Life in Translation

Anthony Ferner

A novel

Sample Passages

  • The Night of the Uglies

    The first thing that strikes you about Lima in winter is the greyness, everything muted under the low cloud layer. It’s something to do with the city’s location, trapped between the Andes and the cold Humboldt current. For a few short months there’s a kind of summer. The first patches of blue appear in the sky around late November, and people’s spirits rise. When I was there, back in the 1980s, I’d see the signs of the cloud lifting and the colour returning, and I’d go for long walks in the direction of the ocean as the morning mist burned off.

    I was in Peru as a postgraduate student of literary translation at the Instituto Superior de Traducción e Interpretación, isti, or the Institute as we all called it. I’ve always been interested in languages. My father’s job took the family to the Netherlands for several years. As a kid I learned Dutch by ear, and thought it was normal to speak two languages. I studied Spanish and French at university, and along the way picked up Portuguese and a smattering of Italian. I make sure people know I’m a translator, not an interpreter. Interpreters are the flashy ones at conferences or meetings of heads of state, who translate on the hoof: the adrenaline junkies, high-wire artists, prima donnas. The larger the auditorium the better they like it. Whereas the translators are the backroom boys and girls of the language world.

    At the Institute, we were all ambitious and bright. The other students were Latin Americans mainly, but also Americans, Canadians, French, Spanish, and a few fellow Brits. We arrived at the tail-end of the Latin American literary ‘boom’: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Roa Bastos were all just about still writing.

    I was besotted with Gabi, one of my fellow students. She was Peruvian, but her mother was English. She was small, a little plump, and ridiculously pretty. On the move she was full of focused energy, always organising things and people. But in repose she had a languorous eroticism. I fantasised about her reclining naked in a Turkish bath, with kohl round her half-closed eyes, smoking a hookah and smelling of attar of roses. I imagined hips and belly and shoulders gyrating in syncopated rhythms. I’d have died of shame if she’d read my thoughts. She could be merry, but also determined and unsmiling. I found her a little intimidating, which only added to the enchantment.

    When she was not busy with her translations, Gabi worked as a volunteer for the Peruvian Red Cross. In the February after I arrived in Lima, there was a police strike. Criminal gangs and the dispossessed of the city descended on the centre to loot stores while the police stood and watched, or shut themselves up in their barracks. The army came onto the streets, shot the looters and stormed the police barracks. Scores died. I remember the scary sound of gunfire after dark, and the clatter of helicopters directly over us day and night. The morning after the main riot, the road outside our flat was scored with tank tracks.

    Gabi didn’t like to talk about it, but her friends told me she’d been in the thick of the troubles. She’d had the phone call from her team leader, and she just got into her VW Beetle and drove up Avenida Arequipa to the centre. Wearing her bright blue Red Cross bib and hard hat, she stayed all day, carrying stretchers, tending to the wounded.

    When things had quietened down, her Mexican friend Amparo showed me a copy of La Crónica newspaper with a grainy photograph of a Red Cross team in Avenida Emancipación. There was Gabi, kneeling over a man with gunshot wounds to apply a tourniquet; behind her an overturned car, smouldering. I keep the yellowed cutting in my South America scrapbook. At the time, I showed it to Gabi. ‘Hey, Amparo tells me you’re a heroine!’ She just shrugged, went, ‘Bua!’ and turned away. Her airy bravery was very attractive.

    Gabi specialised in English-to-Spanish translation – you always worked into your native tongue. As a result, she wasn’t often in the same classroom as me at the Institute, so I was at least able to concentrate on the work, and avoid being distracted by her presence. When we did coincide in a tutorial, I’d gaze at her shiny black hair, or yearn to reach out and touch the curve of her neck where it met the exposed ear, and to finger the small gold stud in her perfectly formed lobe.

    In coffee breaks and after classes we’d all sit around and argue about the art and craft and science of translation. We took it so seriously, obsessing over the latest theories, agonising about translation and power, colonialism and the appropriation of culture, the need to reclaim the source texts. We revelled in the difficulties of our task. Our battle-cry was: ‘Translation’s theoretically impossible, let’s do it!’ And no doubt, at some level, it really was impossible, but we believed it to be essential all the same. A bit like life, as Gabi used to say.

    Our tutors would set us to work translating short stories or fragments of obscure novels. One of my assignments was Benedetti’s tale about love between two disfigured people, ‘La noche de los feos’, which would be rendered as something like ‘The night of the ugly people’, or ‘Ugly people’s night’. Gabi’s friend Amparo had us all laughing by suggesting, with excessive literalness, ‘The night of the uglies’. I settled on ‘Night of the ugly’, though nothing sounded quite right in English.

    My translations from those days would probably embarrass me now. Technically they were just about adequate, but they always missed some subtle layer of meaning beneath the meaning, there was a lack of tradecraft, of cultural awareness. Take the simple word ‘car’, for example: carro in Peruvian Spanish. The word had a distinctive connotation in Peru, because young people lived with their parents, and the car, if they were lucky enough to have access to one, was where kids flirted, groped each other, had sex for the first time, often on cliff-top pull-ins overlooking the ocean, or in car parks late at night. How to convey all that in translating some coming-of-age novel into English, how to suggest all the winks and nods of the word?

