The Companion of Empire: Translation and the Making of Latin America

Ilan Stavans and Charles Hatfield

The following excerpt is part of the work-in-progress The Big Theft: Adventures of Translation in the Hispanic World, a series of conversations between Ilan Stavans, the Mexican essayist, translator, and editor and the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and Charles Hatfield, Associate Professor of Latin American Studies and Associate Director of the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Charles Hatfield: Translation has played a crucial role in Latin American literature, culture, and politics. Let’s start by talking about languages, native and foreign.

Ilan Stavans: There are no foreign languages because all languages are native. As Robert Louis Stevenson once put it, “It is the traveler only that is foreign.”

CH: That’s the paradox that is often said to characterize Latin America’s relationship to Spanish. In the late 1920s, to name just one example, Pedro Henríquez Ureña wrote that the question of finding an “expresión original” (original expression) was vexed for Latin American writers because “no hemos renunciado a escribir en español” (we have not renounced writing in Spanish). Latin American writers thus faced the difficulty, he thought, of trying to express the unique “sabor de la tierra” (flavor of the soil) in a language that didn’t originate from that soil. This was further complicated by the fact that every language, Henríquez Ureña claimed, contains its own particular way of thinking and feeling—what he called its own “modos de pensar y sentir.”

IS: As a public intellectual, Henríquez Ureña played a number of significant functions: he was a historian of the ideas that shaped Hispanic America, a cartographer of the terrain that defines our identity, and a thermometer of the cultural climate he experienced. (He was born in 1886 in Santo Domingo and died in Buenos Aires just after World War II, in 1946.) His book Literary Currents in Hispanic America (1945) was an adapted version of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. For Henríquez Ureña, the pronoun nuestro came as a result of a sustained struggle for self-definition in which la América hispana (he was weary of using terms like América latina, preferring instead to distinguish two spheres of cultural influential: España and Portugal) absorbed from the outside influential patterns it adapted to the native soil. When he wrote that “no hemos renunciado a escribir en español,” he implicitly suggested people could opt for Náhuatl, Quechua, Maya, and other aboriginal languages—yet Spanish was a unifying force, an equalizer. That equalizer, of course, subdued other voices, and with them other selves.

CH: Over the span of five conversations, we’re going to explore the various roles translation has played—and continues to play—in Latin American culture. Our plan is to proceed chronologically, beginning with the role of translation in the conquest of the Americas, moving on to the colonial period, the independence period, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century. You’ve mentioned that you’d like for us to conclude with an epilogue that takes on a kind of “prophetic drive” where we both imagine what translation is likely to do, and what place it is likely to have, in the future. To my mind, part of that will involve thinking about the promises and perils involved in recent developments such as Duolingo, the online translation/language learning platform developed by the Guatemalan Luis von Ahn, which seeks nothing less than the translation of everything on the internet into every major language.

IS: The future is too broad a term. The division you suggested—conquest, colonization, etc.—has specific dates. We can’t compartmentalize the future that way.

CH: I think that both of us have the conviction that literary and cultural studies in general, not to mention translation studies in general, still has a lot to learn from Latin America’s specific history with translation, as well as from a rich tradition of thinking about translation that comes from Latin America. For example, virtually no one outside of Latin American literary and cultural studies is familiar with Alfonso Reyes’s writings on translation.

IS: In Henríquez Ureña’s honor, I want to explore the idea of translation in Latin American literary and intellectual history, to do a Seis conversaciones en busca de nuestra traducción, a paraphrase of the famous title he released in Buenos Aires in 1928, Six Essays in Search of Our Expression. In my autobiography, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (2001), I meditated on the possibility of living life in translation without an original.

CH: José Martí’s “Nuestra América” (1891)—probably the most canonical and foundational Latin Americanist essay—is in many ways an argument against cultural and political translation. But if in Martí (or at least in the Martí of “Nuestra América“) we can find a hostility to translation that grows out of an anxiety about the threat to lo nuestro posed by a cultural logic in which, as Martí put it, “se imita demasiado” (there is too much imitation), in Jorge Luis Borges we can find just the opposite: a celebration of translation and foreign influences that comes hand-in-hand with at least an implicit rejection of the notion of culture that’s central to “Nuestra América.”

