There are lots of ways of being a person: an interview with Bel Olid
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Bel Olid is one of the finest storytellers and translators from the flourishing Catalan scene. Una terra solitària, their debut novel, won the prestigious Premi Documenta, and they were president of the European Council of Associations of Literary Translators until this year. Their new collection of short stories, Wilder Winds, was translated by Laura McGloughlin. As part of the Spotlight on Catalan Culture in the UK, they spoke in English and Spanish to our editor, James Appleby.
After so long as a translator, how was the experience of being translated?
Laura is obviously an excellent translator, but she’s also a very easy person to work with. Being a translator myself, I know how authors can sometimes be… not very nice about translations. So I guess it can be stressful to know that you’re translating a translator: someone who's going to read what you've done, someone who can catch all your little mistakes… I guess it must’ve been stressful for her! But it was awesome to work with her, actually.
How was it to come back to Wilder Winds six years after its Catalan publication?
I never normally go back to my writing. By the time the book is out, I’m done with it! And when I read those stories in public, I always chose my favourites. But going back to the whole collection, I actually felt very proud. I was happy with what I wrote and happy to reread the whole collection. It gave me the chance to be proud of myself and say, Yeah! This is a good book! I like what I wrote and I stand by it.
I know this isn’t usually the question to ask authors, but since you mentioned it, could you tell us which stories were your favourites?
The story that opens the book, She’s A Woman, is a story about a young girl discovering her own desire… and feeling really inadequate about it. I think that’s a good story. For me, it conveys a lot of that teenage confusion. Coming of age, realising that you desire, that desire is powerful, and that you don’t necessarily know what to do with it.
And then there’s a story that I heard Laura McGloughlin read in English at one of our earliest presentations of the book: Red. It's very violent but also powerful somehow. I think this is the first time that I’ve said publicly that I like what I write!
“The first time I like what I write”: that’ll be the headline. All through Wilder Winds, there are images of connections through literature, as well as significant distances between characters. Could you tell us more about this?
Everything I write about is communication and miscommunication. This might have something to do with me being a translator. Trying to get messages through… it’s something that worries me in my writing and as a person. I started by writing about how people aren’t able to communicate. Sometimes I feel that there’s no way I’ll understand other people, there’s no way people will understand what I mean, and then sometimes I have little enlightenment moments of Wow, yeah! I really understood this! This person really understood what I meant! As I grow older, I trust more in connection – somehow, at some level – even if the possibility of total connection seems to be moving further and further away.
You use so many different languages, registers and characters in your stories. Have you always been attracted to the idea of getting into other people’s heads, through translation or otherwise?
I think it has a lot to do with my queerness. There are lots of ways of being a person. Through translation, you get to… rehearse, somehow, or try something else for a while. I’ve been translating for over twenty years and it gives you a lot of styles to practice. It gives you a lot of topics that maybe you wouldn’t have been interested in. It makes you work to get to a precise idea. This idea – not something else.
[Spanish.] I remember reading that translations were key for the authors of the Latin American Boom. Their bookshops were full of them. What’s the importance of translated works to today’s Catalan authors? What do you find in Catalonia’s bookshops?
It’s the opposite of what you find in the English-speaking world. 3% of your books are translations and 97% were written in English. In Catalonia, translations are over half of books sold. For Catalan speakers, there’s always been an awareness of the importance of translation. It goes all the way back to Ramon Llull all those centuries ago, translating the Bible into all the languages he could learn.
As president of the Association of Catalan-Language Writers and the European Council of Associations of Literary Translators, we’ve taken a number of steps forward. We’ve gotten the translator’s name on the front cover of many books. We want the translator to be spoken of in the same breath as the author. We have excellent translators like Miquel Cabal, from Russian, or Anna Casassas, from Italian. When you’re reading them, you know you’re in safe hands.
I’d also like to ask about the importance of contemporary British literature for you. I’ve seen you in conversation with Jeanette Winterson at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. Could you talk about the importance of her work? It seemed like you really respect her.
I’ve spoken with so many wonderful authors, but I’ve never felt as stupid as that day! What you’re very kindly calling respect was actually me being starstruck. I was like, Please keep talking! But I couldn’t think of anything to say! I was just there thinking… She’s so smart! And I couldn’t string two thoughts together! I’m a huge fan. I feel the same connection with Kerry Hudson: growing up in a house without books. And, from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a mother who doesn’t understand you at all. In my home, they didn’t understand a thing about me and I didn’t understand a thing about them!
And I love the liberties Winterson takes with time, space and the gender of her characters. When I read her books all those years ago, I kept asking myself, So you can do this? And this? It had an enormous influence on me.
[English.] You’ve translated such a range of books, even We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, one of my childhood favourites. It’s a good motto for translators: We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it – oh no, we’ve got to go through it! What are the challenges of translating for younger readers?
That’s my favourite job in the world! You get to think for hours about a single sentence. I have a little baby right now, they’re one year old, and We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is one of their favourites. I’ve read that translation... maybe a hundred times? Two hundred times? A million times? And it still works. It’s like – Yeah! I got this right!
I love alliteration and the challenge of translating rhyme. I listened to Michael Rosen reading this story again and again until the rhythm was stuck in my mind and I could pour it out it in Catalan. You can actually sing my translation to the tune that he’s singing in English. It’s something that probably only I know… but it’s there! You can do it if you want!
There’s another book I never thought I’d talk about again… Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging. How do you translate humour?
That was one of the first books that I translated – twenty years ago! So I’d be really afraid to go back to that… I think translations should be destroyed after a few years. [Laughs.] But I had lots of fun translating that book. When translating humour, I think the main thing is actually finding it funny. If you don’t find it funny, you have a problem. I’m useless at writing humour from scratch, but when I translate, I can see how it works, I can see the devices, and I can replicate that in my own language.
One last question. How is it when translating languages that are relatively similar to Catalan? A lot of your work is with Spanish, for example.
I translate my own work from Catalan into Spanish – and I try to do that before the Catalan version is published, so I can change the original if I want to! When I was growing up, my family spoke Spanish, so it’s my mother tongue. But I learned to read and write in Catalan; I’ve made it my own language. I think the most difficult thing is to make sure that I’m writing real Spanish, not just Catalan with Spanish words. False friends are a danger. Even grammar can be very distinctive. But that’s why these are different languages, not the same language. You need to get those differences correct or you’ll have a bad translation.
Wilder Winds, translated by Laura McGloughlin, is available from Fum D’Estampa Press.
Vents més salvatges, in the original Catalan, is available from Editorial Empúries.
You can see Bel Olid live in conversation with Borja Bagunyà at the University of Edinburgh on April 4th.