The Roundabout of Translation

In 1982, a young French journalist, Philippe Garnier, who is living in the United States, decides to carry out research into the life of American noir writer David Goodis. This involves interviewing people who had known Goodis and taking down their quotes in English. He then publishes a biography of Goodis in his native French, Goodis : La Vie en noir et blanc (1984), translating the quotes into French. An English edition of this book, translated by the author, will not come out until 2013.

Meanwhile, in 1993, James Sallis publishes his own work on Goodis and others, Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson – David Goodis – Chester Himes, using some of the quotes that are in Garnier’s biography. Obviously, he can’t do this in English because the book has only appeared in French, but he and Garnier are in contact, so he obtains the quotes in English. This book is then translated into Spanish in 2004.

In 2015, Galician writer Diego Ameixeiras publishes a novel, A noite enriba (The Night Above), which is meant to be a tribute to mid-twentieth-century American crime writing, and in particular to the books and figure of David Goodis. He has read Sallis’ essay in Spanish and uses two quotes by Marvin Yollin and Jane Fried about David Goodis’ wife, Elaine Astor. When in 2020, a Spanish edition of his novel comes out in his own and Isabel Soto’s translation, the title having been changed to La noche del Caimán (The Night of the Caiman), these two quotes are translated back into Spanish:

“Elaine lo trastornó tanto física como mentalmente, y aunque al final de su vida fue capaz de hablar conmigo del asunto, y con humor, estoy convencido de que tuvo que afectarle para el resto de su vida” (Yollin)

“A Elaine le pareció demasiado raro y no lo suficientemente maduro y amable con ella” (Fried)

These quotes have travelled from English (the initial interview by Philippe Garnier) into French (Garnier’s biography) into English (Sallis’ essay) into Spanish (the translation of Sallis’ essay) into Galician (Ameixeiras’ novel) into Spanish (the translation of Ameixeiras’  novel). The Spanish here is not exactly the same as the Spanish in the earlier translation of Sallis’ essay (by Alberto de Satrústegui), something has happened – “al final” has become “al final de su vida”; “le encontró” has become “A Elaine le pareció” – but nothing major.

Garnier’s biography in English.

This is where I come on to the scene. I am translating Ameixeiras’ excellent novel into English – not from the Galician, but from the Spanish, at the author’s request, because he introduced improvements into the text and prefers me to do this. I come across the two quotes by Yollin and Fried and translate them from the 2020 Spanish edition into English:

“Elaine disturbed him both physically and mentally, and while at the end of his life he could talk to me about it, with humour even, I’m convinced it must have affected him for the rest of his life” (Yollin)

“Elaine found him weird and not mature or kind enough towards her” (Fried)

I realize, however, that these quotes must originally have been spoken and recorded in English. So I contact the English-language publisher of Garnier’s biography, Black Pool Productions. An incredibly kind person, Daryl Sparks, promotional director at Film Noir Foundation, responds to my plea for help and contacts Philippe Garnier to ask for the quotes as they were given in English. Here they are:

“She had ruined him mentally and physically. He managed to make fun of it, but I believe he never got over it. She marked him for life” (Yollin)

“She found him too weird, not mature enough. She couldn’t have liked his ways” (Fried)

I’m pretty impressed I got the “weird” right. See how “mentally” and “physically” have swapped places. There are other differences, but the thrust of the meaning is the same. This is a rather extreme example of how the roundabout of translation can work in practice. Two quotes, spoken in English, are translated into French, but given to Sallis in English, from where they are translated into Spanish and read by a Galician writer, who translates them into Galician and then back into Spanish (with some minor changes), where I get to them and translate them back into English. I then retrace the route the words have taken, passing in reverse through the minds of Diego Ameixeiras, Isabel Soto, Alberto de Satrústegui, James Sallis, Philippe Garnier, sundry editors and typesetters, to get to the way they were written down.

