José Salas Subirat, the eccentric first translator of Joyce’s Ulysses into Spanish

The insurance salesman could not speak English, only read it, and plans for a revised edition sank in a plane crash

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.

Subirat’s translation story was fuelled and enriched also with the mystery that surrounded the translator, of whom, up until a couple of years ago, there were no published photographs. This was the mystery I wanted to reveal when I started my research which, five years later, resulted in the book El traductor de Ulises (Ulysses’ Translator).

Negatively critisized when it first appeard, 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.

These good decisions could be condensed in the way in which Salas Subirat’s Ulysses is conditioned by a conflict in our former colonial cultures, especially in the 20th century. I mean: the unsolved – and unsolvable- – conflict between a metropolitan variant of the language considered to be a norm and a colonial, subordinate variant, considered a deviation. The same tension that stresses Joyce’s masterpiece:

“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.”

Thus, regardless of its historic value, even with its many mistakes, Salas Subirat’s work was then recognized, defended, used and – without doubt – enjoyed by several generations of Latin American readers. Even now his Ulysses is republished in cheap editions from time to time.

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.

In spite of the immediate interest that Ulysses sparked all around the world, by 1940, 18 years after its publication, there were only a few translations: French and German, of course; Czech and Japanese, surprisingly. In Spanish, there were only partial attempts:

Spanish critic Antonio Marichalar published in November 1924 in Revista de Occidente an article titled "James Joyce in his labyrinth", where he translated (probably from the French version) a fragment of Molly Bloom's monologue and two excerpts from the chapter known as Ithaca.

In December of that year, Jorge Luis Borges brought to light his very own version of the last part of the book – a in quite invasive version but with some remarkable decisions.

Anonymous passages appeared in Madrid’s La Gaceta Literaria in 1927.

Two fragments of Proteus were published in the Cuban magazine Espuela de plata, translated by Oscar Rodríguez Feliu in 1940 and 1941.

Therer were some attempts to sign a contract with Joyce’s agents to translate the whole novel:

In 1931 and 1934, Argentine writer, publisher and sponsor Victoria Ocampo reportedly examined the possibility of translating and publishing Ulysses.

In January 1933, Olga Bauer tried but failed to get the rights in Madrid.

In 1938, a French literary agency called Storkama tried to do the same.

About1940, Ulyses Petit de Murat was tempted to do the translation by Natalio Botana, the famous director of Crítica, an iconic Argentine newspaper.

It seems that this last attempt involved the creation of a commission of writers/translators to discuss the problems of Ulysses. This commission included a reluctant Jorge Luis Borges, who was not very interested in a novel with the length and the ambition of Joyce's. However, when Botana and Petit de Murat tried to get the rights, they discovered that they were already assigned to another publisher, Santiago Rueda.

With limited literary knowledge but a very developed instinct, Rueda was one of the most innovative figures in the publishing revolution that took place in Argentina from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s, a revolution whose most important characteristic was an aggressive translation policy. Among Rueda's major achivements you can find the first Ulysses but also:

The introduction of a big part of the influential new narrative from the US to Spanish – especially Latin American – readers: Dos Passos, Faulkner, Hemingway, Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, James T Farrell, etc.

The completion of the Spanish translation of Proust’s In the Search of Lost Time.

Sigmund Freud’s complete works.

The most important novels by D. H. Lawrence and Hermann Hesse.

The introduction of Henry Miller to Spanish-speaking audiences.

An extensive publishing of Soren Kierkegaard and the then well-known, now forgotten Jakob Wassermann works, among others.

To compensate for his lack of literary knowledge, Rueda used an adviser called Max Dickmann, a rather important writer who could read in several languages and translate from English (for instance, he was the translator of The 42nd Parallel, by Dos Passos).

As he explains in the first number of Gaceta del Libro magazine, in March 1945, Rueda obtained Ulysses rights only after Dickmann agreed to take responsibility for the translation. They tried to form a translators' team to assist him, but the attempt failed: "I can't even begin to tell about how many tries, conversations, studies and even failures we went through to find three or four people in Buenos Aires who, besides having enough knowledge about Joyce's work, could dedicate the necesary will, faith and enthusiasm to translate the more than 700 pages of Ulysses into Spanish," said Rueda.

When the process came to an dead end, good luck took part: through a friend, Rueda learned that José Salas Subirat had already translated, for his own pleasure, some pages of the novel. The editor and the unexpected translator were introduced. Dickmann analysed Salas Subirat’s work in progress and decided to accept him to accomplish the mission.

Salas Subirat was born in Buenos Aires in 1900. He was a typical self-made man, who held a managerial position in a very renowned insurance company called La Continental, where he worked as a stenographer and then as an agent. By 1940, he had become a nationally recognised sales instructor.

Salas was a product of the massive upward mobility that took place in Argentina in the 20th century. Son of Catalan immigrants, he had to leave school when he was 12 and started working as an assistant in a shoe store and in a printing house, as a strongbox salesman, as a customs agent and as a translator for Yuzhamtorg (the Soviet company that traded with South American countries in the 1920s).

He also had several businesses: an English and Stenograph Academy, a small advertizing agency, a toy factory. He had an amazing capacity to learn languages (in the same self-taught way) and before he was 30 he could read in English, French and Italian, and a few words in German and Russian.

When he was young, in the second half of the 1920s, he had an active participation in the Boedo group, that brought together young leftist writers who adhered to social realism and also shared a characteristic: they were sons or grandsons of inmigrants, that is to say they were not part of Argentina's traditional cultural elite. In those days, Salas Subirat published two novels, two essays (about Marinetti and about Beethoven), and several articles in the group's two magazines, called Los Pensadores and Claridad.

