On August 13, Margaret Jull Costa joined the Center to discuss her work with some of the greatest authors to emerge from Spain and Portugal in the 20th century. Translator of Javier Marias, Antonio Lobo Antunes, and Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, among many others, Costa gave an insightful overview of Saramago's long career while discussing his perculiar, beautiful, and wholly original prose style.
Costa began her presentation by giving some idea of Saramago's context as a writer, developing a sense of his literary roots. She started with Saramago's deeply impoverished youth, saying that he taught himself to read by looking at newspapers. Citing Saramago's memoir, Small Memories, she shared his claim that "I was reading even before I could spell properly." She went on to elaborate the picture of Saramago's childhood with an excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he cites the importance of his grandparents to his career. Costa prefaced her reading with the assertion that "there are images in it that have stayed with me." After reading about Saramago's youth, she concluded "that seems to me almost the perfect education for a novelist," particularly a novelist like Saramago, who writes about the "ordinary people."
From here, Costa discussed Saramago's idiosyncracies as a stylist, beginning with his use of punctuation. She observed that he does not use quotation marks, preferring to denote speech with commas and capital letters, making for a transition that is, in Costa's words, "seamless and effortless." She also cited Saramago's claim to "write as if he was composing a score," arguing that punctuation other than commas and periods would prevent him from creating that "sense of flow" that he prized as an author. Costa pinpointed the emergence of this style to Saramago's fourth novel, Raised from the Ground, published in 1980, and only now coming out in English for the first time in Costa's translation.
Costa expanded her discussion of Saramago's style. He discovered it, she said, after being fired from his job as a newspaper editor and traveling to Portugal's south, where he became acquainted with the nation's poor, virtually indentured peasants. It was here that he made his stylistic breakthrough. Costa illustrated this breakthough by reading from her translation of Raised from the Ground. Throughout her presentation Costa made reference to how Saramago's prose carries the reader along, both by its particular use of punctuation and its sentence rhythms.
The Cave was the next book Costa discussed, arguing that it was "about relationships" and that, in contrast to the importance of relationships, Saramago sees consumerism as like Plato's cave: "shadows on the wall." This was evidence of what Costa regards as Saramago's essential humanity, as well as his dislike of authority. The latter is the reason why, claimed Costa, Saramago stopped capitalizing even proper names in his later books. A "typographical revolution," as Costa deemed it.
Costa wound down her remarks with the story of how she began translating Saramago after the death of his first English translator, Giovanni Pontiero. She then discussed the first book of Saramago's that she translated, All the Names, about a bureaucrat in a massive archive holding record cards on everyone in his city who becomes obsessed with the card of an unknown woman. She concluded by discussing Saramago's final novel, Cain, which she described as "an atheist's last kick at God."
A short Q & A session followed where Costa responded to questions about her beginnings as a translator, her initial reactions upon discovering Saramago, why the only named character in All the Names is a dog, and challenges to finding English equivalents for specific words in Saramago's Portuguese.
Video of this event can be seen here.