Jordi Puntí writes fiction in Catalan, the co-official language of the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia, Spain. Highlighting that he does so because it’s his mother tongue, the author, who lives in Barcelona, Spain, tells mART how it is to write in a language that is still looked at with “prejudice” in the rest of his country.
Considered one of the most promising new voices of contemporary Catalan literature, he was in the territory for The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival, and took part in a session about “Literature Across Frontiers: Writing in a Minority Language”.
By Luciana Leitão
Is writing in Catalan, instead of Castilian language, a conscious decision?
It’s a romance language. Maybe the only difference is Catalan doesn’t have a state in the back. This makes it more difficult to be recognised, but in terms of readership and people speaking it, it’s a big language. It’s seven million speakers.
I don’t feel I had to chose a language, it’s my mother language and the language my family spoke all their lives and it’s the one I feel more comfortable. I also write in Spanish [Castilian] for journalism — when I write articles, because I’m bilingual, I can write both, but fiction, which is something more attached to oneself, I feel I can express myself in a wider range of possibilities.
In this level, it is political, but to me it’s not mainly political — it’s a practical decision. If I knew I could write better in Spanish, I would change; if I knew I could write better in English, I would change immediately to have more readers. But, I’m also very realistic, and I know that the language that I speak the best and I write the best is Catalan.
Is it also a political statement?
I try not to. Sometimes there’s this feeling that comes from the Franco regime times, when Catalan was a banned language and no one could use it publicly and there were no books published, that people would write in Catalan in order to save the language, in order to keep alive the fire of the language. Nowadays, luckily, this is no longer necessary, because we have schools in Catalan and actually you can live only with Catalan in Catalonia, especially in Barcelona. But there’s still some people who, for the sake of politics, and for some kind of romantic idea, think they have to write in Catalan to save the language, so I’m quite against it.
I’m a normal writer and as every normal single writer, what I do is to write in my own language and actually when I travel abroad it’s not to prove that I write in a special language, but to prove that I write in a normal language — and it’s possible to be translated, to be published abroad and have the regular life of a fictional writer everywhere.
Some of your books have been translated into many different languages. Is it possible to find a good translator?
It is… Also because the Catalan government is very good at promoting Catalan abroad. Barcelona is a city that has a big appeal for everyone. There’s a lot of tourists around the world that start to learn Catalan because they want to come to Barcelona. Maybe they start with the strange idea of tourism, but then they end up coming or they end up living in their own country, but learning Catalan. I’ve been translated into Albanian, for example. I’ve been translated into 16 languages — I’ve been translated into Chinese.
Before becoming a fictional writer, you also translated many authors, such as Paul Auster. Would you prefer authoring or translating?
More in the past, not now. It was a matter of living and I speak French and English. It’s a great way to learn your own language too, not only the English, but to put in your own words someone else’s work, it’s a way of working with the language and I value it a lot.
The moment I started to write and to get published, I decided I prefer to use the time for writing than for translating.
What are the main challenges for a translator?
To translate a work, any novel, it’s like picking a radio, dismantling it and building up again, so that the radio sounds in your own language. That’s this process and in this process, as a writer and as a translator, you learn a lot, because you learn the skills of the author. The best way to read an author is to translate it, because you go inside. This can also be disappointing because you value a lot an author and then, once you have translated it a few times, you realise he has some tricks and he always repeats the same kind of sentences and the same kind of adjectives, but this is not the case with Paul Auster. You translated it and you see it.
As a translator and an author, do you believe it is important for both to communicate in the process of translation?
It is interesting, especially when you don’t understand something and especially in the case where the cultural leap is very big. I remember the Chinese translator wrote to me an email with a few questions and I realise they were very different questions than [those of] other translators. There are two or three places in my novels where all the translators stop and ask ‘what does he want to say with that’, because maybe it’s something very peculiar from Catalan language or Barcelona’s society. In the case of the Chinese for example, she was stopping in these places, but also in other things more Occidental languages would never stop, because they find it normal. In this case, it is important to get in touch with the author, because it can solve the problems. If not, I don’t think it’s indispensable. In the end, the thing is that if you give the same book to three different translators, everyone will produce a different translation. Even if it’s just a matter of copying words in another language, everyone has his owns words and his own way of telling things.
When did you shift from translating into authoring?
