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CULTURE | 10-10-2020 09:02

My triumphant Scrabble novel

Writer and translator Daniel Tunnard on representing Argentina at the Scrabble World Cup, his new novel and the irresolvable translation problems that came with it.

I remember the exact moment when I had the idea for my Scrabble novel, Escapes. October 2009. Maybe November. Pretty sure it was a Saturday. 

Future wife Josefina and I were in Tigre, at a house we used to rent, sitting outside, looking at the river. Marijuana had most likely been smoked. We decided to have our first ever game of Scrabble, on a tiny Travel Scrabble set. There were tiles missing. Other tiles fell from the table and into the cracks in the wooden deck. They were magnetic tiles, but still. It wasn’t the most memorable of games. But that was when I had the idea for a novel based around a game of Scrabble, a couple playing their last ever game of Scrabble, a game on which some great prize or forfeit rests. In Tigre. 

I started writing the novel, but then I decided to take all the buses in Buenos Aires and write a book about that instead. In 2012 I thought the time had come for me to write my triumphant Scrabble novel. But then my mum beat me at Scrabble for the first time in 20 years, playing ‘SHITTING’ on the treble treble for 167 points. I took this as a sign that I shouldn’t write my Scrabble novel. I took all the trains in Argentina instead, and wrote a book about that. (You can find these books, in Spanish, on MercadoLibre and the like, hugely underrated.)

I usually write in English and then translate into Spanish. Being the kind of person who worries about things that will probably never happen, I realised that there would be a potentially irresolvable translation problem in my Scrabble novel when I came to translate it into Spanish. The novel revolves around the words on the Scrabble board. These words are in English, using the 100 letters available in English Scrabble, with the relevant distributions and points. Each word played is relevant to the tale of passion, shame and woe recounted therein. 

But what would happen when this was then translated? Surely no translator could, or would even be willing, to take the time to plan out the Scrabble board in the target language so that fitting translations of the words in the original game could be rendered, using the relevant tile distribution and letters of the foreign language Scrabble (Spanish-language Scrabble includes the tiles CH, LL, RR and Ñ and excludes K and W; there are more Cs and fewer Gs, which vexes your average Spanish-language Scrabble player). 

So I decided that the two players would play words valid in both English and Spanish. There are more of these words than you’d think. I made a list, the first of many. This would at least make it possible to translate the book into Spanish, if no other language. One good idea led to another, and I thought the whole novel could then be bilingual, not in the sense of a book in one language with the translation on the opposite page, but with alternate chapters in English and Spanish, the narrators an English woman and an Argentine man. This meant that I would have the challenge of writing from the point of view of two characters not entirely familiar to me, for I am neither Argentine nor a woman, though I have spent considerable time among both, and have read Borges and Caitlin Moran. 

I played former world champion Claudia Amaral, in Spanish. She thrashed me in three games. I didn’t touch a Scrabble board for another nine months. I finally started writing the novel in July 2016 but then thought, hey, I ought to play a couple of games of competitive Scrabble to see what it’s really like and ensure authenticity and all that. Just a couple of games, mind. And then I really got addicted to competitive Scrabble and didn’t write anything for a year or two. Every month I would drive 300 kilometres from my home in Entre Ríos to the Argentine Scrabble Association in Palermo and play seven rounds of Scrabble against the country’s best players. I went to regional tournaments in Lima, Santiago, Montevideo. I represented Argentina at three Scrabble World Cups, finishing 13th in Mexico in 2018. It was a grand old time. I completely forgot all about the novel I was supposed to be writing. (I even beat Claudia Amaral, and five other former or current world champions.)

It wasn’t until at the conclusion of a five-day weekend, in early April 2018, just as building work began on a garage extension to our house, that I set myself the obligation of writing for an hour every morning, after walking the dogs, before I did anything else. 

Finally, this worked. I finished the novel, in its unedited, unembellished, bilingual state in late June, around about the time the builders finished the garage. They’d said it would be finished by late May, but we knew better than to take them at their word. The novel was bilingual, but I translated the Spanish bits into English. Because, let’s face it, no publisher was going to touch that. 

 

* Daniel Tunnard is a British writer and translator, based in Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos Province. He is the author of Colectivaizeishon (2013) and Trenspotting en los ferrocarriles argentinos (2016). His new novel, Escapes, is published in English by Unnamed Press. The paperback can be ordered from bookdepository.com, or as an ebook via Amazon or any ebook seller of your choice. A Spanish translation is expected for 2021.

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Daniel Tunnard

Daniel Tunnard

British author and translator, based in Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos Province.

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