IS: Yes, in Borges there is too much imitation. And imitation gives place to creation.

CH: These two conflicting positions regarding translation continue to structure major political positions in relatively recent literary history—just think, for example, of Jorge Volpi’s celebration of supposedly emancipatory, naturally permeable literary borders over supposedly oppressive, fake political/national ones. That is to say, I think that in this series of conversations we are both committed to the idea that debates and polemics about translation from the Latin American distant past have more than just an antiquarian interest in the present.

IS: I agree: these debates are de facto stepping stones in the development of the region’s collective identity. My hope that our discussions will restore them to the place they belong. In the last decade, I have been interested in the intellectual history of Latin America. This is a crucial chapter in that history.

CH: My sense is that we will be dealing with both literature and culture in their broadest definitions, and it goes without saying that our book is more like a debate than “un studio,” a study. Moreover, I think that you and I are interested in broad linkages and connections, thinking through the Nuyorrican poet Tato Laviera to find answers to questions posed by the Venezuelan philologist and educator Andrés Bello.

We’re structuring our project as a series of conversations in order to highlight and celebrate the most exciting and rewarding aspects of scholarly practice—thinking out loud, disagreeing, debating, and talking.

IS: That’s why I’m in this business!

CH: Maybe you could start by talking about the Tower of Babel, which you wrote about in With All Thine Heart (2010).

IS: The episode in Genesis 11 is often taken as a cautionary tale: the divine punishes humans for their attempt—their temptation—to usurp God’s power. I have been inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator.” His central argument is that translation isn’t about words but about sensibilities, that the translator in order to be successful must be attuned to two cultures. He poses broader questions: Who is the reader of the translation? What should that reader get from the text?

Translation, in my eyes, is an epistemological device whereby we transform the world from sensorial data to human language. Notice I’m not invoking translation as a negotiation between two languages. That, I believe, comes next. Before that, translation is what a child does when listening to the word orange in connection with an orange. In other words, I start from a Saussurean premise.

CH: When you talk about translation as the effort to “transform the world from sensorial data to human language,” you’re obviously invoking George Steiner’s famous idea from After Babel (1975) that both “inside or between languages, human communication equals translation.” Or perhaps you’re also invoking Octavio Paz’s idea that “La idea de lenguaje contiene a la de traducción: pintor es aquel que traduce la palabra en imágenes plásticas; el crítico es un poeta que traduce en palabras las líneas y los colores” (The idea of language contains the idea of translation: the painter is he who translates words into visual art; the critic is a poet who translates lines and colors into words). There’s obviously a lot that’s powerful, and even liberating, in that notion of translation, inasmuch as it accomplishes at least two things: first, it virtually erases the distinction between “original” and “copy”; and second, it turns translation from a derivative, secondary practice into the central activity in art and human cognition. And yet I wonder if that notion of translation obscures the specificity of translation as a cultural and linguistic practice, since suddenly “everything is translation.” In other words, what do we lose when we give up on the idea that there’s something crucially different between, say, Martí writing a poem on the one hand, and Martí translating Ramona—and claiming it as “nuestra novela” (our novel)—on the other?

IS: I don’t think we give up the specificity of translation by emphasizing that translation is everything. In fact, if anything we accentuate that specificity. It is essential to explain what that specificity is, what role it plays, how it comes to that role. Both Steiner and Paz look at translation not only as a discipline but also as human endeavor that is larger that the actual journey between two languages. In my eyes, translation is that as well as the act itself of making accessible a message from one language and another. Unquestionably, everything the region of Latin America does—its way of conceptualizing the world—is based on the way it has adapted elements coming from outside it. But specific translations like Borges’ rendering of The Wild Palms (1940) by Faulkner are cases that require scrutiny. That scrutiny needs to be seen in the larger context of how the region assimilates foreign culture.