Translation often means going in reverse like this. It could be said in this example that the translation is more “original” than the original (well, the Spanish translation) I am translating from. I actually believe we make a mistake when we think of the “original” as first-rate and the translation as a poor imitation. Everything we do this in life is translation, from breathing and eating (where air and food enters our bodies, and we take what we need) to everyday experiences, including conversation (where we generally understand what we want to, what interests us, and put our own spin on things). We don’t like to admit this, however. Through the illusion of money, we lay claim to things: they are “ours”. We draw lines to protect them, and when these lines are crossed (as they inevitably are), we either sue or go to war. This can be land, property, even ideas. Where do these ideas that enter our heads come from? Are they truly ours – that is, do they originate with us – or are they put there from without, for us to make use of them? Remember that the word invent derives from the Latin invenire, meaning “come upon, discover”. Invent is not so much “come up with something new” as “find something that already exists”.

As a professional translator for the last thirty years, the biggest change I have experienced is to go from doing (seeing translation as activity, involving a large amount of work with dictionaries) to listening (I hear the translation, I will even divert from the text if this is the direction the “voice” takes me, though I am strict about this). There is a sense in my mind that the translation already exists, and what I have to do is “find” it. Original and translation begin to merge.

The Spanish edition of Ameixeiras’ novel.

And isn’t the original text a translation by the author of the voice she herself hears, her experiences, the stories she has been told, the research she has carried out… Yes, she brings it all together as a whole, but without the blank sheet, without the computer, without the room where she is sitting, which protects her from the elements (imagine how different a story would be if it was written in the rain), without the language that has been spoken and evolved over centuries, without her education and life experiences, without the trivial context of the day she is writing, the conversation over breakfast, the pages of the novel she read the night before, I’m not sure this would be possible. The novel certainly doesn’t begin with her; she wills it into being, but she relies on any number of external factors.

Translation is to go back to the source, to travel through languages in the minds of those who have gone before us. And what is it that happens when the text I am translating disappears momentarily in my mind before reappearing in another language, that magical moment of transmutation? I read the Spanish, look up at the screen, and type something different. The words have passed through the filter of my mind, they have ceased to exist, like a frog in winter, only for the heart to start beating again in a new guise (which at 10:18 is not the same it would have been, but never will be, at 15:13).

Translation is also never to arrive. I can never re-enter the room (or bar, or street) where Philippe Garnier interviewed Marvin Yollin and Jane Fried – and who’s to say he recorded what they said correctly (though I’m sure he did)? Or even that they remembered it after they left. But it is to understand the true nature of things – and our place in the world we live in. Translation gives importance to the other, to the creativity and opinions of the other, it undoes the process of demonization that we indulge in so frequently. And makes us realize we are part of a community, a network of seemingly haphazard coincidences that give life meaning and enrich it beyond compare.

Jonathan Dunne

My room in Sofia, Bulgaria

29 November 2022, 18:11


Sofia irradiates roads. I discuss the three that go to the Black Sea in my description of Sopot Waterfall. Then there’s the II-16 that takes you north along the Iskar Gorge to Bov and Dobravitsa. And the E79 (or the A3 motorway) that takes you south to Ovchartsi and then Greece. The E871 heading south-west in the direction of Polska Skakavitsa and Kyustendil. And don’t forget the II-63 that takes you west to Tran on the Serbian border (I still remember visiting Bilintsi Monastery along this road and meeting the abbot, who gave us tea next to an open pit and had taken it upon himself to ‘improve’ the ancient frescoes in the church).

Well, here we are going to take the II-81, which also heads north from Sofia in the direction of Montana and Lom. It is as if Sofia has antlers – the II-81 on the left, and the II-16 on the right. What makes the II-81 famous is Petrohan Pass, which you must pass over in order to reach north-west Bulgaria (Vidin and Romania). You leave Sofia through the district of Nadezhda and cross the ring road. The II-81 starts gently enough, passing through Kostinbrod and Buchin Prohod (from here you can turn right and cut across to the II-16 if you’re suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to visit Dobravitsa Waterfall).

