Rules for beauty, Spanish vs. English

Last week I mentioned the challenge of translating the novel Prodigies by Angélica Gorodischer for Small Beer Press. She deliberately chose to write the book in a formal style of Spanish that strives for beauty.

However, standards of beauty for Spanish and English share little in common due to the different histories of each language as well as the different possibilities and limits of their grammar and vocabularies. Beauty had to be transformed.

Spanish emerged from a local dialect of Latin. King Alfonso X “the Wise,” who reigned from 1252 to 1284, made Spanish (Castilian, to be precise) the preferred language for scholarship in his realm, replacing Latin. To cement that change, he funded scholars in Toledo and elsewhere to translate literature from other languages into Spanish and to write new books. He himself wrote some important works, knowing that a language must have literature.

Fine writing style in Spanish still echoes its scholarly roots: formal and elaborated. Above all, good style rejects repetition. Vocabulary and syntax should be richly varied. Spanish grammar permits long, ornate sentences, because the verbs are fully conjugated and the nouns and adjectives are gendered, so subordinate clauses can be easily looped together like tatted lace.

English, on the other hand, has suffered a more checkered history. After the Norman invasion in 1066, Norman French became the dominant language in Britain, and English was shattered into regional dialects. As Modern English eventually began to emerge, it was shaped by two formidable literary landmarks: Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

The Bard of Avon began writing plays in about 1592, adding lively new words and expressions that we still use today. We all speak “the language of Shakespeare” — which is how Spaniards often refer to English (to avoid repeating the word English).

But even more important in the development of English, the King James Bible was published in 1611. Its constant use as the single major work of literature readily available to ordinary people made it the standard and model for their language. For us, it’s hard to imagine how central this book was, even to illiterate people, but we can hear still its influence.

Its translators had produced majestic but direct, unornamented prose meant for ordinary people, not scholars, and they stuck close to the syntax of the original languages, notably Hebrew in the Old Testament.

Many of those Bible verses were poetry, and Hebrew poetry does not rhyme; instead, it uses parallel, balanced structures of phrases or ideas, and of words or rhythms. The second half of a parallel may paraphrase its first half; it may give a consequence; it may contradict the first half; or it may add stronger clauses or sentences that lead to an apex. Rhythm can make the prose musical.

We can hear this in the Book of Ruth: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

Because of the echo of Hebrew poetry in Modern English, careful repetition and parallel structure strike our ears as beautiful. The two most famous speeches of the 20th century, “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr., and “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” by Winston Churchill, demonstrate the power and melody of repetition.

With that in mind, I sought to preserve the beauty in Gorodischer’s novel and her dense, very Spanish prose. Here’s an example from Chapter 15:

“…en algunas casas se cerraron púdicas las cortinas no fuera que ese sol desmesurado y lejos de lugar y medida, como despanzurrando sobre los parquets y los tapices, fuera a desteñir los tapizados y peor, a dar que pensar aguijondeando la piel de los antebrazos y detrás de los lóbulos de las orejas a las niñas vigiladas y obedientes que cambiaban, también en esa época como el sol…”

“The sun came out over a grayish world in a resentful winter, and nothing could be done about it: in some houses the curtains were chastely closed because this sun, excessive and out of place and propriety, might burst on parquet floors and tapestries, might fade the fabric, and worse, might strike the skin on the forearms and behind the earlobes of protected and obedient girls, inciting their thoughts, girls who also transformed in that season like the sun…”

Using a little repetition, I sought to set the words to a different tune and make them sing as sweetly. There were alternatives, of course.

One problem — or possibility, depending on how you look at it — involves the translation of the word fuera, which is the past tense third person singular subjunctive form of “to be.” Spanish subjunctive can be translated in many ways, often with difficulty because the use of subjunctive in English is much more limited than in Spanish. Of the various ways to render it, each requires additional changes in the syntax. One possible way, and a more literal translation, is:

“…in some houses the chaste curtains were closed to prevent this sun, excessive and out of place and propriety, as it was bursting on parquets and tapestries, from fading fabric and worse, inciting thoughts as it was striking skin on the forearms and behind the earlobes of the protected and obedient girls who also changed in this season like the sun.”

Although this is perfectly acceptable, to my ear it sounds ordinary, unlike the original prose, which sounds extraordinary. I hear too many present participles (-ing words), and while repetition of grammatical forms is good, these do not all fulfill the exact same grammatical role: they’re not parallel.

Instead, in my final version, I tried to find a way to unite as many verbs as I could under the modal might. Its use to express weak probability at times can convey the sense imparted by Spanish subjunctive. I chose might burst, might fade, might strike, and deliberately repeated might to make sure the reader understood the relationship among the verbs.

The passage also focuses on the girls of the households, who must be kept chaste and unchanged. So rather than say who toward the end of the sentence, I found a way to repeat girls and thus place a bit more emphasis on them.

In the process, I did not follow the original word for word. Instead, I followed it idea for idea within the artistic intent of the author. I hope that for the reader, I recreated the beauty of the text of the novel and its extraordinary characters and magical setting.

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