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Margaret Jull Costa is a name revered in some circles and utterly unknown in others, yet more readers have fallen under the spell of her words than realize it. The greatest translator of Portuguese literature into English, she has taken on Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, and António Lobo Antunes, and lent her refined style to two giants of the late nineteenth century, José Maria Eça de Queirós and his Brazilian contemporary Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. From Spanish, Jull Costa often translates her generational peers, prominent writers such as Álvaro Pombo, Luisa Valenzuela, and Enrique Vila-Matas, while accompanying Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga for their entire careers. A translator cannot live on the canon alone, and her singularly prolific body of work—an astounding 130 titles—includes best-selling authors Paulo Coelho and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Her numerous honors include an Order of the British Empire for services to literature, an Ordem do Infante Dom Henrique from the Portuguese government, and a Lifetime Award for Excellence in Translation from the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute.

As a fellow translator from Portuguese, I had long been aware of Jull Costa’s unrivaled reputation, but hadn’t spent much time with her translations. Reading them attentively in preparation for this interview, I found her choices quietly astonishing but never questionable. She performs an alchemy that merges precision with the ability to breathe a distinct personality into each work, producing a voice that is unwaveringly her own while simultaneously true to another writer’s sensibility. Jull Costa’s approach is impossible to emulate, built on a deep connection to her own intuition, a finely tuned ear, and an idiosyncratic well of literary English. “I just do it,” she explains, her most emphatic advice being to read as widely and as often as possible.

Jull Costa has translated more poetry in recent years, and we began this interview in April 2019, when she visited New York for a series of events with the Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral to celebrate the U.S. publication of Amaral’s collection What’s in a Name (2017, translation 2019). They visited my translation workshop at Columbia University, and we met on campus again the next evening when I moderated their panel discussion. A planned Saturday outing to the Morgan Library turned into coffee after coffee in their rented Chelsea apartment—there was too much to talk about.

In person, Jull Costa presents a mix of boldness and decorum similar to her translations. She is striking and elegant even in no-nonsense turtlenecks, with a mellifluous British lilt that instantly lowers your blood pressure. Regal but not imperious, she radiates tranquil self-assurance accentuated by a Joan of Arc halo of iron-gray hair and a way of seeming taller than most in a room. Quick to laugh and unassuming almost to a fault, she’s nevertheless as decisive as a general, as when she marshaled the students in my workshop during a group translation of a poem, with magnificent results. Jull Costa preferred to conduct the majority of our interview in writing, and we carried on a conversation that branched out over a shared document from December through this January. I pictured her at the desk she claims is “always a mess” in her study overlooking the village green in a suburb of Leicester, a formerly industrial city in the Midlands, where she moved from Cambridge twenty-six years ago with her genial husband Ben Sherriff, a retired lecturer in literature.

Jull Costa was born in 1949, the youngest of three, in Richmond upon Thames, in the southwest extreme of greater London. Her father served in the navy during World War II and back home was an on-site construction manager, while her mother worked as a bookkeeper. Like many in her profession, Jull Costa took a winding path—through academia, bookselling, copyediting, and lexicography, among other pursuits—which turned out to be an accidental apprenticeship for becoming a literary translator in her midthirties. A self-identified “translation addict,” she has published roughly three to six books a year for over three decades—a dizzying pace, considering the overall difficulty of these works. At seventy, she shows little sign of slowing down, except to take on cotranslators in the past five years. Perhaps it has to do with growing up in postwar England, but Jull Costa maintains an even-keeled “keep calm and carry on” attitude toward even the most daunting of projects, including upcoming translations of César Vallejo’s avant-garde poetry, Clarice Lispector’s complete crônicas, and further work by Pessoa and Machado.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t think anyone grows up dreaming of being a translator, at least not in the same way everyone wants to be a writer. What about your early life set you on this path?

MARGARET JULL COSTA

My parents took me and my older brother and sister to the local children’s lending library as soon as we could read, and so I read a lot from then on. I did also, at some point, start writing my own newspaper, with me as sole contributor. I don’t think it was particularly extensive and there was probably only one edition, but it shows ambition and, of course, a love of language! We also listened to BBC radio a great deal, and I do think that radio, as a purely oral/aural medium, feeds the language part of your brain, especially your sense of cadence and intonation and rhythm.

INTERVIEWER

Voice is so important in translation, and it makes sense to associate it with being an avid listener. Were there other experiences from your formative years that speak particularly to the translator’s approach to language?

JULL COSTA

As you yourself know, translating is writing, and I see no distinction, really, between being a writer and being a translator, apart from the very major distinction that I don’t start with a blank page but immerse myself in another writer’s words and transpose them into my own language. People often ask if I don’t yearn to write my own novels, and I don’t. I don’t have that kind of storytelling imagination. Just as actors don’t all yearn to write plays or musicians to compose symphonies, I enjoy the process of interpretation and performance, of conveying someone else’s words and ideas to a new audience. Not that I’m a neutral voice, that’s not possible, but, if all goes well, I’m the writer’s voice with a different cadence.

