New Worlds / New Words
      Translating Latin American Literature
Thomas Christensen, © 2007
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The original is unfaithful to the translation.

— Jorge Luis Borges
(1943, on Samuel Henley’s 1786 translation of William Beckford's Vathek; Henley’s translation was published before the original)

Broken World, Broken Words

In the Popul Vuh, one of the handful of Mayan texts to escape the auto-da-fé of the Spanish missionaries of the sixteenth century, the story is told that the first people who had speech sufficient to praise the gods were made of maize. Their language was the language of the gods themselves. When those first people gazed into the distance, they could see clear to the edge of the world and the end of time. But the perfection of the people of maize alarmed the gods, especially when they began to multiply and overrun the earth. Their perfect speech was withdrawn, and instead each group was endowed with its own language.

So we live in a broken world, the world of Babel. Our world is broken, because our language has been shattered into thousands of fragments. Words are no longer the perfect, transparent embodiment of things themselves but instead are mere pointers, signs by which we grope to know the world from multiple viewpoints. To the translator falls the Sisyphean task of rejoining those shards and restoring the limitless world, a seamless world again, as it once was, whole.

What Is Translation?

Any time we read literature, we perform an act of interpretation. Where interpretation fades into translation is difficult to establish. If in reading Chaucer we perform an act of translation into modern English, how are we not also translating when we interpret Shakespeare? To try to draw a line where translation begins is to confront a form of Zeno’s paradox. George Steiner believes that because language is constantly changing, “when we read or hear any language-statement from the past, be it Leviticus or last year’s best-seller, we translate. Reader, actor, editor are translators of language out of time.” But what about writing that is not distant in time but is distant in other ways, such as idiom or social milieu? Is our interpretation of such texts also an act of translation?

In a sense, language itself is a kind of translation—the transmission of messages from a speaker to a listener, just as translation, in the strictest sense, is the transmission of messages from a source language to a target language.<1> Language, and especially translation, is the fundamental expression of the recognition of the Other. “Language,” Tsvetan Todorov said, “exists only by means of the other, not only because one always addresses someone but also insofar as it permits evoking the absent third person.… But the very existence of this other is measured by the space the symbolic system reserves for him.” In this way, translation performs a quintessentially diplomatic function, for in the recognition of equality despite difference lies the basis of cooperation and hope for peaceful resolution of conflict. “Translation,” Robert M. Adams said, “is simply a special instance of the general, but terribly fragile, power of language to cross gaps, to communicate. It leads across a somewhat wider and more precisely defined gap than everyday speech tries to cross, but attempts to connect one mind with another in much the same way.”

Yet, as the Quiche authors of the Popul Vuh saw, language is also a means of exclusion. In contemporary jargon, languages serve not just to communicate but also to define in-group and out-group status.<2> An extreme example of this are esoteric and private “languages,” such as those found in the Kabbalah or Tantric Buddhism. Language is a fundamental element of social cohesiveness and identity, and the other side of that coin is separation and estrangement. So the meeting of languages through the mediation of speech or writing—of langues through instances of parole, in Saussure’s terms—is also a meeting of social groups. Through the act of translation, in other words, the translator draws together not just two texts, the original and the translation, but two cultures, represented by all the embodied history and intertextuality implied by those texts. Consequently, the alert translator must be sensitive to the implications of a multitude of specific choices, artfully balancing manifold references and connotations.

Cultural Transmission

Though one may imagine utilitarian origins of translation as a vehicle for trade and exchange,<3> some of the earliest written translations are of religious texts. (The extant Popol Vuh is a kind of translation, or bilingual edition. The Mayan text was transliterated in the Roman alphabet and accompanied by a Spanish crib.) Translations of sacred texts from Sanskrit and Pali into Chinese, for example, were instrumental in spreading Buddhism and other elements of South Asian culture into China and elsewhere. As a result, the Chinese were among the first to systematically confront some persistent issues in translation, and by the end of the fourth century a number of state-supported translation bureaus were actively addressing these questions.<4> The bureaus developed in great part from the efforts of a Buddhist monk of the Eastern Jin Dynasty named Dao An (314–385), who compiled a catalogue of scriptures and directed their translation. Dao An himself, however, did not know Sanskrit, and perhaps this limitation lay behind his demand that the translations should be literal, word for word. Still, he invited the Indian monk Kumarajiva (350-410) to join him in Changan to assist in the massive translation project, even though Kumarajiva advocated a free approach to translation that disregarded the surface in an effort to reach the essence of the Sanskrit sutras.

