Commentary on the translation of

E. Gudiño Kieffer

Still life with vanitas and books, Jan Davidszoon de Heem

Argentine writer Eduardo Gudiño Kieffer (1935–2002) is one of those authors with the uncommon luck of being well-acclaimed, but not so well-known, at least for today’s wider public. In fact, I first met his work in a rather accidental way: at my home, there remains a (very) vast collection of books and discs, inherited from my great-uncle, Fuad, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting. Many years ago, I stumbled upon one of those books, and, just because, I opened it on a random page and read a short story which I found quite lovely. That book was Fabulario, and the story was “Castillo” [“Castle”].

In Fabulario we can appreciate a very attractive range of topics and tones in its stories. Many of them appeal to fantasy and even mythology, but its particular charm lies in the different tones that show these stories, ranging from serious to satirical, mocking and, at times, irreverent. Its use of various registers is also remarkable: some of them are apt for dealing with the subject at hand, such as in “Castillo” or “¡Titina vieja, nomás!”; others are discordant, producing a clear effect of irony, as it happens in “Otra versión de la caída”. When translating these stories, it is essential to note and pay attention to this variety and to preserve in each case the use and intentions of the author.

“Otra versión de la caída” [“Another account of the Fall”] takes the Biblical tale of creation in Genesis and its general register is formal, as would be adequate to deal with the subject. But this tone actually works as a great irony in the light of the bizarre “version” of the Fall it describes. This device of contrast is especially powerful when opposing, in as few as three sentences, the plea “[…] latrine, water closet, petit coin!”, almost ridiculously expressed, to the solemnity and severity of the Angel who expels the man and the woman from Paradise. In my version, I chose to make the Angel speak with archaic pronouns, intending to reinforce that ironic solemnity. “El Faunito” [“The little Faun”] is another story with a mythological background and a quasi-pastoral setting. The writer, however, does not cease to delight us with occasional mockery and its conclusion’s ironic twist. In this case, we should also pay close attention to that special setting and choosing the right words for that context.

In “Paracélsica” [“Paracelsica”] and “Castillo”, we also find the importance of expressing the particular atmospheres. In the first case, there abounds mystery, hermeticism and the occult, as proper expressions of the figure of Paracelsus, portrayed here as an esoteric alchemist. In the second case, the personified figure of the castle, plagued by loneliness and oblivion, produces an intimate and deeply emotional story. In contrast to the previous tales, the register of the vocabulary is in accordance with the tone, and the ubiquitous element of irony is missing.

Of the chosen texts, “¡Titina vieja, nomás!” [“Good ol’ Titina!”] is undoubtedly the most complex for translation. Its main characteristic is the third-person subjective narration, always referring to the character who carries out the action, Belgrave. The register is markedly informal, including some phrases with lunfardo vocabulary, the slang of River Plate Spanish, and short ungrammatical passages, characteristic of the stream of consciousness. Another condiment which gives the story its local flavour, along with the vocabulary, is the addition of places from the City of Buenos Aires, such as the Rosedal, and the mention of certain typical social customs, such as “ravioli each Sunday”. All these elements, which are essential for the narration and the sense of the text, pose us the well-known problems of finding more or less precise equivalencies for the idiomatic vocabulary, as well as the eternal dilemma of exporting or adapting local references.

I do not intend to write at length about these topics here, but in order to understand the decisions I took in translating this text, I must confess that, in general terms, I tend to favour the exportation of cultural, local, and other references –even at the risk of having to include some notes when necessary–, so as to preserve the original content and to give at least a vague glimpse of those allusions the author chose to communicate. However, as regards vocabulary and idioms, it is better to find equivalents with the same degree of idiomaticity in the target language which can retain, first and foremost, the sense, and, if possible, within the same (or a similar) register. Thus, the reader may understand in its own language the sense of the text, while preserving its very own extralinguistic references (the exotic cultural elements). In my opinion, the desired result would be an understandable and natural translation for the reader, which does not cease to refer to its original and portray its very own culture. After all, a translation is a translation, and I do not see why we should pretend it is not what it is. In any case, we should always consider the relevance of each cultural or idiomatic reference and decide how to translate it, estimating its greater or lesser importance as regards the sense of the text. (Perhaps someday I will devote a post to expand on this topic, since the latter paragraph is but a stub of my own views.)

The story’s title itself, which becomes a sort of refrain, poses a problem because of its idiomaticity. However, I found the solution to this informal, affectionate vocative in a miraculously close parallel: the expression “Good old […]!”, which not only retains the sense but also even includes the word “old”: a rare case of both functional and formal equivalency. In keeping with my idea of preserving the exotic references, I chose to keep the proper nouns and the mention of the Rosedal, a zone within the great Porteño park “Tres de Febrero”. In this last case, I found it unnecessary to clarify because the context itself explains that it is a park, and the foreign reader may easily recognise that “Rosedal” is actually toponymic. For the lunfardo expressions, I searched for slang equivalents, especially British ones. I tried to pay particular attention not only to the equivalency of register but also to each word’s connotation. Thus, for instance, the word “chick” is closer to “percanta” than the word “lass”, since the latter is of an informal, not vulgar, register, and above all it lacks the pejorative connotation shared by both “chick” and “percanta”.

Last but not least, a short commentary on “Recomendaciones a Sebastián para la compra de un espejo”. This text bears a similitude with the previous one as regards tone and informal register, yet lacking lunfardismos. While the narrator speaks to Sebastián as “usted” [the formal form of “you” in Spanish], the seeming intimacy they share justifies the use of contractions. While I stuck to the criteria described, it is interesting to highlight a choice on one of the names in the story. In the original text, the author writes “mistress Murphy”, intending to stress the foreign aspect of such character. Admittedly, this aspect would be lost in the English version if we preserved that name, so I decided to make use of a name from another country to retain the effect. Thus, the Spanish version’s “mistress Murphy” becomes “Mademoiselle Fleury” in English.

I thought this humble selection of stories from Eduardo Gudiño Kieffer’s Fabulario would be a good opportunity to show the palette the author offers in this concise, but very attractive work. While certain works by this writer have been translated into many languages, Fabulario does not seem to have been as lucky, and so I chose to translate into English some parts of this book which deserves to be known and enjoyed. Why not hope as well that this modest post may help the Spanish-speaking public itself to approach this remarkable Argentine writer.

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