Fate: The Inevitable Betrayal in Translating
One day I receive a small envelope in the mail; it's been sent by Miguel Ángel Montezanti. Miguel is a professor of Literary Translation at the University of La Plata. We've already corresponded several times, mainly about his magnificent version of Shakespeare's sonnets. This time, however, what I receive doesn't seem to be very related with his activities and interests.
It's a 27-page opuscule including five short stories, all of which focus on the gauchos of the Argentine pampas in the past. The small book, I read on the cover, had been awarded first prize in the "Hesperides International Contest on Short Stories and Poetry." Not so much the award itself but the fact that Miguel had written it immediately inspires me to read this surprising material.
I am even more surprised when I read the short stories. I had imagined Miguel to be totally immersed in, and imbued by, the Anglo-Saxon world. Apart from Shakespeare's sonnets and other works, he has translated T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Wilfred Owen's poems. As a professor he has always worked with English and American authors. Everything I knew about him had made a very different impression on me than the one which this small book suggests: that of a man profoundly knowledgeable of the language, customs and mind of the gauchos. An unexpected bent. As if a highly regarded painter had presented ... his latest quartet for strings!
I relish the five short stories, especially one called, in the gaucho's' laconic manner, "Fate." No sooner had I finished reading it than I began to outline a project.
Much has been said about the "untranslatability" of some works, the utopian goal of recovering the endless nuances, subtleties and intricacies of a different centuries-old culture in another language. Traduttore, traditore is an irrefutable truth. As readers or translators, we've all had experiences with attempts that are frustrated by the nature of the task itself. In this case, I suddenly realized that I had before me a potentially useful example, and the circumstances were very favorable. I had a story with many elements about the gaucho culture, which according to what I said above are, a priori, impossible to render in another language. I had an author who knew the English language like the back of his hand. Finally, I knew an American translator who has lived in Argentina for years and was a good reader of works about the culture of the pampas.
At the time Laura Pakter was participating in one of my Spanish translation workshops. She had consulted me with the aim of improving her Spanish. She usually translated from Spanish into English but didn't feel at home the other way around. I asked her to read Miguel's "Fate" and, when she told me she had liked it, I proposed she translate the beginning of the story, more or less four hundred words. Afterwards, I told her, we would discuss her translation and the final version would be sent to Miguel for his approval.
Thus we did. But we couldn't foresee that the minutiae of which I'll speak later (see the "Comments") forced us to make five versions before daring to consult the author— and another two after he had given his opinion.
So, here we have the beginning of "Fate," which can be read independently of the rest of the story. Then comes the seventh English version, left as it was, without any explanatory notes, in compliance with the express wishes of the author. This is the version that would be read by any interested English-speaking reader. The "Comments" indicate two kinds of elements. On the one hand, the solutions that in our view are satisfactory and why. On the other hand, the "untranslatable" is explained in greater detail for the English reader to understand as much as a Spanish reader that is knowledgeable of the gauchos' world. These betrayals were inevitable— at least for these translators.
by Miguel Ángel Montezanti
Translated by Laura Pakter
[The original Spanish for every phrase and/or clause is given first, and then its English translation].
— Desde el cepo colombiano, ...
— Locked tightly into the stocks, ...
Comment: The stocks (cepo) are a very old, probably medieval, instrument of torture and punishment. The cepo colombiano was used in South America. It was based on the same principle. While the victim's head and arms were locked into holes in a wooden frame in the European stocks, in the cepo colombiano the prisoner was subjugated and suffocated by leather straps tied tightly to two crossed rifles. It was also called "cepo de campaña" (country stocks). Sometimes only one rifle, or merely a stick, was crossed under the prisoner's knees and placed on the arms at the level of the elbows. The victim's wrists were tied up in front on his shins. He was thus left sitting on the ground, embracing his knees for a long period without being able to change positions. Eventually, out of extreme exhaustion, he would fall over on one side to the ground. That is why the Spanish text says that the cepo colombiano .".. lo compenetraba (literally, made him one with)" the dirt of the cell.