INTERVIEWER

Whenever I say “my book,” I catch myself and correct it to “my translation.” But you’re right, we still have to create something entirely new, with a particular pulse. I had an “aha!” moment when I read your observation that translation is creative writing in reverse. Can you describe how that works?

JULL COSTA

This reminds me of the dangers of generalizing about anything, but perhaps particularly about translation. I suppose I meant that whereas writing starts as largely an unconscious process that becomes, with editing, more conscious, translation—because you start with someone else’s words—perhaps goes from conscious to unconscious with the editing process. The more you read and reread a text, the more it becomes yours, in a sense, part of your unconscious mind.

On the other hand, to contradict myself entirely, translating is also often a largely unconscious process, in that you read the words in the original language and, if you’re lucky, they appear in your mind in your own language, in what does seem to be an unconscious fashion. I wonder if this is something neurologists have looked into . . .

As for talking about “my book,” I find that perfectly understandable, although perhaps “our book” would be closer to the mark. Ana Luísa Amaral and I talk about “our poems,” because that is what they are, poems with two authors, one Portuguese and one English.

INTERVIEWER

You also write your own poetry, though you don’t publish it. Learning that didn’t surprise me.

JULL COSTA

I do write poetry and always have, but am not particularly interested in publishing it. My husband, Ben, and I have a game where we choose a word or a subject and then we each write a poem taking that as a starting point. He was a university lecturer in English and American literature, and we share that passion for the written word. It’s great fun, and fascinating to see what one’s unconscious mind comes up with. Sometimes the poems are good, sometimes not, but it’s enjoyable. And it reminds me that I do actually have a voice of my own and am not just a ventriloquist’s dummy.

INTERVIEWER

I love that game. It seems important to keep some things for yourself, in terms of playing around with language.

JULL COSTA

Yes, I do think it’s important to have an existence outside of all those translations!

INTERVIEWER

You brought up the idea of translation as performance. How do you channel someone else? Did you ever have theatrical or musical tendencies?

JULL COSTA

That’s where my analogy breaks down—perhaps I should give up analogies altogether—in that I don’t consciously channel anyone. I read the words on the page and rely on them to tell me what tone or register to adopt. Then again, maybe that’s what actors and musicians do. But I have no theatrical tendencies apart from loving the theater, and no musical tendencies except occasionally singing in a choir.

INTERVIEWER

Well, to sing in a choir you have to know your way around musical phrasing and notation, as well as how to harmonize your voice with others—which leads us back to another way of describing translation.

JULL COSTA

Music and writing are definitely linked. When I read, I hear the narrator’s voice in my head, and hearing poetry read out loud always illuminates the poem. Phrasing and cadence and rhythm are so important. A musician friend of mine says that for her, reading music is like reading another language and interpreting it. As for analogies, as we’ve discovered, there are no perfect ones.

INTERVIEWER

Where does the translator’s presence belong for you?

JULL COSTA

I suppose I think that to be a good translator it’s best to have a fairly small ego, because you are always second fiddle. My friend, the French translator Barbara Wright, always used to say, No writer, no translator. And that is not to downgrade what we do, but simply the reality. You have to be humble enough to accept that you’re secondary to the author, and yet have enough chutzpah to take that other language and transform it into your own, to put yourself on par with really great writers while never losing your own modesty. A strange combination.

To be allowed to translate a brilliant work of literature—it’s sort of a test of your own talent as a writer. But that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? That’s why you’re translating. You’re translating because you love your own language and you want to put someone else’s words into your own language. And it is that. It is love, and my great love is English.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s triangulate some of your loves. There’s always some happy accident that leads us to fall in love with a language—a person, a place, a culture, a certain time in our life. Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “Questions of Travel” that “the choice is never wide and never free.” Tell me more about the affective relationships that led you to connect English to Spanish and Portuguese.

JULL COSTA

Like most things in life, this was pure accident. My best friend when I was eighteen got a job in Tarragona, Spain, and suggested I come visit. I did and just fell in love with Spanish, and bought one of those Teach Yourself books when I returned home. I went back to Tarragona for two or three summers, but didn’t really start reading in Spanish until I decided, at the age of twenty-three, to take A-level Spanish so that I could go to university. That was my introduction to translation, and I just loved doing it. It felt like what I was meant to do.

I didn’t learn Portuguese until I went to Bristol University the next year. I was drawn to it initially because I saw a Brazilian film—Black Orpheus. Most Brazilians groan when I say that!

INTERVIEWER

So your gateway into Portuguese was a film set in Brazil, yet you ended up with a much deeper intimacy with Portugal and Portuguese literature.

JULL COSTA

At university, I was introduced to Pessoa and Eça de Queirós and Miguel Torga. Although I did read Machado de Assis, and now have the joy of translating him, too, the emphasis was on Portuguese literature.

INTERVIEWER

Is it fair to ask which you prefer between Portuguese and Spanish?

