Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Translation: The Ultimate Literature

When I first began to teach creating writing and comparative literature at Goddard College, in 1994, I often spent days on end preparing materials for workshops. The chief reason was that, when I presented workshops on Latin American literature, the poems and stories I wanted to use were not found in one single anthology, or even two or three. Quite often what I wanted had not been translated into English-- or worse, the available translations were very poor quality. If we were lucky and the story I was after had been translated by a virtuoso, such as Gregory Rabassa, then it was wonderful. I felt certain that the experience my students would have would be genuine, and they'd be able to enjoy a reading that would come as close as possible to the original.

But when I wanted to teach little known writers, or newer writers whose work had not been translated yet, or obscure poems that would never end up in an anthology, that's when I had to get to work and do my own translations. Before this, I had translated for technical or non literary publications over the years, and on occasion for the Conditions: Feminist Literary Journal. Translation of poetry in particular is very difficult, and I'm not sure one really ever succeeds (nor should one hope to, since that is the sad beauty of language). Teaching literature was my gateway to the necessity of translation for the sheer love of the thing I wanted to share with other people.

This is how I came to translate this short story by Marta Brunet, a marvelous Chilean writer whose first novel, Montaña adentro (1923) surprised critics who did not expect such sophisticated and strong prose from a woman writer. The short story I've translated here, "Piedra callada," is from a short story collection: Soledad de la sangre, published in 1967, the year of Brunet's death. I received these two books from my mother, who knew I loved to read and that I would someday write as well, and I'll always be grateful for this. Brunet became my favorite Chilean narrative writer as I grew older-- my first love was Marcela Paz, author of the young adult series, Papelucho. Later I read the work of María Luisa Bombal, and I would have another favorite.

What I love about this story is the way it seems to stay with the reader as a perfect composition: smooth,   swift, accurate, just like the silent stone of the title... which be read as a metaphor for many things. The strong characterization, the masterful exposition, the unforgettable descriptions of the southern Chilean valleys, hidden in the mountains under the majestic peaks of the Andes: I think you'll like this story.

Here is part I of "Silent Stone," by Marta Brunet.

