Subirat’s Ulysses.

Lucas Petersen’s Irish Times article “José Salas Subirat, the eccentric first translator of Joyce’s Ulysses into Spanish” tells a remarkable story:

Although both James Joyce and his editor Sylvia Beach included Spain from the first moment in their international promotion strategy for Ulysses, and the book had acquired considerable fame throughout the literary world in the West, Spanish-language readers had to wait 23 years, until 1945, to read Joyce’s magnum opus in their own language.

They had to wait for a humble insurance salesman with an erratic literary career, with practically no background in translation, and with a knowledge of English that was centainly below what could be expected for such a task: José Salas Subirat faced this titanic challenge all alone and out of love for the task itself.

The translator’s exploits became one of the most talked-about stories among Latin American Joyceans and, of course, one of the landmarks in Spanish language translation history — even Gabriel García Márquez remembered the day he met Salas Subirat and wrote an almost preposterous portrait of him. […] Negatively criticized when it first appeared, as years went by Salas Subirat’s translation won more and more fans. Among them, some contemporary writers who now have their place in the Argentine literary canon, such as Juan José Saer and Ricardo Piglia. At the beginning of this century, after two new translations in Spain, Salas Subirat’s work was brillantly defined by Carlos Gamerro, who taught courses about Ulysses for many years, as the one that has more mistakes but also the one that has more good choices. […]

“The original Ulysses,” wrote Gamerro, “is not written in one language or dialect, but in the tension between a discredited variant (Irish English) and a dominant one (imperial British English): a relation that could be compared, even if it is not equivalent, with the one that exists between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish of the other Spanish-speaking countries.” For Gamerro, Salas Subirat’s Ulysses “reproduces, with all of its imperfections, that strain that’s in the original work. Hesitant, multilingual, scrambled: that’s the friction that fires Ulysses’ English, and makes our creole Ulysses have a similar vitality.” […]

Who was Salas Subirat? How did he become one of Argentina’s most famous translators? These are the questions that I will try to answer here.

I’ll send you to the link for the answers; here I’ll just mention that Salas Subirat, the son of Catalan immigrants, among his many other jobs worked as a translator for Yuzhamtorg (the Soviet company that traded with South American countries in the 1920s). And when Borges said of his translation “It is really bad,” someone responded: “It might be, but if it is, Mr Salas Subirat is the greatest writer in the Spanish language.” Thanks, Trevor!


  1. What kind of surname is that? Is it actually Catalan?

    Ed. Now I see that Subirats is a Catalan town.

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I think my wife read Ulysses in Spanish, probably Subirat, therefore.

  3. melissa boiko says

    I wanted to see concrete comparisons; there are some here:

    In this particular case I def like Subirat better (except maybe the ‘maybe’):

    JJ: Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger.
    SS: Vieja y misteriosa, venía de un mundo matutino, tal vez como un mensajero.
    JMV: Anciana y secreta, había entrado desde un mundo mañanero, quizá mensajera.
    T-V: Vieja y arcana había entrado desde un mundo matutino, tal vez mensajera.

  4. Yes, I do too — nice comparison!

  5. @melissa and @hat, can you pls explain what you like better about the Subirat translation? And why is quizas inferior to tal vez? I am not arguing— just for my edification. Thank you,

  6. “Vieja y misteriosa” and “venía” just sound better to me, more natural; “había entrado desde” sounds much more labored in Spanish than “had entered from.” But I am not a native Spanish speaker.

  7. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    I share Hat’s opinion and reasoning, though also his position as a non-native speaker. Worse, I’m a native speaker of Italian, so I’m awfully susceptible to direct recycling of Italian intuition into Spanish. With this caveat …

    1. Vieja is infinitely better than anciana. The former is simple and powerful. It’s an everyday word but also a word of literature and poetry and song. The latter is a worn-out cog in the euphemism treadmill. As an adjective it still seems workable: you could say una anciana señora just as you say “an elderly lady.” But as a noun it’s fallen to the bottom of the barrel. Una anciana sounds close to insulting. A residencia de ancianos is a nursing home. The current euphemism is una persona mayor. I’m not sure if in English the treadmill has likewise gone to “elderly person” and thence to “senior citizen,” but you’ll get the idea. I recall an old Italian writer on the radio — I forget who — explaining how he hated those terms, despised the assumption behind the treadmill and proudly insisted on being called an old man. Think of The Senior Citizen and the Sea and I presume you’ll get his point in English.

    2. On “secret” I lack a confident understanding of how Joyce should be read. On the one hand, misteriosa sounds natural to describe a person. But then so would “mysterious” in English, while “secret” does not to me, and the dictionary (Merriam-Webster) doesn’t support its synonymy with “mysterious.” It does allow a meaning, unaccustomed to non-native me, of “closemouthed.” So does the Spanish dictionary (DRAE) for secreta. Then, that could be the best option if one thinks Joyce was going for something unusual, a tad jarring, but not as innovative as to be outside of dictionary-sanctioned usage. Or if instead “secret” was a perfectly commonplace word for “closemouthed” for Joyce and his native readers, then I’d suggest the translation callada (more matter-of-fact, conveying to me a hint of brusqueness) or possibly taciturna (more elevated, conveying to anyone a sense of brooding). Anyway, arcana is unfortunate: it is an adjective for things, not people, and it carries an incongruous overtone of tarot-reading that ends up evoking an old fairground gypsy, surely not intended by Joyce.

    3. With the highest risk of contamination from Italian, había entrado desde sounds like a lazy and unidiomatic literal translation. I feel entrar requires an explicit or obviously implicit physical place one enters. Does Joyce provide that obvious implication in an unquoted earlier part of the paragraph? If so, however, the excerpting would be poorly done. So I’ll guess no. As Hat says, venía is unambiguously idiomatic. But then, so is “she came” and Joyce didn’t write that. I’d venture había llegado de. Certainly in Italian, possibly in Spanish too, that seems natural without any clarity about exactly where she had arrived; at the same time it hews closer to the original. Also, I perceive arriving and entering as equally more messenger-like than mere coming. Curiously, my non-native perception is that in English the constraint is symmetric and “she had arrived from” would sound weird without a clear place for her to arrive at.

    4. I also very much dislike mañanero, which doesn’t describe the world of the morning (that’s matutino) but the world of early-rising people.

  8. Spanish venir means only to go to where the speaker is. I don’t understand how it’s used when the speaker is a placeless narrator.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Spanish venir means only to go to where the speaker is.

    That’s a very neat way of putting it. I’ve sometimes wondered how best to explain the difference between venir and come in a simple way.

    I don’t understand how it’s used when the speaker is a placeless narrator.

    I don’t know either.

  10. I learned about venir from J. J. Keenan’s Breaking Out of Beginners’ Spanish, one of the best language instruction books I’ve ever seen.

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