The English translation shows a clear loss of specificity as regards the torture instrument. The loss is all the more important if we take into account that the story takes place in Argentina, where the cepo colombiano was used far more frequently than the common stocks.
— que lo compenetraba con la tierra del calabozo, ...
— his body encrusted with the dirt of the cell,...
Comment: It was not easy to arrive at this final rendering. The first five versions read "which dug deep into him, as did the dirt from his cell." It was the author himself, when the 5th version was submitted to him, who suggested this concise formula in only one clause. However, as we noted above, the interesting Spanish word "compenetraba," which suggests that man and soil are the same thing, is not wholly transmitted with the English "encrusted." Moreover, such a simple word as "tierra"— variously translated into English as "earth," "soil," or "dust," as the case may be— acquires in "dirt" the added nuance of a filthy place. We think it is not the word "tierra" itself that justifies using "dirt," but that it is coherent with the context.
— Juan Almirón comprendió que pudo y no pudo quedarse en las casas aquella tarde,...
— Juan Almirón understood that he could but could not have stayed at the shacks that afternoon,...
Comment: The translation is faithful, except in two points. Where the original was "pudo y no pudo," the translation reads "could but could not"; that is, the conjunctive nexus was replaced by one of opposition. The phrase "pudo y no pudo" refers to the fact that a man's will does not always belong to him: there are instincts, impulses, pressing needs that make him change it. Both translators thought that the English "but" was fitting in that it further reinforced that inner contradiction. The author approved.
Then comes "las casas." This plural is very common in the Argentine countryside, even when referring to only one house, one's own house. That house is quite unlike the urban house. However modest or even destitute, the latter is completely different from the "rancho," the house of a poor countryman. The origin of the plural "las casas" is derived from the fact that "ranchos" are usually grouped together forming "rancheríos." We thought the English word "shack" was a good rendering for "rancho," and there did not appear to be any problem pluralizing it.
— mientras su mujer remendaba la ropa con una aguja finita y su hija de ocho años practicaba un bordado.
— while his wife mended the clothes with a fine needle and his eight-year-old daughter practiced her embroidery.
Comment: Again, the rendering faithfully follows the original except in "fine needle" for "aguja finita." The needle used for embroidering is much bigger than the one used for sewing; hence, neither "little needle" nor "thin needle" seemed to capture the difference. Embroidery needles have different degrees of thickness so that "finita" is used in a rather comparative sense.
— Había llovido hasta el cansancio,...
— The endless rain was wearying,...
Comment: This solution was not easily found, either. Previous attempts resulted in "It had been pouring with rain" or "It had been pouring endlessly with rain." However, something was lost in these renderings because the Spanish "hasta el cansancio" shows the subjective effect rain has on idle people, and this nuance was absent. Eventually, the verb "to weary," added to the adjective "endless," allowed a closer approach to the author's intention.
— buena oportunidad para arreglar el apero, que estaba cayéndose a pedazos.
— It was a good moment to repair the horse's gear, which was falling to pieces.
Comment: (1) "moment" is better than the more formal "opportunity" in a context such as this. (2) "the horse's gear": I will discuss this below. (3) "was falling to pieces" is a perfect equivalent to the Spanish— one of the rare cases in which a source language idiom coincides literally with one in a target language.
Let us see "el apero." In the first version, it read "the harness," a word etymologically connected with the Spanish "arnés." However, the "apero," as the set of elements used for riding a horse, is a typical Argentine or South American word. The elements comprising the "apero" are far different from those of the European or North American "harness." If we had used this word, which designates every kind of device for riding a horse, the loss would have been evident.
In the second English version, the "apero" became "gear and trappings." It was thought that the splitting of the Spanish word into two might be a way to suggest the great amount of pieces included in the "apero." Finally, we reached the shorter "horse's gear."
For anyone who is familiar with the Argentine "apero," it is clear that "horse's gear" is not a complete description. However, there seemed to be no other way to explain the complex makeup of the "apero" except in a footnote. And, as we said in the "Introduction," footnotes had been expressly prohibited by the author because they would destroy the literary effect of the story.
