BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Catcall, knucklebone, bedbug?: Margaret Sayers Peden tells Marianne Brace about Isabel Allende

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TRANSLATORS are actors, according to Margaret Sayers Peden. Whenever a word eluded her in Isabel Allende's novel The Infinite Plan, she 'acted out the translation. It's amazing how difficult it is to describe gestures and expressions. Looking at my hand, I would say: 'What is this gesture I'm doing?' Then I'd try to express it.'

As a translator, Sayers Peden tries to 'get under the skin of the writer. At times that seems an impossible task. I'm usually sixty pages into something before I start hearing the voice.' The first draft comes out in 'Spanglish'. By number four, Sayers Peden sends chunks to Allende, who may make comments. Allende's fondness for adjectives would exhaust anyone's thesaurus, and with The Infinite Plan Sayers Peden 'got into a streak of simply repeating words within the same page, which is an annoying habit. Isabel picked it up.'

Translating Allende involves battles. 'Isabel's style is beautiful, flowing - most North American editors want to go to semi-colons and break up the sentences. I simply don't hear her style that way. It's very aural, though that doesn't mean it's any less controlled. I've fought to maintain that because that's her hallmark. To cut it up would be a betrayal.'

But equally betraying would be a clunky, literal rendering. 'You really need to peel away the words and get something that's underneath.' For instance, Sayers Peden wrestled with Pito-de-lirio. 'Pito is one of those all purpose words: whistle, catcall, bed tick, knucklebone, cigarette . . . and penis. Lirio is iris.' Seeking a nickname for a character whose penis is daubed methylene blue, Sayers Peden picked Purple Pecker. Periwinkle Prick and Delphinium Dick were rejected as 'too long' and 'too blue' respectively.

What we call magic realism often has roots in linguistic quirks. In Spanish, 'there's a lack of culpability. You don't 'lose' something, the thing 'loses itself'.' This endows objects with a magic potential, an ability to will their own destiny - which to us sounds fantastic. More mundanely, characters in The Infinite Plan switch between formal and informal address, 'indicating a definite conscious shift in their relationship. But we don't have the language for it.' English endearments like 'darling' have to be added.

Sayers Peden's responsibility as translator was reinforced the day she met Allende's husband. 'He's the fictional protagonist of The Infinite Plan, and he said, 'I can't wait to read your translation'.' A North American reared in the barrio, he speaks Spanish but reads only English. He needed her translation in order to enjoy his wife's book.