One more Chinese translator should be mentioned before we return to the Americas. His name was Xuanzang (600–664), and his struggles to bring sacred texts from India are the subject of the popular Ming dynasty classic A Journey to the West (which features the marvelous character Monkey). Xuanzang insisted that translation be both “truthful” and “intelligible to the populace.” In these terms we may hear echoes of the literal and the free approaches of his predecessors, Dao An and Kumarajiva. Xuanzang sought to construct a culturally equivalent text in the target language—and, incidentally, he worked both ways, not just translating into Chinese but also producing Sanskrit versions of Chinese classics such as the Daode jing (Tao Te Ching). He is therefore the model for the middle way of translation, which seeks a balance between the strict and the free.<5>

Among the American heirs of Xuanzang is Octavio Paz. Paz maintained that poetry must balance the traditional and the innovative. At either extreme, Paz said, lies failure: a poem that is too traditional offers nothing new and is not worth communicating, whereas a poem that is too inventive loses its common reference and cannot be communicated.<6> So the poet must strike a balance, and, Paz added, the translator must likewise strike a balance between the literal and the interpretive. This is one way in which translation is an art form, not a mechanical process.

Here is Adams again: “There is, at one extreme, a sort of parodic parallel which maintains just the least shred of trivial equivalence in one minimal respect, so that it may violate equivalence the more outrageously in all other respects. There is, at an opposite extreme, the technique of exact literal translation, which renders the meaning of the original word for word, without respect for the violence done to the idiom of the new tongue—which is, so to speak, abjectly faithful. Between these two rapes—one of the From-language, the other of the To-language—all sorts of more agreeable and equable arrangements are possible. They can very well be conceived as bargains,<7> in which one sort of equivalence is accomplished at the expense of others.”

The German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher put it this way (in 1813): “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.” Schleiermacher voted for the author, and he advocated a style of translation that highlighted the translated text’s foreignness rather than seeking to assimilate it as a plausible target-language creation. That might be a working strategy but it is a theoretical impossibility, for to retain the text’s foreignness in its totality would be to encounter Borges’s paradox of a map in which one inch equals one inch.<8>

Translation and Betrayal

At least by the time of Muhammad (born in Mecca around 570), translation of sacred texts came to be viewed with suspicion.<9> Muslims believe that the Koran embodies the direct word of God, presented to his prophet through the angel Gabriel. God was literally the author of the Koran—his prophet, who was illiterate, was merely his vehicle. God’s language was Arabic; therefore a true Koran can only be read in that language. Copying God’s work is a sacred act, with the result that many Korans are dazzling examples of book arts. But once the Word is translated, it stops being the direct word of God and becomes merely a sort of commentary, which is how translations of the Koran are usually viewed by believers. This attitude to translation reflects the recognition that all translations introduce new aspects and omit original aspects of the source text. It cannot be otherwise, for each language is a unique medium that carries an implicit corpus of intertextuality. Hence the Italian proverb traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor).

With the secularization of literature, it is a small step from the word of God the Author of All Things to the word of the author, writ small, of a particular text, and many authors have lamented the fallibility of translation.<10> Voltaire said that poetry couldn’t be translated, demanding: “Can you translate music?” Robert Frost echoed that sentiment, calling poetry “what gets lost in translation.” Samuel Johnson thought such untranslatability a good thing: “Poetry cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.”

Is poetry really what gets lost in translation? “I should say that poetry is what gets transformed,” Paz argued. “Poetry is ‘impossible’ to translate because you have to reproduce the materiality of the signs, its physical properties. Here is where translation as an art begins: since you cannot use the same signs of the original you must find equivalents.” Of course, the translator cannot completely reproduce the identical poetic effects of the original or we would have not a translation but a copy. Instead, new poetry must be created in the target language that is equivalent to the poetry of the original. The goal is equality in difference, which again is the ideal of the relation between the self and the other.