After Buchin Prohod, ignore the turning to Godech on the left (though this, for me, is a very attractive part of Bulgaria with the wonderful Razboishte Rock Monastery) and the ‘Historical Road’ (the main road continues left), and pass through the pretty village of Gintsi, much favoured by artists and beekeepers. The road then begins to twist and turn as it climbs Petrohan Pass. The pass is often closed in winter because of snow, but the rest of the year it’s normally fine. The top of the pass is 65 km north of Sofia. There’s a large reservoir, which I understand was once a fish farm.

The road then descends on the other side. More twists and turns (try not to get stuck behind a van!). Ten more kilometres, and you reach what in my parlance would be called a ‘roadside caff’ on the other side of the road, a restaurant much favoured by my father-in-law, I am told (he was a famous opera singer and his family hailed from Vidin) – you can always stop here to try the kebabs and meatballs. Another six kilometres, and you enter Barzia, the Gintsi of the north, so to speak. From here, a road heads right to Klisura Monastery, well worth a visit, if you have the time.

But we must continue to the town of Berkovitsa in order to reach Haidushki Waterfall. So stay on the main road. Three kilometres out of Barzia, you will see a turning on the left, marked ‘Berkovitsa, 2 km’. Take this turning, climb the hill, and soon you will reach an OMV petrol station. I have a particular fondness for this petrol station, because this is where I bought Timon, the meerkat who features in The Lion King and was once my son’s favourite teddy.

You can stop here for petrol or a coffee. After OMV, the road goes right, alongside the railway. After 1000 m, the road goes right again, over the railway, but you go left. This turning is marked ‘x. Kom, 17 km’. Another 700 m, and you must take a turning right, marked ‘Kom Peak, 14 km’. Continue along here for 2½ km, passing a stadium on your right, until you reach a fork in the road. Take the right turning, and now you have a decision.

The road you are now on leads directly to the waterfall. I can’t tell you the distance, because I parked the car by the marble (‘mramor’) factory which is in front of you and walked. But plenty of people take the car further, there being lots of picnic places and several summer houses along the way. So you have a choice. How far do you want to walk?

The car journey from Sofia to this point is about 1 hour 45 minutes (90 km). The walk in front of you is the same, 1 hour along the flat, and then 45 minutes gently climbing the mountain. You never leave the road, though it becomes progressively more rutted and covered in leaves, and I wouldn’t want to think what happens if you’re on the mountain and meet a car coming the other way. You’ve also got the question of having to turn around. So it’s really the 1 hour on the flat that can be shortened. Plenty of people drive this distance, leaving the car as the road begins to climb (this point is marked by the beginning of an ecopath, for which there is a rusty yellow sign).

If you leave the car by the marble factory, you will have a 4½-hour outing there and back, including a lunch stop. You walk alongside the marble factory for ten minutes, the road then appears to fork – actually it continues on the left (this is where many people park), while a track heads right, up the hillside. After that, you can’t get lost, unless you want to. All along the road, there are picnic spots. It’s up to you how far you take the car. But after an hour’s walking, when the road begins to climb and the waterfall is only 45 minutes away, it really is time to leave the car behind and enjoy the nature.

We went at the end of October. Haidushki Waterfall is a series of beautiful short waterfalls, and one of the few waterfalls it doesn’t matter if you go in the spring (after the snow melt) or in the autumn. Leaves carpeted the ground. The river below the waterfalls shone black. Other leaves that hadn’t reached the ground yet seemed to rain down on us, but it was the river that kept drawing my attention. Sometimes the leaves on its surface meant you didn’t know it was there, and it was easy to put your foot in it – in fact, I did precisely this: I became part of the waterfall for a moment.

It is clear when you reach the waterfall, because there are several signs. You have to descend a little. There is a shelter with some benches, a small mirador, and then the waterfall in front of you, but don’t forget the other waterfall on your right, hidden around the corner. They’re both beautiful.

If you continue upriver or downriver, no doubt you will come across other cascades. The traffic coming back into Sofia was dense, I had to drive with only one sock (the other was wet), but we had had our adventure. Life is not a choice, we only think it is – it is an experience.

