Books: Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Comfortable at sea in syntax: Sabine Durrant talks to Helen Lane, translator of Makbara by Juan Goytisolo (Serpent's Tail, 9.99)

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The Independent Culture
WITH Helen Lane, we're talking figures. She is 72. Over the last 50 years, she has translated 85 books. She speaks five languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portugese). She has received a total of 20 grants from three Ministries of Culture. She has won three major prizes for translation in her native United States - two of them twice. And is she smug? 'Everybody comes into the world to find what they do best,' she says humbly from her home in the Dordogne. 'What I do best happens to be translation. It's my contribution for having lived.'

Experience has not brought with it conservatism. Lane considers herself to be an 'avant-garde' translator, which means that whereas other translators may pride themselves on creating something that reads as if it was always written in English, she prefers to 'make the syntax a little strange to remind readers that they're reading a translation'. It also means that she's most comfortable when at sea in the syntax of the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo. She has collaborated on all his works - Makbara, a stream of collective-consciousness novel about love and oppression, is the latest - and it doesn't get any easier.

'As an anti-establishment writer, he is working against language rather than with it,' she says. 'He's experimenting with vocabulary, with syntax, and especially with punctuation.

'Often, particularly in his earlier books, a sentence will go over two or three pages and it's hard to make sure the reader will follow that. There are several chapters here where one has to avoid using 'he' or 'she' - in Spanish that's natural, but in English it presents a terrific problem. I had to get round it in ingenious ways, such as using the possessive. Another time, I came across a peculiar paragraph which I couldn't figure out at all until I worked out that every Spanish noun originated in an Arabic word. That's the sort of trick he plays all the time.'

Occasionally, she would despair over a word and, after hurling her eight Spanish dictionaries into a corner, ring Goytisolo at his home in Paris. 'Usually,' she says, with 50 years' experience in her voice, 'it would turn out to be a word he'd invented.'