An Irishman’s Diary on José Salas Subirat, the insurance salesman who translated Ulysses
José Salas Subirat in 1926. Photograph: Gentileza Penguin Random House
In 1945, the first Spanish-language translation of Ulysses was published in Buenos Aires. That it took 23 years after its publication in Paris did not reflect any lack of interest in the Spanish-speaking world but rather the understandable degree of trepidation with which would-be publishers, editors and translators faced the labyrinthine task – and the more prosaic nature of the negotiations about publishing rights.
Efforts to render Ulysses into Spanish began shortly after its publication in Paris in 1922. In 1924, no less a figure than Jorge Luis Borges claimed erroneously to be “the first Hispanic adventurer to have conquered Joyce’s book” when he translated the final page of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy into Spanish. This was despite the Argentine writer admitting to having only read Ulysses “in bits”. Borges was later to contend that Ulysses was “untranslatable”.
While Ulysses appeared in German, French, Czech and Japanese translations in the 1920s and 1930s, a Spanish-language edition failed to materialise. Instead, publishing houses in Madrid and Buenos Aires, hoping to cash in on Ulysses’ notoriety, produced translations of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Exiles and Dubliners.
The Argentine literati were therefore surprised – and more than a little put out – when the first Spanish-language translation appeared in Buenos Aires in 1945. Borges himself recalled that he had been attending a meeting of a committee charged with the task of producing a translation when one of its members had charged in, brandishing a copy.
More galling to the committee than being pre-empted was the fact that the translator of Joyce’s magnum opus was not a star of the Latin American literary scene, nor even a noted academic, but an insurance salesman, with little formal education, who had carried out the seemingly impossible task as a pastime.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1900 to Catalan immigrant parents, José Salas Subirat left school when he was 12, first finding work in a shoe shop, then in a bookshop, before embarking on a career in the burgeoning Argentine insurance sector as a stenographer.
Despite his lack of formal education, he was a voracious reader, possessed of a facility for picking up foreign languages, and was a published author, writing poetry, short stories and two novels. But as a potential translator of Ulysses he lacked basic qualifications.
His only previous translations had been children’s books about famous composers with titles such as Schubert and his Merry Friends and Mozart, the Wonder Boy. Although he could read English and avidly consumed English-language novels, he could not speak the language fluently and lacked the cultural grounding to decipher Joyce’s complex wordplay, parody and allusions.
It seems that Salas’s initiative to translate Ulysses arose from his deep frustration at not being able to understand the book. Twelve years after his translation was published, he told a Venezuelan newspaper: “In order to understand Joyce I had to translate him.”
When he began his translation, about 1940, Salas was an instructor of insurance salesmen, which involved a lot of travel to and from the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Because the US edition of Ulysses upon which he was basing his translation was so heavy, about 800 pages, Salas removed the cover and unstitched the pages, so that he might bring manageable sections with him in his briefcase and work on the train.
By happy coincidence, Salas had begun his translation at the same time that the Buenos Aires publisher Santiago Rueda, who had bought the Spanish-language rights to Ulysses, was looking for a translator, and the two agreed to collaborate.
The publication of the book was a mixed blessing. Salas was celebrated as the “translator of Ulysses” and instantly famous to the reading public, but the critics lambasted his overly literal translation and egregious errors. Borges described it as “terrible”, while Gabriel García Marquez, who came across Salas years later in Caracas, thought it “almost non-existent”.
His biographer, Lucas Petersen, believes Salas did not have “the intention of rendering Joycean style but only of revealing the events which are related in the novel”, but he also views his decision to translate Joyce as a revolutionary act, which challenged the exclusive right of the literary elite to interpret foreign literature and a book such as Ulysses.
Salas never gave up the day job, disseminating his wisdom in training manuals with titles such as The Key to Success: The Personal Factor in Life Insurance Sales. He continued to work as a translator in his spare time but never tackled another work by Joyce. Of Finnegans Wake, he told a reporter: “I’ve been reading it for 10 years and still don’t understand it.”