So near and yet so far! Which is what one feels about her art
E.M. Forster. The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf.

We would not be at the trouble to learn a language
if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation.
James Boswell. The Life of Samuel Johnson.


In an interview with James Joyce by the Czech writer, Adolf Hoffmeister, (241, Granta Magazine /89, Spring 2005) Joyce talked about the difficulties translating Finnegans Wake: “ Work in Progress is not written in English or French or Czech or Irish. Anna Livia does not speak any of those languages, she speaks the speech of a river,” said Joyce (250.) Joyce also admonished the Czech writer by saying that if anybody had to translate it, that person must be a poet with the greatest poetic freedom to choose any river of the Czech geography because Finnegans Wake had been written, specifically listening to the river Liffey in Ireland. He even added: “I do not want to be translated. I have to remain as I am only explained in your language” (250.) Joyce’s words about his novel can be applied to the case of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Even if it is possible to translate successfully the story of Clarissa Dalloway–her walk through London from Westminster to Regent’s Park, her thoughts, and those inside the minds of Septimus Warren Smith or Peter Walsh– into any modern language, to translate the cadence and the rhythm is an extremely difficult task. Mrs. Dalloway being a novel, could be read in English as a long poem or as a performance, remarks Sigrid Nunez: “It’s like remembering a performance of Schubert.” (“On Rereading Mrs. Dalloway,” in The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, Harcourt, New York, 2003, page 141.) I would ask: how can you change any of the notes without changing the entire meaning and the intensity of a Schubert’s composition? The rhythm and beauty of the text is so important to Woolf that her use of the stream of consciousness technique, praised by many essayists, serves to create aesthetic beauty as Erich Auerbach remarks on his essay “The Brown Stocking.”: “The erlebte rede were used in literature much earlier, but not for the same aesthetic purpose.” (“The Brown Stocking” in Mimesis, Princeton 2003, p.535)

I was never so angry about a translation as when, after finishing Mrs. Dalloway for the first time in English, I decided to read a Spanish version that a friend gave to me a few years ago. While I reread Mrs. Dalloway in Spanish, the music from the original text started to sound in my mind perhaps irrevocable and I could not stop making corrections to the text. Even the word “irrevocable,” which comes so natural and beautiful in the fourth paragraph of the novel, as if it were a couplet on a Shakespearean sonnet, sounded dull and affected when translated:

Before Big Ben strikes. There out it boomed. First a warning musical, then the hour, irrevocable. (Woolf, New York 1992)
Antes de las campanadas del Big Ben. ¡Ahora! Ahora sonaba solemne. Primero un aviso, musical, luego la hora, irrevocable. (Woolf, Madrid 1999) 1

The translation attempts to imitate the musicality of the word “strike” whose sound in English suggests the act of striking. Not in Spanish. The same can be said about “boomed”. The repetition of the words “¡Ahora! Ahora” imitates the cadence and rhythm that came naturally in the English version with “boomed.” These words at the end: “For there she was,” keep the reader’s fascination after finishing the story. The words are not the same when translated as: “Sí, porque allí estaba.” The comma, maybe unavoidable in Spanish, alters the meaning and music intended by Woolf. The translator erased the original beauty of the rhythm in English by trying to keep the literal meaning.

Thinking about the difficulties of a literal translation inevitably Borges came to my mind. He translated Woolf’s Orlando and gave a lecture on the topic “Music-World and Translation” during the 1970s in Harvard where he says: “According to a widely held superstition, all translations betray their originals.” (“Lecture 4. World-Music and Translation” in This Craft of Verse Harvard University, 2000.) Later on the lecture, Borges follows Matthew Arnold and defends a translation that privileges the aesthetic beauty over the literal meaning.

My bad experience with this translation of Mrs. Dalloway, made me think about the words of Dr. Johnson in Boswell’s book and all the precious hours dedicated to learn the English language. Perhaps those were the same reasons why Borges did not try to translate Mrs. Dalloway consciously knowing that the only correct way to read it was in English, as with Finnegans Wake.

1 La Señora Dalloway Editorial Millenium, Madrid 1999; Mrs. Dalloway, Everyman’s Library, 2002