In Javier Marías’ novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a 22-year-old Spanish-born man assigned to Elvis during the making of a film in Acapulco nearly gets killed for translating an insult.
After a skirmish in a seedy bar, one of the members of Elvis’ entourage is insulted in Spanish by the gangster-proprietors. Elvis and one of the gangsters square off, “[t]heir inability to understand each other ... enraging them.” Stuck between the angry men, the translator slightly embellishes the initial insult when relaying it to Elvis (he wants to insult the man himself, albeit vicariously). Elvis’s response: “You’re going to repeat this word for word, Roy, to the guy with the moustache, don’t you leave out one syllable.” Cue insult. Elvis and his party leave, sans the translator, who is detained by the bad guys. One of the gangsters tells him, “you must spend a little more time with us tonight, it’s early still, you can tell us about the Madre Patria and maybe even insult us some more, so we can listen to your European accent.” When the translator protests, “all I did was translate,” the gangster replies, “Ah, you didn’t do anything but translate. … Too bad we don’t know if that’s true, we don’t speak English. Whatever Elvis said we didn’t understand, but you we understood, you speak very clearly … we heard you loud and clear, and you can rest assured that we’re listening.” Usually, translators would love to have so much attention paid to their work. But in this case, the translator nearly gets strangled.
(Bad Nature is translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen.)
“I only had to try to get them to forgive me for words that were not mine—though they’d been on my lips, or had become real only through my lips, I was the one who had divulged them or deciphered them—but that was incredible, how could they hold me guilty for something that didn’t proceed from my head or my will or my spirit. But it had come from my tongue, my tongue had made it possible, from my tongue they had grasped what was happening… I was the messenger, the intermediary, the translator, the true deliverer of the news…”