— Ir a la pulpería significaba pendencia segura.
— Going over to the pulpería would undoubtedly mean a fight.
Comment: Our reader has surely noticed that we have not resorted to linguistic borrowings either in "cepo colombiano" or in "apero." Our purpose was to avoid them as much as possible. We wanted the English translation to sound as readable and natural to foreign readers as if it had been written in their own language. The abuse of borrowings makes translations lose this character. The only exception to the rule in this fragment was "pulpería." Neither "general store" nor "tavern," the terms given by several bilingual dictionaries, transmits the characteristics of the unique pulpería— a place not only to drink liquor and socialize but also to buy yerba for the mate, corn, flour, and the rest of the most common products that the gaucho generally consumes.
— Quedarse en el rancho era lo mismo que desgraciarse.
— If he stayed at the shack, he might have to do the unlawful.
Comment: (1) One short clause without commas has been transformed into two classical conditional clauses. (2) "era lo mismo" was divided between the initial "If" and then the "he might have to do." No other formula could be found that was proximate enough and natural. 3) The original "desgraciarse" became "to do the unlawful"; and it is here, perhaps, where the loss is more clearly appreciated. The verb "desgraciarse" is rare, almost unknown in urban areas, while its gaucho ring is quite perceptible. It goes beyond simply committing a crime, it is to fall into disfavor with life itself, attracting misfortune— which the gaucho feels is ever present and inevitable— as if he were being drawn into his own fate.
— Su pequeñita tierra, al norte de Paraná, era codiciada:
— His small piece of land, north of Paraná, was much coveted.
Comment: The Spanish diminutives are not only meant to designate smallness. Many of them contain a component, sometimes unconscious, of tenderness, brotherhood, or love. It is not easy to render it in English, where the "small piece of land" is deprived of the emotional significance it has for its owner.
The final adjective ("codiciada") was reinforced by an adverb in the translation ("much coveted"), in line with what follows in the story.
— : él lo sabía.
— That he knew.
Comment: In the original, this brief clause comes after a colon, that is, it is part of the same sentence. In English it is a separate sentence. Sentences are, in general, much more divided and fragmented in English than in Spanish. Therefore, to keep it natural, punctuation in Spanish translations must quite often be altered, as in this case.
— También era codiciada su mujer, linda como flor de ceibo.
— So was his wife, who was as beautiful as the flower of the ceibo tree
Comment: The repetition of "was" is necessary in English, while it would have sound redundant in Spanish. The gaucho calls "mujer" the woman whom he lives with, who may or may not be his "wife"; frequently she isn't. However, to use "his woman" here instead of "his wife" would have sounded artificial.
In the second clause, "linda como flor de ceibo," there are many semantic units that are difficult to reproduce in another language. First, it is a common stock saying. Second, it is quite concise. Third, there is no English term that can thoroughly capture "lindo," a more emotional and less formal word than "pretty," "fine," "beautiful," or "lovely." Last but not least, "flor de ceibo" is a very common phrase that any inhabitant of the pampas has on the tip of the tongue, while in English it had to be expanded: "the flower of the ceibo tree."
— El juez menudeaba las visitas y a él lo despachaba con algún encargo.
— The judge was increasingly stopping by and sending him off on errands.
Comment: The verb "menudear" is not only a regionalism that is almost unheard-of in cities, but is also ironical. It includes the idea of something that increases gradually, which has been captured in the adverb "increasingly." In the original, the fact that "a él" comes before the verb is significant, since it underlines that the judge did not send Almiron's wife on errands— he wanted to stay with her alone. The formula "lo despachaba" is pejorative: the judge dealt with Almirón as if he were his office boy or his farmhand. Finally, the word "algún" in "con algún encargo" emphasizes that the errand was totally irrelevant, futile: what mattered was that the husband left. Unfortunately, all these nuances are lost in the translation.
— Esta vez — así lo había resuelto— sería la última.
