Jerry Portwood interviews Carlos
Mayor and Eduardo Iriarte, the two Spanish
translators of Tom Wolfes latest doorstop, the 676-page I
Am Charlotte Simmons (which is expected to run to well over a thousand pages when
Ediciones B publishes the Spanish translation in April). The English version of the
septuagenarian Southerners novel centered around college life in an elite
university has already had its share of panning by the critics and was most
recently awarded the dubious honor of the Bad Sex Award by the British Literary Review.
Mayor and Iriarte reveal for The Barcelona Review their guidelines on how to
properly translate "cum dumpsters" and "froshtitutes" into a foreign
idiom as well as the secrets of how the Fuck Patois will function in Spanish.
TBR: So, when the book comes out here in Spain, I guess Tom Wolfes name will be
pretty big on the cover.
Carlos Mayor: Oh, yeah.
TBR: Are your names going to be on the cover at all or hidden somewhere inside?
Eduardo Iriarte: Theyre usually on the first page inside.
TBR: Often translators are kept in the background; youre supposed to be
invisible. And I wonder if in this process, you have tried to be invisible or . . .
CM: It depends on how big you are. Sometimes you get your name on the title page or on
the cover, but not very often. Probably well get our name on the title page but
usually its in small print. I guess thats something we should have discussed
TBR: How do you feel about that? When youre dealing with a process like this,
when theres so much work, youre creating words and crafting dialogues that are
clearly different from the English version . . . what is your opinion on how visible you
EI: You have to be invisible, but you cant always be. I mean, theres
always a certain sense of style, I suppose. You cant hide that, even if you aim to.
CM: Right. Sometimes I dont really like translators notes but
sometimes, you have to include them. What I really dont like is to open a book and
get a long translators note talking about the process because most readers
dont want to know that; they dont even allow the translator to be in the
TBR: But the process of translation is a completely different art form: youre rewriting
the book. Im interested in how you are both dealing with Wolfes way of writing
and in the process adding to Spanish. The fact is you both have to come up with
words that have never been written before in Spanish. I mean, not only are you trying to
take something from English and translate it into Spanish, but youre ultimately
changing Spanish in the process.
EI: Thats whats more difficult in Spanish. English is more malleable?
CM: Its more flexible.
TBR: Yeah, more malleable.
EI: For example, this always comes up in my work: Maybe in Spanish you have another
technique to say something, but you cant decontextualize. Or maybe you can use a
word that makes sense in another context, but if you subtly put it in other ways that
arent correct, then it sounds too strange.
TBR: You were given a very short time to translate such a weighty book, only a few
months. Is that why you worked together, to share the burden? What kind of stresses come
along with that?
CM: There was no other way. I had to find someone to split the job with. When I was
approached and read the book, I knew I couldnt get it done in time for the April
EI: We split it so that Carlos focused on Charlotte and I focused on
the other three main characters.
CM: Ive never actually worked jointly on a book before, and I always thought it was
a bad idea because it shows. We wanted to make it look like the same translator all the
way through. Chapters that are viewed through Jojos eyes have a different style, for
example, and they have references to other events. So, those are the types of things that
we have had to double-check. The book is all in the third person, but events are
seen through the perspective of several characters. We tried to keep
the style consistent and respect the different points of view despite having two people translating it.
EI: There are certain words, certain motives, for the individual characters, and if
youre focusing on one character, its easier to recognize them.
TBR: I recently read some translations of Cuban short stories from Spanish into
English, and they were so bad. They were all translated by different people and you
could see faults particular to different translators - the grammar, word choice, syntax,
sometimes even the spelling. You really can tell when theres a translator who is
translating literally or doesnt have the skills to make it work.
CM: That reminds me, my mother and my sister have been giving me all these books
because I wanted to read more translations of books into Spanish. Sometimes I can hardly
read them because theyre so badly translated. And I asked them, "Didnt
you notice?" And they said, "No." And I dont think most people would.