Silent Stone

Translation by M. Romo-Carmona

When Esperanza said she wanted to marry Bernabé, her mother gave her a beating for an answer, a simple way, but a way she deemed infallible, to drive the idea out of the girl’s head. The girl didn’t utter a single cry and as soon as she could she escaped to tell her troubles to the boss’ wife, la Patrona.
                  “When is she gonna let me get married! Every time I have a prospect she chases him away. She just about took a slingshot to the youngest of the Machucas... not to mention the beatings I get. Talk with her, if you’d be so kind, and reason with her. I’m nearing twenty-- is she aiming me for an old maid?”
                  La Patrona looked at the girl, looking vaguely thoughtful. It was not unusual that she would be sought after. She was pretty, well mannered, almost a small-town servant, living always near the house and her protection.
                  “But, what does she tell you?”
                  “This time she ain’t said nothin’. She just beat me. But other times she says she ain’t brought me up like a flower for the mules to eat. Her old lady notions… ‘Cause after all, Patrona, I’m nothin’ more’n a country girl, fit to marry someone from around these parts".
                  “And, who wants to marry you now?
                  Esperanza hesitated a moment before answering: “Bernabé, the Vellares’ son, the real good-lookin’ one, the one who works along the fences.”
                  “But, he’s a beast...” la Patrona concluded after she remembered the young man.
                  “I love him a lot... I know he’s like that, a little dense-- but good, hardworkin’, anybody at the ranch can swear to that! And he ain’t got no vices, keeps his things neat... he’s a little thick, that’s all.”
                  La Patrona looked at her in suspense, at a loss for what to do because it wasn’t the first time that the matter came up, that the girl came to ask for help to stand up to her mother who allowed no will but her own. She couldn’t systematically oppose that Esperanza eventually marry. These were jealousies of the mother who had only one daughter, widowed herself and struggling desperately to bring her up, helper to the miller when her husband died, who had held this position for years and operating with such skill that it was actually she who now supervised the mill. The ambition of a mother who perhaps wanted a man of greater means as husband for the girl, not rough peons who would never be anything else. But, where to find such a husband? Her world, of course, would have to be in the country, in the mountains. Her destiny, to marry a young man born there. To own a ranch. What else? Because more than that, than the young sons of the renters, there wasn’t another single man in the vicinity. Where, then, could a husband be found for Esperanza who, in truth, was immensely superior to her surroundings?
                  Weary, then, from brooding so long upon something that concerned her slightly, not very much, she wasn’t sure whether it was slightly or greatly, la patrona put forth a definitive question.
                  “But, you’re sure you love that Bernabé?”
                  Esperanza performed the classic gesture of rolling up and unrolling the corner of her apron, answering without preamble: “Patrona, he’s the one I’ve loved the most. The others, I loved them just a little. I love this one a whole lot. He’s good and he loves me a lot, too. Of course he is a little thickheaded--” she hurriedly concluded, because la patrona sustained her gaze, as though she wished to see into the depth of her soul.
                  In reality, she wasn’t looking at her, given, as usual, to her own vague thoughts.
                  “All right, then. I will speak with your mother.”
                  “Of course, if you’d be so kind--” and she turned very charming, enchanting she was that way, with her eyes very small and shining, with two dimples on her cheeks so much like fuzzy peaches, and such a turned up nose, and a pout for a mouth of a girl who knows herself pretty and speculates around her appeal. “If you would be telling the patrón to give us a parcel of land, because that way my mother wouldn’t have much to say and, having a ranch assured, no one would look down on Bernabé and, everything would start off better... you’d be so kind to tell the patrón, no?”
                  “Yes, yes, I know you, how good you are at buttering up, don’t worry.”
                  She remained thinking, going from one cloud of ideas to another, which was her way of thinking, that perhaps she could take Esperanza with her to the city as a maid, or send her to school, or let her help the nurse who cared for her own mother. She gestured with her hand, as though erasing something in front of her eyes, no, that was too much responsibility. How pretty the girl was... perhaps, instead of marrying her off-- she suddenly though of the chauffeur, an excellent man with a sister, single, who might fall in love with Esperanza and marry her if-- instead of marrying her off, one of those ugly things that happen, that only exist in novels or films and suddenly happen in real life... and the mother, old Eufrasia, she’d never just let her go. Of course she wouldn’t take on both of them. Although the old woman would be useful as a washerwoman, or to make preserves, or to open the gate when the coaches arrived. Again, she made the gesture of erasing something before her eyes, something that hung there, without shape. She finished by going very quickly to her room, remembering suddenly that it was now time for the radio drama that was so full of unexpected events.