CH: Let’s take a moment to talk about how our dialogue will either build on, and differ from, some of the work on Latin America and translation that already exists. Obviously, we’re in agreement that our subject is important and far-reaching in its implications; what we’re doing here is an attempt to amplify a conversation in the field that hasn’t been nearly as robust as we think it should be. Nevertheless there’s already important work, for example, on Borges and translation by scholars such as Efraín Kristal and Sergio Waisman; on Martí and translation by Lourdes Arencibia and Laura Lomas; and on a whole range of other writers and issues in Daniel Balderston and Marcy Schwartz’s edited volume Voice-Overs: Translation and Latin American Literature (2002). There’s also work on the politics of Latin American literature in English translation by Jeremy Munday, Deborah Cohn, and Sarah Pollack, among others. Then there’s work—by you and Gustavo Pérez Firmat, for example—that looks at what’s been called a “translation sensibility” in Latin American literature and culture.

IS: Of course: nothing one does happens in a vacuum. Our insights are part of a chain of explorations. We hope they will also open new doors of understanding.

CH: So let’s begin at the so-called beginning. In 1492, we see the origins of Spain as an imperial power and of Spanish as a codified, standardized language through the work of Antonio de Nebrija. As we know, these two events were not just coincidentally related—when Queen Isabella asked Antonio de Nebrija about the purpose of his Gramática (1492), the Bishop of Avila famously declared that “siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio,” language is a permanent companion of empire. This is often misquoted, or mistranslated, as “language is the instrument of empire,” which simplifies the story. To be sure, the standardization of Spanish was part of an effort that involved the desire to impose a language on “conquered” peoples in the New World. But what actually happened was more complicated than merely the use of Spanish as an “instrument.”

The great historian of Spain John Elliott has written about the complexities of the linguistic policies in New Spain—in 1578, for example, Philip II issued a decree that no religious people were to be sent to the New World without knowledge of a relevant indigenous language—and at roughly the same time, he also established professorships of indigenous languages in Lima and Mexico City. These policies had the unintended effect of actually expanding Nahuatl, Mayan, and Quechua and establishing de facto multilingual societies in various parts of the New World. Elliott even notes that Mayan, not Castilian, was the lingua franca in the Yucatán for a time after the conquest. The story of these linguistic policies is important also because it is radically different than what happened in English colonies, where there was no systematic effort among colonizers to learn indigenous languages.

IS: It is worth setting the stage using an even larger canvas. Nebrija is an essential figure because of what his Gramática represents: the invitation for Spaniards to consider Castilian a “national” language. The concept of nation hasn’t fully developed yet in the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was concluding La Reconquista, the attempt to unify the kingdoms under a single government and, as such, under the same constitutional law, the same religion, and the same language.

Years ago I wrote an essay, “Language and Colonization” (2009), about the linguistic policies, mostly in what came to be known as Mexico and Peru, during the colonial period. The reference you make to Elliott is appropriate: there is false view that Spanish was the empire’s language, instilled uniformly in the colonies between 1523 and 1810. In fact the Spanish monarchy, in almost 300 years, was frequently ambivalent about its strategies. Unlike the United States, where indigenous languages were dismissed and otherwise annihilated by the settlers, in Latin America they served as bridged, and, as a result, where often encouraged by missionaries in their evangelical zeal, and, more importantly, by the establishment as needed resources in the acquiescence of the native population.

But if you don’t mind, let’s leave the project of colonization for the next conversation. How did the Spanish intelligentsia see itself? What loyalties, what foreign influences permeated it? El Siglo de Oro, the Spanish Golden Age, generally—albeit erroneously—framed within the departure of Columbus’ first voyage in 1492, and the death of Pedro Calderón de La Barca in 1681, is a period of intense aesthetic explorations (in literature, in architecture, in pictorial art) in which Spain was closely linked to other European cultures through travel, translation, and creative collaborations. That, needless to say, is also the case of the Renaissance in general. For instance, Quevedo knew Latin, as did others in the cultural elite. He pays tribute to Torcuato Tasso, Petrarch, Ovid, and others in various sonnets. Shakespeare, to chew on a popular bone, based works like The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590-1594) in Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559). Several of the Bard’s other plays, from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hamlet, were rewritings of previous works, local or international. And Shakespeare collaborated with playwright John Fletcher in an adaptation of the episode of Cardenio and Lucinda in the Sierra Morena, in Part One, Chapters XXI to XXVI, of Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605-1615).

