Literary Translation and Subversion

by    /  October 31, 2009  / No comments

I began translating literature when I was in my early twenties. After publishing several volumes, I stopped for a number of reasons, mostly related to the material conditions of needing to earn a living and raise my children, but also because I wasn’t finding literary works that called out to me to be pressed into English. My return to translation coincided with changes in my work and family life—a job in publishing, children in school—and the good fortune of finding a text I felt compelled to translate.

At first the language struck me: Could I make English do that particular thing the author was doing in Spanish? But something else crept in once I began to read more closely; the text was profoundly subversive. In fact, it was about the power of language to subvert, both the internal realm of the individual and the world at large. This was how I had come to see the project of literary translation itself, as an act of subversion, a means of stealthily offering up an alternative or sub-version of reality, if by “reality” we mean the particular way we see, paint, write, retell our experience of our selves and the world.

The novel in question was My Tender Matador, by the Chilean writer and performance artist, Pedro Lemebel.  It takes place in Santiago, Chile, in 1986, during the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship. The main character—much like the author himself—is an aging, effeminate homosexual man from the “humble” classes, a maricón. Throughout the novel he remains nameless but is referred to as La Loca, literally “the Madwoman.” In an interesting displacement of meaning and resonance between the two cultures, I translated this as “the Queen.” According to these “metaphors” in the respective languages, overtly feminine men in Spanish are primarily considered insane whereas in English they are considered regal. Castles and madhouses may have more in common than we might have thought.

Denoted as “she” when referring to herself, and “he” when viewed by others, the Queen falls in love with a young revolutionary, or “terrorist”—our naming reflects our point of view, our “version” of reality. Carlos befriends the Queen and asks her to let him store some boxes and meet with his “classmates” in her apartment. She is deliberately kept in the dark about the purpose of their meetings and the “explosive” contents of the boxes. But she is no fool, as she tells herself, and soon puts two and two together.

A macho Marxist if ever there was one, Carlos does not reciprocate the Queen’s feelings of lust and longing, but he does learn to appreciate her friendship. One evening, after the two share a bottle of pisco, he tells her the story of a brief homoerotic encounter he had as a boy. Even through her drunken haze, she feels oddly disturbed by his tale—not the what but the how:

“She wasn’t morally offended: she had thousands of stories that were much cruder where blood, semen, and shit had painted the canvas of long nights of lust. No, it wasn’t that, she thought, it’s the way men tell stories. The brutal way they talk about the urgency of sex, like bullfighters—Me first, I’ll stick it in you, I’ll split you in two, I’ll put it in, I’ll tear you to pieces—with no tact or delicacy.”

Carlos’s machista discourse contrasts sharply with the Queen’s, especially when referring to sex, sexuality, and love. The Queen, by the way, makes her rather meager living embroidering tablecloths and other linens, embroidering flowers and birds on the margins, and her language, the language of her narrative, is full of those same flowers and birds. It is there, on the margins, in that narrow space that poverty, repression, and violence have left for her to inhabit, that she—and Lemebel—manage to create beauty out of ugliness and despair. Thus she decorates her run-down apartment:

“. . . the only space the Queen had ever been able to call her own . . . adorning the walls like a wedding cake, populating the cornices with birds, fans, flowering vines, and lace mantillas she draped over the invisible piano.”

In one scene, she delivers her lovingly embroidered tablecloth to the home of a general, where she knows it will be used at the dinner celebrating the anniversary of the military coup that had overthrown Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. She imagines:

. . . red wine splashed on the table, seeped into the cloth, spread out into huge lots where her little birds drowned,” and: “Her sentimental sissy eyes watched as they turned her virginal tablecloth embroidered with so much love into a mayhem of murder and drool. Her seamstress sissy eyes saw the off-white linen turned into a violet-colored crime sheet, the drenched shroud of a nation where her angels and birds were drowning.”

Her language is a feminized baroque, a deliberate and radical subversion of the rigid strata of gender identification and hierarchy. In this way, the dominant paradigm, the hierarchy of power, becomes relative, rather than absolute. By identifying righteously with the subordinated feminine, the character—and the author—elevate it.

This sounds oddly like the translation project itself: the act of subversion through the insertion of a foreign object into an otherwise complacent, coherent belief system. Lemebel and his Mad Queen, and the literary translator, offer alternative versions, sub-versions, from sub-ordinate worlds, which irremediably and joyfully, undermine the dominant one in circulation.

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