The Power of the (Wrong) Word

on Thursday, March 17, 2011
As you would know by now, this here bookworm prefers to make his burrow in foreign soil. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for new and improved English versions of books that I have loved in the hope that somehow I might get to experience the work as the author intended it without having to take a crash course in every language imaginable. The other day I was in my favourite bookstore and was intrigued to see what appeared to be a new translation of Antonio Tabucchi's great novel of small-time political rebellion, Pereira Declares. Or should I say, in mid-1990's Prince style, "the artist formerly known as Pereira Declares"? Set in wartime Portugal, it is the story of an ageing journalist, living out his sunset years as editor of the cultural pages of a small-time Portuguese newspaper who meets a young wannabe writer and is drawn into the fight against the country's tyrannical, Nazi-loving regime. What begins as projected affection for a son he might have had becomes an ideological metamorphosis and, ultimately, causes Pereira to take drastic, reckless action of his own. It is a wonderful book about the small man's ability to make moral choices in an immoral environment and is well worth you taking the time to read. But that is all by the by.

What made me believe this was an altogether new translation was that the title has been changed from Pereira Declares to Pereira Maintains, which is supposedly a more accurate rendering of the original Italian title Sostiene Pereira. I, of course, wouldn't know. I don't speak Italian. Yet this seemingly minor change in the title (and consequently most repeated line in the book) completely alters the way we read the thing, especially in our understanding of the consequences of Pereira's final act of rebellion. The book ends with our hero trying to flee the country, having set himself on a path of almost certain torture and death if he remains. So, if Pereira "Declares", it suggests that he is bearing witness from abroad, that he did indeed escape, and that he is letting people know of the murderous activities of the Portuguese authorities. However, if Pereira "Maintains", it suggests that he was caught and he (or his legal representative) is telling his side of the story in a way that paints his actions in the most favourable light. The book becomes a plea for his life. There is also the possibility that it is being told by a member of the secret police or prosecutor, with an air of sarcastic disbelief. No matter what Pereira "maintains", we are invited to believe his fate is sealed. Interestingly, either translation suggests that we are hearing the story from an unreliable narrator but siding with one Sostiene rather the other will change whose unreliable retelling we are receiving.

Alas, readers of the original translation need not rush back. A quick look at the front leaf shows that this is not an entirely new version but merely (somewhat oddly for such a well-regarded novel) the first British edition. The translation is copyright 1995. Which means that, having decided that "Maintains" is the correct translation of "Sostiene" (my rudimentary latin suggests that "Sustains" is, in fact, the literal translation), the publishers simply did a "Replace All" job on the text and sent it off to press. They might have wanted to read through the thing though. On page 149, towards the end of the book, we find the sentence "The next morning, he declared, Pereira was awakened by the telephone." Fairly nondescript, I know. But I wish I could read Italian because I'm intrigued to see if Tabucchi uses a different word at this point, which might give that particular assertion some extra piquancy. If so, it becomes the only definitive statement in the whole novel.

The Pereira switcheroo has shaken my confidence in translations. One word, translated differently, can change the entire meaning of a book. Which gives me a sneaking suspicion that Anna Karenina was pushed. Who's with me on this?


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