The knowledge of Spanish language is very important because there are half a billion Spanish speakers around the world. By getting to know their culture and ways of living, literary interpreters can successfully translate texts from Hispanic writers and portray the culture well.
Written by Nola Kolarek
Photos by Ela Varošanec Krsnik