They just think its the authors style. He just writes these weird words and
strange sentences. [Laughs]
TBR: Yeah, thats true. I could see someone thinking its just some strange
stylistic choice, and had nothing to do with the translator.
ED: There are some translators who want to shine too much. You read several
translations by them and you can see their similarities even if there are no similarities
in the original work. I dont think thats desirable.
CM: Yeah, while we were translating the book we read one of the essays that Wolfe wrote in
the 70s. It was translated into Spanish a few years later and it was dreadful. The essay
was useful because it talks about his style and a lot of the choices that he makes and
about why he uses punctuation the way he does he thinks its a trait of his
character. The translation was full of footnotes. The translator was a cinema critic and
whenever theres any reference to a film there would be a note: This film was shown
in Spain with this title, this year. So annoying.
TBR: Where did you study English, Carlos? In England, right?
CM: I studied translation, but afterwards I went back to university and studied
journalism. I had an Erasmus scholarship, so I went to Leeds for a few months. Then I
lived in London for a couple of years. Ive also lived in New York.
TBR: And you Eduardo?
EI: I went to high school my senior year in the States. Believe it or not it was
Topeka, Kansas. And I went back a few times to spend a summer in New Jersey and was in
TBR: So youve had this more "authentic" American experience than most
people. Not just New York or San Francisco.
EI: I went to New York from Kansas by bus.
CM: And how long did it take?
EI: Well, I stopped a few places, but . . . but three or four weeks?
TBR: Thats something that most Americans wouldnt do.
EI: Well, I wouldnt do it now. It was fun then.
TBR: I ask this because when translating you go back and forth between British English
and American English. I notice when you speak, Carlos, you sometimes use British slang or
terms, and I wonder how that influences, if at all?
CM: Well, the more you know about any use of the source language, the better, really.
Also, translating implies a completely different level of knowledge.
EI: I agree. I think the reading that you do is more important. I think apart from visits
to the States or Britain, it is what you have read that really matters.
TBR: Im assuming the people who are going to want to read the book are doing so
because its set in America. Were there problems with cultural references?
EI: American culture is so . . . um [laughs] omnipresent.
CM: We get so much American culture every day. Its no problem.
EI: We almost always get the references, there are just certain words that dont
exist, didnt exist at least in Spanish, and arent always common to Americans.
Theres the Fuck Patois, the Shit Patois.
TBR: The what?
EI: Fuck Patois? That comes from the main character Charlotte who thinks . . . what
did we translate that as?
CM: Yeah, the Fuck Patois. Hah. El putañés. Charlotte is shocked when she first
gets to the campus because shes a prude, I suppose. Well, they say fuck all
the time, which shes not used to. So, she thinks they are speaking in this dialect
which Wolfe calls "Fuck Patois."
EI: Do you know where that is in the book? [He begins thumbing through the 600+ pages and
its obvious they are both familiar with every single page and its content.]
CM: Yeah, theres also the Shit Patois, el mierdés.
TBR: So shes supposed to be thinking and using this word "patois" which
isnt a word most English speakers would normally use.
CM: Well, shes really pedantic. Shes 18 and shes just finished high
school, and shes the brightest in her school.
TBR: The valedictorian, or what?
CM: Two students out of every state are singled out as the best students and they go
to meet the president because thats so important, of course [he smiles ironically],
and they shake the presidents hand. And shes one of them from North Carolina.
Shes always thinking about etymology and words in Greek and Latin and thinks no one
else there knows the plural of this or that Greek word. Because, to be correct, you have
to know Greek and no one knows Greek, and, well, she has a really high opinion of herself
which is why she keeps repeating "I am Charlotte Simmons." And shes
obviously not as clever as she thinks she is.
TBR: How do you go about dealing with something as essential as swear words to the
CM: Well, one of the problems with "bad language" as you all call it
in English is that in Spanish you have so many options for what in English can
usually work with just fuck or shit. But in Spanish there are more words and
combinations of words that would be used in the same context. You cant just
translate fuck as joder although its just one word repeated in so many
different ways, because you have joder, coño, hostia. So you have
many words that you have to use to mean fuck.
