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Literaktum 2016 with Jordi Fibla. Talking about Philip Roth

In May 2016 we have participated in Literaktum with Jordi Fibla, Philip Roth's Spanish translator. As we are again talking about Roth in Irun, I would like to remind you that event:

Literaktum with Jordi Fibla. Talking about Philip Roth

This year is a second consecutive year we have participated in Literaktum, but this time, on a much bigger scale. At our May meeting we had a special guest: Jordi Fibla Feito, Philip Roth's translator. He discussed with us Roth's ¨Everyman¨ and shared with us his amazing knowledge about the world of literature. I would like to share with you the conversation we had, one that I wish we could have continued for much, much longer.

Jorge Fibla Feito (Barcelona, 1946; he has never officially changed his name to Jordi) studied Modern History and English Philology at different periods of his life, but he didn't finish either of both careers. After working 10 years as an editor in Noguer and Plaza and Janes, he dedicated himself to translations. Since 1978 he has translated over 300 works mostly from English, but also from French and Japanese. Jordi, is that unusual for the translator to specialise in more than one language and, what is more, in 3 that are so distinct?

In fact, I am specialized in English and American narrative. However, the first foreign language I learnt at school was French, and I have always had a strong liking for it. French culture and language are very dear to me. During a period in the seventies and eighties I translated several essays and some novels from French. Then I had so much work in English that I relinquished on translating from French, but even now I read French literature almost on a daily basis.

How did it happen that you have started with the Japanese?

Japanese is a domestic language for me, due to the fact that my wife is Japanese. She spoke her language to our children from the beginning and presently she is doing the same with our grandchildren. So, Japanese is a language always present at home. I have been many times in Japan since 1976, and I am very interested in its culture and language. However, it is extremely difficult to me, and, although by now I have a good knowledge of both the spoken and written language, I am still far from mastering it. But I exercise myself every day, watching Japanese TV via satellite and studying it with a wonderful array of learning material. My wife and I have done several translations (Mishima, Tanizaki, Enchi, Ichikawa), but my present goal is finally getting a knowledge of the written language deep enough to be able to translate Japanese narrative by myself, counting on her only to consult the difficulties that could arise in the process.

Among the authors you have translated are some of the finest of the XXth century: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, J.M. Coetzee, Lawrence Durrell, Nadine Gordimer, John Irving, Henry James, William Kennedy, John Kennedy Toole, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, David Malouf, Arthur Miller, Colum McCann, Toni Morrison, but apart from these authors, you have also translated some other books, like for example Daniel Steel. What's the difference for you when translating this kind of works and how much freedom do you have to decide who to translate?

As it happens with most translators, I  have never had the freedom to decide what to translate, but along my career I found that some of the authors whose work were offered to me were much of my liking, and I strove in order to be entrusted with the translation of every new book they published.
Danielle Steel or, for that matter, Frederick Forsyth or Stephen King never interested me, but if you are a freelance translator and need to make ends meet, translating what you don't like is unavoidable. You earn less translating high literature that the popular kind.

In Radio Classica you have said that a translator is also a writer (´un traductor no deja de ser un escritor´). Could you explain a bit what you meant?

To translate literature you need to have some of the qualities common to a writer. You need your instinct and your intuition, in order to make the work written in a foreign language seem like it was written in your own, not an exact replica of the words, but an exact replica of the textual sense even if the wording is very different, as it happens when a book has a complicated language. Of course, the creative act is the author's province, but translating it also often requires the work of imagination. Some scholars consider translation as a literary genre in its own right. This is most usual in poetry, but it can also be applied to high fiction.

Have you ever been tempted to, not only translate, but also write like for example translator Javier Calvo does?

Yes, I do write, but I keep it to myself. I keep it in a drawer and let it for my children to decide what to do with that, if to burn it or so, once I'm gone.

Spain´s Ministry of Culture has awarded Jordi Fibla, on November, 5th, 2015, with Premio Nacional a la Obra de un Traductor in recognition for his important contributions to literature. The jury chose him for ¨his long trajectory as a professional translator, his versatility and quality of his work¨. However, he downplayed the honor by saying that only 100 of his translations are ¨good¨ works.


