‘Life in Translation’ by Anthony Ferner


Anderson S. Vieira: Lima, Peru (CC)

Small Earthquake in Peru

I first met Julia Pinto Hughes in Lima in the mid-eighties, when we were both doing the postgraduate programme in literary translation at the Institute. My initial impression of her was that she spoke with a dreadful Spanish accent and had a superior attitude to the locals. She was plain Julia Pinto back then. The ‘Hughes’ she added later. It wasn’t her married name, it was the matronymic she adopted as a second surname when she divorced her husband. Her closest friends in Lima were an American Marxist couple with whom she shared a grand, decrepit flat in the centre of town. The Americans – known to the rest of us as los misioneros, the missionaries – would go up to the slums on the bare beige hills around the city to help the inhabitants organise themselves and to demand basic facilities, such as a water supply; Julia merely talked the modish talk, as a lot of us did back then.

Julia had a forceful personality and great skill in cultivating ageing male academics. Apparently, she never lost the knack; many years later, when she had become an eminent professor, a colleague of hers in England murmured to me at a conference, ‘But how could one ever refuse Julia Pinto Hughes!’ There was always a combative side to her. Once or twice in Lima, I witnessed her slither, when thwarted, into molten anger that left fellow students quaking. Even the lecturers tended to indulge her demands (‘How could you not give in to Julia Pinto’, as I might have said at the time).

The Peruvians found her intriguing, or rather the men did. They were fascinated by her straight blonde hair and the glimpse of white thigh beneath her leather miniskirts. They loved her aloofness, her disdain. (‘Who could be coolier than Julia’?) They even seemed mesmerised by her poor Spanish. Julia had a string of Peruvian suitors, mostly jaded married men, but also a few fellow-students, including my flatmate Javier.

I didn’t have that much to do with her at first. I wanted to spend time with Peruvians rather than with other Brits. Sometimes, though, we coincided on trips or at parties. Her dancing was like her Spanish – lacking in flair and nuance, inattentive to the subtleties. Peruvian dances, whether from the coast or the Andes, are rather sedate and controlled, but she flung her limbs, gyrated her hips, wriggled her shoulders, looked moodily at the floor and pouted as she danced; too brazenly British.

I turned out to be pretty good at the dances of the Andes, which were easier to get the hang of than the more sophisticated Peruvian waltz that Gabi had failed to teach me. My unofficial tutor and dance partner was Marta Fuentes, a woman in her thirties who was married to one of the lecturers at the Institute. Marta was from the city of Ayacucho in the southern highlands, and when a song from her part of the world came on the record player, she’d make a beeline for me. The music has a lilting, limping quality to it that carries you along, especially after a clutch of pisco saurs. Marta had dark glistening eyes and short glossy hair swept up at the front. She and I became a dance item, almost a local attraction, encouraged by cries of ¡olé! and ¡eso! from the other party-goers that weren’t entirely ironic. Unlike Julia, whom nobody could take for anything other than a gringa, I was sometimes mistaken for Peruvian on the basis of my authentic-looking dance moves. In hindsight, there was a spark between Marta and me, but at the time I was too distracted by my pursuit of Gabi to realise.

At one of those parties – it would have been a few weeks after my ill-fated trip to the hills with Gabi and the others – Julia turned up. She arrived late: hora peruana as they say, Peruvian time. As usual she attracted admiring glances from the men, suspicion from the women. She got herself a drink and came to sit next to me.

Julia was interested in a couple of minor female writers at the end of the magical realism wave, and she aspired to translate one of them into English for her course assignment. I was snooty about her choice.

‘Mónica Albacete? Really? She’s so derivative. But then, you’re a fan of Isabel Allende and the like, aren’t you?’

‘What,’ she replied, ‘are they not macho enough for you?’

‘They’re mediocre García Márquez imitators. And he only just gets away with all that tiresome magical realist stuff. I mean, come on—’

‘I love magical realism,’ she interrupted. ‘That’s what South America is all about. A parallel reality.’

‘What, Lima? Magical realist?’

‘Yes, yes! It really is.’

‘Have you been dropping acid with the Americans again?’

‘God, you’re such a cynic. Anyway, they don’t do drugs.’

‘I’m not a cynic, I’m a romantic. It’s just that I’ve had my fill of heroines weeping bitter tears till they flood the house, and ancestors with meaningfully symbolic green hair. I mean, give me a break.’

‘And I’ve had my fill of over-inflated male egos like Vargas Llosa or Carlos Effing Fuentes and their hyper-masculine perspectives.’

‘This isn’t about gender politics, Julia. There are fantastic women writers who haven’t been translated yet, so why—’

‘Such as?’

‘… So why aren’t you working on them rather than on a gushy mediocrity like Albacete?’

Such as?’ she repeated. ‘Name one.’

‘OK, such as Beatriz Salgado. Her books are set in Lima, and they’re powerful, epic, emotional. Or with your Portuguese you could be translating someone like Alma Sertão. Her work has incredible emotional resonance and depth, and she wouldn’t touch magical realism with a bargepole.’

Julia said, ‘Alma who?’

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

‘You’ve read so much more than me,’ she said.

