I’ve just read Mariano Azuela’s Underdogs. Probably some 90-95% of the fiction I read is translated. Over the years, that has inevitably meant some work that has seemed to be excellent and some that has seemed less so. But it is, fortunately, rare for my to be as unhappy as I recently found myself. I own two different translations of Azuela's book and I switched back and forth between them because I didn’t care for either one; there is no doubt in my mind that my difficulties with this book lay almost entirely with the translations, not the author.
The first version is the Penguin edition, translated by Sergio Waisman, an Associate Professor of Spanish at George Washington University who, according to his bio, has won at least one translation award. He wrote a useful introduction that discusses both the book and the challenges of working on this translation: “After the title, the largest challenge the translator faces is that the majority of the novel is written in dialogue, as Azuela has his characters use a variety of regional and colloquial expressions and idioms, and speak in idiosyncratic accents, all of which reflect their different economic and social classes—in addition to their individual personalities.”
Having read the entire book now, it’s quite easy to imagine that this is so. Unfortunately, Waisman’s solution to this problem was largely limited to two things: he has many characters use “ya” instead of “you” and often a final consonant is dropped. Waisman relies on “ya” so heavily and thoughtlessly that it not only becomes tedious but results in such constructions as: “At least ya know why ya’re riskin’ your hide.” “Ya’re”? His other mechanism for reproducing the variety of speech the characters use is to drop the final consonants often (though not always): “ tha’s all” instead of “that’s all” or “happenin’.” He has Luis Cervantes (Curro) speak in full sentences, using correct syntax and somewhat pretentious language, as befits the character. But I see little evidence of “a variety of regional and colloquial expressions and idioms.” Just a lot of “ya” and missing consonants. Almost every character uses the version of “uneducated” speech as all the others. The only distinctive language is that of Cervantes.
I recall reading long ago (I no longer recall where) that rendering dialect is among the most difficult things for a writer to pull off. Waisman’s translation is ample evidence of that. In addition, at the same time Waisman is focusing on “ya” and other “uneducated” usages, he has the same characters, in some of the very same sentences, using words or locutions that hardly seem appropriate. Thus, at one point, Demetrio’s language becomes: “We’re gonna have lunch with Don Monico…an old friend who really cares for me.” “Really cares for me”? There’s obviously nothing wrong with the phrase but it seems unusually formal for the character. Or perhaps my favorite: “Man, curro…. I can’t bring myself to tell her…. But that’s how I am, that’s my temperament”!“Temperament” is not a word that Demetrio would even know. As literally accurate as the translation may be, it is tone deaf in terms of representing Demetrio, the man. Or there is Pancracio referring to the “little urchins.” Pancracio’s background and education make “little urchins” a peculiar choice, to say the least. Finally, although he explains his reasons for translating nicknames, there is something off-putting about reading “War Paint” (Pintada) or “Towhead” (Güero).
The second translation is by Gustavo Pellon, Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia, published by Hackett. Pellon at least keeps all the nicknames in Spanish. The book is generally easier to read because Pellon doesn’t try to render the colloquial speech as faithfully as Waisman. It may be less “authentic” but it allows the reader to rely on Azuela’s skill in creating characters and allows a reader to substituting his or her own imagination for what each character must sound like. But there are still issues: it’s hard to imagine an ordinary “soldier” (Azuela’s word) fighting for Demetrio who would say “The braid on his epaulettes and cape sparkled.” That he would express the idea, no doubt. But in those words…I just can’t accept it. Likewise, it seems wrong for Demetrio to say, “You know why I became an insurgent?” The word isn’t likely in the vocabularies of these characters. And yet I find that because them so well drawn, imagination helps picture the characters speaking as they really might rather than being forced to accept these renderings (Waisman has Demetrio say “D’ya know why I rose up in rebellion?” Still awkward, but less so.)
Pellon’s problems are different. His English, for example, is occasionally quite odd: “His staff makes a sinister smile.” Huh? (Waisman: “His general staff smile a sinister smile.”) Or, “They’re only brave when it comes to eating cows….” (Waisman: “They only act brave when it comes time to shooting [sic] cows….” Ignoring Waisman’s problem with tense, shooting and eating are different verbs; and besides, who eats a cow? Beef, maybe, but not a cow.) “She made a gesture of indifference” is more than just awkward (Waisman: she “shrugged.”) Pellon has someone getting hit “Right smack on his pumpkin!” (Waisman: “Right in ‘is head.”) Sadly, although Pellon doesn’t use these oddities frequently, he does so regularly enough to make for strange reading.
Both translators are a bit too literal at times. They both have Pintada order someone to get “a bundle of alfalfa” for her horse. While I have no doubt that this may be the literal translation of the Spanish, I cannot imagine anyone—especially Pintada—referring to a “bundle” of alfalfa. A “bunch” maybe, or even a “some” but a bundle seems just a trifle…precious. Both translate Azuela’s reference to sharp vision at a distance as involving “eaglet eyes.” The word may be exactly correct but I have never heard anyone say anything except “eagle eyes.” An eaglet is a baby eagle. And even if that’s what Azuela wrote, though it may be the Spanish usage, it’s not the English usage.
All in all, it’s disappointing to read an important book, one I think I could have enjoyed significantly more, only to have the experience ultimately sabotaged by not one but two separate translators. There appear to be at least three other translations: by Enrique Munguía, Jr. in 1929; by Ilan Stavans and Anna Herron More made, I think, in 2015; and by Beth Jorgensen in 2002 “based on” Munguia’s. I have dipped into all three and of them, the Stavans/More seems to hold the most promise but I can’t quite bring myself to read the book again at the moment. Perhaps someone who has read it could weigh in. I’d be curious to know others’ reactions to either the Waisman and Pellon versions—or to others.