JULL COSTA

I think I would have to say Portuguese, and I do now translate more Portuguese-language authors than Spanish ones. I’m not sure why I feel a preference, and I do still love Spanish, but I think I feel more at home in the sound system of Portuguese. Maybe it’s because Portuguese appeals more to my introverted English self. Spanish is so extrovert!

INTERVIEWER

That’s funny, because I feel the exact opposite way! Portuguese makes me more expansive and open than other languages. And the same words feel more restrained when I switch to Spanish because the sounds get clipped short—but then I’m thinking of Brazilian Portuguese, in which you inhabit each syllable as emphatically as possible.

JULL COSTA

Oh, yes, Brazilian Portuguese is a very, very different thing from Portuguese Portuguese, in which you tend to swallow a lot of the sounds. People often say that European Portuguese sounds more like Russian than a Romance language, and Spanish speakers can’t understand it at all! I love the nasality and the inward-turningness of it.

INTERVIEWER

Given what you translate, the last name Costa must attract questions or assumptions about your heritage.

JULL COSTA

Yes. A very long time ago, I made the mistake of marrying a Portuguese gentleman. The name stuck, but not the husband.

INTERVIEWER

How has translating changed your English?

JULL COSTA

I think translation expands your knowledge of your own language and its possibilities. I’ve perhaps become increasingly aware of this through working on poetry, where language is sometimes being used at its limits or simply in an unorthodox way. That obliges you to use your English in a similar fashion, to be more playful, more ambitious.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, with poetry, you often have to make harder choices. There’s just no way to reproduce those tightly interwoven qualities—sound, image, wordplay—and still maintain the line.

JULL COSTA

I think when translating poetry you have to liberate yourself from the original. It’s that odd dichotomy of remaining faithful while being unfaithful. I don’t know what it means to be faithful to the original, except that somehow the poem in translation has to read like a poem. And that’s why I love bilingual editions—I think not having that en face relationship is something of a betrayal. The bilingual edition makes it clear that poetry translation is a dialogue between poet and translator. Obviously prose translation is, too, but there’s something so very intimate about poetry and about the process of translating it.

INTERVIEWER

You began translating professionally in your midthirties, after first taking a more academic path. How did you end up as a graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese in Northern California, so far from home?

JULL COSTA

When I graduated from Bristol, I was encouraged to do postgraduate studies and got a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford, to do an M.A. and ostensibly go on to do a Ph.D. However, I soon realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do, and so returned to the UK after completing just the M.A. I then did various things—worked in a bookshop in London, went to Portugal as a leitora at Coimbra University, taught English as a foreign language in Cambridge, worked as a copy editor and then a lexicographer.

INTERVIEWER

What made you decide that academia wasn’t for you?

JULL COSTA

At university, I loved writing essays, and translating, and I particularly loved writing close analyses of poems. And of course translation is the closest possible textual analysis. When I went to Stanford, one of the required courses was about writing bibliographies. I thought I would die of boredom. I realized that I’m not a footnote, bibliography, reference-book type of person.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve never met a lexicographer before. Tell me about that.

JULL COSTA

Lexicographers are a dying breed, I suspect. I worked for a number of publishers—Longman, Collins, Larousse—as a freelance lexicographer, editing bilingual and monolingual dictionaries. This entailed, variously, being given lists of words that I then had to break down into their different senses and connotations, providing example sentences to show the various meanings in different contexts, translating example sentences from Spanish and Portuguese into English, editing other people’s translations, and so on. Again, this proved to be excellent training in the kind of nit-picking approach you need as a translator.

 

INTERVIEWER

What did you do before university?

JULL COSTA

I trained as a shorthand typist, now another endangered if not extinct species, worked for the BBC in a very lowly capacity, then traveled back and forth to Spain, then spent a brief period in Germany as a fairly incompetent typist for the U.S. Army. When my father died, I came home. Perhaps the shock of losing him made me realize that I needed some direction, and so I came back to London, where I worked as a typist while studying for my university entrance exams. I then applied to Bristol University, who, very kindly, took me in.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me more about your father and his influence on you.

JULL COSTA

Well, my father was a very lovely man, and he also liked to read. I think it was seeing his Complete Works of Shakespeare on the shelf by his chair that made me want to read Shakespeare, although I never knew if he actually read Shakespeare or if the book was just there for show! He mainly read books about World War II.

INTERVIEWER

And what was your mother like?

 

She was very kind and calm and not at all ambitious for me, other than that I have a decent job and find a nice husband. I eventually did both. And she always used to say to me, Don’t draw attention to yourself, dear. I suppose that’s sage advice for any translator.

INTERVIEWER

How did you end up in Portugal?

JULL COSTA

By accident. After leaving Stanford, I worked in a foreign-language bookshop in London and decided I wanted to go to Portugal, where I’d only spent a couple of months before. I don’t now recall quite what drew me there, another of life’s accidents, but possibly Pessoa, with whom I’d become fascinated while at university. One of my ex-professors at Bristol put me in touch with someone at Coimbra University who needed an English leitora, and that was that.