The OMV petrol station in Berkovitsa (the road goes right).
After 700 m, you take a turning right, marked ‘Kom Peak, 14 km’.
The stadium in Berkovitsa.
The fork in the road – the road on your right leads all the way to the waterfall, but becomes progressively more rutted and leaf-strewn.
The marble factory on your right – we parked here.
After ten minutes, the road continues on your left, while a track heads uphill.
Autumnal colours.
The road through the trees.
One of the picnic places.
Yellow sign indicating the start of an ecopath – the road begins to climb the mountain.
The river with leaves on its surface.
The road on the mountain.
A landscape painting.
Arrival at the waterfall (which can be seen bottom left).
The roof of the shelter.
Haidushki Waterfall (left).
Haidushki Waterfall (right).
The road back to Berkovitsa (being eaten by a tree).

Notes on Slavko Vorkapich’s Short Film “Moods of the Sea” (1941)

I feel like a bird the water tries to crush, but without this danger – what kind of flight is it? Accelerating competitor in front of whom is a hard rock.

The best place for nesting is in the eaves, barely a few centimetres wide, beneath which is the abyss. Grooming is primary care. The main occupation, done with skilful étourderie. The fear of water teeming with mammals down below, the first serious conviction.

The sea, which embraces and instantly retreats like a timid or attentive lover.

Defeated armies that withdraw with their dignity intact as after a refusal to dance.

Huge waves like full lips. Waves like ocean waterfalls. Waves that invade like a shower of kisses and don’t let you breathe.

Weightlifters lined up, lifting in perfect synchrony, pushing up the weight of the world record.

Foam – the sea rises. It grows without ascending. Without wanting to, it rises. Like everything that rises, by the way.

Armies of clouds conspiratorially moving on the bias.

Cirrus clouds that depict the giant skeleton of a bird in flight. And then a tractor’s deep furrow in clay soil.

Only a drenched bird, a bird completely submerged in tons of water, has the right to jump to another space.

The ribs of the waves.

Birds that land on moving water.

Foam upon foam.

A bird that playfully sews the air to the blanket of water.

Flowing, running water that floods an island of smooth, calm water.

Birds that proudly resist the wind, as if the right to do so transforms their action into a reasonable position.

There is no similarity between the tide and all other tides.

There is no difference between the tide and the eruption of a volcano or the sun.

from The Heart Is Not a Creator (2013) by the Bulgarian poet Yordan Eftimov, translated by Jonathan Dunne


The E871 is one of my favourite roads in Bulgaria. It’s even a little difficult to find. There are three roads heading east from Sofia. They all go to the sea. The E83/772 goes to Varna via the medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo, running north of the Balkan Mountains. The E80/773 goes to Burgas via Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv. The E871 doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though it does in fact drop down at the last moment and join the E773 on its way into Burgas – but only at the very last moment. Apart from that, it travels on the warmer side of the Balkan Mountains, the south side, and offers wonderful views of this beast that is the Balkan, scratching its belly (the mountain, I mean) in the early autumn sun.

I say it’s difficult to find because you leave Sofia in the east and if you’re not careful, you end up going to Varna. You have to hang a right, passing through the suburb of Dolni Bogrov, which always at weekends has lines of cars in the slow lane, parked for a market that takes place there and seems very well attended. Once past Dolni Bogrov, you again have to take a right (otherwise you’ll end up going to Varna), and then the journey begins. The road stretches in front of you, like a tree’s shadow, long and straight. You must up and over three hills (the second containing a bust of Bulgaria’s nineteenth-century freedom fighter, Vasil Levski, at its base). You then pass the turning for Chavdar, the first of the waterfalls along this road, which I described in an earlier post. You drive at under 50 km/h through the towns of Zlatitsa and Pirdop, twins joined at the hip. And then the fun starts. Numerous bridges, all with little bumps (I thought I counted five or seven on every bridge), from which people organize bungee jumps when it’s not too windy. Today was extremely windy, so there was nobody in sight (plus it’s the Bulgarian elections).

