Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Patrick Madden on Exactitude in Translation (feat. Eduardo Galeano with a Christmas Eve pun)

I have just finished reading Eduardo Galeano's last book, Hunter of Stories, in English translation, against Karina's advice, and I admit that she was utterly correct to question my judgment. I know Spanish well enough, and I do own the book in its original language, but that copy is miles away at my office, and I am sick, and I'd been waiting so long to say goodbye to Eduardo, who died many years ago, and I've been rereading my favorites of his books but avoiding this one, I suppose because the act felt too final, but this long weekend seemed like the right time to finally do it, "it" being to read, but also to bid farewell, which is not really farewell, as Eduardo himself learned as a young man in the old cafes of Montevideo:

I discovered that the past could become the present, and that memories could be recounted in such a way that they would stop being yesterday and become right now.

So maybe I was just missing my old friend and I wanted him present again, and Karina was right that I should have listened to his voice unfiltered through a translator. This point came home to me most clearly near the end of the book, in a scene from years ago in Montevideo's Parque Rodó, which the translator renders (in part) thusly:

suddenly I found myself surrounded by an uproarious crowd of children, dressed in their school uniforms, the girls with big blue ribbons in their hair.

As I've mentioned, Cazador de Historias is ensconced on a shelf in my university office. I will write the next bit before I get the book.

Reading that line, I knew it was mistranslated. I felt curious, a bit miffed, a bit betrayed, a bit territorial, a bit elitist. I wondered why Mark Fried, who'd translated eight of Galeano's books, who'd worked with him for twenty-five years, would have interpreted the idea this way into English, knowingly or unwittingly. My cavil was with the ribbons. While it's possible that some girls wore blue ribbons in their hair, I'm certain that Galeano was noting the big blue bows on the front of every Uruguayan schoolchild's uniform, boys and girls alike. I imagine the translator, encountering a strange detail that didn't map onto his experience, deciding that Galeano must have meant ribbons in the girls' hair, a logical place for such things. Who ever heard of a school uniform featuring giant blue bows, or, for that matter, flowing knee-length white smocks buttoned up in back? Who would design such a cruel outfit, not for private school students, whose risible getups are an expected part of their hazing, but for every child in the public schools of a country that led the Americas in establishing free, obligatory, laical education for all (1876)?

I guess I'm surprised that Fried seems either never to have visited Uruguay, or never to have noticed the ubiquitous schoolchildren in their silly uniforms, or maybe he visited only in the summer, or he didn't think to check on what must have seemed an odd phrasing in Galeano's Spanish (Galeano would have been dead by the time Fried got to this part of the book, I believe, so he couldn't have consulted). Or perhaps he decided not to "go there" in describing the reality Galeano had written, knowing that most of his English-speaking readers would be confused by an accurate depiction of the scene. But not this reader.

I have just found the Spanish edition of the book and checked the original phrasing. I was right (of course; I wouldn't complete this essay, or release it into the world, if I were wrong). Here it is:

me encontré súbitamente rodeado por una alborotada multitud de niños, vestidos con sus túnicas escolares y sus grandes moños azules.

I like "uproarious" for "alborotada"; "crowd" is better than the cognate "multitude." Same for "uniform" instead of "tunic," though the latter term gets us much closer to an accurate visual. Syntactically, "suddenly I found myself" is the expected rendering of what reads as "myself [I] encountered suddenly" in word-for-word translation. Nearly everything feels pleasing, both accurate and artful, but maybe even the non-Spanish speaker can see that there are absolutely no "girls" and no "hair" here. Just "grandes moños azules" = "grand moños azures" = "big blue bows" ("moño" is supposed to have entered Latin from Etruscan, where "muhn" meant "knot").

I don't know why this bothers me so much, but I imagine it has something to do with the unavoidable imperfections of translation, or even the imprecisions of writing generally. For instance, I have been to Parque Rodó, numerous times, so I can locate Galeano's scene in a kind of general scenery/geography. In fact, I do locate it (unconsciously) just outside the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, where I once ran into the novelist Mario Delgado Aparaín. Obviously, the happenstantial similarities deepen the topographical. In this transposition of memories, I guess I am the rowdy schoolchildren and Delgado is Galeano (note the near anagram: 5 of 7 letters). But I am certain that my image is "wrong," not only because what are the chances, but also because Galeano used to always walk along the riverfront, which intersects the park several blocks from the museum, nearer to the amusement park, which seems like a more likely place for kids to (want to) be. Of course, a reader doesn't have to visualize the scene with any measure of specificity (and even my sharpest experiential memory of the park is only hazy and vague) to get the point of the vignette, which is that the children were excited to see an author they'd read in school; that they hailed him as "lord of the flames," misattributing to him a story he'd recounted from an unnamed man from Neguá, Colombia; and that, as Galeano points out to end his piece, this was "the only title of nobility [he'd] ever received." There's a lot here, but mostly the inversion of our expectations about value, about whom we ought to impress. Not only does the piece celebrate children; it undermines the whole system of back-patting honorifics. It's typical Galeano, in a good way.