INTERVIEWER

What does a leitora, or leitor, do?

JULL COSTA

The position is basically that of language assistant at a university. Your role is to give the students practice in speaking and listening and, in my case, translating. I was given a wonderfully free rein, so I would choose various texts for my students to translate both into English and into Portuguese, and would sometimes encourage them to choose their own texts. The students were absolutely lovely and so enthusiastic, and I’m still in touch with a couple of them. The only thing I hated was marking exams, because that meant having to fail some students, which seemed profoundly uneducational and something of a betrayal of our classroom relationship.

INTERVIEWER

What made you eventually branch off into translation?

JULL COSTA

At Bristol, I had a very encouraging translation teacher, Philip Polack, himself a fine translator. I set myself all kinds of overly ambitious translation projects—translate Valle-Inclán, translate Pessoa—but it was only in 1983, when I translated a short essay by García Márquez for Granta magazine, that I got a foot in the door. Bill Buford, Granta’s editor at the time, gave me lots of names and addresses of publishers to write to, and one of them—Andrew Motion, at Chatto and Windus—eventually replied to my begging letter and asked me to do a sample translation of a new Álvaro Pombo novel, The Hero of the Big House (1983, 1988). I’ve been translating ever since.

INTERVIEWER


How did you get past Bill Buford’s door in the first place?

JULL COSTA

Granta advertised for an editorial assistant. I didn’t get the job, but Bill asked if I would like to translate an essay by García Márquez. How lucky was that?!

INTERVIEWER

Life-changing, I’d say. So the bar was set high from the start.

JULL COSTA

Yes, when I was asked to translate The Hero of the Big House, I remember my brother saying to me, Are you sure you can do that? He was quite right to doubt me, and I do still sometimes wonder how I had the nerve to translate that novel so early in my career. The blind confidence of relative youth.

Another of my early translations was Javier Marías’s All Souls (1989, 1992), and, again, I’m astonished that I didn’t blanch at those long sentences and complicated thoughts, because I sometimes do now, and I’ve been translating Javier’s work for about twenty-eight years.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of long, meandering sentences, I have a burning question about punctuation. Do you have certain rules of thumb when it comes to things like converting semicolons to periods, adding or subtracting commas, or slamming on the brakes in the middle of one of those run-ons that are so common in Romance languages but raise alarm in English?

JULL COSTA

Well, punctuation is important! With writers like Javier Marías and José Saramago, who are known for their long sentences, I always respect their punctuation. And the challenge in translating them consists precisely in doing just that. I love long sentences—I’m a big fan of nineteenth-century novels, and of Henry James in particular—so I don’t find them alarming.

With most authors, I always try to respect their sentence length, although I do use dashes and semicolons if that makes the meaning clearer. So no absolute rules of thumb, just pragmatism.

INTERVIEWER

Returning to your early work, it’s impressive that your first translation from Portuguese, your fifth book, was Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (1982, 1991), one of the most important works of Portuguese literature. Where did you find the resolve to muscle through the three decades of fragments that make up his posthumously published masterpiece?

JULL COSTA

Well, I had signed a contract and so had to finish it! More to the point, though, I think I just got tuned into Pessoa’s voice, or his semiheteronym Bernardo Soares’s voice, and the strangely exhilarating way he writes about loneliness and isolation perhaps chimed with how my younger self felt about life at the time.

After I started, I do remember thinking, What have I taken on here? But translating Pessoa’s prose taught me so much. It taught me, above all, to be bold and find an English voice that could match those amazing meanderings and descriptions. I did feel incredibly close to Pessoa while I was working, in a way I haven’t really experienced with another author, apart from my beloved Eça de Queirós.

INTERVIEWER

How long did the translation take?

JULL COSTA

Most of a year, I guess, although this is a long time ago now. I was interleaving translation with other work then.

INTERVIEWER

That seems fast to me, given the complexity of Pessoa’s writing, and his exhortation— “Postpone everything. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” “Never think about what you’re going to do. Simply don’t do it.” He never settled on a final form for The Book of Disquiet. What brought about the expanded “Complete Edition” in 2017? Did revisiting your 1991 translation stir up some Pessoan saudade?

JULL COSTA

I think the suggestion came from Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, along with the Pessoa scholar and editor Jerónimo Pizarro. It involved translating a lot of texts not included in the selection I used originally, which was, oddly, the 1986 Italian selection/translation by Antonio Tabucchi and Maria José de Lancastre. The earlier texts, by the semiheteronym Vicente Guedes, are quite different in tone from the later ones attributed to Bernardo Soares, so that was also a new experience. I have to say, possibly arrogantly, that I made very few changes to my 1991 translation.

INTERVIEWER

Barbara Epler at New Directions told me you did fifteen drafts. Is that typical? How does your revision process work?