CH: As we say, ahí está el detalle: you’ll recall that in his “Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo” (The New Art of Writing Plays Today, 1609), Lope de Vega declared that “cuando he de escribir una comedia, / encierro los preceptos con seis llaves; / saco a Terencio y Plauto de mi estudio, / para que no me den voces […]” (when I have to write a play, / I lock up the precepts with six keys; / I throw Terence and Plautus out of my study, / so that they will not scold me). For Lope, “dar voces” has an obvious double meaning—he doesn’t want Terence and Plautus to “scold” him for breaking with classical norms and forms, but he also doesn’t want them to “give voices” to his work. However, Lope’s alternative to having Terence and Plautus in his study doesn’t involve anything that might resemble a Romantic notion of authorship, in which the author produces a text ex nihilo. Instead, Lope merely transfers cultural authority from the sanctified “voces” of Terence and Plautus onto different, popular “voces“‘—he writes, “me dejo / llevar de la vulgar corriente” (I let myself be carried by the popular current). In the end, writing continues to be a fundamentally translative activity: Terence and Plautus are merely replaced by the popular current.

IS: Yes, ahí está el detalle… I like your use of Cantinflas’s expression—or better, of the syncopated Mexican expression appropriated by Cantinflas. The understanding we have today of inspiration is still in debt with Romanticism: our view of originality is as synonym of uniqueness. The artist is in touch with his muses, who, though a shrewd use of his talent, grant him the creation of an artifact unlike anything else.

Among other things, Borges pokes fun at that conception in his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The difference between artistic freedom now and in the Spanish Golden Age is the difference between economic systems: feudalism was about static, unmovable riches whereas capitalism is about fluid, fast-going transactions of money; the former emphasized servitude, rigid social encounters based on hierarchic positions whereas the latter is about mobility and about individual entrepreneurship. We pride ourselves in allowing private property to be owned by anyone who has access to wealth and don’t limit that access to a particular social strata. Private property also extends to intellectual property: ideas don’t have owners but works of art (novels, music, paintings, dance) do and property is legally protected: what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.

We see plagiarism as a sin to be punished through the loss of respectability. Needless to say, this is a childish approach in desperate need of revision. Borrowing from others is an essential human endeavor. Children learn to speak, to eat, to walk to through imitation. Harold Bloom has written on the act and anxiety of borrowing as a source of aesthetic influence. Not to imitate, not to copy is to become an island. Horacio Quiroga, the Uruguayan writer, wrote the Manual del perfecto cuentista (1925), a canonical tool in which he recommends every young author to start by copying, copying, copying his predecessors. Only when the borrowing is achieved, he suggests, might the new artistic spirit emerge. Quiroga, needless to say, was in no way original in his claim.

CH: I agree. And you could say that Quevedo might have taken many of the issues that we’re discussing here for granted.  In other words, for Quevedo, as for other writers throughout early modern Europe, imitatio (or imitation) was far from the bad word that it became later for modern writers—on the contrary, it was virtually synonymous with writing itself. The things being imitated were classical texts that were endowed with enormous cultural authority at the time. Failure to imitatively “use” these texts in writing was not the mark of so-called “originality” that it might be today but rather a sign of literary immaturity and insufficiency.

IS: Lope de Vega, Diego Velázquez, even musicians like Tomás Luis de Victoria saw themselves as conduits. Their work is imitative in the Renaissance sense of the term: it borrows openly and heavily from others. (I was about to write shamelessly but realized the adverb is a sign of our egotistical times.) One also needs to keep in mind the role censorship played during the Spanish Golden Age. In Don Quixote, First Part, Chapter 6, the priest and the barber enter Alfonso Quijano’s library. They offer a list of chivalry books he keeps. This is an intriguing window to the types of popular books read at the time. It is also a scene with strong connotations about censorship, for the priest and the barber build a bonfire outside Quijano’s window where they burn what they deem unworthy. In short, their views are in lieu of inquisitorial decisions. Literary works were published through the support of mecenas, nobility whose subsidies made the artist’s life possible. Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to his patron, the Earl of Southampton. But even with that subsidy, the work needed to pass through the censor’s eyes. What these expurgators wanted wasn’t originality in the modern sense of the term but absolute conformity with the Church’s view of the universe. Except that, as the priest and the barber prove it in Don Quixote, it was always more complicated.