Just before Karnare, you pass the turning for the second of the waterfalls located near this wonderful road – Hristo Danovo, a stunning straight line like a windpipe. But be careful in Karnare – this is where Bulgaria’s freedom fighter Vasil Levski was betrayed to the Turks by a local priest, Pop Krustio! It’s also where a road dares to cross the Balkan Mountain from south to north, as if it’s suddenly decided to switch sides, passing through Troyan, the third most important Bulgarian monastery after Rila and Bachkovo.

One is not diverted, however, but continues along on the E871 (wonderful road that it is!) and after Anevo, just before entering Sopot proper, you will see a turning on the left for Anevo Fortress (2 km), followed immediately by another turning on the left for Sopot Lift (I think it was written ‘Lift Sopot’, 1 km). This is the turning you need. But you are not going to the lift. You actually need to head to one of Sopot’s two monasteries, the one dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus, which is situated at a distance of 1.2 km from the E871.

So when you see a sign for Sopot Lift (or Lift Sopot) saying ‘200 m’, don’t go there. Continue right and just around the corner the monastery will come into view. There is an open area where you can park the car.

With the monastery in front of you, look to the left. A narrow path hugs the wall of the monastery enclosure before, in theory, heading up the valley to the waterfall. You need to take this path. But this is where things get difficult. Let me explain.

In the past, a nice path ran all the way to the waterfall, passing a small chapel before reaching the waterfall after only 30 minutes. To our amazement, today no path was visible. It ended abruptly at the bridge just behind the monastery and had been replaced by an abyss, a drop down to the riverbed. There is no path anymore. A flash flood – or something like it – appears to have swept away not only the path that used to meander nicely among the trees, but also the very riverbank. There is no riverbank. I am not joking. You are forced to drop down to the riverbed and then to walk along the riverbed. So this outing is not for the fainthearted. But before you become discouraged, let me tell you an hour after we arrived at the waterfall, a gaggle of children all aged under ten arrived as well – I can’t believe how many there were, they started lobbing heavy stones into the pool at the foot of the waterfall – so it can’t have been all that difficult.

But let me repeat: there is no path. There isn’t even any earth. You are on the riverbed, jumping over rocks, threading your way through fallen trees. It took us an hour and a half (a little less coming back – my wife asked me why it’s always easier coming back, I thought it was perhaps because you already know the way). And here’s the lesson from our outing today.

As we walked beside the monastery wall, a glum-faced gentleman in his elder years droned that there was no point going on, the path ended after the bridge. He and his companions had evidently turned around.

Once we were on the riverbed, but still at the beginning, a younger couple (he looked particularly sporty, she was more elegant) also warned us against continuing. Ten minutes, and they had had to turn around.

If we had listened, we would have got back in the car and missed the most amazing beauty. So don’t listen when people try to dissuade you, when they try to make you lose faith. Listen only to your inner voice. It’s like Christ says in John chapter 8, the last day of the Festival of Booths: just believe.

It’s lucky our dog was there to help us choose the best route. I felt like Arthur Morgan in the computer game Red Dead Redemption 2, turning on eagle eye, which enables him to see the trail left by a cart or an animal. You find your way through, you continue up the riverbed (it’s actually very beautiful being this close to the river!), you ignore the gainsayers (don’t go, it’s not worth it!), and at the end you witness incredible beauty.

Because Sopot Waterfall is a heart. It is a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 4:14 – have you read John’s Gospel? It is a fantastic book of short stories, of intimate encounters). Hristo Danovo is purity. Polska Skakavitsa, southwest of Sofia, is baptism – you cannot help but get immersed. Sopot is love, and so it ranks among my top waterfalls (even if there is no path, even if you have to walk through the air to get there). The water makes the shape of a heart. It is like a knot. A heart is a knot, two interlocked fingers.

And don’t let anybody tell you any different.

The path (it doesn’t last long) follows the wall of the Monastery of the Ascension.
It then abruptly ends. Here you can see how the riverbank has been obliterated – all that is left is the riverbed.
Miraculously, the path does reappear at one moment.
The magic of water.
Here you get a good idea of the terrain that you must cross to get to the waterfall.
The ruined chapel.
A pile of leaves – underwater!
In the absence of a path, people have taken to stacking stones when they reach the waterfall.
Sopot Waterfall.
A close-up of the heart.
The waterfall also resembles an hourglass.
The Monastery of the Ascension, which you can visit on your return.