EI: In English you can use fuck as an adjective, verb, noun, whatever. Not in
excerpt from Chapter 2: "The Whole Black Player Thing" which introduces the idea
of the "Fuck Patois" and gives a preview of the Spanish translation.
Without even realizing what it was, Jojo spoke in this years prevailing college
creole: Fuck Patois. In Fuck Patois, the word fuck was used as an interjection
("What the fuck" or plain "Fuck," with or without an exclamation
point) expressing unhappy surprise; as a participial adjective ("fucking guy,"
"fucking tree," fucking elbows") expressing disparagement or discontent; as
an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective ("pretty fucking obvious") or
a verb ("Im gonna fucking kick his ass"); as a noun ("That stupid
fuck," "dont give a good fuck"); as a verb meaning Go away ("Fuck
off"), beat physically, financially, or politically ("really
fucked him over") or beaten ("Im fucked"), botch
("really fucked that up"), drunk ("You are so fucked
up"); as an imperative expressing contempt ("Fuck you," "Fuck
that"). Rarely the usage had become somewhat archaic but every now and
then it referred to sexual intercourse ("He fucked her on the carpet in front of the
Sin ser consciente siquiera de ello, Jojo hablaba el dialecto universitario en boga: el
putañés, en el que las palabras «puta», «joder» y «hostia» se utilizaban, por
separado, combinadas y, por supuesto, aderezadas también con otros muchos tacos, como
interjección («qué hostias» o sencillamente «joder», con exclamaciones o sin ellas)
para expresar una sorpresa desagradable; como adjetivo («puto árbol», «putos codos»)
para expresar menosprecio o contrariedad; como locución adverbial para modificar y
recalcar un adjetivo («es obvio de la hostia»); como verbo («ahostiar», «putear»);
como sustantivo («mecagüen la puta», «no sabes ni hostias»); como expresión
destinada a librarse de alguien («vete a hacer hostias»), a menoscabar en el aspecto
físico, económico o político («lo putearon»), a subrayar el cansancio («estoy
jodido»), a indicar que alguien la ha pifiado («la jodió de medio a medio») o que
está borracho («anda que no estás jodido»), o como imperativo para expresar desdén
(«que te jodan», «no me jodas»). Era poco común (se había convertido en un uso más
bien arcaico), pero de vez en cuando la palabra «joder» también hacía referencia a las
relaciones sexuales («se pusieron a joder en la alfombra delante de la tele»).
TBR: Have you found words that are just not translatable?
EI: Usually you can explain them in the context with a short sentence. You can find a
way around them.
CM: Eduardo was trying to translate "Gods yuccas." We asked several people
to find out what they thought it was. No idea. We eventually realised that the characters
were just shouting something to sound like "cocksuckers." With the internet and
all the research materials available, it sometimes appears as if everything had to have a
background and a purpose. If its not in Google, it doesnt exist. [Smiles.]
While I was translating this, I went to the country one weekend. I was spending all this
time on the translation and I mentioned to a couple of friends that we just couldnt
figure something out. There was a song in the book that we couldnt get, and I asked
my friend Richard, who is from Louisiana, if he knew anything about it. He explained that
it is an old song from the South, but a few lines had been changed to make it funnier.
Its just one of those things that, unless you know it, youre not going to get.
EI: Most readers wont understand all the references, but you can explain it or hint
at it somehow.
CM: Normally I read it, try to understand what is meant, then sit down and write it down.
Its quite important with Tom Wolfe. Its not always as difficult in this book
as in A Man in Full. You have to decide how youre going to reflect the
dialect. Are you going to make them speak like they do in English? We decided not to do
that. We didnt create a new, different dialect.
EI: For the last book the translator created several new dialects in Spanish.
