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An interview with Louise Johnson, Translator of Andrea Víctrix, by Gareth D Jones (interview).

July 23, 2021 | By | Reply More

Dr. Louise Johnson

Q: It seems you’ve been a fan of Llorenç Villalonga for quite a number of years. How did you come to end up translating ‘Andrea Víctrix’? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?

I’m not sure I’d say I’m a ‘fan’! He’s a complex character who for very good reasons hasn’t always found favour, either in Mallorca, or for different, mainly linguistic reasons, in the rest of Spain. He was of interest to me initially because sport and physical culture was writ large in many works, so too homoeroticism and a fascination with the androgynous and epicene. I was intrigued by his ambivalence on a number of subjects, his attraction to French Enlightenment culture, and by his existential discomfort, which we definitely see in Andrea Víctrix.

I’ve taught Andrea Víctrix to University students for a number of years, and always thought it’d make a great camp musical. It’s a less conventional novel than many, but at the same time not divorced from the major themes of his work as a whole, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about translating it before. But my day job was already spilling into most other areas of my life, so understandably I never took the plunge. This was until Doug Suttle, the brains and energy behind Fum d’Estampa Press, got in touch, and honestly it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I knew it wasn’t going to be straightforward, and then Covid hit too.

Q: Llorenç Villalonga acknowledges the influence of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ on ‘Andrea Víctrix’. Are there other influences from Catalan literature that the Anglophone reader wouldn’t be aware of?

Villalonga’s work is highly referential, but not merely within the Catalan-language sphere. He was a huge Francophile, lover of Proust, and we also see allusions to Lamartine, Rousseau, Voltaire, and so on. Santiago Rusiñol’s L’illa de la calma is invoked as a memory of Mallorcan time past when the island’s sleepiness is as yet relatively undisturbed by tourism and foreign customs. Llorenç Riber also crops up in this context, and his La minyonia d’un infant orat would later be riffed on by Villalonga in the posthumously published La bruixa i l’infant orat.

Major Catalan poet Salvador Espriu makes an appearance too. And Villalonga is also self-referential in Andrea Víctrix: the anonymous narrator shares many characteristics with the writer himself (but also differs from him in key respects): the narrator cites Villalonga, and refers to some his works, including in a footnote mention of Les Fures, a short novel published in the 1960s. Villalonga’s 1931 novella Mort de dama also features via passing allusion to key characters such as Donya Obdúlia and Aina Cohen.

Q: There’s a scattering of dialogue and phrases in various languages throughout the text, including some dialogue reported as being uttered in English. How do you decide on the way to render those in your translation?

Wherever possible I was keen to retain exoticisms and loans of this nature in the English translation if they performed a similar function in the source text, that is, in the Mallorcan. It’s very much part of Villalonga’s style to incorporate gallicisms, for instance, and the presence of other languages in the text underlines the changing profile of Mallorca at the time of the novel’s composition: the increasing ‘foreign’ presence on the island and the concern with the loss of Mallorcan culture (whether or not Villalonga found this particularly enriching).

There’s a short story published in the 1960s called ‘Aquells avantguardismes’, of which I have an unpublished English translation in draft, which exemplifies this technique. It is set in 1936 before the cataclysm of the Spanish Civil War when international avantgardes are being celebrated by foreigners on the island, in an appropriately multilingual, snobbish fashion, thus: ‘Ach mein dear, que je suis molto stanca!’ I’m quoting from memory.

Q: The narrator apologises early on for reporting the future, hybridised, gender-neutral language in his own archaic tongue which was unable to replicate that neutrality. English is more gender-neutral than most Romance languages, so has your translation rectified some of the narrator’s fictional translation inadequacies?

I suppose given that the translator doesn’t translate, there are no inadequacies as such, fictional or otherwise, but it’s an intriguing problem all the same. The issue of gender-neutral language is bound up in the fiction with non-binary gender, since it is assumed that gender-neutral language will lead more quickly and effectively to the full embedding of the ‘neuter’, of the erasing of distinctions between genders, ahead of the definitive disappearance of biological sex.

This latter aim is well advanced but not yet fully realised. There’s another thematic complication here, which is the mutual affection and attraction that develops between the narrator and the eponymous protagonist: the narrator is socially conservative and historically ‘heterosexual’, and so the undecidability of Andrea Víctrix presents an intractable problem: he loves Andrea, but Andrea, Lola (for different reasons) and Dr Nicola all maintain that the androgynous figure of Andrea is not female. Nicola responds to a despairing narrator at the end that Andrea is not male, either, far from it. Thus the insistence on undecidability, on some kind of non-binary status is actually pretty remarkable for Villalonga, and while it doesn’t go so far as to dissolve the prejudices that define the narrator, the fact that the narrator’s emotional connection to Andrea transcends this uncertainty is, I think, progress of sorts.

What does this mean in language terms? Well the narrator still thinks and writes in Mallorcan, and he is still therefore bound by rules of gender. He has to negotiate this difficulty vis-à-vis Andrea, hence we have the alternation in the original between ‘he’ and ‘she’, the slips and the hedging. I wanted to retain this struggle in the English, so whereas we have increasing gender non-binary linguistic options in English, to have used these would, on the one hand, have flattened this struggle and diluted this really significant thematic thread/dilemma (which is all the more significant to readers more familiar with Villalonga’s work); and on the other, would have been anachronistic in the context of a novel composed predominantly in the 1960s and published in 1974. The historical moment, the Cold War, rising consumerism, mass tourism, is after all very important here too.

Q: Are there other gems of Catalan literature that you would like to bring to a wider audience?

Catalan-language literature in general punches way above its weight. I have so little time to read for pleasure at the moment, and I can’t pretend I’m on top of contemporary literary production, far from it, so my suggestions are likely already canonical (canonical understood as both a useful and sometimes unhelpful concept), or simply those I’ve taught. I enjoy writers who attempt to do something different in their particular context (like Guillem Viladot, Terenci Moix); I like a good story (Narcís Oller, Mercè Rodoreda, Carme Riera, Najat El Hachmi); I like committed writers who can actually write (Maria Aurèlia Capmany, Maria Mercè Marçal), rather than activists who simply put pen to paper; and dramatists such as Lluïsa Cunillé. I’m afraid I’m not a very discriminating reader these days: I’m generally so happy to find time to read, I make sure I find something to enjoy about whatever I’m reading!

Thanks for your time!

Gareth D. Jones 2021

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