I’m a late writer. I am a reader that turned into a writer. I read a lot, I was in a publishing house, I published authors, I was the editor of several authors, I knew how to do it, I knew the technique. Usually, two things combine — the talent, which is something you have or you don’t have; and the skills, which is something you can learn over reading and getting acquainted with other writers. I was happy, but, at the same time, I felt compelled to tell things of my own. I tried it once with a short story and it worked. Let’s try it again. Some 20 years have gone, I feel it was probably a necessity and at that moment I probably didn’t notice it, because later it has become very important in my life and I can’t imagine my life without writing.
I started writing short stories and then I applied for a grant, in which you show two of your stories and they give you money to write the whole book. I got this grant. I went on, and there are two things that got together — one is this thing that I suddenly felt I would read what I write, that I would write something that was not written; the second thing, which is something that comes up with time, I end up realising that I am who I am because I was an only child — and I had an inner life, you play alone a lot and all that, probably this was the seed that many years later made me think I had to write stories.
Mostly you write stories in a scenery that you know, Barcelona. Do you think it is important to choose other sceneries?
I do “travel” quite a lot. In the Lost Luggage novel, which is a novel that will come out in China — that’s why I’m doing this tour — where one of the first challenges to me was to write about going abroad. I have the feeling usually Catalan people write about Catalans, mainly about Barcelona and this becomes very closed. It’s not an unusual thing. I wanted to explore Catalans who went abroad.
As you’re launching for the first time the Chinese version of the Lost Luggage, do you feel the readers will understand such a specific reality — the Catalonian one?
I don’t know, I’m very curious. For Australians it was always a matter of exoticism. In a way, I expect the Chinese will find it more exotic, although at the same time I have the feeling that Chinese culture, now that it’s more Occidental and more open to Occident, may understand easier certain references, which are more related to culture, even pop culture — daily life references. In the end, three truck drivers moving furniture from one point to another and getting laid with women and one has children in every country and he gives the same name to the four sons he has, this is not so rare. Probably a Chinese person can read it and understand. In the end, I expect that they will feel something very human.
You mentioned that Catalonian authors mostly write about Catalonia and, especially, Barcelona. Is it important for Catalonian writers to go outside their own region?
I tell you why for me it’s important and why I did that. Catalans used to be a traveller country, because of the Mediterranean; they liked to go away and to come back. Because of that it was also a receiving country — you can see nowadays refugees coming. Maybe it has to do with the Franco regime [dictatorship that ruled between 1936 and 1975], but for the last six years, this is not a normal thing — people don’t go. Maybe now, again with the students that go to study with the Erasmus programme and sometimes they stay and don’t come back. And I wanted to explore the idea why no one is going away. I decided to put my characters in this situation and see what could come of it.
Is it important to “travel” in the books?
It is totally important. I’m against nationalism and I’m a cosmopolitan: life nowadays is lived in the big cities. A great subject will be identity — what is your identity, we live in a globalised world, in which what it used to be your identity is no longer the same and where people are coming all the time, where all the references are very blurry. Identity is not the country where you are born, the language that you speak, these are given things to you. I would like to shake a little bit this idea. What happens in Catalonia is because of political reasons — because of the pressure of Spanish nationalism, people also became very Catalan nationalist. Don’t get me wrong — Catalan should be independent from Spain, we have a lot of things in common, but also a lot of things different and it makes sense.
Are your books read throughout the rest of Spain?
There’s quite a big prejudice. My books are translated into Spanish [Castilian], at the same time. Because their original language is Catalan, my books are sold much better in Catalan than in Spanish, but they also sell better in Germany or in France than in Spain. I wouldn’t say people on the street have prejudice, we have overcome these kind of things, but, culturally speaking, for example, a lot of book sellers have prejudices, journalists have prejudices and they tend to get more interested in Paris than what is happening in Barcelona, just because ‘oh yeah, they are coming again with Catalan language’, mainly with the language not with the culture itself. When I travel, I don’t feel this in any other places.
Wouldn’t it be easier, in terms of readership, to write directly in Spanish?
That’s a tricky question. It’s not only a craft, it’s also an art. The artist has the right… Of course if I want to write more books, but I’m not even sure this would work, because my name is very Catalonian. You wouldn’t ask that to a person that writes in English or in French or a Portuguese writer. It’s not a natural thing to do.