In Dublin, next to the beautiful Stephen’s Green park, is the Museum of Irish Literature, the MoLI. Inside the building there is a space dedicated to translations of the work of James Joyce. The writer’s universe resonates in Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Italian… In that astonishing polyphony the different versions of each book coexist in the same language.

It is dizzying to look at the Spanish translations of Ulises together and see that they are and are not the same work because the people who translated it are different. Discovering that a work is susceptible to an indefinite number of translations causes a strange feeling of fraud. What Ulysses have we read? What do we read when we read a translated book?

I have participated in numerous meetings on the importance of translation. What worries the people I speak to most is not that our political, social, and religious order is often built on mistranslations. What most disturbs them is discovering that the texts are not written on stone, but in the air. The naive confidence with which they had read until that moment crumbles. Isn’t the Divine Comedy that we read in Spanish the Divine Comedy that Dante wrote? Yes and no. It is, but the work has varied over the years in its own language, in the different languages ​​into which it has been translated and in successive translations in each language, in a small and constant metamorphosis.

And Great Expectations, by Dickens? And War and Peace, by Tolstoy? And Wuthering Heights, by Bronte? And Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley? The same thing happens, their translations are and are not the same work. Those who translate seek a difficult balance so that we can enter the books with the same pleasure as those who read them in their original language when they were written.

We long for reassurances to relieve us of the darkness that surrounds us. But uncertainty is the sign of our existence, not certainty

Astonishment gives way to outrage. It can’t be, they tell me. If it can be, I reply. As Italo Calvino wrote, a classic is a book that never stops saying what it has to say: each reading opens a new interpretation, a different translation. Is there not a definitive translation?, they ask me with disbelief. As my mother would say, the only final thing is death. Successive translations are the ways a text has to speak throughout history.

We accept this ductility quite naturally in the case of music. We chose to listen to the Suites for solo cello, by JS Bach, in the version by Pau Casals or Yo-Yo Ma or Rostropovich, without being irritated that they are different. On the contrary, in their difference lies their value. We go to the theater to see classical pieces, seeking to enjoy the version of one director or another. However, we are scandalized that this disparity occurs in literary translation. We read as if Annie Ernaux, Siri Hustvedt, Emmanuel Carrere or Anne Carson had written in Spanish for us, their readers. By ignoring the intervention of those who translate, we adopt the reverent attitude of the believer when he hears the priest proclaim after finishing reading the Bible: Word of God!

Ah, but even the Word of God, because it is a word, is interpretable. Only one case of unanimous exegesis is known: the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, better known as the Septuagint. Around 280 BC, 72 Jewish sages, six men from each of the 12 tribes, were chosen by the high priest of Jerusalem and sent to Egypt to translate the Bible into Greek. The 72 wise men worked separately in 72 houses and finished their task in 72 days. All 72 versions turned out to be identical. That miracle has never happened again.

Not only do translations of a work vary, our own reading is a changing exercise. We do not enter a novel in the same way at 15, 40 or 60. When we read we also read ourselves, and that “we” is a constantly changing concept. There are professional criteria to classify a translation, but that it responds to our current needs is as valid a criterion as the previous ones.

We long for reassurances to relieve us of the darkness that surrounds us. But uncertainty is the sign of our existence, not certainty. The job of translating is closely linked to the job of living. Since we are born we strive to interpret the acts of others and our own, especially in moments of tribulation. The fear and trembling that afflict those who translate before the impossibility of fixing “the” meaning of a text are a reflection of the fear and trembling that are part of our destiny.

That everything is interpretable is a curse and, at the same time, a blessing: just as each translation must try to be better than the previous one, so also each new reading. In that utopian horizon the words of Samuel Beckett resonate: “You tried, you failed, it doesn’t matter, try again, fail again, fail better.” Fail better is a wise motto for life, so unpredictable and stormy.