In Chapters 1 and 2 of the First Part, the narrator also grants us an opportunity to know what Quijano is reading, such as the Amadís de Gaula, Tirant Lo Blanch, and other chivalry classics. The selection is wide. In the end, Don Quixote is a critique of the act and art of reading, and of creation as such. Cervantes’s playfulness in his novel is superb in countless ways. Then there is the famous chapter, in the Second Part, Chapter LXII, of the Quixote, in which the knight and his squire enter a bookstore in Barcelona, one that prints books as well. Don Quixote offers a series of disquisitions on the art of translation.

CH: Yes—this is where we get the often-quoted lines from Don Quixote on translation whereby “el traducir de una lengua en otra, como no sea de las reinas de las lenguas, griega latina, es como quien mira los tapices flamencos por el revés; que aunque se veen las figuras, son llenas de hilos que las oscurecen, y no se veen con la lisura y tex de la haz” (as translated by John Ormsby: Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side). And yet Don Quixote also declares that a good translation is one that creates doubt as to “cuál es la traducción o cuál el original” (Ormsby: which is the translation and which the original) the very doubt that, in a sense, is at the heart of Don Quixote.

IS: Among the most inspiring, in my view, is his creation of a pseudo-author, the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli. That the most important novel in Hispanic civilization is said to have been penned by an Arab is, unquestionably, a sign of genius. And that it is a historian, not a novelist, who is behind it is all the more inspiring. What is fiction, asks Cervantes? How different is it from history? Who actually has the pulse of reality, fiction or history? And, for the purposes of our conversation, Charles: how does one better translate what the imagination creates, through lies or through chronicles?

CH: In the prologue to Don Quixote, Cervantes’s friend tells him, “Solo tiene que aprovecharse de la imitación en lo que fuere escribiendo, que, cuanto ella fuere más perfecta, tanto mejor será lo que se escribiere” (Ormsby: It has only to avail itself of truth to nature in its composition, and the more perfect the imitation the better the work will be). Later in the novel, Don Quixote tells Sancho that “cuando algún pintor quiere salir famoso en su arte, procura imitar los originales de los más únicos pintores que sabe” (Ormsby: when a painter desires to become famous in his art he endeavours to copy the originals of the rarest painters that he knows), which underscores the fact that Don Quixote is an object of ridicule precisely because of his own excessive imitation, and that this has its origins in the literary orthodoxies of the time. In the prologue, to be sure, Cervantes is also critiquing the kind of servile imitation his friend espouses—and the formulaic approach to literature that results from it.  Explaining who to imitate, his friend tells him that if he’s writing about “mujeres . . . crueles, Ovidio os entregará á Medea: si de encantadoras y hechiceras, Homero tiene á Calipso, y Virgilio á Circle: si de capitanes valerosos, el mismo Julio César os prestará á sí mismo en sus comentarios, y Plutarco os dará mil Alejandros” (Ormsby: hard-hearted [women], Ovid will furnish you with Medea; if with witches or enchantresses, Homer has Calypso, and Virgil [has] Circe; if with valiant captains, Julius Caesar himself will lend you himself in his own ‘Commentaries,’ and Plutarch will give you a thousand Alexanders). In the prologue, Cervantes exposes the reductive nature of imitation, but he does so through imitation itself—he writes that his friend’s words “se imprimieron en mí sus razones, que sin ponerlas en disputa, las aprobé por buenas, y dellas mismas quise hacer este prólogo, en el cual verás, lector suave, la discrecion de mi amigo” (Ormsby: his observations made such an impression on me that, without attempting to question them, I admitted their soundness, and out of them I determined to make this Preface; wherein, gentle reader, thou wilt perceive my friend’s good sense). In the prologue, Cervantes’s critique of imitation is already an imitation on yet another count—of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example—because Cervantes is achieving a better kind of imitation that obfuscates the extent to which it is imitation.

IS: What is the Quixote if not a parody? And what is parody if not the imitation of a style with the intention to exaggerate, to make that style comedic? The entire novel is structured as simultaneously a critique of chivalry novels and an opportunity to shape that critique into a novel where stereotypes are humanized. Cervantes was a failed playwright. His talents as a poet were no less mediocre. Fortunately, he found in parody the genre to subvert the status quo. The First Part is more joyful, more adventurous than the Second Part, where he recognizes his own mortality and that of his protagonist and offers a philosophical backdrop for it. Everything he did in the novel—“the first modern one”—was based on creative imitation. What strikes us today as we read it is precisely the scope of Cervantes as a reader: his taste was more than Italianate (of course, he had spent time in Italy, then the apex of culture, before being captured by pirates on his way back home); he was quite current in translations from French, Portuguese, and German.

