Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated by Mara Faye Lethem - book review: Story of friendship and football gets lost in translation


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The Independent Culture

Papers in the Wind is the story of a friendship between four middle-aged Argentinian men: one of them (Mono) dies and the others inherit ownership of a hopeless footballer; they have to find a way of selling the player to pay for Mono's daughter's school fees.

Mono had an earlier brush with death as a boy, when a branch broke as he climbed a tree: the climber went down fast, in a screwball journey bouncing from branch to branch in the most unlikely positions amid shrieks of terror.

Clumsily translated sentences like this litter the book. Not only are they difficult to understand, they deny the book any sense of narrative voice. The same goes for the characters themselves: "Where are you coming from at this hour, Ruso?"; "From dropping off the twins at school, Ferchu." Ruso and Ferchu talk normally to one another in Spanish, so why is their language so stilted in English?

This is a major issue because the book is full of colourful banter between four lads who've known each other their whole lives. Translator Mara Faye Lethem simply crowbars the words in, swapping Spanish ones for their English dictionary equivalents and settling on approximate idioms regardless of rhythm or register. Lethem makes no attempt to re-create the experience of reading Eduardo Sacheri in Spanish for an English reader. The novel has its faults – the structure is contrived and the characters are clichéd (the selfish lawyer; the righteous teacher) – but reading like Google Translate is not one of them.

It's doubly unfortunate that the book is about football, which has a language all its own. In football speak, it's "The Reds" not "The Red" ("playing against the Red was a challenge for everyone"); "byline" not "goal line" (The ball goes out of bounds along the goal line); "youth team" not "juvenile" ("I had a few juvenile players under consideration").

Lethem clearly knows nothing about football, and that's fine. But it's inexcusable that neither she nor the publisher bothered to get someone who does to check the text. That smacks of a lack of interest in the source material, as well as a lack of respect for the author, the reader and the translating profession.

Sacheri is best known outside Argentina as the writer of the book that became the Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes. Naturally, Papers in the Wind is also being adapted for the screen (a screwball comedy perhaps?). The English-speaking world would be wise to wait for the movie rather than tackle the book.

Jethro Soutar is a translator and editor of 'The Football Crónicas' (Ragpicker Press)