Issue 233, Summer 2020
Margaret Jull Costa is a name revered in some circles and utterly unknown in others, yet more readers have fallen under the spell of her words than realize it. The greatest translator of Portuguese literature into English, she has taken on Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, and António Lobo Antunes, and lent her refined style to two giants of the late nineteenth century, José Maria Eça de Queirós and his Brazilian contemporary Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. From Spanish, Jull Costa often translates her generational peers, prominent writers such as Álvaro Pombo, Luisa Valenzuela, and Enrique Vila-Matas, while accompanying Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga for their entire careers. A translator cannot live on the canon alone, and her singularly prolific body of work—an astounding 130 titles—includes best-selling authors Paulo Coelho and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Her numerous honors include an Order of the British Empire for services to literature, an Ordem do Infante Dom Henrique from the Portuguese government, and a Lifetime Award for Excellence in Translation from the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute.
As a fellow translator from Portuguese, I had long been aware of Jull Costa’s unrivaled reputation, but hadn’t spent much time with her translations. Reading them attentively in preparation for this interview, I found her choices quietly astonishing but never questionable. She performs an alchemy that merges precision with the ability to breathe a distinct personality into each work, producing a voice that is unwaveringly her own while simultaneously true to another writer’s sensibility. Jull Costa’s approach is impossible to emulate, built on a deep connection to her own intuition, a finely tuned ear, and an idiosyncratic well of literary English. “I just do it,” she explains, her most emphatic advice being to read as widely and as often as possible.
Jull Costa has translated more poetry in recent years, and we began this interview in April 2019, when she visited New York for a series of events with the Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral to celebrate the U.S. publication of Amaral’s collection What’s in a Name (2017, translation 2019). They visited my translation workshop at Columbia University, and we met on campus again the next evening when I moderated their panel discussion. A planned Saturday outing to the Morgan Library turned into coffee after coffee in their rented Chelsea apartment—there was too much to talk about.
In person, Jull Costa presents a mix of boldness and decorum similar to her translations. She is striking and elegant even in no-nonsense turtlenecks, with a mellifluous British lilt that instantly lowers your blood pressure. Regal but not imperious, she radiates tranquil self-assurance accentuated by a Joan of Arc halo of iron-gray hair and a way of seeming taller than most in a room. Quick to laugh and unassuming almost to a fault, she’s nevertheless as decisive as a general, as when she marshaled the students in my workshop during a group translation of a poem, with magnificent results. Jull Costa preferred to conduct the majority of our interview in writing, and we carried on a conversation that branched out over a shared document from December through this January. I pictured her at the desk she claims is “always a mess” in her study overlooking the village green in a suburb of Leicester, a formerly industrial city in the Midlands, where she moved from Cambridge twenty-six years ago with her genial husband Ben Sherriff, a retired lecturer in literature.
Jull Costa was born in 1949, the youngest of three, in Richmond upon Thames, in the southwest extreme of greater London. Her father served in the navy during World War II and back home was an on-site construction manager, while her mother worked as a bookkeeper. Like many in her profession, Jull Costa took a winding path—through academia, bookselling, copyediting, and lexicography, among other pursuits—which turned out to be an accidental apprenticeship for becoming a literary translator in her midthirties. A self-identified “translation addict,” she has published roughly three to six books a year for over three decades—a dizzying pace, considering the overall difficulty of these works. At seventy, she shows little sign of slowing down, except to take on cotranslators in the past five years. Perhaps it has to do with growing up in postwar England, but Jull Costa maintains an even-keeled “keep calm and carry on” attitude toward even the most daunting of projects, including upcoming translations of César Vallejo’s avant-garde poetry, Clarice Lispector’s complete crônicas, and further work by Pessoa and Machado.