Many times you have said that Philip Roth is your favourite writer. You have translated 19 of his works, but never talked to him personally. I know that nowadays to be in touch with an author is more and more difficult for translators, what authors gave you this opportunity?

I have had a personal contact with Amy Tan, Column McCann and Alison Lurie. I have also had an interesting correspondence with Thomas Pynchon and William Kennedy. The problem with Roth was that he didn't accept a direct interchange. You had to say to him what you wanted through his agent, and his answers always were impersonal. Also, he submitted your translations to the perusal of a Columbia University professor, whose opinions not always were much to the point.  On several occasions I have been disappointed with what seemed to me an unwarranted aloofness and his seeming lack of understanding of what entails to make a literary translation. But, as I told you before, I forgive everything to Philip Roth.

And here, because of time pressure we had to leave the fascinating talk about the world of translation and we moved to Philip Roth and his ¨Everyman¨. First was due a short presentation of author's bioghraphy, let me repeat it here as shortly as possible:

Philip Milton Roth was born on March, 19th 1933 to Herman Roth and Bess (Finkel) Roth in Newark, New Jersey, where he and his older brother grew up. His father, the American-born son of Jewish immigrants from the eastern European region of Galicia (now occupied by Poland and Ukraine), was an insurance salesman.

From 1950, when he graduated from high school, 1951 Roth attended the Newark extension of Rutgers University before transferring to Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. While at Bucknell, Roth edited the literary magazine, appeared in student plays and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduating with B.A. Degree in English in 1954, he obtained an M.A. Degree in English from the University of Chicago the following year. Then he moved to Washington, D.C., where for 2 years he served in the US Army before he was discharged due to a back injury. Upon returning to the University of Chicago in 1956, he began teaching a full schedule of freshman composition while working toward a doctorate degree, which he abandoned in the first quarter. During Roth's two-year stint as an Englich instructor at the University of Chicago, he continued to write short fiction, which he has begun doing at least as early as 1955.

Roth published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959. The earlier publication of one of the stories in Goddbye, Columbus, ¨Defender of the Faith¨, which appeared in the New Yorker in April 1957, had provoked a barrage of charges that Roth´s attitude toward his Jewish subjects was anti-Semitic, which prompted one rabbi to accuse him of presenting a ¨distorted image of the basic values of Orthodox Judaism¨.

However, the majority of critics were impressed, which earned Roth a National Book Award, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a Daroff Award from the Jewish Book Council of America, and a Guggenheim fellowship that enabled him to travel to Rome. In 1960 he began a two-year stint as a visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa Writer's workshop, followed by two years as a writer-in-residence at Princeton University in New Jersey.

His next two books are now considered minor works: Letting Go(1962) and When She Was Good (1967), his only novel to feature a female protagonist.

The period between 1962 and 1967, during which Roth lived in New York City and underwent psychoanalysis, marked the longest, up to now, hiatus in his productivity that he had ever experienced. In interviews he often blamed for that his marriage in 1959 to Margaret Martinson Williams (from whom he was legally separated in 1963 and who died in a car accident in 1968). He said that marriage exhausted his financial and emotional resources. In his novelised biography, Roth Unbound, its author, Claudia Roth Pierpont compares that marriage and its destructiveness to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's. Margaret, to marry Roth, lied that she was pregnant, he said he would marry her is she aborted, so she pretended she did, when in reality she went to the cinema.

Roth restored his career during the late 1960s, when he began teaching literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained on the faculty for about 11 years. The 1969 feature film adaptation of Goodbye, Columbus, starring Ali Mac Graw and Richard Benjamin; also the publication of Portnoy´s Complaint. The book sold well, but not without controversies: it was banned in Australia. Because of all the focus on him, he decided to move out of New York City to the Yaddo Artist Colony, in Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York.