Theological English (15): Atom

In this sixteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the progression from the A of creation to the I of the Fall to the O of repentance/realization, which was the subject of the second video. Having already seen how this progression AIO can be found between words such as “what”, “why” and “who/how”, he examines to what extent this progression can be found inside words. When we draw a line through the selfish demands of the ego (I) and form a cross (†), which is also a plus-sign (+), A+O, we get the name of God in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible: Alpha and Omega. This in turn gives “and” (A ’N’ O) and its reverse “DNA”. When we use the Greek letter omega (“w”), we get “man” (A ’N’ W). So the idea expressed by Christ of denying the self, taking up our cross and following him is at the heart of language and in our very genes.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.


Theological English (14): The Names of God

In this fifteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of names. “Name” is “man” in reverse with a final “e”, and we read in Genesis chapter 2 that God brought the creatures to Adam so that he could “name” them – in effect, so that he could translate them and choose the right word. God didn’t ask Adam to make the creatures because he is not an author – he cannot create out of nothing. He, and the rest of humankind, are translators. So “name” is central to man’s role in this world. What can the names of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary tell us about their roles? And what meaning can we find in the names of people like Strauss and Grant Gustin, and countries like Ukraine?

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.


Theological English (13): Believe

In this fourteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of the word “believe” in the Christian Gospel. The word “believe” crops up again and again in the Gospel – this is what God requires of us: to believe in him, to believe in his name, in order to receive – the power to become children of God, eternal life, salvation, healing. When we believe, all things become possible. The video focuses on John 7:38 and the verse from Scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Once again, language is not only used to convey the message – it is the message.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.


Vitosha, Water

It is remarkable that “water” has four of the same letters as “earth”. And where would the earth be without water? “Earth” has the same letters as “heart”. Without water, our heart would shrivel up.

What amazes me is the way it flows constantly. Even in the night, when I am not there. During the week. All the time until my next visit, it flows.

Sometimes it is blue, like the sky. Sometimes it is reddish brown, like a brick. Sometimes it takes on the colour of my shadow.

It is whatever is thrown at it. But sometimes it becomes a blur – too fast for my eyes to distinguish.

In the night, it is black – unless there is a moon, I imagine.

Water always finds a way – even if it has to go underground. Or fly through the air.

On Vitosha, I have seen it so calm it resembled a mirror. But I have also seen it rage after a storm. Then it is no longer transparent, it seems to boil.

We step on the land; without water, we would sink, as in a desert. Too much water, and we swim.

Water lies on a bed of gravel. And rests its head on rock pillows. It rises up from the rock. It slips through gaps. It causes us to build bridges – that is a good thing.

When it enters the air, it is smashed into smithereens.

Later, in the sea, it evaporates to fall on my head. Then I walk through a sauna. The water is so prevalent it climbs up my legs. I have sat in the car as it beat down with unusual ferocity. Still I got out.

I like it when it’s the mountain and me. Today I walked through the hordes, as if I came from another planet. Another age.

Water is most beautiful on the mountain. It is like a curtain. Or a seam. The mountain shudders. Sends the water tumbling. It resists – for now.

I know a secret place where I sit and watch it gleam.

27 August 2022

Text and photographs by Jonathan Dunne, photograph selection by Tsvetanka Elenkova.

Vitosha is the mountain that lies just south of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.


Theological English (12): Paradox

In this thirteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at paradox as an indicator of truth, as the path towards truth. Sometimes the most obvious statements can be misleading, while what on the surface appears to be contradictory, illogical, can turn out to contain the truth. Christianity is a religion of paradox – the Trinity is “three in one”, we must “lose our life in order to find it”, Christ dies and rises again… All of these are examples of seeming paradox. In this video, we look at Christ’s statement that “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30) and how the cycle of physical/spiritual thirst, referred to in the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (John 4), can be broken.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.