    When we weren’t talking shop, we were eating, drinking and partying together, falling in love, breaking up, being happy-go-lucky or heartbroken in a frantic merry-go-round. I say ‘we’, but everybody else seemed to be more adept at this whirl of socialising, romance and lechery. I was making no progress with Gabi. I’d expected something to happen naturally, and when it didn’t, I had no clue what to do next. The fear of failing paralysed me. I was the sort who worried too much about what could go wrong. Endless what ifs.

Sample Information


Life in Translation vividly describes the ups and downs of life as a jobbing translator who dreams of literary fame.

We first meet our unnamed narrator in Lima in the 1980s where he is working on a postgraduate diploma in literary translation at ‘The Institute’.  He is fascinated by the art of translating and takes his work very seriously.

While toiling away at his translation of an important but dauntingly bleak Peruvian novel which he hopes will bring him the longed-for success he takes on a series of dead-end jobs. At one point, he works in the translation department of a large US multinational based in Paris. When the big boss decrees that machine translation is the way forward, he feels he has to stand up for the translator’s craft.

His work takes him from London to Lima, Paris to Madrid, Leiden and back to London. The novel interweaves his perceptive musings about the art of translating with his struggle to become established in the profession, and with his seemingly hopeless quest to find a long-term relationship.

Looking back at the events and encounters that have shaped him, he recalls fellow students, friends, lovers, and colleagues. Put in the shade by his carefree and outgoing cousin, Mark, he stumbles along. He is often attracted to women who are unsuitable or unavailable, such as his calmly enigmatic translator colleague Ana.

Lacking confidence, his nerve fails him at critical moments, as in the case of the fellow student, Gabi, with whom he was once obsessed. Or he messes up something promising, as with the Dutch interpreter Sonia. Women appear, disappear and even reappear in his life but somehow it never quite works out.

The story is told through a mosaic of interlinked episodes that together create a picture of the narrator’s bumpy road to maturity. Finally, he realises, painfully, that he, a translator, is prone to ‘misreadings’: of his own strengths and weaknesses, of the women in his life, of the viability of his translation career, of the options open to him.

Can a chance meeting in a Dutch town with a key figure from his past bring some much-desired clarity?


ISBN: 9781907320842
Number of pages: 166
Price: £0


‘An intricate and restlessly atmospheric picaresque novel, but full of yearning too; its questing narrative tracks the intellectual and sensual excitement of a cohort of fun-loving translators, whose passion for the Hispanic literary imagination is viewed from Lima and San Sebastian (by way of Paris, London, Lisbon and Leiden too). Anthony Ferner has transformed a fizzing search for truth and tenderness into a sprightly and stylish Peruvian dance.’ – Alan Mahar

‘Anthony Ferner has once again intuited an understanding of a very particular – and, in some respects, recondite – profession and has placed the perspective of the translator at the centre of his narrative, not just as metaphor but as a way of being-in-the-world.’ – Chris Turner

‘What Anthony Ferner does so well with this novel is to portray a community of translators with their ambitions, frustrations, arguments and petty jealousies.
Beautifully written, engaging and intelligent, I thoroughly enjoyed it.’ – Ali Hope on her blog HeavenAli

‘Life in Translation is beautifully written. I enjoyed following the narrator first in Peru and then through Europe, catching glimpses of life and the energy in various cities. His failures and fumbles evoke sympathy, and though he sometimes acts foolish, one can’t help but cheer for his success both romantically and professionally.’ – Elizabeth Jeager in The Literary Review

‘That this novel is well-written is beyond dispute and, though uncomfortable to read at times, I could still not put it down, even though I wanted to. I didn’t like the character portrayed and found him needy and patronising, especially towards women, but I had to find out more.’ – Jon Wilkins on Everybody’s Reviewing

‘I am a translator by trade myself, though currently unemployed, and as such I can identify with most things the author writes about. And liked almost everything about it. A must-read if you are a translator, literary or otherwise, interpreter, or such.’ – Covadonga on goodreads

‘A beautifully written account of a translator’s life from his beginnings as a postgraduate student in Lima to his (almost) settled status as a literary translator. Funny, deft, poignant.’ – Alan Beard on goodreads

‘A delectable journey chronicling the narrator’s insecurities and flaws, his drive for perfection and his inability, and finally, acceptance that he is, after all, only human.
Anthony has a good eye for detail and renders fully formed characters in a few lines.’ – Garrie Fletcher on Goodreads

‘Without reading this book, it would be hard to believe that a novel which is so imaginative, clever, and technically well-observed on the craft and intellectual skills needed for translation could be such fun.’ – Davy Crockett on Amazon

‘As with so much of Anthony Ferner’s work it’s a thought provoking good read – an honest, not always pretty, delve into the male condition as it stands – I came away with the satisfying sense I’d experienced the sweep of a life.’ – Helen K on Amazon

‘worthy of your attention and very entertaining – contains a greater sprinkling of the author’s erudite dead-pan humour – will leave you well satisfied, with a great deal to think about and perhaps even a few extra crumbs of self-knowledge.’ – Gold Dust Magazine

‘It is not often that a translator takes centre stage in a novel so this is worth reading if for no other reason. During his Odyssey we get insights into the controversies raging in modern translation practice which, strangely enough, are engrossing. It did make me think hard about the very nature of translation and that can only be a good thing surely?’ – Papalaz on LibraryThing

‘This book expresses beautifully that translation is also an art — it enlightened me while also being fun, intellectual, and occasionally sexy.’ – Suanne Schafer on goodreads & Midwest Book Reviews June 2020 issue