JULL COSTA

Barbara is exaggerating wildly! I do nine or ten drafts, then might make further tiny changes at the copyediting stage and at proof stage. I should perhaps explain that those “drafts” are rereadings. My first and second drafts are made while reading my version alongside the original, then I usually print out that draft and edit on paper, reading the same text through three or four times. Then I put those changes in on-screen, read the translation through maybe twice more, then print it out again and reread it again. I know this isn’t environmentally friendly, but I do reuse and recycle paper as much as possible.

I find I need all those rereadings and a lot of reading out loud to catch any infelicities or things that seemed to make sense at some stage but no longer do. When that happens I go back to the original. It’s so easy to get blasé about a text or to think, That will do. My husband is usually my first reader. He doesn’t know Spanish or Portuguese, which means he is the ideal reader!

INTERVIEWER

Pessoa is known for creating various personae, or heteronyms, to author different works. How do you understand them?

JULL COSTA

Pessoa gave his three heteronyms—Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis—their own biographies, astrological charts, and writing styles. Semiheteronyms, like Vicente Guedes and Bernardo Soares, are, according to Pessoa, “mere mutilations” of himself. Pessoa was such an intensely private person—he always looks really uncomfortable in photos, as if he could hardly bear to be seen—that he even made himself into an orthonym, “Fernando Pessoa.”

Guedes, I would say, is more hysterical, raging against the universe in often very florid language, whereas Soares actually has a job. He’s an assistant bookkeeper, and is somehow more in touch with reality, so his ragings against the universe are interspersed with amazing descriptions of his beloved Lisbon and some truly sublime moments. I’ve recently finished translating the poems of Caeiro and Campos, both difficult in their own ways. Caeiro is a pastoral poet who famously admits that he’s never kept sheep. He takes pride in being very simple and unpoetic, and that’s quite hard to convey in English without sounding too simple and too unpoetic. Campos is a bit of a wilder ride, very wordy and miserable, but at his best, like Soares, he’s sublimely miserable.

INTERVIEWER

The other big name associated with Pessoa in English is Richard Zenith, whose Book of Disquiet foregrounds Bernardo Soares from the late twenties onward and doesn’t move chronologically. How do you feel about his versions?

JULL COSTA

Since Pessoa wrote fragments intended for what he called The Book of Disquiet over many years, and never imposed any order on those fragments, I think translators and editors are perfectly at liberty to choose their own order. I’ve never met Richard, but admire his deep knowledge of Pessoa and Pessoa’s work. Tim Hopkins, who runs the Half Pint Press in London, produced a limited-edition version that comprised snippets from The Book of Disquiet printed in different fonts on all kinds of bits and pieces—paper bags, coasters, index cards, scraps of fabric, luggage labels, a pencil, you name it. He placed these scraps in a cardboard box so that readers could pick one out at random and read whichever text they happened upon. All the many versions of The Book of Disquiet are different, so there is no one version. I like to think the multifarious Pessoa would have approved.

INTERVIEWER

That makes me feel comfortable admitting I haven’t read it in its entirety—I just open to different pages at random.

JULL COSTA

I think it’s actually a great mistake to read it straight through. Dip and skip is definitely the best approach with The Book of Disquiet.

INTERVIEWER

Can you point to some other translations that have been foundational or significant to you?

JULL COSTA

I would have to say the novels of Eça de Queirós, Javier Marías’s novels, and latterly the poetry of Ana Luísa Amaral, but also, of course, Machado de Assis. I find it very hard to choose which of the Eça titles I love best—The Mandarin (1880, 1993) because it was the first one I did and it’s so very funny and unheroic, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (1980, 2000) because it had never been translated into English before and was such a revelation, The Crime of Father Amaro (1880, 2003) because it’s so exquisitely crafted, The Maias (1888, 2007) because I had loved it since I read it when I was about twenty-eight, The City and the Mountains (1901, 2008) because it’s so wonderfully funny and compassionate, The Illustrious House of Ramires (1900, 2017) because it’s so utterly original, The Relic (1887, 1994) because it contains some of the most brilliant descriptions of place—as well as being, you guessed it, very funny and delightfully irreverent, and all the others because they’re Eça. And that’s of no help to you at all, so I’d say The Maias and The Crime of Father Amaro are the landmark books. As for Javier, I love All Souls, again perhaps because it’s the first of his novels I translated, and it seemed so difficult and utterly unlike anything else I’d translated—although it was only about the third book—and of the others, probably Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994, 1996) is my favorite because the plot and the writing are so satisfying. And All the Names (1997, 1999) by José Saramago was richly rewarding to translate.

INTERVIEWER

Why isn’t Eça better known? Do you think it has to do with the status of Portuguese on the world literary map in comparison to, say, French or German?

JULL COSTA

I find it extraordinary. I think there is an element of snobbery as regards Portuguese, and Eça is often compared—very favorably—to Flaubert and Balzac, but he doesn’t need those comparisons. He’s an utterly brilliant stylist in his own right, can do pathos and bathos with equal skill, tells a wonderful story, and is very funny. For me, he is easily as good as, if not better than, Balzac, and far superior to Flaubert. Everyone I know who has read his novels feels the same.

