Translating “Nada”: The Process of Reworking the Existentialist Spanish Classic

While translating the first chapter of Carmen Laforet’s existentialist debut novel, Nada, a single word kept coming to mind: gloom. The cause of this is no mystery. The opening pages of Nada are dark and ghoulish. Its protagonist, an eighteen-year-old girl named Andrea, arrives in Barcelona in the dead of night. The world she encounters in her relatives’ home is ghostly and stagnant. Cobwebs hang from the ceilings and smother the few functional lamps so that the light is a dim, sickly, yellow color. A foul stench drifts throughout the house whose walls are covered in thick layers of filth. My main objective in this opening scene was to capture that sense of gloom and ghostliness that oppresses Andrea as well as the reader.

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Her initial entrance is immediately followed by the line:

“Luego me pareció todo una pesadilla. [Then, everything seemed like a nightmare].”

Everything thus suddenly assumes a new meaning as descriptions oscillate between the world of reality and the world of nightmares. Even the chandelier hanging from the ceiling is buried under dirt and spider webs, suggesting that the house’s main source of light is similarly trapped.

Andrea’s entrance resembles a painting – Laforet uses terminology such as “primer término” [foreground] and “fondo” [background]. She juxtaposes the faint white “mancha” [mark or stain] against the heavy black shadows that engulf the room. How to translate these passages while simultaneously conveying the El Greco-like visual style, full of exaggerations and highly stylized, and still maintain the smooth, heavy style of Laforet’s writing? This has been my biggest challenge in translating the entire first chapter. Even now I keep working and reworking the characters’ dialogue, unsure of how to approach it, of whether I should make it flow easily and naturally or make it unusual, even contrived, so as to increase the sense of unease.

Take, for example, the description of Uncle Juan’s face, whose head is described like a “calavera” [skull], full of shadows and large “concavidades” [concavities]. Perhaps I could even make it:

“His hollowed face was sunken in shadow, like a skull beneath the rays of the single lamp.”

Or I could translate a little more literally:

“His face was full of concavities…”

I think the first sounds far better in English and more completely captures his emaciated image. However, I also realize that the term “concavidades” is an especially powerful and unusual word in Spanish, just as it is in English.

The next struggle I faced was describing her aunt Angustias. I tried to translate both the austerity and majesty of her looks in addition to the cold condescension and superior airs of her strange and mysterious persona. Angustias is an extremely complex character who must be handled with utmost caution, for she poses numerous contradictions; at once elusive and omnipresent, conventional and independent, proud and ashamed. She preaches mostly what she does not practice and she stands out in post-war Spain as an unmarried woman who dominates the household, works, and manages the family funds. She abuses her sister-in-law, Gloria, calling her a “good-for-nothing whore”, at times even to the point of physical violence while herself conducting a not-so-secret affair with a distinguished married man. Though she leaves quite abruptly at the end of the first part of the novel, her presence is as impressive as it is fleeting, and her stifling despotism stimulates Andrea’s first break with the family and, more importantly, with the past.

And we’re still just talking about the family and not the house itself! The grotesque visions of the bathroom with its grimy porcelain tub and peeling walls remain the most striking scene of the opening chapter! The seemingly incurable filth of the tiles, the thick webs covering the dim, ugly lights of the ceiling, the dark bodegón [still-life] crammed awkwardly above the stuffy sink in the corner… then everything is reflected still filthier and darker through the tarnished mirror hanging opposite in which she sees her own body caught between the “hilos” [strands] of water. The surrounding walls retain the stains of creepy handprints resembling desperate cries for help. Andrea thus finds herself caught in a terrifying spider web that is all the trickier to escape or avoid because it is invisible.

The few existing English translations of Nada fail to capture the spidery imagery or tenebrismo that makes Laforet’s novel so phenomenal. Though they accurately describe the darkness and austerity of the house, they do not manage to communicate the living, breathing monster that was 1940s Barcelona, a city ravaged by war and starvation, a far cry from the chic commercial center we know today. I just hope that my attempt, though fraught with challenges (and flaws), will eventually yield satisfactory results so that one of Spain’s most haunting and brilliant classics may finally be realized and appreciated in my native language.

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