So why should it matter if the translator transplanted the blue bows to the girls' hair?

I guess I could ask you how you would read "an uproarious crowd of children, dressed in their school uniforms and their big blue bows." Would you breeze by the description? Pause to consider it? Wonder what those bows were doing? Where they were located? Might you place them in girls' hair anyway? And does knowing that they’re on every child, dangling just below the neck, on a dresslike white smock, advance the plot? Does it help you understand anything about any message? Or does it give you another kind of pause? Are you heading to your search engine right now to see this sight?

Here. I'll save you the trouble:

For me, who didn't grow up in Uruguay and who's never worn the uniform, but whose children have (betimes, when we have lived in Montevideo long term), the sight of those comical dandy-painter costumes always elicits a smile, sometimes even a chuckle. Karina repeats the party line about how the uniforms equalize rich and poor, because nobody sees whether your clothes are ratty or fashionable, but I'm not so sure. For one thing, you can see pants legs and shoes; for another, maybe your smock is not in the best condition. A related justification she gives is that kids never have to worry about what clothes they'll wear to school because they're covered up with the uniform anyway. I mean, yes, those are possible interpretations of the tunic-and-bow, but couldn't we also be perpetuating a minor humiliation on our children, or, better said, a humbling, to good purpose? Enforcing a kind of uniformity as a means of, well, uniting them, us, not just spatially-socioeconomically but temporally-historically? Children wear the same uniform their parents wore, same as their grandparents and great-grandparents wore, same as those kids who thronged Eduardo Galeano that day. Dress (as redress) is yet another way past becomes present. Everybody does it. Has done it. See? We all survived. We're still here.

And while we're still here, extrapolating ad nauseam from such a trifling mistranslation, I should clarify that I'm resolutely against the idea that writing is purely secondary to what we commonly call "reality." Galeano first taught me this:

We begin with the moment an act happens in reality, outside an author's head, and then the author reproduces in himself what happened outside himself. Then this idea, this reproduction of the act inside the author's head, also becomes part of reality. The original act, which comes directly or indirectly from reality, is transfigured in the process of creation.

You would be right, given all we've been through, to wonder what this statement sounded like when Galeano spoke it through the air to my ears two decades ago in Cafe Brasilero in Montevideo's Old City. For the benefit of Spanish speakers or Google translators, I'll share a transcription here, noting, with a humbled smile, how my own translation smoothed over quite a few extemporaneously rough edges:

...y de algún modo siempre a partir del momento en el que un hecho que proviene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad, o sea un hecho ocurrido en la realidad que está fuera del autor, o un hecho nacido en la cabeza del autor, que al fin y al cabo es un ser en sociedad, por lo tanto reproduce dentro de sí lo que acontece afuera, por lo tanto eso también es parte de la realidad. Ese hecho que viene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad se transfigura en el proceso de creación.

When he said it, amidst hours of jovial conversation, it struck me as something utterly new and vitally important to understand. I comprehended, epiphanically, the power behind the motto Galeano printed on all his books: "la creación literaria": literary creation: the idea that the written word not only derived from but created reality. Reality expanded infinitely, immediately, it seemed.

Before we move on, allow me a brief additional consideration of transfigurations. All this reminds me of another Galeano piece, one of the "Walls Speak" segments in Walking Words, where an unknown graffitist has written

Las vírgenes tienen muchas navidades, pero ninguna noche buena

which was translated as

Virgins have many Christmases but no christenings

The grace of the Spanish joke is that Christmas Eve is called "Nochebuena," or "Good Night." So the sentiment of the graffiti is that virgins (recalling Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus, of course) may celebrate many Christmases, but they don't have any good nights. Ever. Because...well, you get it. The problem with the translation is that, while it's technically true (or is it? a virgin could attend the christening of a friend's child), it's not funny. Yes, there's the alliterative wordplay, but there's no pun. So I tried my own translation:

For virgins Christmas comes but once a year, but every night's a silent night

While the rhythm stutters at the outset (that pesky "for"), it settles into a pleasing, regular trochaic nonameter. And what's more, it finds a pun in the same last position, and with the same literal Christmas-Eve connection, and with a very similar double meaning, as the original. In order to pull off that feat, it has to revise the initial premise (from "many Christmases" to rare Christmases), but this feels like a more forgivable revision than ditching the joke altogether.

Which reminds me of yet another nitpick I've had with a Galeano translation, but I'll spare the backstory and simply let Eduardo remind us that

every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated, or forgiven.


Patrick Madden, author of Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), teaches at Brigham Young University and curates the online anthology of classical essays

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