                  Of course, she forgot to speak with Eufrasia, but Esperanza came the next afternoon and didn’t let up until she called the mother in and had a session with her.  Out of this, she derived nothing because that day la patrona was even more lost in the clouds than usual, in her own limbo, and the old woman left triumphant with her answers and arguments.
                  She was a tall, old woman, curved profile and a thin mouth, tight lips with the lower sealing a will that knew its goal, but that also knew how to arrive there through shortcuts, crawling, in between long waits, if the direct way turned difficult with obstacles. Returning to the mill, without major explanations, she gave Esperanza a beating. With this, the latter understood she would have to find another means of support if she wanted to marry Bernabé.
                  She went, then, to try the boss, el patrón. Stamped out of an old block he was a replica of the grandfather who fought in the war of independence. To him, Esperanza said the same she had said to his wife. Immediately, he called Eufrasia to him. Ten minutes later, out of the study came an accessible old woman who crossed Bernabé on her way-- also called by el patrón. She eyed him coldly.
                  To which the man only managed to respond with an unintelligible grunt. Inside, el patrón told him:
                  “Well, then, Eufrasia agrees to your marrying Esperanza. You are serious and you work well. Since you will need a home, I will give you the ranch of Don Valladares by the lagoon. Valladares wants to come here, to be near the school and educate his flock of kids, a wish I deem very sensible. You marry and you go up there. The ranch is new, and there you have work enough for years; that whole boundary needs to be fenced off. I will speak with the administrator about the conditions of your leaving, and now, to be a steady fellow and to behave very well with Esperanza.”
                  Bernabé answered with another grunt, flipped his straw hat two or three times in his huge hands, put his head down and charged towards the door. He seemed almost rectangular, with horizontal shoulders and enormous feet whose toes turned out, the arms hanging and all of him knotted into strong muscles. Upon this giant’s body the small head, round, rose above the neck disproportionately thin, the Adam’s apple huge and wavering. A narrow forehead, the stiff hair of a brush, slits of eyes barely gleaming under the heavy cautious lids, a mouth of thick lips, a beardless face and in this negative ensemble in which a spirit seemed to find no harbor, the bizarre beauty of impeccably white, shiny teeth.
                  Back at the mill, Eufrasia spoke coldly and firmly to the daughter, who awaited her alarmed and anxious.
                  “El patrón wants you to marry Bernabé. You can marry whenever it strikes your fancy. But from this day you have a mother no longer.”
                  It was a short engagement among the hostile silences of Eufrasia, the chatter of the daughter akin to that of a bird frantic with sun and, the other silence, of the man, a presence that incensed the mother with rage while signifying for Esperanza two ears attentive to her words, the acceptance of all her projects, a latent defense of-- finally!-- the actualization of her will, omitting that of her mother.
                  Bernabé went to the ranch, already vacated by don Valladares. He came back saying, with his scarce slices of words, that it was just fine, that it needed no adjustment, that the menagerie he had carried by mule had arrived in one piece.
                  They married in the small neighboring village, and from there-- they had only been accompanied by witnesses and attendants, since Eufrasia had clearly stated she wanted no celebration-- the just-married headed towards the ranch, next to the blue orb of the lagoon, deep in the range of the Andes.
                  Eufrasia made herself harder, more cavernous, more resolved in her work. Nothing was known of the new couple. The lagoon was at the edge of the property. The road was only accessible up to a certain height by vehicles, and from that point at which one entered fully between virgin mountain forest, there was a trail for horses, tortuous, avoiding downward streams, going from one side to the other of the river that slowly widened its current, until one arrived at that amphitheater of peaks, and the river bedded down to form the smooth face of the lagoon. From one side it was edged by the mountain, thick, sliding into the water at the base; from the other a small valley opened, and there, upon a small plane, the ranch had been placed, wooden, squat, surrounded by stalls and shacks. The lagoon seemed blind. But on one end, the mountains curved, opened up a narrow splice and through there, noisily, through lichens and vines, in an ambience of green moisture, the water threw itself down a cliff in order to continue its tumultuous search for the sea.