— But this time, he had determined, would be the last.
Comment: There is a total correspondence between the source and the target texts— except in punctuation. Incidental clauses between dashes are either much less frequent in English (only one dash is used at the beginning of the clause), or they do not stress what is enclosed between them as much as in Spanish— contrary to what happens with parentheses, most often used to include something secondary or even superfluous. This is a further difference in punctuation between both languages.
— Pero no tuvo valor para enfrentarla.
— Yet, he did not have the courage to face up to it.
Comment: The initial "Pero" is somewhat more categorical in Spanish than the English "Yet," because it is much more unusual to begin a sentence with "Pero" in Spanish than it is in English with "Yet." The translation has another advantage over the original. In Spanish, "enfrentarla" can only be understood as referring to the previous "Esta vez"; otherwise, it should be written either "enfrentarlo" or "enfrentar la situación." Now this is exactly what is expressed by "to face up to it."
— Si sacaba la daga iba a ser para matar. Y mató, nomás.
— If he pulled out his knife, it would be to kill. And that he did.
Comment: If one looks at a picture or photograph of a European daga and knows what the gaucho's facón looks like, one is immediately aware that they are not the same objects. However, the Argentine countryman adopted the European word for his knife— which was not only used as a weapon but as a tool for many daily tasks— so that the translation "knife" is correct.
As to the second sentence, how removed the English is from "nomás," an emphatic way in Spanish to say "just" but also to show the inexorable weight of fate!
— Pudo no haber matado cuando lo saludaron con un puazo muy insolente.
— He need not have killed when, upon entering the pulpería, they insolently wounded him with their jibes.
Comment: The first obvious difference is "upon entering the pulpería," which has been added. The addition is understood when one goes on reading. Is it justified? I do not know. Perhaps in English there is a need to include some details which the Spanish leaves out.
The true difficulty comes with "puazo," a term not included in the Academic lexicon, a regionalism that is only found in some local dictionaries. It connotes the mental feeling of being physically wounded as if by a sharpened spike ("púa"). It is reminiscent of cockfights, which were so frequent in the Argentine countryside at the time. "Púa" is a localism for the cock's spur, which the cock used to mortally wound its rival. This term is absent in the translation.
— Acababa de dejar el zaino en el palenque...
— He had just tethered his chestnut to the hitching post...
Comment: After examining a number of horse dictionaries and articles we discussed "chestnut" as the rendering for "zaino." Should it be a "dark bay"? We eventually concluded that the horse's color was unimportant inasmuch as we chose something corresponding to one of the specific terms ("alazán," "bayo," "tobiano," "overo," "oscuro," etc.) with which the gaucho names his constant companion. Any of these names were possible, for that matter.
The Spanish reads "el zaino"; in English, "his chestnut." The possessive pronoun is absolutely right, because the gaucho rarely rides other people's horses, only his own.
The English "hitching post" is not as specific as the South American "palenque" since the former might be vertical, while the latter is always a horizontal post supported by two others at either end. Nevertheless, we thought that the verb "to tether" partly compensated for this minimal difference, and that to add a new borrowing like "palenque" was unjustified.
— y la penumbra de la pulpería le impidió de momento distinguir quiénes estaban.
— and the darkness inside the pulpería prevented him from seeing who was there at first.
Comment: Only two minor details need commenting. It is true that "penumbra" is not the same as "darkness." But the English term seems to adapt itself to both degrees of absence of any light. Otherwise, the right term could have been "semidarkness," but this we found to be too formal and infrequent a word, which was out of tune with the register of the story. The second detail is that English grammar makes it necessary to put the time adverb ("at first") at the end, thus introducing a short delay for the English compared with the Spanish reader.
— Pero a los oídos no los afecta la oscuridad.
— But the dark does not stop you from hearing.
Comment: Evidently, the translation tried to avoid the repetition of "darkness," already used in the previous sentence. As to "a los oídos no los afecta," it is probably more direct and sensed immediately than "does not stop you from hearing."
— El tape Encarnación Cufré era el que estaba más hacia el rincón, y jugaba al monte.