Perhaps the definitive example of encountering a previously unknown other is the encounter between the Old World and the New World. At the heart of this fateful encounter lies the figure of a translator. Todorov, whom I quoted earlier, has argued that Cortes’s triumph in Mexico was above all a linguistic triumph. It was a triumph that could not have been easily accomplished without the assistance of the woman the Spanish called Marina, popularly known as La Malinche (or la chingada, “the fucked one”). She epitomizes the two sides of the translator: the facilitator and the betrayer. Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, argues that for Mexicans La Malinche (who was Cortes’s mistress)<11> represents the violated mother. Through her son with Cortes she is said to have given birth to modern Mexicans, who are hijos de la chingada—sons of the bitch.

More recently, Chicana writers have reclaimed the figure of Malinche. After all, she was a slave (she had already been exchanged among native peoples at least twice before she was given up to the Spaniards). Moreover, some say her efforts did more to save native Mexicans than to destroy them. “Any denigrations made against her,” the Chicana writer Adelaida Del Castillo insists, “indirectly defame the character of the Mexicana/Chicana female. If there is shame for her, there is shame for us; we suffer the effects of these implications.”

Malinche—whom Bernal Díaz del Castillo called a “great lady” without whose help “we would not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico”—is the First Translator of the Americas,<12> and I hold her to be the patron saint of American translators, those faithless and heroic slaves to the uncompromising text.

The Poetics of Equivalence

If poetry is, as Paz maintained, what gets transformed in literary translation, how is this to be achieved? The translator must create new poetic effects equivalent to those of the original—but what constitutes “equivalence”? To answer these questions requires a sophisticated understanding of the various ways in which literature signifies, a topic to which there is no end.<13> In general, texts acquire meaning through their relation to other texts, through a variety of effects, some of which are illustrated in this anthology.

The notion of “equivalence” in translation is imprecise and falls upon the translator to determine as a personal judgment. If one adheres to the relativistic anthropological view of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf that each language determines a fundamentally distinct worldview, then translation might entail the explication of a succession of puzzles at the surface level. (For example, how does one translate the word machismo, for which English has no exact equivalent, without elaboration?)<14>

If, on the other hand, one subscribes to the view of transformational linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker that there is a universal language instinct,<15> of which each particular language is a kind of fractal manifestation, then the translator would pay less attention to surface detail, viewing translation as an alembic reduction of the original to the deep level of universal language, followed by its transmutation into the target language.

Behind the Popul Vuh’s account of the fragmentation of languages—and similar myths and legends from other cultures—is the notion of a universal primal language, or Ur-Sprache, that has been lost. Using the transformational model, the translator is one who dives deep into the primal stream to carry the message of the text from one shore to the other. Translation then involves in effect not two but three texts, counting the invisible mediation of the implicit shared grammar that underlies both the source and the target.

New World, New Words

However translators feel about the process they are engaged in, their actual practice entails the juggling of a multitude of local choices. The translator gives up something here, then balances that loss against another opportunity, and so on in an endless series of trade-offs and reconciliations. Some of the elements the translator must be mindful of—voice, tone, rhythm, extratextual considerations, the translator’s own persona—are exemplified by the following selections. These broad categories are not offered as a theory of translation, merely as a somewhat arbitrary means of highlighting the real-world concerns of working translators. Nor is any attempt made to perform critical analyses of the selections—of either the originals or the translations—which instead are presented with a minimum of comment as specimens for readers to explore on their own.

Many of the selections are drawn from the pages of TWO LINES: A Journal of Translation, an annual collection of international literature in English translation published by the Center for the Art of Translation, an organization that promotes international literature and translation through programs in the arts, education, and community outreach. This book collects translations from Spanish-speaking America, from Mexico to Argentina. To make the project more manageable, we have excluded Chicano literature from the United States and Canada, as well as Latin American literature in other languages, such as Portuguese or French. We have also emphasized literature of the past few decades rather than older works from periods that are better represented in English, although some older material could not be resisted. The one thing the selections have in common is that they have attracted the interest of some of the most interesting English-language translators. Thanks to their efforts, we hope both to illuminate the translator’s art and to present a cross-section of recent American writing in Spanish.


