Photo by Vitor Oliveira on Wikimedia Commons

By the Rivers of Babylon: A Conversation with Margaret Jull Costa

In By the Rivers of Babylon, one of Portugal’s most celebrated writers, António Lobo Antunes, creates an homage to the beauty of a cherished life in its confrontation with imminent death. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s translator, Margaret Jull Costa, about the evolution of her translation process, her approach to capturing the narrator’s voice, and what she hopes readers will take away from Antunes’ work.

You have translated literary works for over thirty years. What inspired you to pursue a career in translation?

MJC: My first experience of translation was when studying Spanish before going to university. I always say that I fell in love with the process, and I did. I loved the magical business of reading something in one language, and transporting it into my own language, somehow the same but different. Perhaps more importantly, I have always loved reading and writing, and translation, of course, combines both.

Since you started your career as a translator, how has your method and practice changed? 

MJC: I now spend far more time editing. I’m not sure if it’s me getting pickier or if I’m just more aware of what it takes to make a piece of writing totally convincing and true, to have its own voice.

What have been some of the biggest shifts in the field? 

MJC: There are far more translators now, particularly from Spanish and Portuguese, than there were when I started, and there are more independent publishers too, who are genuinely interested in foreign fiction, and fiction from lesser-known cultures. There may even be slightly less resistance in the Anglophone world to translated fiction, and to things foreign.

By the Rivers of Babylon is composed of streams of consciousness by the narrator as he drifts in and out of awareness while in the hospital. What was it like translating these often single sentence, interior monologues? 

MJC: I really enjoyed translating this, but you do need to remain very alert, and tuned in to keep up with the narrator as his thoughts dodge and dive back and forth in time. 

Can you tell us more about what the translation process was like?

MJC: I’ve only translated three books by Lobo Antunes, some years apart, (he has had a number of different translators over the years) and didn’t really consult him much about any of the books. With this one, in particular, I felt it was a matter of focusing on reproducing that fragmented style in a way that rang true in English. I tended, as I often do, to translate one chapter, and then go over and over it until it felt right, before setting it aside while I went onto the next chapter, and began the process again.

What is your favorite aspect of António Lobo Antunes’ By the Rivers of Babylon? What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

MJC: I love the honesty with which he describes the experience of being a patient, the awful vulnerability of it, the sense that you’re at the mercy of others, however well-meaning. And I think the way he recreates the narrator’s thoughts, constantly jumping from one thing to another, and going back and forth in time, is brilliantly done. It’s that unflinching, and very humane gaze at the human condition that I hope will draw readers in.

António Lobo Antunes, born in Lisbon and trained as a psychiatrist, is the author of more than thirty books. He lives in Portugal. 

Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for over thirty years. She lives in the United Kingdom.

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