CM: We decided that we didnt need to do that. We were already doing so much
research, and if youre creating something new like that, youre making it up
yourself. Id rather not make something like that up. Its not true to
[Wolfes] spirit and definitely not real.
EI: Lets hope critics will like that decision. Im anxious to see.
TBR: How do you decide on the translation of slang?
EI: I met with some college students, but what they ended up telling me . . . it
didnt come out quite right, because they were trying to make new words that in a way
didnt mean anything. And if you use them, then I dont think they would be
TBR: What about some examples that you came up with on your own then?
CM: Novuta, thats froshtitute, its only used a couple of times.
EI: Awfucks disease. [They both laugh.]
CM: Yeah, Awfucks disease. Thats when you wake up in the morning next to someone you
had sex with and say, "Oh fuck!"
EI: It has to sound right. You read it and it feels that its right. It all comes
down to instinct. Sometimes you improvise, but its not an exact science.
TBR: What about having to deal with this American style of writing that usually entails
short sentences, a more journalistic style perhaps.
CM: You want to reflect the meaning, not the words. You have to make it sound Spanish. And
a lot of times Spanish sentences are longer. But I dont think Wolfes sentences
are actually that short. Sometimes he goes on for quite a long time. There are a couple of
pages where you have no punctuation at all and that takes about a whole morning to
translate finding where things go, in what order.
ED: The reader knows what to expect of Tom Wolfe. I suppose well see if people get
it or not.
C: If its something interesting or a specific trait of a writer, you try to keep it
in. Theres the passage where Charlotte has a drink for the first time. She storms
out of the room, out of the house, and theres a long paragraph with no punctuation,
so thats actually quite difficult. You have to read it very carefully to know
whats going on.
EI: You just read it over and over again until it sounds right.
TBR: It sounds a lot like the process of the writer himself.
EI: Except within limitations, because you dont have that much freedom.
TBR: How do you deal with that, Eduardo, since I know you are a fiction writer as well?
Youve mentioned not having that freedom, does that make it difficult?
EI: Well, its more a matter of responsibility. You have to know your limits. You
always have someone who corrects the translation, and the editor or the publisher who
looks it over. You cant change that much from the original. And I try to keep my
writing work separate from this, the translations. But its not always possible.
Somehow it affects what you write. I translated three books by Charles Bukowski in the
last three years and somehow it always, uh, theres a
CM: Something like a sediment.
EI: Yes, a sediment. Anyway, its always positive, I think. I mean, you can always
learn something about an author even if you dont like his writing. Its the
best school for a writer. Everyone says so because you analyze writing so much. Its
the best reading possible, and you learn what you can use from other writers.
TBR: Youve mentioned that theres a certain amount of research that you have
both done, reading of reviews and other background materials. I assume you are aware of
things about the book that certainly the reader isnt. Is it strange rewriting the
book in Spanish but also with this great awareness of what critics have said? Do you
"correct" it? Do you make it better?
CM: We reread his other two novels [A Man in Full and Bonfire of the
Vanities], checking the translations of the Spanish because we knew that in
Wolfes case the translation stands out so . . . And we wanted to see what the other
two translators had done before.
EI: There are those who say the translator has more responsibility sometimes than the
author himself because he knows so much about the book after its been written. The
author just writes and then the critics study the book, but the translator already has so
much knowledge of the book, more than the author, and the translation itself carries so
much responsibility for that reason. I mean, when you write, you have all the freedom in
the world. You can choose any word that you want. And then, when you translate, you have
to come up with certain words, and you dont have the freedom to change that.
TBR: And what about the repetition of things, how Wolfe uses the same words over and
CM: Right. Everyone smiles in the book. Everyone laughs. Everyone "says"
this or that.
TBR: Yeah, "he says" / "she says." Thats a very normal way of
writing in English because you want to get past those attributions as quickly as possible.