CH: You mentioned Shakespeare’s adaptation of an episode from Don Quixote. Do you want to say more about the relationship between Shakespeare and Cervantes?

IS: Ah, therein a delicious historical conundrum. As you know, Shakespeare and Cervantes died the same year: 1616. In fact, for a long time it was thought they had died on the exact same day. But the calendars used in Spain and England were different at the time, which means they passed away within ten days of each other. No evidence exists to support the claim that Cervantes knew of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright in the London stage. But the First Part of the Quixote appeared in Spanish in 1605. Thomas Shelton, the first English language translator, apparently (although, in my eyes, improbably) completed his version around 1607, although it wasn’t published until 1612. Did it circulate in manuscript? We think that Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play, called at various points in history as Cardenio, Double Falsehood, and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, was first performed in London in 1613, two years before Cervantes published the Second Part of his novel. Did Shakespeare read the entire First Part or only the Cardenio section? It’s impossible to know. It is clear, however, that Shelton’s translation quickly became popular. Since then, there have been a total of twenty-two English language translations of Cervantes’s novels. As far as I know, no novel has ever been translated more times into another language.

CH: Let’s talk about Christopher Columbus.

IS: Columbus isn’t a rara avis. His diaries are written in a fractured Spanish. He had been born in Genoa. Speculation about his Jewish ancestry has been a staple since his time. It doesn’t do much to continue that speculation, given the limited historical documents available to back it. However, the Jewish connection does point in one direction: polyglotism. Jews in the fifteenth century were a multilingual bunch: depending on class, geography, and profession, they were fluent in various regional languages (Aragonés, Catalán, Leonés), and in particular Castilian and Portuguese, as well as Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Columbus’s hybrid form of communication is a sign of his humble upbringing and his itinerant early life. In any case, he lived in Italy and Portugal, among other places. His language was a hybrid. The year 1492 is the annus mirabilis of Spain and of Western Civilization. Three major events take place at this point. The conquest of Granada, representing the consummation of La Reconquista. The expulsion of the Jews from the emerging nation. And the publication of Antonio de Nebrija’s Gramática.

CH: True, in Columbus’s diaries, he attempts to translate what he sees.  But he is translating that into a language that didn’t develop and evolve out of the world he was seeing. In other words, it was a language that had not found ways to name what Columbus was seeing.  In the Diario (1492), what’s striking is Columbus’s recognition of a kind of untranslatable difference and his attempt to establish equivalences. On the one hand, he writes that “los árboles todos están tan disformes de los nuestros como el día de la noche” (the trees are all as different from ours as night and day); on the other hand, in describing a mountain range, he writes that “parece propia como la sierra de Córdoba” (it looks just like the sierra of Córdoba).

IS: What a complex effort! It would be the equivalent of an astronaut journeying to a planet somewhere in the Milky Way and reporting back that life indeed exists there. However, it is drastically different from ours. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), says that the limit of our language are the limits of our world and vice versa. In other words, the words we have at our own disposal can only describe what surrounds us, even through the prism of our imagination. The impossible is beyond word. That, mind you, is what the chronicles of the conquest had to bargain with: how to use words, the words of Renaissance Spanish, with a lexicon of around 15,000 words, to describe a new world.

CH: It’s worth stating the obvious: that the Diario we have isn’t what Columbus actually wrote, which was lost, but rather a summary of it by Las Casas carried out in the 1530s. What we do have with the Diario, therefore, is a textual puzzle made up of sources, originals, and copies befitting Don Quixote or even “Pierre Menard.” Margarita Zamora rightly characterizes the Diario we have as a “rewriting.” The inconsistencies and anachronisms—in addition to Las Casas’s own insistence on asserting the text’s fidelity to the original—should remind us that the Diario isn’t so much a diary of discovery as it was happening at the end of the fifteenth century, but rather a retrospective account of it from nearly half a century later; and the politics of what we have is perhaps more closely related to the politics of Las Casas’s Brevísima relación than to Columbus’s intentions.