— The swarthy Encarnación Cufré was the one sitting off in the corner at a game of monte.
Comment: There were long deliberations to decide whether "tape" was a way to physically describe a man (an individual with Indian-like traits who is not an Indian) or rather a nickname, similar to other very common ones in colloquial Spanish, such as "el Ñato," "el Tito" or "el Cacho." We chose the first option. At any rate, "swarthy" (= dark colored) is only an approximation, since "tape" is a word mainly used in the pampas and in the northeastern Argentine provinces, giving it an informal and regional character.
We had no difficulty with "monte," since the English borrowed this word from Old Spanish. Though many Anglo-Saxons may not know it, the "monte" is a card game that is still very frequently played in much of Argentina.
It was not so easy to find a way to transmit everything that is contained in the name "Encarnación." The author surely did not choose it at random. The word designates the color of human flesh; much more importantly, it also designates any "personification, representation or symbol of an idea or a theory" (such as in the expression "él era la encarnación del mal," he was the embodiment of evil). Perhaps "the swarthy Encarnación" personified the misfortune, the tragic fate which Juan Almirón encountered that day and that changed his life.
— Era amigo de refranes y el que soltó lo hizo como metiéndolo en el juego.
— He was inclined to repeat popular sayings and he said one now off the top of his head, as if it were part of his game.
Comment: Clearly, the Spanish phrase "el que soltó," as short and sharp as the action it depicts, an immediate act of aggression, is not the same as the long and wordy "he said one now off the top of his head." Clearly, "como metiéndolo en el juego" is very aptly rendered by "as if it were part of his game."
— La intención, con todo, era clarita:
— His intention, however, was crystal clear:
Comment: I have already mentioned the affective value of diminutives such as "clarita," which in this case is even more evident because it does not refer to something small but "crystal clear." The English rendering is quite satisfactory. The meaning of "con todo," well captured by "however," is: , in spite of being part of the game, Encarnación's words had a different purpose.
— Llueva, llueva, hasta que el cuerno ablande.
— "Rain, rain, till the horn has waned."
Comment: We arrived here at the most controversial moment in our joint task. Firstly, because neither Laura nor I knew whether this was really a popular refrain; we had never heard of it and could not find it in any reference book. Secondly, because the author did not approve of any of the variants Laura collected in her indefatigable search for similar English refrains, she finally invented the above formula, which pleased everybody.
Some of the refrains Laura proposed were the following:
The first two come close to the idea behind the Spanish saying but lead us away from its character, its brevity and forcefulness, and they do not rhyme. The third is brief and rhymed, but we thought it was too old and, as such, less understandable. The fourth one remained through several successive versions of the story, until the translator submitted her brief, rhyming and almost literal invention.
But where had the refrain come from? Only the author could tell us:
— Pudo haberse sentado en otra mesa; pudo haber pedido una caña...
— Juan could have sat down at another table; he could have ordered something to drink.
Comment: Of course, "una caña" is not the same as "something to drink." It is a South American drink with no English equivalent. One dictionary reads: "uncured brandy or rum." The alternative was, again— as in "harness" instead of "apero"— either to choose terms like "brandy" or "rum," which were alien to the cultural milieu of the story, or to include the borrowing, "caña." We preferred to stay with the generalization "something to drink" — which, however, unquestionably lacks some "local color."
— pudo no haber matado a nadie, tascando el freno, como suele decirse, o volviéndose a su rancho.
— He need not have killed anyone— clamping the bit, so to speak. He could have returned to the shack.
Comment: The sentence in the original is divided in two in the translation. (I have said something about the differences in punctuation above.) The Spanish version includes three "pudo... pudo... pudo...," a deliberate repetition. Some of it is recovered adding "He could have returned" in the last sentence. As to the idioms "tascando el freno" and "clamping the bit," they seem to be largely equivalent.
— Pero sin saber cómo la daga se le agarrotó en una mano...
— But without even realizing it, he found himself firmly holding his knife in one hand...