CM: But thats not the case in Spanish. It was even more of an issue when you
have someone who laughs. Then someone else laughs. Then someone smiles. I mean, you have
other word choices in Spanish and in English. But Wolfe uses smiles, smiles,
smiles, smiles. He wants to make a point because he wants to show that the students are so
stupid. So another laugh, another smile.
TBR: I guess youre afraid that readers would start thinking these people are
idiots, always smiling and laughing?
EI: The vocabulary is so, so reduced. I dont think most university students
think like that. I think this is a caricature.
CM: Hes very judgmental in this book. I mean, he has his opinions about the
characters and he wants you to know that.
EI: I think theres been too much focus on the sex and language. The book is much
more. Its about education and maybe the future of the United States. And no one says
anything about that.
CM: I dont think readers in Spain are going to be shocked by the language. Because
it just doesnt shock people. And theres really not that much sex.
EI: But theres THE WORST SEX SCENE EVER.
TBR: What did you guys think of the Bad Sex Award?
CM: I didnt think the scene was very good. He was trying to make a point, I
suppose. This is Charlotte, who is very prudish, and she has a boyfriend whos
driving her home and they start kissing and then he goes a little further, not all the
way, and youre getting what she feels so its all very technical and it makes
sense in the context because shes very, umm . . . I dont know. I think she
distances herself a lot from things. And she uses lots of words no one her age would use.
So, I think in this case it makes sense, even though its in the third person.
Its seen through her eyes. The chapters called "The Hand."
EI: Its about 30 pages long.
CM: Shes snogging him. She has this guilty pleasure. And she thinks the hand is . .
. it is a bit ridiculous.
TBR: I guess for you it doesnt really matter about the award or what critics are
saying about it.
CM: It was funny for us because we were working on it. Its just very clinical,
and he uses this word: otorhinolaryngological. I cant even say it in English.
TBR: Neither can I. Maybe if youre a gynecologist or scientist, yeah.
CM: Well, incidentally most Spanish speakers will be able to say
"otorrinolaringólogo". Thats your ear, nose and throat doctor. Anyway,
theres also something else about the fact that he created words. I think that they
were based on research. He says they were. And he created an explanation for them.
EI: He said that maybe those words wont be used in five or ten years from now.
TBR: But it took him almost that long to write it, so . . .
CM: True. Theres a note at the beginning to his two children to whom he
dedicated the book [he reads]: "hoping you might vet it for undergraduate
vocabulary," and then he goes on to say he learned from them that "students who
load conversations up with likes and totallys, as in like totally
awesome are almost always females."
TBR: Unless its meant to be ironic.
CM: Yeah. Like totally.
TBR: Im not sure how comfortable youll be with this question, Eduardo, but
it seems that translators could make the best critics. After being so knowledgeable about
the books characters, style and content, do you like it?
EI: [Laughs.] Well, I enjoy it. I enjoyed translating it very much. I think its
quite good, actually. But hes somehow very . . . Somehow too distanced from what he
writes, from college life. I think sometimes its a caricature of college life. It
could have been better, I think. I mean, the book as a whole. It could have been more
realistic. Instead of making fun of college life and the students, he could have had a
little more sympathy. I suppose some students or some professors might feel insulted by
it, and maybe thats what he wants.
TBR: And you, Carlos?
CM: Im very fond of him. I liked the other two novels more. I really
enjoyed A Man in Full. I think most of the reviews have been based on the way he
looks; what he says. Its very easy to make fun of him. I dont think all the
critics are looking that closely at the book. But thats probably all orchestrated.
It sells a lot more books.
EI: Hes a polemicist.
CM: Yeah. Its an interesting study of American college life, American youth. He
tells a good story in the book, but doesnt fully realize the potential in my
opinion. He tries to be detached, but hes judging all the time. I dont think
he intended to, but he seems shocked by what he found. He wants a passage to be objective,
but it doesnt happen that way. And, well, its a little bit too long.
EI: Somehow, I thought it was going to be even longer.
[They both laugh.]