IS: That, too, is translation, is it not? Modern technology (TV, radio, the Internet, close-circuit interpreting) has gotten us used to a type of simultaneity impossible to find in ancient times. What news do we have of the Trojan War? None. All we have are poems, artistic depictions, and secondhand accounts in the Cyclic Epics of Cypria, Aethiopis, Nostoi, and others. Centuries later, Titus Flavius Josephus recounts the Jewish War against Roman occupation in Palestine in the years 66 to 70 BCE. But he was an historian—albeit an “involved one”—who wrote it later. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo . . . While the line between firsthand account and history oscillates from case to case, there is never such thing as an in-site reporter writing the story as it unfolds. Needless to say, what Zamora and other scholars suggest is even more cumbersome: in Columbus’s case, and he wasn’t a rara avis in this either, his Diaries are somewhat untrustworthy because several scribal hands are interjected into them. The effect is that the contract between author and reader isn’t kept. The whole enterprise of the conquest of the Americas navigates time through these types of filters. Who is telling the story? To what extent should be believe it? These are unavoidable questions, among other reasons because the line between fact and fiction is sharper, less foggy, more ephemeral today.

CH: Now let’s go back to Las Casas.

IS: Arguably, Las Casas is the most tacitly influential political thinker in Renaissance Spain and colonial Latin America. I say this—“tacitly” and not “explicitly”—without a hint of provocation. Who else taught us to see the New World as Europe’s playing ground? In A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Borges, who wasn’t fond of “the defender of the Indians,” begins the chapter “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” thus:

In 1517, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things: W. C. Handy’s blues; the success achieved in Paris by the Uruguayan attorney-painter Pedro Figari; the fine runaway-slave prose of the likewise Uruguayan Vicente Rossi; the mythological stature of Abraham Lincoln; the half-million dead of the War of Secession; the $3.3 billion spent on military pensions; the statue of the imaginary semblance of Antonio (Falucho) Ruiz; the inclusion of the verb “lynch” in respectable dictionaries; the impetuous King Vidor film Hallelujah; the stout bayonet charge of the regiment of “Blacks and Tans” (the color of their skins, not their uniforms) against that famous hill near Montevideo; the gracefulness of certain elegant young ladies; the black man who killed Martin Fierro; that deplorable rumba The Peanut-Seller; the arrested and imprisoned Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the serpent in Haiti; the blood of goats whose throats are slashed by the papalois machete; the habanera that is the mother of the tango; the candombe.

I quote the entire first paragraph because it handsomely illustrated Las Casas’s echoes: his paradigmatic goodwill produced a long list of averted consequences. The effects of any human event, no matter how small, are infinite. Yet the Bishop of Chiapas, in wanting to do good, ended up fostering the bad. He helped the passing of the New Laws in 1542, designed to protect the indigenous population. His History of the Indies, which he begun in 1527, is an astonishing work of ideologically-driven historiography. And the Brevísima relación (1552) is its summation. In the former he spends generous time detailing the linguistic quagmire in which the Americas found themselves at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

CH: You mentioned Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

IS: His Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (Account of the Conquest of New Spain), is riddled with inaccuracies. There are also questions about Díaz del Castillo’s role in Hernán Cortés’s enterprise. Was he truly in it as he described it? Cortés fares rather poorly in it, but that is neither here nor there. For our purposes, what is most insightful in this chronicle is Díaz del Castillo’s narrative about La Malinche, no doubt one of the most infamous translators in world history. In Mexican lore, Doña Marina, Cortés’s mistress, is a despicable traitor. I use the adjective despicable because no other Hispanic country—maybe no other nation anywhere—turns a translator’s name into a mean-spirited qualifier: malinchismo is the act of betraying one’s own country. Perhaps I’m defining it too broadly; rather, let me say it is the art of deceiving Mexico. To be portrayed as a malinchista is to be perceived as a conspirator, an anti-loyalist, even a deserter.