1 And if thought is a form of internalized language, as some claim—the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria, for example, who said that “apart from being a means of communicating, language is fundamental to perception and memory, thinking and behavior. It organizes our inner life”—then the labors of translators are like the synapses of collective cross-cultural cerebration, working at the planetary level to, as E. M. Forster said, “only connect.” <return to text>

2 In a recent study, researchers at Harvard and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales concluded that young children were suspicious of foreign-language speakers even before they themselves had learned to talk. Linguistically defined identity can be clearly observed in cases where nations contain sharp language divisions, such as French and English speakers in Canada, for example. Linguistic subversion often appears in such situations—James Joyce addresses this in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Black English might be another example of a subversive idiom employing private signifiers. <return to text>

3 The distinction between utilitarian and nonutilitarian exchange is evasive. The structuralist critic Jacques Ehrman has argued “that all literature constitutes an economics of language, that literature is language’s economy…. Every rhetorical structure is therefore an economic system.” <return to text>

4 The translators were “usually furnished with spacious quarters within the royal precincts or in some famous temple,” according to Kenneth Ch’en. <return to text>

5 John Dryden said that translations fall into three classes: metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal translation, the way of Dao An. Imitation is free translation that does not closely follow the source text; this is the way of Kumarajiva. Paraphrase is the middle way, the way of Xuanzang. This somewhat schematic discussion of Chinese translation owes a debt to Weihe Zhong’s “An Overview of Translation in China,” Translation Journal 7:2 (April 2003). For fuller and more nuanced views, see Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China; Chen Fukang, A History of Translation Theory in China; and Wang Kefei and Shouyi Fan, “Translation in China: A Motivating Force,” Meta: Journal des traducteurs 4:1 (1999). <return to text>

6 In our post-Babel world, the limits of Paz’s equation will be determined differently by each reader. <return to text>

7 This recalls Ehrman’s assertion that rhetorical structure is an economic system, as cited in note 3 above. It’s curious that the economic model should so often emerge in discussions of translation, considering that a career in translation today is akin to a vow of poverty. Could cultural transmission be an epiphenomenon of trade and exchange? <return to text>

8 Or perhaps his account of Pierre Menard, who happened to author a perfect duplicate of Cervante’s Quixote. Borges's map is indebted to Lewis Carroll. Schleiemacher is quoted in Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility. <return to text>

9 No doubt suspicion has always clung to the translator, who, crossing borders, travels dangerous territory. Dao An’s insistence on literal translation, noted above, might be seen as an expression of such suspicion. <return to text>

10 Sometimes the failures of translation are immediately evident. Carlos Fuentes told me once about visiting Russia and being presented with an elegantly slim volume said to be the Russian version of Cambio de Piel (A Change of Skin, which exceeds five hundred pages in the original). “We took out all the parts that wouldn’t work for Russian readers,” his hosts assured him. This is free translation at an extreme. <return to text>

11 “We touch here,” to quote George Steiner (in After Babel) from a somewhat different, though related, context, “on one of the most important yet least understood areas of biological and social existence. Eros and language mesh at every point. Intercourse and discourse, copula and copulation, are sub-classes of the dominant fact of communication. They arise from the life-need of the ego to reach out and comprehend, in the two vital senses of ‘understanding’ and ‘containment,’ another human being. Sex is a profoundly semantic act.” <return to text>

12 Not chronologically first. But Cortes’s first translator, Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had been shipwrecked and lived among the Maya before the arrival of Cortes, played a more limited and less profound role. <return to text>

13 John Hollander says that “a theory of translation would have to be a theory of literature in general.” This statement and some I have quoted from Octavio Paz are drawn from The Poet’s Other Voice by Edwin Honig. <return to text>

14 The practicing translator will probably choose from possible choices ranging approximately from “manliness” to “balls” (or retain a degree of foreigness and leave “machismo” untranslated) and then try to balance what is lost or gained from that with other choices—or “bargains” in Robert M. Adams’s vocabulary—elsewhere. <return to text>

15 In The Descent of Man, Darwin called language “an instinctive tendency to acquire an art.” <return to text>

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This essay is the introduction to New World / New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas, A Bilingual Anthology, coming late summer 2007 as the first in the Two Lines World Library series from the Center for the Art of Translation (with a foreword by Gregory Rabassa). I've decided to post it here, thinking that it is more likely to help than hurt sales. Don't prove me wrong! CAT is a worthy nonprofit organization that deserves your support. Order a copy of the book, or other good stuff, from CAT here.

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