INTERVIEWER

After translating Eça’s books for over two decades, you’ve recently turned to his Brazilian counterpart, or rival of sorts, Machado de Assis, starting with The Collected Stories in 2018, and now translating his novels with your cotranslator Robin Patterson. I’ve always thought Machado should have a British accent in English—there’s that dry wit, and echoes of Shakespeare and Laurence Sterne—but he still has a New World sensibility, writing at a remove from the center of his intellectual influences. How has it been to cross the Atlantic and pick up a different nineteenth-century thread?

JULL COSTA

As writers, Eça and Machado do have a lot in common, including those British influences, especially Sterne, and that wry humor and keen sense of the absurd, both of which seem to me intensely British. Machado is a brilliant stylist, which means that, as a translator, you need to pay close attention to his choice of words. You have to do that anyway, but there’s something very precise about his prose, and that is what makes him so fascinating to translate. He doesn’t feel particularly Brazilian or of any other nationality. He is simply a one-off.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to the writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Your literary voice seems particularly well suited to that period.

JULL COSTA

I just love the richness of the language and feel terribly at home in that period. I find a lot of contemporary writers a bit thin linguistically. Nothing to get your translatorial teeth into.

INTERVIEWER

But you do favor certain contemporaries of yours, like Marías and Bernardo Atxaga, both of whom you’ve been translating for decades. How is translating either different now than when you first started?

JULL COSTA

I do like to stay with any author I admire. That’s a real privilege. The only problem, if it is one, is making sure I leave enough space in my work program for whenever they publish a new book. It would be very difficult to stop translating someone with whom I’ve been collaborating for so long. Or if they abandoned me for someone else! Almost a betrayal, really.

As for whether translating, say, Javier is different now than when I first started, I think I’m at least very used to his style, and I suppose I’m a tad more confident, but it’s still always a challenge, dread word—that is to say, difficult.

INTERVIEWER

In contrast, you’ve been translating Ana Luísa Amaral’s poetry only for a few years, but I sensed so much affinity and trust in your translation of What’s in a Name. When I met you together I assumed you’d been confidantes for decades. What’s special about this particular translation relationship?

JULL COSTA

Our relationship is quite unlike any other translator-writer relationship I’ve known, I think because Ana Luísa is such a lovely person, and so enthusiastic and appreciative, but also because she understands the translation process so well, having translated Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into Portuguese. I can send her an unfinished draft with various questions, and she’ll reply almost at once with responses and suggestions. That collaborative back-and-forth and our relationship of absolute trust makes it special and rewarding.

Although the various authors I’ve worked with have always been very helpful, I’ve never had this kind of relationship with any of them. Generally, I try to keep queries to a minimum, since authors need time to write, and with a few I’ve sent them my final draft to comment on. This can be dangerous if the author in question thinks he or she—usually he—knows English better than I do, but those relationships tend to be short-lived.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve singled out poetry as the place where you’re at your most daring, and in your rendering of Ana Luísa’s poems, I was struck by the accumulation of flourishes and unexpected choices that suggest a vast confidence in your own intuition and ear as translator. Reading both sides of the bilingual edition, I kept seeing literary references in English from the two of you ricocheting off each other. Ana Luísa’s put in allusions to Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, and Spenser, but then all of a sudden, I hear “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” when you decide to translate ardia as “burning bright” when it could just be “burning.” Or for saída circular da infância, which more literally is “the revolving exit of childhood,” you’ve got “whirligig of childhood.” That’s from Shakespeare, right?

JULL COSTA

The reference to Blake is deliberate—Ana Luísa loves his poetry—but “whirligig of childhood,” which evokes that line from Twelfth Night, “and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” is not in the original at all. One of the joys of working with her is that she gives me that freedom and enjoys the occasional liberties I take. She understands that a translation cannot be the same thing as the original. It can’t be. And I think a good writer allows the translator that freedom to produce something that’s different, but somehow also the same.

INTERVIEWER

A fundamental question for translators is this balance between freedom and constraint. How do you hone that intuition for what feels right, when you just have to swerve into the “whirligig of childhood”? With a translation you can’t go off the rails, unless you’re taking an explicitly experimental approach.

JULL COSTA

Well, you don’t come to translation as a blank slate. You’re filled with everything you’ve read in your own language, and I think to suppress those sorts of memories, those linguistic memories, is a falsehood.

INTERVIEWER

This goes back to what you were saying earlier about how the unconscious finds its way into translation.

JULL COSTA

When you work very closely with a writer there’s some kind of communion of spirits or minds. It’s as if you absorb their language, you absorb their vocabulary. You become twinned with them in a way.

INTERVIEWER

Yes. That intimacy tells you where you can play and what has to stay put.

One of the first texts by Saramago that you translated was his 1998 Nobel lecture, though you went on to translate eleven of his books. His previous translator, Giovanni Pontiero, had passed away a couple of years earlier. What was it like to step into that role as his new, post-Nobel translator? Did you ever take Pontiero’s work into consideration?