In those works, the future translator had been quite critical of the literary avant-garde. However, he was always concerned about learning what those movements were about – something typical in a self-educated man. That is probably what led him to Joyce’s prose, which he considered not a vacuous formal exercise but the most radical, sophisticated and complex form of realism. Salas Subirat met Ulysses in the late 1930s or the early 1940s, the same time as he started publishing his own works again after a whole decade of silence, now focused on poetry and poetic prose. (By the way, there’s also a fun fact: he published salesman manuals too but that’s a fascinating part of this story that you can discover in my book.)

Although he could read English, he could not speak it and his knowledge was clearly not up to figuring out a novel as complex as Joyce’s. Instead of giving up, he did the unexpected: he started translating it. “Translating is the most attentive way of reading,” he said some years later. By putting it in Spanish, therefore, he would be able to clarify the multiple opacities of Ulysses’ verbal puzzle.

Salas Subirat wasn’t, as you can see, a profesional translator. To make matters worst, his only published translations were a group of children’s books with titles such as Schubert and his Merry Friends, Mozart, the Wonder Boy, or Haydn, the Merry Little Peasant. So he was just a writer who worked as an insurance agent and had only translated a few small book for kids. Those were not, certainly, the credentials expected for Joyce’s translator.

He did a major part of the translation work on the train, when he commuted from his home in the suburbs to the insurance company, and back. He dismembered the heavy Modern Library version of Ulysses into booklets and did his job amid the hustle of daily life – maybe this leaked into his version and contaminated it with its vitality. His is the opposite of a cabinet translation.

This is not the right place to develop a meticulous analysis of the rights and wrongs in his work, something that I try to do in my book. But let me say something about the translations:

A lot of his translation mistakes are excusable not only due to the undeniable complexity of the novel, but also because he had to do the job almost in the dark. I mean, the huge Joyce studies field was then just emerging and Salas’s access to it was very limited. He only read Jung’s and Gilbert’s essays on Ulysses.

His knowledge of the language (and, of course, its Irish variant) was below the demands of Ulysses, so for him it was impossible to understand some expressions that only a deep immersion in the Irish and English cultures can give.

He was not a professional translator, so he did not a tested method. This lack of expertise led him to several inconsistencies and contradictions in the way he treated different passages.

Some silly mistakes (there’s no other way to say it) suggest that some temporary choices became permanent, without even a minimum correction. It must be said that he did this translation for free, while he continued working in the insurance company

On the other hand, the many mistakes do not overshadow the good decisions in Salas Subirat’s version. Lots of them came from the amazing sagacity and inventiveness, and even boldness, he put into play to face some of the most difficult formal challenges. This enabled him to recreate the delightful Joycean humour and sophisticated narrative in a very ingenious way, along with his perhaps involuntary tension between prestigious and subordinate variants of the same language, and his ability to capture and transfer the vibrancy of daily life in his literary monument.

Ulysses was published by Rueda in June 1945, "under the direction of Max Dickmann", as the contract established. The dust jacket was illustrated with a portrait of Joyce by Augustus John.

The work was not welcomed by critical acclaim (in fact, the reviews were mainly negative in what we can call the literary establishment), but no doubt it has had an enormous impact on generations of readers and writers in Latin America and Spain, who learned numerous literary devices thanks to the translation of one of the most innovative books written in prose in history.

Juan José Saer used to tell a funny story about this: when he was young, Saer and some friends met Borges, who was very dissatisfied with that translation: "It is really bad," Borges said, but someone – probably Saer himself -- disagreed: "It might be, but if it is, Mr Salas Subirat is the greatest writer in the Spanish language."

In the late 1940s, Salas began a revision of his own translation but it was interrupted in 1950, the same year his daughter got sick with polio and her recovery demanded all the translator’s time beyond his daily job in La Continental. The second half-corrected version, printed in 1952, which is undoubtedly superior in comparison with the first one, was the one that was sold from then on. Although, surprisingly, there are some fragments where the original version was more precise or effective than the second version.

It seems that Salas Subirat was not happy with the interrupted revised edition. He tried again with a third version. And this time, Rueda and his translator agreed that he would get paid when the third and definitive version was made. Salas started the new task in the late 1950s.

In November 1957, Salas Subirat took a plane to Venezuela, where he was going to work in the expanding insurance market, benefiting from the oil boom. He took his library, including the third Ulysses manuscript. Half an hour after his departure from Sao Paulo, one of the plane's engines caught fire. The pilot could control the aircraft, but he had to do a emergency landing over the sea, 200 metres out from the coastline. The passengers were rescued by a group of fishermen. The water was not too deep, but it was enough to cover the plane's hold. Salas Subirat stayed in Brazil hoping to recover his books and work. It was useless. It was impossible to recover his last attempt to dominate Joyce's masterpiece.

Twenty years later, in 1976, 31 years after the first version was published, Spanish poet José María Valverde gave a new translation of Ulysess to the public (maybe with fewer mistakes but not exactly superior to Salas Subirat's). And then others came along: Francisco García Tortosa and María Luisa Venegas in 1999; Marcelo Zabaloy in 2015; Rolando Costa Picazo at the beginning of this year.

However, at least for me and for hundreds of readers captivated by the myth and the fascinating personality of José Salas Subirat, the mystery will remain unsolved, and we will always wonder: what was written in that manuscript lost in the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean?

Lucas Petersen is a journalist, writer and professor at Universidad Nacional de las Artes (Argentina). His first book, El traductor del Ulises (Sudamericana/Penguin Random House, 2016), is a biography of José Salas Subirat. Petersen is about to publish his second book, on Santiago Rueda and his mythical publishing house, and is working on a series of short biographies of unknown 19th- and 20th- century Argentine writers.

Read More

Most Read