                  No one could bring any news from the distant ranch. Eufrasia seemed not to expect them. She never mentioned the daughter. With a deaf rancor towards her, with a deaf resentment toward the patroness who imposed the marriage. Let her be happy or wretched, it was the same to her. She entrenched herself in indifference.
                  “It doesn’t matter... it doesn’t matter at all. Let her suffer if she’s got to suffer... why did she get married? She knew very well what she was doing...”
                  But, the “let her suffer...” was the repeated singsong of her heart, rhythm of her blood, a wheel like the mill, never still and milling the renewed grain.
                  Bernabé didn’t even need to come to the houses for provisions because in that enormous property, having been a territorial assignment of colonial times, there were five stewardships under the supervision of a general administration and the man was now under the orders of the first daughter-parcel, where he must go for his replenishment and everything concerning his job. He made a journey every few months and once a year, the majordomo went to the lagoon to take a look at the fences. From the visits that Bernabé made to the first-daughter land parcel, little was obtained-- that the man continued to be reticent and answered questions with stumbling words and not many of them. It was the majordomo who brought news:
                  “Esperanza is very thin! She looks like a stick of garlic! With so many kids, and never leaving the ranch. A good worker, though, the same as he. A beast like that has never been seen! You should see the dock he’s built himself at the lagoon, and a dandy boat, and since there’s so much fishing, there’s always a trout chowder, or salmon. You should see! And the ranch is well fixed up because she’s such a lady, Esperanza, it’s good to see. If she weren’t so thin. The oldest girl is just like her, like Esperanza, the same eyes, the same ways about her...”
                  The majordomo’s wife, doña Cantalicia, found pretext for visits to the houses, especially to tell the news to Eufrasia, who tightened her lips, enhancing that gesture that likened her to wilful mask; that hardened the edge of her jaw, sealing with her lower lip the upper that disappeared under its pressure. But she made no comment, none, to the great annoyance of doña Cantalicia.
                  “Because even beasts must want to know about their children...” she said to herself, very upset inside. And she would take relief in endless chatter with the womenfolk in the other houses.
                  Eufrasia completed thirty years in the mill. Thirty years! A lifetime. The boss called her and in his straightforward way, without discussion, told her that she was being retired with full salary and that she could choose between staying at the mill in the apartment she had always occupied, but without any intervention in the work, or living in the house of the employers in some rooms that would be given her, free to do whatever she wished. How well she  had earned the right to rest!
                  “I am not tired. I need no rest--” she protested, adding rapidly: “But if el patrón has already decided what he wants me to do... there’s but bowing my head and, amen.”
                  “Do you want to stay at the mill?”
                  “To me the mill is the job. I don’t need to stay there with my hands folded.”
                  “Talk with my wife, then, and arrange the move. There are two rooms in the back courtyard that will be comfortable for you.”
                  “Thank you,” said the old woman, dryly, and forcing herself to greater amiability added, “Thank you very much for everything.”
                  She installed herself in those two rooms that were assigned to her. She spent days on end hostilely locked within them and herself. But finally she began to abandon her corner and to take part in the activities of the enormous house. One day, without anyone asking her, she washed, without help, all the windows of the gallery around the courtyard. Another, she went with a mattress on her back to an end of the yard and there organized a veritable shop, fluffing wool, washing tapestries, re-stuffing, sewing. As soon as she finished one of these tasks, she sniffed around the house and its outbuildings until she came across another one.
                  The years didn’t take toll on her energy. The same years had accentuated certain characteristics in others, and so, la patrona, sweet and absentminded, explained upon seeing her working, with the singing accent of a refrain:
                  “What a pearl is Eufrasia! What a pearl is Eufrasia!”
                  When returning from his rides on horseback near dusk, el patrón would often see her helping to round up the pigs or the calves, using a slingshot to wake the ones lagging behind.
                  “That one, Eufrasia, good shot!” And with one of his sudden smiles added the authoritarian tones that time hadn’t mellowed-- “Watch that you don’t use big stones and leave an animal lame.”
                  One day, doña Cantalicia came, as usual, with her basket of news.
                  “Esperanza is pretty sick. So many kids and so many abortions. What can one expect, that’s what my husband says. And Bernabé wants nothing to do with taking her to town so the doctor can see her. He’s such a beast, poor man! No wonder you didn’t approve of this marriage. But the thing is that Esperanza is all bones; sometimes she spends days without being able to get up, and when she gets up, she drags herself, barely. I know you don’t like talk of these things, but it’d be a sin not to come and tell you.”
                  “Thanks for the soap opera--” answered Eufrasia, turning her profile, ending the conversation. It squirmed inside her like a bug. Sick, in bed. Dragging herself. But she’d become furious with herself and try to impose the rancorous old tones, “let her suffer! She’ll know what’s good! Tough luck!” But she couldn’t fit the words in their old rhythm of a refrain, suffocated by waves of anxiety, each time crashing louder within her, darkened by a storm.
                  A short time later the boss called her in.
                  “Look, Eufrasia, the majordomo of the first-daughter tells me that Bernabé went to town with Esperanza very ill. She’s in the hospital. The kids are alone at the ranch. I think you should go take care of them.”
                  “I don’t go where nobody calls me.”
                  “But you go where your boss sends you.” Their eyes met and the old woman finally shifted hers, as always, before the will of man and landlord.
                  “Very well, patrón.”
                  “Gather your things. I’ve ordered a boy to guide you there at dawn. You’ll go by coach up to the first-daughter, from there you’ll continue on horseback with your gear on mules. See how things are there, stay as long as you deem it necessary. I already telephoned the majordomo to tell him to warn Bernabé that I ordered you to care for the children.”
                  “Thank you.” She seemed relieved, as if the waves that kept hitting her chest had turned soft. She spoke not another word.
                  The boy traveling with her was a bit uncomfortable with that silent company; he looked at her out of the corner of his eye at the same time he admired Eufrasia’s drive, who endured a jostling ride, dust and wind, heat, thirst and fatigue without protest.
                  Doña Cantalicia had brought more recent news.
                  “My husband phoned the hospital, ordered by el patrón, don’t think it was our aim to snoop. He spoke with mother superior who told him, after many delays to consult the doctor, that they’d have to operate on Esperanza, internal you know, and that the doctor said that after the operation she’d be at least a month in bed and after that month, he’d see if he’d let her go back to the ranch or not. That it isn’t really serious what she has, but that it’s serious.”
                  The old woman tightened her lips, presented her profile perceiving the damp breath of a well passing, and said nothing.
                  Exhaustion had apparently made no dent on her when she arrived at the lagoon. She immediately straightened the mess that was everything, dirty and disarrayed. Starting with Venancia and the five little ones. Taken by surprise, knowing not what attitude to assume before that grandmother who appeared unannounced and of whose existence they had only a vague inkling, a grandmother who looked long at them, who placed over the head of each one a hand that was not quite a caress, but a sort of possessive gesture, while she asked their name. Right away she examined ranch and surroundings and began to give directions, to work herself, with that method that turned speed into a miracle.
                  Before leaving at dawn of the next day, the boy saw a ranch perfectly neat and children clean and docile to the grandmother’s command. He carried back a list of things absolutely necessary, a list that Eufrasia sent to the boss with a letter, asking that they be charged to her own account and to please send them right away, besides other things of her own menagerie.
                  El patrón understood this and sent the boy back with a loaded pack of mules.
                  This is how the children saw a sewing machine for the first time and each one slept in a bed and had clothes that could be called such and not rags.

Continued next post.