At the Institute they urged us to take in all styles and genres: ‘Read, read, read. Read till your eyes bleed!’ Not just highbrow fiction, but detective stories, popular romance, station bookstall thrillers. They told us to be alert always to tone and style, to vocabulary range and register. To ask ourselves continually: how would you go about translating that? What strategies would you use? How far do you have to be unfaithful to the literal text in order to retain fidelity to its spirit?

‘Anyway,’ Julia said, ‘why are we talking shop?’

‘I don’t know.’

She got up and went over to the drinks table. I wandered through to the kitchen and helped myself to a bowl of chilli and chicken.

The party had filled and livened, people were stoked up on beer and pisco, a record player had appeared. The sounds of Andean flute, charango and saxophone floated through the apartment, plates were cleared and the dancing got going. Marta Fuentes came over, took my hand and led me onto the dance floor. We got into the swing of it, our moves second nature by this time, and the Peruvians began to call out their good-natured encouragements.

As we swung round, I noticed Julia watching us from the edge of the room. She seemed in two minds: scornful of me as a Brit trying to go native, as she saw it; yet envious of the attention I was getting.

Marta and I took a break. She went off to keep an eye on her husband, whom she suspected of having an affair with one of his students (quite possibly Julia). I’d barely caught my breath when Julia approached me.

‘Good dancing!’ she said.


‘Well, more a kind of hoedown than a real dance,’ she added. ‘But you seem to have more or less got the hang of it.’

‘I’m not much good really: “The wonder is not that it’s done well but that it’s done at all.” That sort of thing.’

‘Too modest,’ she said. ‘Want a beer?’ I nodded. She handed me one of the two bottles she’d been holding by the necks, and took a swig from hers.

‘You been having lessons?’

‘No. Must be a natural.’

‘Ha.’ She took another slug of beer. ‘That woman…’

‘Marta Fuentes?’

‘If that’s her name. Isn’t she married to Pedro Luis?’


‘OK,’ she said. She looked at me with her calculating eyes. I noticed she had loads of eyeliner on, but they still seemed too small. ‘You screwing her?’


‘Marta and you? You got a thing going?’

‘What!’ I said, as though the idea was ridiculous, though I’d certainly considered it.

She laughed and poked me in the chest, playful, one hand on jutting hip. I was confused. Julia had never shown any interest in me before, and now she appeared to be coming on to me. She said, with head cocked, ‘You sure you’re not screwing her?’

‘No! I mean, yes, I’m sure. What kind of question is that, and from a feminist? Anyway, she’s married, isn’t she.’


‘We’re not all like you, Julia.’

She chuckled, and said, ‘Cheers!’, clinked her beer bottle against mine. We both drank.

She looked at me, and stroked my cheek with her hand. ‘Ay, inglesito,’ she said, or rather, ‘Eye, inn-glay-see-toe,’ in her incorrigible, take-no-prisoners home-counties accent. Oh, poor little English guy.

Without warning, she became businesslike and earnest. ‘So tell me. What are you doing for your translation assignment?’

‘I thought we weren’t talking shop.’

‘No, go on, tell me.’

‘It’s not that interesting.’

‘Come on, Christ! Just spit it out.’

‘Well I’m doing one of Benedetti’s short stories. Night of the Ugly.’


‘And you?’

‘They’ve given me an absolute pig of a short story by Roberto Tunsch. Enigma oscuro, or something. I absolutely don’t get Roberto Tunsch. Can’t understand the Spanish, let alone translate it. He’s Uruguayan or something, so…’


She sat down and patted the chair beside her. Obediently, I joined her.

‘He’s not so difficult,’ I said, trying to regain the initiative.


‘Not really. Not once you enter the logic of his world. The fantastical emerges out of the banal and the everyday, so you can’t see the join, and there’s all this nameless stuff going on just under the surface, and… He’s one of my favourite authors in fact.’

She was looking at me, biting her lip, eyes narrowed. Then she leaned forwards and put her hand on my arm. ‘You can do it for me if you like.’

‘What, your assignment?’


‘Thanks, that’s big of you.’

She shifted on her chair, frowning. ‘No, seriously.’

‘You’ve got to be joking, Julia.’

‘No, I… if I knock out a rough version, would you have a look at it for me? Please? Just so I don’t embarrass myself.’

I blew out my breath. I’d been backed into a corner, and knew that if I said yes I’d end up doing such a thorough editing job on her version that I might as well translate the whole story from scratch.

‘Please?’ She’d put on a little-girl voice and her hands were together in supplication.

‘OK, I guess,’ I said at length.

‘Thank you!’ She leaned across, put her arms around me, and kissed my cheek.

‘Maybe you could also give mine the once-over?’ I said, to save face as much as anything.

She giggled. ‘I’ll look at yours if you look at mine!

I blushed.

‘I will, of course,’ she said. She pulled a face. ‘Not that there’s much point, yours will be better than the original, knowing you.’ I think she realised that the course was too much for her, that she was out of her depth.

I went for another beer and when I came back, Julia was talking to the director of the diploma course. OK, that’s that, I thought: he’ll be far more interesting quarry for her now she’s got what she wants out of me.

Excerpted from Life in Translation: A Novel by Anthony Fraser. © Anthony Ferner 2019. Used by arrangement with the publisher, Holland Park Press. All rights reserved.

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