Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance - Irene Solà, translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Updated: Mar 28
Irene Solà, novelist
When I Sing, Mountains Dance is the sort of work a translator dreams of, then sweats over in the night. It has gained its Catalan author, Irene Solà, a European Union Prize for Literature, and is set to make her a sensation in the United Kingdom, a country where she lived for most of her twenties. Now thirty-one, she is among the most widely read authors of a thriving Catalan scene. But Mara Faye Lethem deserves equal praise for her handling of technical problems that, without a copy of the Catalan original, are hard to even detect. First is the switch between Catalan and Castilian. Individual Spanish words are often left in the original: it’s a brave choice for a translator not to translate. The centre of the book, with its poetry and illustrations, is rendered without sacrificing rhyme, rhythm or strangeness. Quirks of voice – archaic vocabulary, for example – are translated with similar ease. Though the novel has brought deserved acclaim for Solà, it also shows the importance of translators as co-authors.
Inevitably in a novel of so many voices, there are times when the translator must work hard to maintain the Catalan nuance. Make no mistake, this a book that enjoys being rude. The translation is rude too, but it’s difficult for the buttoned-up swearing of English to compete with the inventiveness of a romance language. Take ‘Jesus H. Christ’ as just one example, translating ‘Cagu’m Deu’, literally ‘I shit on God.’ And returning to the role of Spanish, it is impossible for any translator to convey the sense of alienation in a reader after eight chapters of Catalan, only to begin the first page of a section titled Everybody’s Brother, where the narrative is suddenly Spanish. It is as if the author’s native language were as foreign as the French border, the Icelandic epigraph from a work called Independent People, or the English brand names that seep into the final chapter.
Themes can translate with the same complexity as individual words. The role of Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War is broadly clear for English-language readers; the fear around the French border and even the sense of modern-day apathy (‘Bor-ing!’ calls a character late in the book). Less obvious is Solà’s treatment of war as an origin myth for the peninsula, blending twentieth-century history with pagan rituals in a way that sidesteps – but can never avoid – the Catholicism it constantly references. Also ambiguous are the bears of the novel, narrating one chapter and haunting many more. Is this the bear of the wild Pyrenees, ready to reclaim Catalonia for nature? Or the symbol of Madrid, a city never mentioned? Or the redeemed convict of later chapters? This is before we touch on the role of Catalan myth, and the novel's end notes, where we see Solà’s readings on witchcraft and contemporary Catalan literature.
Mara Faye Lethem, Translator
Despite its depth of reference, When I Sing, Mountains Dance is far from a ponderous read. This is a book whose ambiguity does not exclude the reader, whose sympathies are all-encompassing, and whose author believes in the imaginative capabilities of fiction. It is a book concerned with Europe’s central topics – environmentalism and Catalan Independence to name two – but always avoids pamphleteering. Both novelist and translator leave the reader fulfilled by the credo at the centre of the book. Jo no els explico mai, els meus poemes: I never explain my poems, never.
- James Appleby, editor
When I Sing, Mountains Dance is available in the UK from Granta Books.
Canto jo i la muntanya balla is available in Catalan from Llibres Anagrama.
Photo Credits to Òmnium Cultural and Granta Books.
With thanks to Granta Books for contacting us.