JULL COSTA

I knew Giovanni, and hope he would have been pleased to see me take over as Saramago’s translator. For me, it was a complete joy, because I had loved Saramago’s work for a long time, but it was really thanks to Giovanni that Saramago was first translated into English and became the huge name he so deservedly is. But, no, I didn’t look at Giovanni’s translations. Every translator is different.

INTERVIEWER

Coincidentally, he was also Clarice Lispector’s main translator, and you’ll soon be translating her collected crônicas, a genre of personal sketch akin to a more literary version of what Americans think of as a newspaper column. In a way it’s the counterpart to The Complete Stories, which I translated and which overlap with some of her crônicas. I hope our Clarices will be close friends.

JULL COSTA

I’m sure they will be friends. And it is strange, in a way, to be following in Giovanni’s footsteps with Clarice, too. I think it’s often hard to like someone else’s translation of an author you share, perhaps because, when you translate a text, you have to believe that your version is the one true version, even though you know that no such thing exists. Otherwise you would end up with something horribly indecisive and with no voice of its own. I do sometimes worry that my translations all sound like me. But then each translation you do is a combination of the author’s voice and your voice—you can’t not exist.

You live so closely with those words that seeing someone else’s version can seem almost shocking. It jars because you’ve spent so long in the company of that text that it’s become yours. I usually use the analogy of the many different Hamlets one has seen over the years. They’re all Hamlet, but the best have invested every word with meaning and with their own self and life experience, too, and some you like more than others. On the other hand—because, as every translator knows, there’s always an alternative—I haven’t found any such problem working with my cotranslators. I edit them and they edit me, and we end up with one voice. Curious.

INTERVIEWER

This raises the question of how we can talk about translator style. I’d say that your translations always sound elegant—there’s a feeling of calm assurance and matter-of-factness to them, even as the voices are far-ranging. To extend that idea of the translator-performer, Meryl Streep is one of the most admired actors of our time, yet in every role she’s always still Meryl Streep, with slightly different intonations, maybe similar gestures but different emotions, different reactions, different hair and costumes.

JULL COSTA

I’d love to think of myself as the Meryl Streep of translation! I just saw Ms. Streep in Little Women and she was extraordinary. Every twitch and look and gesture perfect.

INTERVIEWER

What translation has most stretched the boundaries of your voice and range?

JULL COSTA

Probably translating poetry. I’m currently translating some poems with Ana Luísa by the Portuguese poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, who was Pessoa’s closest friend but, alas, committed suicide when he was twenty-five. His poems are wild concatenations of equally wild images, and we just have to go with the flow of that and find an equally lush, even florid vocabulary, and not worry too much about meaning. That’s very hard for a translator, because we’re always trying to understand what the writer means, whereas these poems are more like atmospheres.

INTERVIEWER

What about cultural or geographical terms that won’t go into English without a struggle? You seem almost never to resort to glosses in the text or explanatory notes. For example, you’ve said translating Jesús Carrasco’s Out in the Open (2013, 2015) took you far out of your comfort zone for its detailed vocabulary so entwined with that region of Spain.

JULL COSTA

There are far fewer of those untranslatable words and concepts than people think, at least with the languages I translate from. With Jesús’s book, it was more a question of a whole vocabulary I was unfamiliar with, and things like irrigation ditches and aqueducts and goat anatomy, which Jesús very kindly helped me with, even sending pictures. In Portuguese, it’s always said that the word saudade is untranslatable, but since it has various meanings—or can be used in various ways—I’m not sure that’s true. Or perhaps I just need to believe that.

I translated a book by a writer from East Timor, once a Portuguese colony, The Crossing, by Luís Cardoso (1997, 2000). It was full of cultural references that were completely opaque to me. Again, the author was enormously helpful. I did almost make a huge blunder, though, as I wandered lost through this strange land, translating criar galos as “raise chickens”—which is wrong anyway, as galos are cockerels—but these “chickens” were being “raised” in the goal area during a soccer match by an incompetent goalkeeper. My husband, bless him, queried this when he was reading my final draft. That’s how close I came to disaster! I then checked with the author and learned that criar galos means to let in goals. This was my ignorance not only of East Timor but also of soccer. A lucky escape.

INTERVIEWER

Those slips are the stuff of translator nightmares. We can’t know everything, even with the internet—though I can’t imagine translating before it existed. How have new technologies affected your work?

JULL COSTA

I did start translating before the internet, although not before computers. I don’t think it would be possible to do as many drafts if I only had a typewriter—­think of poor Constance Garnett or Scott Moncrieff, who I assume wrote everything out longhand. And before the internet, I did spend more time in libraries checking facts, which was fun, actually, but more time-consuming, too. So, like everyone else, I use the internet as a vast, easily accessible library for checking facts, finding pictures of any peculiar objects my authors mention, or places or buildings or maps. Though I do still do a lot of editing on paper, simply because I find that I notice more or perhaps just different things than when I read on-screen. I don’t think that will change.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned a reliance on paper while editing. Does the same go for print dictionaries, or a thesaurus? I use online versions but find there’s still a necessary kinetic process in flipping through physical pages and seeing neighboring entries.

