Translating Latin America, Part 4: Magical Realism

Martin Boyd

Juan Rulfo, the legendary Mexican author whose English translators have been unable to do him justice.

In Part 3 of my series of articles on translating Latin America, I explored the phenomenon of the so-called Latin American literary boom that began in the 1960s. This “boom” has been closely associated with the genre of “magical realism”, characterized in the English-speaking world as the Latin American literary mode par excellence. According to Sylvia Molloy, althoug it is not so much a Latin American invention as a “transculturation” of French symbolism, magical realism was singled out by US readers to signify, “as surely as Carmen Miranda’s fruity cornucopias, ‘Latin America’”, thereby becoming a “regional, ethnicized commodity”, a form of “essentialized primitivism” (374) that reinforces preexisting stereotypes of Latin America as a magical territory, beyond the reaches of civilization, where the laws of science and reason do not apply. Molloy suggests that “[m]agic realism is refulgent, amusing, and kitschy,” but the reality it describes “doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen, here [in the United States]” (375). Unfortunately, the author adds, the fact that only a small number of Latin American authors comfortably fit the magical realist mould has condemned much Latin American literature to the “ever-expanding purgatory of the untranslatable” (375)… unless the work can be “rewritten” to fit into the genre, as seems to be the case of Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a novel which is surely one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century, but whose two English translations have failed to convey the simultaneously Gothic and realist tone of the original.

The first English translation of Pedro Páramo, by Lysander Kemp, was published in 1959 by the New York-based avantgarde publishing house Grove Press. Kemp’s translation is notable for a large number of omissions of words, phrases and whole sentences. These omissions might have been the result of a lack of comprehension on the part of the translator, if we accept Lon Pearson’s claim that when Lysander Kemp met Rulfo some years later he admitted to him that when translating Pedro Páramo “when he didn’t understand a passage, he just omitted it” (Pearson 157). Many of the omissions involve local expressions from Rulfo’s native Mexican state of Jalisco, which no doubt did not appear in the translator’s dictionaries; many others are typically Rulfonian poetic phrasings that would have taken time and effort to render satisfactorily in English, such as the phrases “parecían teñirse de azul en el cielo del atardecer” (source text 69), or “donde se ventila el aire como si fuera un murmullo” (source text 118); however, others are quite straightforward phrases, suggesting that the translator simply skipped over them in the translation process. In short, all these omissions seem to point to a translator’s lack of experience and the time limitations typical of the life of an unknown freelance translator with no previous publications to his credit – and, no doubt, poorly paid. The result is a text even more concise and minimalist than the original, which is already notable for its brevity as a novel.

The situation was very different for Margaret Sayers Peden, the translator responsible for the re-translation of Pedro Páramo published by Grove Press in 1994. At the time she accepted the task of re-translating Rulfo’s classic, Sayers Peden was a translator with more than 20 years’ professional experience, with an explicit translation philosophy based on meticulous research. Moreover, she didn’t suffer the economic pressures that Kemp would have faced as a freelance translator, as she was professor emerita at the University of Missouri and had received a grant for the re-translation from the US government’s National Endowment for the Arts. She also had the luxury of being able to consult Kemp’s previous translation and the numerous critical studies of the novel to support her translation decisions.

In her preface to the 1994 re-translation, Susan Sontag claims that one of the justifications for the new version was Rulfo’s wish to have a “accurate and uncut translation” of his novel in English (qtd. in page x of Sayers Peden’s translation), suggesting that the author himself had recognized the many omissions in Kemp’s translation. It is thus hardly surprising that Sayers Peden’s translation should be marked by a diligent effort to represent every word and phrase of Rulfo’s original text. Indeed, rather than omissions, what characterizes Sayers Peden’s translation is a large number of additions and lexical choices that produce a text that is markedly florid and at times almost excessive, and very distinct from the concise, restrained style of the Spanish original. An emblematic example of this is her translation of the phrase “te va a ir mal, Pedro Páramo” (source text 82), a prediction of the fate of the novel’s protagonist/antagonist made by his grandmother. While Kemp’s translation, “You’re going to turn out bad, Pedro Paramo” (p. 22) does not precisely capture the sense of the original (which is something closer to “things are going to go badly for you”), Sayers Peden’s translation “You have a hard row ahead of you, Pedro Páramo” (p. 21), although semantically closer, is a much more florid colloquialism than the original. This tendency is evident throughout Sayers Peden’s translation, in choices such as her translation of the phrase “Caminábamos cuesta abajo” (source text 66), translated quite literally by Kemp as “We were walking downhill” (p. 4), which Sayers Peden renders as “We were making our way down the hill” (p. 4); or “Hasta pensó…” (p. 89), which in Kemp’s translation is “She even thought…” (p. 29), but which Sayers Peden renders in a much more complex construction: “The thought had even crossed her mind….” (p. 28). In all of these cases, Sayers Peden’s decisions seem to reflect a desire to bring Rulfo’s novel into line with the expectations of English readers with respect to magical realist literature, which is associated with a “Baroque” style that employs a language replete with “heavy and rich details and ornamentation” (Bowers 36), very distinct from Rulfo’s laconic style. It is perhaps no coincidence that just before taking on the re-translation of Pedro Páramo, Sayers Peden had just finished her fourth translation for the Chilean author Isabel Allende, one of the writers most widely recognized for having popularized the “magical realist” style in the United States. It is possible that her previous translations had an influence on her own writing style when she translated Rulfo’s text (an example of what British translation scholar Jeremy Munday refers to as “lexical priming”), and ended up attributing to Rulfo a style more in keeping with “exuberant magical realist narratives” (Bowers 45).

In this sense, Sayers Peden’s re-translation could be viewed as a culmination of a process that began in the 1960s to position Pedro Páramo as “an important precursor of ‘magical realism’ in Latin American writing”, as claimed on the back-cover blurb for the English translation of Rulfo’s other publication, Llano en llamas (The Burning Plain), published by University of Texas Press in 1967. Thus, while Kemp’s rushed translation reflects the lack of recognition that Rulfo’s masterpiece received in the pre-boom period, Sayers Peden’s re-translation reflects the widespread effort, evident in the paratextual commentary (reviews, essays, advertising copy) produced in the English-speaking world since the 1960s, to pigeonhole it within the genre of magical realism. As a result, we are yet to see an English translation of Pedro Páramo that does justice to the incomparable brilliance of the original text.

Works Cited

Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Molloy, Sylvia. “Postcolonial Latin America and the Magic Realist Imperative: A Report to an Academy.” Nation, Language and the Ethics of Translation. Eds. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 370-379. Print.
Munday, Jeremy. Style and Ideology in Translation: Latin American Writing in English. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Pearson, Lon. “Review Essay: Juan Rulfo (1917-1986).” Chasqui 34.1 (2005): 150-161. JSTOR. PDF File.
Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. 1955. 20th ed. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 2007. Print.
—. Pedro Páramo. Trans. Lysander Kemp. New York: Grove Press, 1959. Print.
—. The Burning Plain and Other Stories. Trans. George D. Schade. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967. Print.
—. Pedro Páramo. Trans. M. Sayers Peden. New York: Grove Press, 1994. Print.

1 thought on “Translating Latin America, Part 4: Magical Realism

  1. I suspect Juan Rulfo is for English translators something like J.D. Salinger for Spanish translators. Certain works are so embedded in their linguistic context that it’s impossible to extract them.

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