Translating Weirdness: The New Translation of Augusto Monterroso’s "Mister Taylor" for The Weird

November 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

Menos rara, aunque sin duda más ejemplar – dijo entonces el otro –, es la historia de…

Less strange, although without a doubt more exemplary, is the story of how Augusto Monterroso’s classic political fable, “Mister Taylor,” came to be translated anew for publication in the recently-released anthology The Weird:  A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  This piece is not as much a commentary on the author and his most famous fiction but rather more a look at the strangeness of translating this deceptively devilish short story. 

Before I was asked by Jeff to translate “Mister Taylor,” I was only vaguely familiar with Monterroso’s name.  He was often cited as an example of Boom Generation fiction to explore when one had already read Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, or Mario Vargas Llosa, but until Jeff suggested that I translate “Mister Taylor,” I had never gotten around to reading him.  So the first thing I did was get a copy of this story (I have an Alianza Editorial edition of his collected Cuentos) and I began to read “Mister Taylor” in earnest.

The first thing that I noticed was that Monterroso uses complex clauses to create a contrasting playful and serious effect.  Those readers who are apt to skim descriptive passages (and I sometimes do this, to my chagrin) will find themselves needing to re-read Monterroso’s sentences several times, as he buries humor and biting satire inside these passages.  In turn, these elements, when placed beside troubling, surreal aspects (such as the desire to engage in mass headhunting), evokes a sense of weirdness, that this should not be happening and yet for the characters it is the most natural thing in the world!  Without Monterroso’s carefully placed descriptions, connected together with a plethora of dependent clauses, the weird effect would be ruined.

Delightful as it may be to read such elegantly constructed sentences in the original Spanish, it was a real struggle to render this literary effect into English.  It took several drafts to reproduce this.  Typically, when I translate a passage (say for some of the reviews that I do of Spanish-language works), I first begin by making as literal of a translation as I can, even if it sounds stilted and unnatural to Anglophones.  Then I begin to go through each paragraph and change the order of adjectives and if it would sound better, tighten the sentences by removing extraneous modifiers (e.g. “the braying donkey” in place of “the donkey that brayed”) to create something more harmonious for English speakers.

However, doing this too often in a story such as “Mister Taylor” risks destroying the delicate structure he has created.  Yet some compromises have to made in translation lest both the letter and spirit of the text be lost.  Below is a passage that underwent several modifications over the drafts I first did and then when Jeff submitted it to a few more rounds of copyediting:

Grande fue el regocijo con que Mr. Taylor regresó a su choza.  Esa noche, acostado boca arriba sobre la precaria estera de palma que le servía de lecho, interrumpido tan sólo por el zumbar de las moscas acaloradas que revoloteaban en torno haciéndose obscenamente el amor, Mr. Taylor contempló con deleite durante un buen rato su curiosa adquisición.  El mayor goce estético lo extraía de contar, uno por uno, los pelos de la barba y el bigote, y de ver de frente el par de ojillos entre irónicos que parecían sonreírle agradecidos por aquella deferencia.

Great was Mr. Taylor’s joy as he returned to his hut.  That night, lying on his back on a precarious palm mat which served as his bed, interrupted only by the buzzing of the aroused flies that flew around him making love obscenely, Mr. Taylor contemplated with delight for a long time his curious acquisition.  He took the greatest aesthetic pleasure from counting, one by one, the hairs of the beard and moustache and looking straight into the pair of half-ironic eyes that seemed to smile at him, pleased by his deference.

When I first handwrote my translation back in the spring of 2010, I rendered the first sentence as “Great was the joy with which Mr. Taylor returned to his hut.”  It is more literal and while some might think it would sound better or at least represent the Latin American Spanish-ness of the text, I ultimately decided that it was unnecessary, since Monterroso did not construct that sentence to be any stranger than the usual “con que” construction is in Spanish.  Therefore, I went with the simpler “as.”  Similarly, “boca arriba” literally means “face up,” but what native English speaker ever speaks of sleeping “face up?”  Likewise with the flies buzzing around Mr. Taylor.  Sure, “que revoloteaban en torno” sounds grander than “that flew around him,” but rendering it as “that were revolving in turn” just throws the reader off a bit too much.

This is not to say that there weren’t times when a more ornate (and weird-reading) construction wasn’t called for.  If I recall correctly, the passage below was perhaps of the most problematic for Jeff and me when we were working on the final draft:

El Ministro de Salud Pública se sintió sincero, y una noche caliginosa, con la luz apagada, después de acariciarle un ratito el pecho como por no dejar, le confesó a su mujer que se consideraba incapaz de elevar la mortalidad a un nivel grato a los intereses de la Compañía, a lo que ella le contestó que no se preocupara, que vería cómo todo iba a salier bien, y que mejor se durmieran.

The Minister of Public Health, feeling sincere one dark night, with the light turned off, after unceasingly caressing for a little while his wife’s breast, confessed to her that he considered himself incapable of elevating mortality rates to a level pleasing to the Company’s interests, to which she replied that he should not worry, that he would see that everything would turn out well and that it would be best that they sleep.

I seem to recall that the adjective “sincero” was a topic of discussion.  Ultimately, its literal “sincere” translation was left in, in part because it sets up an amusing allusion to “sincere – truthful – politicans,” but also because that adjective describes so much of what follows in the second half of the story.  But that sentence was torturous to translate and ultimately we decided to leave it mostly as was, in order to impart the strangeness of the situation and the “off” quality that can accompany even the best translations from one language to another.  Yet even here are modifications:  “después de acariciarle un ratito el pecho como por no dejar” describes rather strongly the unspoken desire to massage his wife’s breasts as if he couldn’t ever stop, while for simplicity’s sake “after unceasingly caressing for a little while his wife’s breast” is substituted.  Yes, some might argue that changes the mood slightly from desire to (temporary) action, but the intent is largely conveyed without interrupting the larger flow of that key passage, which is to note that while in the midst of lovemaking, there is concern that the shrunken head quota isn’t being met.

Yet despite these changes, whether one thinks they are for the better or for the worse (I think they help improve the clarity of several key passages), what I hope readers will discover when they read my new translation of “Mister Taylor” is a story that depends heavily upon its juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrificly weird to create a satirical fable whose impact will be strongest after the final words are read and the true import of the story becomes clear to readers.  It was a difficult but yet instructive experience “carrying across” Monterroso’s original into a new English translation, but I hope readers will be appreciative of the result of this labor of love.

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