Díaz del Castillo also has insight sections on Melchorejo and Julianillo, two interpreters crucial in Cortés’s campaign. I wrote about them in my essay “Translation and Identity” (1998). Their fate is unknown and probably tragic: one of them committed suicide after his Aztec peers found out he was a kind of spy, and the other disappeared never to be seen again. Therein lies the fate of translators in this period: to collaborate with the enemy. That dilemma repeats itself frequently: during the Spanish Inquisition, in Nazi Germany, in the Soviet Union.

CH: Over the years, you’ve written about Cabeza de Vaca a great deal. Am I right in saying that for you, Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition is the most explicit exploration of linguistic and cultural translation of any text from the period?

IS: Yes, by all means. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, in Naufragios, as the Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition is known in Spanish, defaults to magical language. His chapters on attempting to convince the indigenous tribes that he is a prophet—as a healer, he sees himself as a modality of Jesus Christ—are a lesson in narrative deception. Augusto Monterroso parodied them in a masterful short story called “The Eclipse,” in which a Spanish prisoner about to be cooked by a tribe in the New World persuades his tormentor that he has cosmic power, being able to make the moon in the sky cover the sight of the sun. In the last, brief scene, it becomes clear to the reader that his end did occur, since the tribe already had astronomical knowledge and was capable of predicting, without outside help, the movement of the stars.

CH: Your use of the phrase “magical” to refer to Cabeza de Vaca’s lenguaje, of course, brings us close to the question of “magical realism.”  At least since Ángel Flores’s classic essay from the 1950s, we associate “magical realism” with the crónicas.  For Flores, “the magical” can already be found “in the letters of Columbus, in the chroniclers, in the sagas of Cabeza de Vaca,” and for him, it entered “the literary mainstream during Modernism [Modernismo].” These claims, and others, produced a famous polemic between Flores and Luis Leal—someone who has been very important for you—about the essential nature of “magical realism.”  In an essay called “De lo real maravilloso americano” (loosely translated as “of the marvelously real in the Americas”), Carpentier brings together many of the issues we’ve been discussing—Don Quixote, the cronistas, language, and so forth. Carpentier suggest that Bernal Díaz del Castillo gives us “el único libro de caballería real y fidedigno que se haya escrito—libro de caballeriza donde los hacedores de maleficios fueron teules visibles y palpables, auténticos los animales desconocidos, contempladas las ciudades ignotas, vistos los dragones en sus ríos y las montañas insólitas en sus nieves y humos. Bernal Díaz, sin sospecharlo, había superado las hazañas de Amadís de Gaula, Belianis de Grecia y Florismarte de Hircania” (the only real and truthful chivalric novel ever written—a chivalric novel in which evildoers were deities you could see and touch, unknown animals existed in real life, unrecognizable cities were gazed upon, and there were dragons in rivers and strange mountains with snow and smoke). Bernal Díaz’s account of the New World, “sin sospecharlo” (unknowingly) turns out to be the only book of fantasy that, according to Carpentier, is paradoxically “real” and “truthful.” Carpentier underscores the paradox here with the oppositions “auténticos . . . desconocidos” and “contempladas . . . ignotas.” This paradox, for Carpentier, constituted the essence of the region—the “animales desconocidos” weren’t magical for the people who “knew” them, only for those who saw them with eyes conditioned through the textual world of the Amadis and Belianis to see them that way.

IS: That, in a nutshell, is what translation in the Transatlantic World is in the sixteenth century: the attempt to explain, in European languages, a reality beyond their lexicon. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: Das Aussprechen eines Wortes ist gleichsam ein Anschlagen einer Taste auf dem Vorstellungsklavier. That is, uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. But I don’t want to give the wrong opinion: the misconceptions that resulted from European attempts at translating the New World is also enormously beneficial, at least to us on this side of the Atlantic. For one thing, the universe might be billions of years old, but we—and only we—are perceived as new. Furthermore, what is bizarre, what is fanciful, what it unexpected is often linked to who we are. By this I mean to say that being misconceived as an asset, not a handicap. I say this as a Jew as well, and God knows the endless ways in which Jews are often misrepresented. In the end all representations are misrepresentations. Therefore, starting from the fact that ours is a non-factual portrait gives us a head start. As you realize, my position is against folks like Roberto Fernández Retamar, who in his refutation of José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel (1900), attacks the Old World for misconceiving the New. I, instead, am grateful!

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