JULL COSTA

My bookshelves are full of dictionaries, which, to be honest, I rarely consult now, apart from the two Spanish–English dictionaries on my desk—Collins and Oxford—and my monolingual Portuguese Aurélio perched on the filing cabinet next to me. I do use online dictionaries and websites like Reverso and Linguee, which often give words in context. Like you, I enjoy physical dictionaries precisely because of those serendipitous discoveries when you happen to look at neighboring entries. And I use a thesaurus all the time. It gives your brain a nudge and helps you find that elusive word that you know is there somewhere, lost in your cranium.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mostly been a full-time translator, but you sometimes give workshops. What aspects of translation can be taught?

JULL COSTA

I don’t know if you can teach anyone to be a translator, but you can show them ways of working, which may or may not work for them. I do quite often give workshops, and for about three years I taught on a summer school for literary translators, all of which I find hugely enjoyable. I suppose what I want to communicate is the pleasure of translating, and how the group discussion about which word works and which doesn’t and why, et cetera, reflects the inner debate that goes on in the translator’s brain on a daily basis. And it gives me a chance to repeat my mantra—read, read, read.

INTERVIEWER

And this has led to mentoring, which in turn has led to some cotranslations. When and how did those begin?

JULL COSTA

I started mentoring on the British Centre for Literary Translation program a few years ago, and mentored four young translators for six months each. All have gone on to have successful careers as translators. A lot has to do with giving them the necessary contacts, as Bill Buford did for me all those years ago, but they have to be good as well.

As for cotranslation, I had always thought that was something I would never be able to do, but it has turned out to be incredibly companionable. Translating can be quite a lonely occupation, although not as lonely as being a writer—because you do at least have the text to keep you company. Having someone else who knows the text as well as you do and with whom you can talk and share ideas is really enjoyable. It means, too, that with two pairs of eyes on the original and the translation, you’re possibly edging closer to perfection.

INTERVIEWER

At 130 books, only a handful of them cotranslations, you might be among the most prolific literary translators of all time, at least into English. To put this in perspective, Constance Garnett gets singled out for her productivity at some sixty titles in a similar span. How do you keep up this pace?

JULL COSTA

Is it 130? I’ve stopped counting. I think translating is just what I do. I miss it terribly if we go on holiday, and sometimes take some editing with me as my security blanket. So I suppose I’m a translation addict. There are worse things.

INTERVIEWER

I once read an interview in which you described your daily routine as, get up, have breakfast, start work at around eight, have a lunchtime swim, then work until six. To some of us, this seems almost superhuman. Have you always been good at keeping a routine?

JULL COSTA

I think routine is vital to getting anything done, although I’m not as strict as I once was, now that my husband and I are older. So I probably now go for a swim only twice a week, but I do have a walk every day. I go to a French class once a week—I have been going for years. At the moment, we’re reading The Charterhouse of Parma. And I sometimes sneak off to a lunchtime concert or a cinema matinee. Too much rigidity is bad for you! I probably work fewer hours a day now, but that doesn’t seem to affect output too much.

INTERVIEWER

You make translating sound so straightforward. Do you ever have moments of fear or anguished indecision?

JULL COSTA

Oh, I’m always terrified that I’ll be found wanting, that this time I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. You just have to carry on, try again, fail again, fail better, to quote Beckett!

INTERVIEWER

How has your approach to translation evolved over the years?

JULL COSTA

I think I’m probably even nerdier about it. I’m aiming for perfection, I suppose. You never get there, but when I started, I don’t think I realized how much editing and rereading I needed to do if I was ever to reach perfection.

INTERVIEWER

I expected you to say that you’ve gotten freer, that you used to stay closer to the original and now you’ve just . . . unfurled.

JULL COSTA

I’m more aware of what it could mean to be perfect, so I know how long it takes to get it right.

INTERVIEWER

So it’s getting harder?!

JULL COSTA

Yes, it’s harder, but more enjoyable, too. When I started, I was very nervous and lacking in confidence. Although I’m more confident now, I’m also more aware of how difficult it is, and more afraid that I might one day lose my grip. As you get older, you also perhaps become more conscious of your responsibility to the author and the publisher.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of the assertion that translations must be renewed as language changes, every generation or so, while classics in the original are timeless?

JULL COSTA

It’s tricky, because I do have favorite translations of classic texts, and they tend to be older translations, such as Archibald Colquhoun’s impeccable version of The Leopard, or Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translations of Tolstoy, even the much-maligned Helen Lowe-Porter’s Thomas Mann translations, although I do very much admire David Luke’s Death in Venice. They stand the test of time, and it seems to me that new translations, particularly of, say, Proust or Dostoyevsky, are not always an improvement. It does feel vaguely insulting to assume that translations age and must be replaced, and I would like to think that my translations will endure, but I’m sure someone else will come along to have another go at Eça or Pessoa. Just as I have done!