Comment: I have already referred to the relationship between "daga" and "knife." We discussed whether "But he found himself" would suffice, and eventually added "without even realizing it," since we felt this took better into account the original "sin saber cómo," which would have been lost otherwise. This is, in the story, another sign of unrelenting fate. All these violent actions are told as if they were not the result of Almirón's will, but of fortuitous events happening to him. In English, the phrase "he found himself" and, even more, the addition of "without even realizing it," contribute to giving the reader the same impression.
The most difficult-to-render part of this clause was "se le agarrotó." To begin with, both translator and reviser were unfamiliar with this verb. The only entry in the Academic dictionary that seemed to approximate it is probably an old one: "Apretar una cosa en la mano fuertemente, sin necesidad de garrote" (To take firmly in hand without the need to use a club). The author corroborated that he understood the word in that sense. Therefore, it seemed logical to translate "firmly holding his knife."
— y en la otra se le prendieron unas crenchas gruesas.
— and a thick mane in the other.
Comment: In this English clause the verb is tacitly the same as in the previous one: to hold.
— Pertenecían al tape, que se levantó como un tigre.
— It was the swarthy man's, who had risen up like a tiger.
Comment: Everything that I have said above about the "tape" applies here except that in this case the term is not accompanied by the name, "Encarnación." Thus, "man" had to be added: "the swarthy man." The small difference lies in the verbal tense. "Se levantó" is rendered by "who had risen up," which is strictly necessary for grammar reasons, though the corresponding Spanish is "Se había levantado."
— Se trenzaron ahí nomás...
— They became locked in a fight right then and there...
Comment: Again the Spanish "nomás," but with a temporal meaning this time, is adequately rendered by splitting the adverb in two ("right then and there"). The particular Spanish verb, "Se trenzaron," which is used only in very special circumstances, is merely touched on with "They became locked in a fight."
— entre sillas admiradas y naipes mirones.
— between startled chairs and peering cards.
Comment: A beautiful personification of objects surrounding the two fighting men, admirably given through two accurate English adjectives.
— Juan Almirón pudo y no pudo huir;
— Juan Almirón could but could not have fled.
Comment: As in one of the first lines of the story, we replaced the Spanish conjunction "y" by "but," further revealing the contradiction between Almirón's impulses.
— la selva era espesa y él conocía las picadas, los arroyos y las cuchillas.
— The forest was dense and he knew the trails, the streams, and the low hills.
Comment: A new discrepancy in punctuation: in English this is a new sentence, not the continuation of the previous clause. What is lost is "las cuchillas," a typical geographical feature of Entre Ríos province and of Uruguay. "Low hills" only half captures this. The low hills of San Luis or Córdoba provinces, for instance, or those near the city of Tandil, are never called "cuchillas."
— Además tenía amigos del otro lado del río.
— Besides, he had friends on the other side of the river.
Comment: Here we have a Spanish sentence allowing for a total English equivalent, except for the comma— optional in Spanish, obligatory in English.
— Pero había matado en buena ley, y se quedó, ...
— Still, he had killed fair and square and so he stayed, ...
Comment: A good idiom ("fair and square") was found for the very Argentine "en buena ley" (literally, "under a good law"). Of course, no law condones murder, but the Argentine gaucho (like the urban compadrito) feels that he has killed "en buena ley" when, according to his moral code, he was justified in doing so; the reason, for instance, might be his having been publicly called "a cuckold" in a pulpería...
— por más que sabía que el juez iba a ser muy malo con él.
— even though he knew that the judge would be harsh.
Comment: A pro and a con: (1) The Spanish literally says that the judge would be "very bad" with him. It sounds like a euphemism taken from children's language. A father can treat a disobedient child "very badly" and even give him a hiding. But the judge's hiding of Almirón was going to be as hard as taking his life. (2) The gaucho's language is always very tacit, concise, and full of understatements. For once, the English version is shorter and more tacit than the Spanish: "would be harsh," without clarifying "with him." There is no need to add who would be the target of the harsh punishment.
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