On the receiving end

On the receiving end

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From translator to translated

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, in a previous life I used to be a journalist. Twenty years and a couple of weeks ago, I was working on the newsdesk of the Western Morning News in Plymouth, UK, when I had to organise coverage of a boat sinking off Cornwall. Disasters at sea weren’t all that uncommon off the dangerous Westcountry coasts, but the Maria Assumpta was no ordinary boat. In fact, built in 1858, the sailing ship was the oldest afloat until she hit rocks off Padstow and sank, with the loss of three crew members. The boat’s owner and skipper, Mark Litchfield, was eventually held responsible for the sinking, convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for 18 months. (If you’re interested, you can read more about the Maria Assumpta’s story here.)

For a long time the sinking of the Maria Assumpta was just another anecdote from my journalistic career, one of several big stories I was involved in covering, until, as I have also mentioned before in this blog, I met a journalist called Marta, who is now my wife, and came to live in her home town in Catalonia. Neither of us can remember exactly when it was, but at some point the Maria Assumpta came up in conversation and we realised that, by bizarre coincidence, the story of the ship was one that belonged to both of us. Because the boat that sank on my “watch” in Cornwall was built on the beach in Badalona, where I now live, and her sinking just as much news here as in the place where it happened.


We made a mental note to look out for an opportunity to write something on the Maria Assumpta one day and, after some years, that chance came a fortnight ago, on the twentieth anniversary of the sinking. Marta offered to write a feature on the sailing ship for her newspaper, El Punt Avui, and I promised to help her. She had plenty of details and background information from the Internet, a huge journalistic resource that didn’t exist in my days as a reporter and news editor, but what we needed was a new angle. I dug out various contacts for her and asked some of my former colleagues for help. One of them came up trumps, not only confirming for me that Mark Litchfield was still alive, something we couldn’t tell from the existing Internet references, but also supplying me with his phone number. Meanwhile, Marta had used Facebook to track down a former Maria Assumpta crew member and was interviewing him using its messaging system. But, although her English is excellent, she didn’t feel confident of carrying out a telephone interview. I was going to have to dust down my journalistic skills.

As far as I knew Mark Litchfield hadn’t given an interview to anyone since he came out of prison in 1998 and I was convinced that his immediate reaction would be hostile, so, while Marta prepared the questions she wanted me to ask him, I had to think of the approach that would be most likely to encourage him to talk to me. I had no idea whether he’d ever been to Badalona, but I thought he would probably know the name of the city where his boat had been built. So when he picked up the phone I immediately said I was ringing from Badalona, rather than saying I was calling on behalf of a newspaper. He was clearly intrigued. From there, I explained that I wanted to interview him on my wife’s behalf, and he immediately agreed. My shorthand may have long since rusted away, but the old journalistic magic was still there!


This isn’t the place to explain the course of the whole conversation, which lasted the best part of three quarters of an hour, as I was told how Litchfield bought the boat and restored it as a sail training vessel and how he desperately tried to save his ship as it blew towards the Cornish rocks after the engines failed that fateful May afternoon in 1995. There comes a point in every interview when the line of the story suddenly becomes clear. This time it arrived when I asked whether, after being convicted by a court and sent to prison, Litchfield believed he had done anything wrong, and he replied that no, he had never accepted that he had. That took care of the headline.

The other thing it’s always good to do is to give a flavour of the character of your interviewee. My impression of Litchfield after talking to him for a while was that he was charming rogue, the kind who, in his younger days, could have got you into terrible trouble at school by being such good company he could persuade you to do things you knew you shouldn’t. He may or may not have used substandard fuel in the Maria Assumpta and sailed her on a dangerous course, which were the accusations that formed the basis for his manslaughter conviction following the sinking, but he seemed to me to be the heir to a buccaneering English seafaring tradition going back to the Elizabethan adventurers, many of whom were quite happy to bend the rules when they felt like it. But how to put that spirit across in his own words? I saw the chance to do it when I asked him about what it was like in prison. “I always laugh about that,” he said. “It’s really one of those things that adds a bit of spice to life, although I was fortunate that nothing terrible happened to me in there, like it does to some people.” He was actually telling me that prison was a source of stories to dine out on! I had to include that line.


I hung up the phone, elated at how well the interview had gone, and wrote up my notes for Marta, who did a generally excellent job of translating them into Catalan for her paper. There was just one thing. When I read the Catalan version, the nod and wink from Litchfield that revealed his character was missing. And it’s here that I come to the translation point of this post. Marta had read the quote, wondered if Litchfield could possibly have meant what he appeared to be saying – that he had almost enjoyed the seven months he had spent in prison – and decided to play safe, taking it to mean that the experience would mark him for life. Fortunately, I was there to put the “spice” back into the interview, and we found a form of words in Catalan that did justice to what Litchfield really meant, something it was difficult to know if you hadn’t actually spoken to him yourself.

Marta and I were able to work as a team to produce the best possible result, but, as we all know, “real” translation doesn’t often work like that. In fact, the whole process made me wonder how many times I have let an author down by not conveying every subtlety of a text; how many times I’ve failed to ask enough questions; how many times I’ve been too timid to let the full meaning out, or how many times those failures have been perpetuated in the final version simply because the author hasn’t been in a position to spot them. And I realised then that there’s nothing like being on the receiving end every now and again for making us better translators.

You can see the pieces as they appeared in El Punt Avui newspaper here and here.

And, if you like my blog, you can vote for it in the Top 100 Language Lovers 2015 Competition by clicking the button and going down to SJB Translations.



  1. Graham maclachlan

    You’re probably not far wrong in your assessment of ML’s character (-:

    • Simon Berrill

      Really? Do you know him? I had never spoken to him before doing that phone interview.


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