Book reviews, In Focus

Antonio Díez Fernández: ‘The translator has to be like a ghost’

The lecturer of Spanish language and literature, translator and writer tells us how the discovery of some old international brigaders’ letters introduced him to the world of translation.


Vanessa Guzmán

Up to now the ideal of the invisible translator has been very much in evidence in his subsequent projects and pieces of work and he always comes across as a very incisive and socially-conscious writer in his own literary work.

How did you become a translator?

When I lived in Manchester I found some letters from people who had participated in the Spanish Civil War as international brigaders, and I decided to translate them because they were historic documents that had become rather forgotten. That was my first book ‘International brigades, letters from Spain’ (‘Hablando de leyendas’, 2004). As a result of this I came into contact with people who were linked to the Spanish civil war in the United Kingdom. My second book really emerged out of that; ‘Talking about legends’ (‘Hablando de leyendas’, 2009, published by  “Baile del Sol” ). It is the translation into Spanish of poems written by international brigaders from all over the British Isles.

Why is translating this such a controversial topic?

Mainly I believe because it is an area which has not really been studied, so it would certainly repay more research and reporting the findings. After the civil war and forty years of dictatorship the war was a taboo subject. There was an official version from the victors but practically until nowadays it has not been possible to research and provide an account of the historic memories from the losers’ perspective. Therefore, this is the moment for this work, so it may be recognised.  Nationality, for example, had not been bestowed on the international brigaders until 1996, sixty years later. In England, it’s quite similar; it is not common knowledge that there were many people who came to fight in the Spanish civil war. It is also clear that England is a country full of monuments to the brigaders. In every city there is a placard or a memorial dedicated to them, and even in London there is a monument just next to the London Eye which often goes unnoticed, but it is there.

What projects are you currently working on?

Just a short while ago I finished the translation of a poem by a North American writer Jerome Rothenberg,  ‘Sowing and other poems’ (‘Siembras y otros poemas‘), which will be published shortly. The same editor entrusted me with another novel ‘Stoner’, by the North American writer John Williams. There is also another project ongoing about a Spanish poet David González. Alongside Sadie Harrison, an English translator, we translated his poems with the aim that they would be published in the United States, but this project is going a little more slowly.

Which of these projects has proved the most difficult and most interesting for you?

Of the most recent translations I have done I think the Jerome Rothenberg poem has been the most fascinating for different reasons. Firstly, as his book is very interesting. It is a poem in five parts, the first two about journeys around Europe. However, what interested me the most was the last part of the book where he uses the Kabbala, and also the mixture of words and expressions he uses to write about the Nazi concentration camps where the Jews were exterminated. It is a very diverse book, very difficult to translate, but I was quite pleased with the end result. In the light of this, I came into the contact with him by email and we have forged a small friendship. Jerome is a poet but also a translator into Spanish, which has been of great help. When I consulted him, he told me that he found it very interesting that I translated his books and to stay in close contact.

What qualities do translators possess?

Depending on what you translate, it is not the same handling a poem as a novel. In poetry you have got to bear several things in mind: rhythm, musicality of verse, content…the novel is more linear, simpler, and more immediate. Translation of poetry is like alchemy, putting the exact amount of each substance or element into the equation, a very complex mix. However, translating novels is more like building something, putting one brick on top of another until the wall is built. In any case the translator has to be like a ghost, passing by almost without trace, changing only the bare minimum. One must try not to betray the content, remain fairly faithful to the original and let the work stand up on its own, so that the end result is pleasing.

But you also have your own literary work?

Yes, well I have been writing since adolescence, but never really in a methodical way and I think I will continue as such. Lately I have been taking part in poetry events. I like to present new, original ideas and I struggle to keep up with it all to be honest. Before, I used to write more poetry, now it is theatre, scripts, conversation and real language which grab me more…it fascinates me trying to write down what comes out of people’s mouths, with the intention of reflecting social reality, but it is a very complex job. I know very few writers who are good with dialogue, and for me those that are, are truly fascinating.

(Translated by Matthew Dunford (

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