Interview With Tiago Miller – Translator Of The Song Of Youth, By Montserrat Roig
I recently reviewed The Song Of Youth
by Montserrat Roig for our pages. Published by Fum d’Estampa Press, the reader is plunged into a bubbling cauldron of social and cultural tumult, kept hot by the pernicious flames of General Franco’s persecutions, and the repressive credo mandated by his callous cronies and mendacious myrmidons. In a series of intimate vignettes, we see all humanity, albeit through the cynosure of individual Catalonians and their profoundly personal struggles with identity, authenticity, repression and self-agency.
Roig was a shining light of Catalan literature during her brief lifetime (1946-1991), and now her reputation burns ever brighter as a consequence of a rightly-bestowed veneration of, and affection for, her oeuvre. To read Fum d’Estampa’s edition in English is nothing short of a privilege and one all the more valued, because without the assiduous care of the book’s translator, Tiago Miller, this non-Catalan reader would have been denied the joy of Roig’s utter brilliance.
I was originally drawn to Castilian and Portuguese-language literature much in the same way that I was to Russian, French, or twentieth century American literature, that is, as an exhilarating entrance into the world of language and ideas and cultures.
I was fascinated by the seemingly impossible nature of Miller’s achievement. Literary translators are rather special creative beings, and when the opportunity to interview the one responsible for the first ever English translation of The Song Of Youth
fortuitously presented itself to me, I pounced!
Born on the outskirts of London in 1987, Miller told me, "I spent most of my time, reading, backpacking in Spain when possible, and generally trying to work as little as possible. After six months living in Barcelona, I began an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Portuguese."
"My year abroad was spent in Brazil and then, after graduating, I lived in Moscow for 18 months. I semi settled down in Barcelona in 2015, where I worked as a freelance translator and early years teacher before moving to Lleida in 2018 to concentrate on literary translation. Living in Lleida has been key to my professional work as it is where I have felt most immersed in Catalan language and life."
Miller’s trajectory towards literary translation built momentum on his abiding love of language and literature: "I was originally drawn to Castilian and Portuguese-language literature much in the same way that I was to Russian, French, or twentieth century American literature, that is, as an exhilarating entrance into the world of language and ideas and cultures."
"My experience with Catalan literature is a very different story. I’d never read anything by a Catalan author before I moved to Barcelona, but when I got my Catalan to a level where I could read original texts it gave new insight into the nation’s history, culture and identity."
"I found the Catalan language so alluring and unspeakably beautiful, and the more I read the more convinced I was of Catalan’s cultural importance on a European level; therefore at the heart of my passion for Catalonia is language. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it struck such a chord in me, but think Montserrat Roig sums it up perfectly: “Over the years I have found that languages choose us.”
Understanding the literate mind of a gifted translator perhaps illuminates the substructure of cultural references underpinning their own creative responses…the ideological and intellectual fabric of their minds:
"The first novelists I was truly passionate about in my late teens were Kerouac and Dostoyevsky, so It’s been fun rediscovering them in Catalan translation, some fifteen years later. In terms of contemporary writers, I am very interested in Adrià Pujol and Borja Bagunyà. Stylistically they are so different but they share the same irreverence, determination to push the boundaries of prose in Catalan, and to critique society with an acerbic and often absurd perspective."
"Manuel de Pedrolo is a writer who has been fundamental for me as a reader and translator. He was heavily censored by the Francoist regime and then actively marginalised by the post-Transition Catalan political elite, nevertheless he managed to write around a hundred books in a range of styles and genres. He was concerned with promoting the Catalan language and constructing a literary tradition, and his legacy is central to my decision to work as a ‘literary activist’ rather than a straightforward translator for hire."
Miller is a past winner of the Victor Català Award, however his path to becoming a literary translator has been an autodidactic odyssey: "Right from the beginning I had a hands-on approach. In fact, I started by translating a short novel for myself, just to get experience. I loved the process and from there began reading more authors, researching the industry and trying to publish in literary magazines. All the while I was continuing to translate for myself and to do comparative readings of established translators."
"After two years of toil, at the beginning of 2020 I finally managed to get a very small piece by Pere Calders published in a literary magazine and not long after that I contacted Fum d’Estampa about my on-going work on Roig. From that conversation FdE offered me the opportunity to translate The Others
by Raül Garrigasait, which seemed ordained because much of the dialogue is written in a Lleida dialect not too dissimilar to the one I speak. So, in short, 'picantpedra', as we say in Catalan, or patiently chipping away, and being proactive."
The focussing of Miller’s talents upon Roig begged the question, why Roig ? ‘I originally heard of Roig through different sources, but I came across The Song of Youth
in 2017 kind of by accident. When I first read it, I sensed there was a lot more going on in the book than I realised. The style was so suggestive, subtle to the point of hypnotic, yet both universal and distinctly Catalan.’
"A year later I reread the book and it was clear to me that it was a masterpiece of European writing, not just because of her prose but also because she discusses so many of the topics that we are still grappling with today, such as sexuality, gender, identity, left-wing politics and feminism.’
"FdE were interested from the outset and were really encouraging. The great thing about FdE is that It’s a press with an incredible knowledge of and passion for Catalan writing, so they were well aware of Roig’s status and that made the process much smoother. I sensed their passion and commitment from the very start and It’s for that very reason I feel that we work very well together."
So, background established, I pushed on to the heart of the matter - Miller’s ideas about literary translation:
"I see literary translation as an interpretation, and the role of the literary translator much like that of a concert pianist or a stage actor. The words are all there, but It’s you that has to interpret them, bring them to life, and transmit their meaning to an audience in a different time and place. At the end of the day, literary translators are also creative writers. I try to keep this image in mind when I work because this tension between following the notes and interpreting them with passion and personality that guides my choices."
‘Having said that, translating someone like Roig is not a romantic pursuit, but rather a test of one’s stamina and concentration and – as is obviously the goal – the reader sees the end product and not the months or years or writing and rewriting behind it.’
Miller’s concentration paid off, for his chosen words sing, their tone never less than resonant and inconspicuously authentic.
"Nothing in Roig is by chance and it was only when I began to translate her that I realised how precise her prose is, how well balanced. Knowing a writer’s work in-depth is important, because with Roig there is a distinct shift in tone and style in the mid-80s whereupon she develops a more lyrical and reflective approach that reaches its pinnacle in The Song of Youth
. Living immersed in Catalan helps me to mediate between these two languages and in a way, as a bilingual speaker, I am always mediating."
In search of granular detail, I pushed for further insights into the translator’s art:
"Roig employs a lot of long sentences to create a sense of individual memory and private space and this is often something that can be difficult to replicate in English without it reading very awkwardly."
"This was also the case with certain idioms: certain phrases were impossible to translate without having to spell them out and therefore destroying the rhythm, so in these cases I had to find appropriate substitutions. This is where one has to draw on one’s knowledge of the writer in to make the correct choice. I’d say it’s a combination of knowledge and intuition, both of which overlap and both of which have to be constantly trained. The day I start resting on my laurels is the day I’ll call it quits."
I ended our conversation with an enquiry into his latest project, a question unashamedly motivated by both curiosity and greed!
"Currently I am working on Cavallssalvatges
) by Jordi Cussà. The novel explores the heroin epidemic that tore through Catalonia in the 80s with visceral and inventive prose that creates a spider web of characters whose stories intertwine and build together at a frenetic pace. It was groundbreaking when published in 2000 and It’s now widely considered one of the greatest Catalan novels of the twenty-first century."
Nothing Miller writes is ever likely to be ‘Lost In Translation’, thank goodness !