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Baudelaire translated in prison by a translation professor

Jean Delisle
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 1, 2011, page 10)

The "psychotropic" effect of translation on one Catalan political prisoner

The solitude of prison is conducive to translation. Many a translator has continued to translate while serving time in prison. As the epitome of solitary work, translation is an intellectual activity that effectively liberates the mind and has proven to be an excellent means of escape.

Suffice it to mention Étienne Dolet, who translated Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations deep in his prison cell in Lyon before being condemned to burn at the stake by the Inquisition tribunal, or William Tyndale and Louis-Isaac Lemaistre de Sacy, two translators who translated the Old Testament while behind bars, Tyndale at the castle of Vilvoorde, near Brussels, and Lemaistre de Sacy at the Bastille, where he was locked away for two years. Like Dolet, Tyndale too was burned at the stake. At times, religious intolerance has made translation a perilous trade. The same is true of totalitarian ideologies.

In more recent times, in the 20th century, we can point to Eduardo Barriobero y Herrán, author of the first translation of Gargantua, published in 1905 in Spain; Abraham Elmaleh, who translated the Book of Kalila and Dimna into Hebrew while languishing in the Khan al-Pasha prison in Damascus; Pavlos Zannas, who during his 10-year imprisonment under the Regime of the Colonels produced a Greek version of À la recherche du temps perdu, a most timely work under the circumstances; and Milovan Djilas, author of a Serbo-Croatian version of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he produced on more than 3,000 sheets of toilet paper, as his spiteful jailors did not permit him writing paper.

Picture of Carles Castellanos
Carles Castellanos, professor,
translator, lexicographer and promoter
of the Catalan language

The atypical career of Catalan pro-independence militant Carles Castellanos, born in Barcelona in 1942, is interesting in several respects. Trained as an industrial engineer, Castellanos has been a jack of all trades in the language field. He has been simultaneously or successively a linguist, a translator, a lexicographer, a terminologist, a translation professor, director of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona’s (UAB’s) translation and interpretation department, director of a Catalan Berber language observatory and a university researcher, all the while working very actively within movements for Catalan independence. He has also been an ardent defender and promoter of the Catalan language and Catalan culture. His political involvement led him to publish some 10 works on historical (and especially socio-political) topics, including a Petit Diccionari de l’Independentisme (1988).

For more than 20 years, he taught French-Catalan translation at the UAB, during which time he became interested in the Afro-Asiatic languages, notably Berber. In 2006, he published a Tamazight (Berber)-Catalan university conversation guide. This bilingual manual was designed to introduce Catalan to foreign students and teachers in Catalonia.

As a lexicographer, Carles Castellanos has provided the Catalan language with numerous reference works, including a French-Catalan/Catalan-French dictionary (1979), an informatics dictionary (1986), a dictionary of French-Catalan faux amis (2000) and a basic Occitan-Catalan dictionary (2008). These works attest to the vitality of the Catalan language.

Castellanos was still a teenager when he joined the National Front of Catalonia in 1960. Later, he would help found other organizations dedicated to the independence of this autonomous community. His troubles with the Civil Guard of dictator Francisco Franco soon escalated. He was quickly flagged, monitored and neutralized. Four times he was thrown in prison and tortured: 1964, 1974, 1981 and 1988. The grounds for the arrests were "unlawful propaganda," "unlawful association," "collaboration with an armed organization" and "inciting sedition" for displaying a banner bearing the word "Independència" at a protest. The terrorism charges were always dropped as unfounded.

Twice he had to go into exile: once in 1974, and again in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympic Games. He fled in response to the many arrests and imprisonments of independentists, as the Spanish authorities sought to suppress any protest in support of Catalan independence while the cameras of the international press were focused on Barcelona.

During his detention in 1974, Carles Castellanos learned Berber from a book authored by a Basque priest and with the help of a Moroccan prisoner from the Rif. During the 10-month exile that immediately followed this prison term, he translated La Catalogne au tournant de l’an mil (Catalunya Mil Anys enrere) by French historian Pierre Bonnassié, a specialist in medieval Catalonia. He also translated other works from classical Egyptian (Història de Sinuhè i altre contes) and, from Berber, an anthology of poems by Kabyle author Salem Zenia.

Picture of Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

In 1988, after being tortured successively in Barcelona and Madrid, Castellanos spent eight months in the Alcalá Meco maximum security detention centre before being exonerated. It was during this period of internment that he translated Beaudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels on the advice of poet, literary critic and translator Francesc Parcerisas, now director of the Institució de les Lletres Catalanes and principal of the UAB’s faculty of translation and interpretation. The work was suggested as a source of financial and moral support.

It was on an old typewriter and with a few common dictionaries that Castellanos produced his translation. He knew both languages very well and had little need of other work tools. The bulk of the work, he says, was scouring the expressive resources of Catalan to find the right words that would enable him to "recreate" the full power of suggestion in the original work.

In this regard, he notes in his memoirs that "[t]he obvious irony of the title, Les paradis artificiels, was a stark contrast to the prison environment in which I was working. But you cannot imagine just how much pleasure I derived from seeking out the words that the French writer’s work evoked in me, and the warmth I felt in my body on many a cold winter’s day as I typed the musicality of the original onto paper."1 Fascinated by the beauty of the literary work and its evocative power, the translator, as if entranced, left his prison world behind.

Castellanos was in the same state of mind as Abraham Elmaleh, mentioned above, who writes in his memoirs that "translating made life better for me. I ultimately forgot what was going on around me…. All my energies, all my thoughts were focused on translating this gem of eastern literature [the Book of Kalila and Dimna], which I was striving to adapt, polish and improve."2

The Catalan translation of Les Paradis artificiels was published in Barcelona in 1990.

In this work, Baudelaire describes the effects of drugs. Drawing on his own personal experience, though not a heavy user of psychotropics himself, he argues that drugs have a transcendent effect through which men can attain the ideal to which they aspire. As he writes in his preface, "this privilege of being able to find new and subtle joys even in suffering, catastrophe and fatality produces in human beings a high akin to that produced by a powerful drug." Does this observation not apply perfectly to Carles Castellanos, who translated Baudelaire in prison?

Deep in his cell, did he not derive from the creative exercise of translation some "subtle" intellectual "joys," to borrow the words of the poet? As was true for many other translators who spent their time in prison translating, this activity was an inarguable source of psychological support for the Catalan translator. It was largely through translation that he was able to bear the isolation, the separation from loved ones and the physical suffering of torture. Could translation be said to produce a "high" under some conditions? Might not one of its many functions be a drug-like liberation and stimulation of the mind?

Sources

  • Back to the note1 Carles Castellanos, Reviure els dies: Records d’un temps silenciat (Pagès Éditors, 2003), p. 161.
  • Back to the note2 Quoted by Colette Touitou-Benitah in "Abraham Elmaleh, l’attrait de l’Orient, le leurre de l’Occident" in Portraits de traducteurs, Jean Delisle (ed.), (University of Ottawa Press, 1999), p. 246.