Blue is the Color of the Reader Who Picks up This Book

Review of The Lady in Blue: A Novel by Javier Sierra

I suppose anyone who can manage to sustain invention for 400 pages, even at the dilute level of The Lady in Blue, deserves acknowledgment, but this is a silly, amateurish book that got exactly the ham-handed translation it deserved. Indeed, it’s almost a textbook example of why bad writing in one language so often becomes bad writing in translation. Translator James Graham did little to re-work the purple, telenovela-flourishes that I can only imagine sounded slightly less silly in Spanish than they do in English; and he not infrequently simply gave up on the attempt to create genuine English syntax, leaving the bones of the Spanish version visible through the skin. At some point, I actually started making marginal notes whenever I found howlers, but my favorite is when he has a journalist exclaim “Hell’s bells!” I don’t know what the original Spanish was, but I do know that “Hell’s bells!” sounded old-fashioned in my mother’s mouth more than forty years ago, and someone familiar with English might have been expected to know how foolish it sounds today.

Here, in any case, and since I can’t resist, are a few other examples:

p. 1 “Baldi consulted his wristwatch, undid the last button on his habit …” Picky point, but habit is a bad word choice to the extent that it makes one think of a nun and not a priest. Baldi, however, is a Benedictine priest and, at the beginning of the novel, is traveling on the vaporetto in Venice. Technically, what priests wear could be called a habit, but there are many better words: tunic, cassock, or soutane come to mind. If it’s got buttons, however, it’s not the typical Benedictine vestment (which is a tunic with hood and a scapular for men – no buttons) but a cassock, which makes sense for a Benedictine monk who has also been ordained as a priest (such as Baldi). So, either Sierra wasn’t sure what he was describing or Graham wasn’t. Finally, “last button” – is that the top one or the bottom one? Vague description in Spanish = vague description in English.

p. 2: “Why am I still doing this”? (Baldi) asked himself. “Why am I still watching the other … passengers … as if I was going to find that one of them was carrying a journalist’s camera?” “As if I WERE” perhaps – here’s a fine opportunity to keep the subjunctive alive in English. And what object, exactly, is a “journalist’s camera”?

p. 312: Friar Bernardo speaks: “If we don’t manage to convince His Majesty that it has been a Franciscan Conceptionist nun … who was responsible for the conversions in New Mexico…” Wrong verb tenses all around; the present perfect “it has been” is not only grammatically wrong, it’s damn awkward. What about a simple “If we don’t manage to convince His Majesty that a Franciscan Conceptionist nun was responsible for the conversions in New Mexico…”?

p. 317: “Mike Sheridan, the head of the Los Angeles office of the FBI’s Cultural Patrimony Department….” The FBI doesn’t have a “Cultural Patrimony Department” – not in Los Angeles and not anywhere else. There’s an Art Theft Program, but that’s about as close as it gets. “Cultural patrimony,” by the way, is one of those terms that’s used in Italian and Spanish but not in English to mean “art treasures, archeological artifacts, and historical materials” and the like. Probably Sierra got it wrong, but Graham didn’t check his facts – which is part of what a translator is supposed to do.

p. 364: Baldi again, responding to a question about the nationality of a person he is investigating. “No (she’s not Italian, she’s) a North American.” Now, other than Spanish speakers, who say “norteamericano,” who uses “North American” in that way? Granted, “American” by itself is tricky if you want to indicate a US citizen only, because it technically means everyone from Canada to way, way down south. But what’s wrong with “No, she’s from the U.S.” (as the character in question actually is)?

I could go on like this, but I’ll stop. As for plot … well, there’s lots of plot, in the way that a plate of spaghetti has lots of noodles, but none of them is necessarily connected to the others. As you read on past page 300 and realize that Sierra is still introducing new plot twists and coming nowhere near a conclusion, you might start worrying. And the worry is fully justified, because the ending is a non-ending that accounts for approximately a third of the balls Sierra has left hanging in the air. In the final pages, he pulls a “deus ex machina” (in just about the literal sense) that turns a long, slightly delirious novel into nothing more than a shaggy dog story. Put this one on your “Forewarned is Forearmed” list.

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Posted on 20 September 2009, in Book Reviews & Literaria, Crimes Against Translation, English Scorned, Betrayed, and Abused and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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