I’m often asked how I started out as a literary translator. I usually say it was down to a mixture of chance and history and graft and imagination and that the first time was key. In 1983 I was Head of Modern Languages at Holland Park School. I’d been teaching languages in London comprehensives for ten years and I’d now landed at a school renowned for its social and linguistic mix. Pupils were from a wide variety of backgrounds: the children of poets and television producers, bricklayers and waiters, and between them they spoke over seventy different languages. It was before Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill became totally gentrified. The Portobello Road neighbourhood was home to a large community of Spanish and Galician speaking children whose parents had come to work in hotels and catering in London when dictator Franco decided to facilitate the export of the poor and unemployed. At the weekends and in the evenings most of these children attended classes at the Cañada Blanch bilingual school. Another group of children came from the Bevington Road area where there was a large number of families from Larache, a Moroccan fishing port, part of the former Spanish Protectorate.
My first policy changes were to make Spanish the first foreign language taught and to seek funds from the Inner London Educational Authority to employ a teacher of Arabic. Some parents were upset by the first move – “oh, but one so loves French, and we spend our summers in the south of France”. The second sparked issues that were more unexpected because of my own ignorance. I’d previously spoken to parents from Bevington Road who’d come to me to request mother-tongue classes. The community ran their own but wanted consolidation from their local state school. I’d not anticipated that some parents – like the Pakistani ambassador at the time - would want their children to learn classical Arabic. However, a majority of children were from Larache families, so a teacher was selected who spoke their Moroccan variety of spoken Arabic.
In those days the Advanced Level Spanish course still expected students to read five literary texts, though UK Modern Languages teachers were deeply divided over this and many wanted a more communicative approach and texts that were not necessarily “literary”. As a result books began to creep on to the list of options that were less traditionally literary like Juan Goytisolo’s Campos de Níjar that was based on his travels to Almería in the late 1950s. My advanced group included students whose families were from Galician villages, La Coruña, La Línea, Larache or the East and West Ends of London. I thought Goytisolo’s book would appeal because it focused on the poverty of the oppressed miners and peasants that was similar to the penury that had driven many of their parents to migrate to find work and a better standard of living. However, they found the prose hard-going and didn’t connect with the themes – they were more interested in being part of swinging London than hearing about social conditions that were the main reason they’d ended up in the English capital. I decided to prepare a critical edition with a introduction detailing the historical context and a glossary of local terms for plants and other items on the landscape. I made contact with Juan Goytisolo who lived between Paris and Marrakesh and his literary agent, Carmen Balcells, rights were acquired and both liked the edition that was published by Tamesis Texts.
I should add there was another reason why the book interested me. I had spent the year 1978-1979 as Head of English at the secondary school in Archena in the region of Murcia. This is an apricot and orange-growing areas where local workers then depended on seasonal work and would spend time each year in Mallorca picking almonds and France harvesting grapes. It was a town that had been a communist and anarchist stronghold during the civil war and there was a lot of political excitement in that key year in the democratic transition. My post gave me lots of free time that I used to catch up on reading Spanish literature: the Goytisolo brothers and Juan Marsé as well as Luis Cernuda and Miguel Hernández who hadn’t figured on my university reading-lists in the mid 60s.
In October 1985 I’d just finished reading Juan Goytisolo’s recently published Coto vedado, the first volume of his autobiography. One afternoon at the end of the school-day, I was relaxing in the small departmental common-room, having a cup of tea with colleagues. I was telling them how much I had enjoyed the book, and, out of the blue, John Lyons, an Anglo-Irish poet and translator of Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal, asked, “Why don’t you see if you can translate it?” The idea had never entered my head. I liked literature but I’d never thought of translating any. I talked to my first wife, Julia, turned the idea over and over and the challenge appealed. I liked the book’s blend of the experimental and chronological and the writer’s political stances and literary choices. He set out to “dynamite” conventional Spanish prose still recovering from Francoist verbosity. Could I help subvert conventional literary English language and self-sufficiency through translation? I had no idea how to go about it but I had been in contact with the writer and his agent, so that’s where it all began.