During the early 1970s Roth wrote a series of entirely different satirical novels that received mixed reaction: Our Gang (1971), a parody of Nixon administration; The Breast (1972); the ironically titled The Great American Novel (1973), a baseball satire. And since that year he has lived on his 40-acre farm in northwestern Connecticut.

In 1974 he authored what many consider his finest novel: My Life as a Man. Its multilayered story centers on the novelist Peter Tarnopol's attempts to solve his dilemmas by writing ¨Useful Fictions¨ about Nathan Zuckermanm a Jewish writer whose life resembles his own.
Zuckerman became a recurring character who appeared in several of Roth´s subsequent novels: The Ghost Writer (1979),Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Counterlife (1986). Roth defined the Zuckerman novels as ¨hypothetical autobiographies¨.

After those he decided to write The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988); a memoir of his first 36 years, which began as a therapeutic exercise to help him recover from the deep depression he had fallen into after minor knee surgery in 1987.

In 1990 he married the distinguished British actress Claire Bloom. They had first met in 1965 when they were both otherwise attached and had lived together since 1976. They separated after four years, in 1994. In 1996 Bloom published her autobiography Leaving a Doll's House, where she wrote in detail about their relationship.

In the 90s Roth was very prolific. He published: Deception(1990), Patrimony: A True Story (1991), Operation Shylock(1993), Sabbath's Theater (1995). In 1997 he authored American Pastoral, the first book in a trilogy of postwar American life. I Married a Communist (1998), the second volume in Roth's trilogy, did not fare as well with the critics. In this book Eve, the traitorous wife was based on Bloom. The final instalment of the trilogy, The Human Stain (2000) was a portrait of contemporary American angst.

Then he published: The Dying Animal (2001), The Plot Against America(2004), Everyman (2006), which focuses on death and was influenced by witnessing many of his friends grow old and die; Indignation (2008); The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (2010).

In 2010, after publishing Nemesis, he said in an interview with a French magazine that he's retiring from writing. He wrote 31 books. Also had a small disagreement with Wikipedia when he requested to correct origins of The Human Stain, and they said he is not a believable source. They claimed it was based on Anatole Broyard's life and he said it was based on a story of his friend, Melvin Tumin. Now it appears as corrected and even describes the exchange they had.

And then, before we have managed to encourage the Donostia Book Club members to join the conversation, there were two more crucial questions to our guest, Jordi:

Could you situate Everyman in Roth's works?

At the beginning of the century, when Roth decided to write a series of short novels, trying to do the same that his great friend and fellow writer Saul Bellow had done in his last years, he started a book about  an actor who has lost his ability to perform. Then, in 2005, some emotional upheavals had him setting aside this manuscript and starting a different book, dealing with what then obsessed him: illness, aging and death. In fact, the previous book, which finally would be "The Humbling". It also deals with the same themes, but in "Everyman" we find a tenderness, a soft spot which is not counteracted by rage, as it happens in "The Humbling". In "Everyman" there is nostalgia, desperation and remorse, but not the kind of rage that can lead the character to kill himself. We could say that "Everyman" stands apart among the series of his last works as a book reflecting much more than others the desperation of the author when crossing a bleak patch in his life.

In journalism, especially daily newspapers, it often happens that the editor changes the title of an article without consulting it with the author, or without giving the author much choice. Everyman is the first time I've heard about it happening in fiction. How did it happen that Everyman was changed to Elegía?

I proposed to name this book "Humano". In French it has been named "Un homme". But the translator's proposals to the publishers are always wasted. At least this is my personal experience. They use the title they consider more commercial. So, they named this book "Elegía" without asking my opinion. Then Isabel Coixet made "The Dying Animal" into a film and, as "moribundo" didn't seem commercial, she named it "Elegía". Confusion was served. You have two different works by Roth with the same title, which has nothing to do with the original.

The rest was a passionate chat between many people, our own impressions and guesses about the meaning of the book and how autobiographical it was. The chat lasted long after the official meeting has finished and I am sure we will all remember it for a long time. We can only hope that Jordi has felt our enthusiasm!