sábado, 8 de mayo de 2010

Francisco de Quevedo, autor del Buscón


DEAR Reader or Listener (for the blind cannot read) I can just imagine how much you want to read about my delightful Don Pablos, Prince of the Roving Life.

Here you will find all the tricks of the low life or those which I think most people enjoy reading about: craftiness, deceit, subterfuge and swindles, born of laziness to enable you to live on lies; and if you attend to the lesson you will get quite a lot of benefit from it.  And even if you don't, study the sermons, for I doubt if anyone buys a book as coarse as this in order to avoid the inclinations of his own depraved nature.  Let it serve you as you like; praise it, for it certainly deserves applause, and praise the genius of its author who has enough common sense to know it is a lot more amusing to read about low life when the story is written with spirit, than about other more serious topics.

You already know who the author is.

You are well aware of the price of the book, as you already have it, unless you are looking through it in the bookshop, a practice which is very tiresome for the bookseller and ought to be suppressed with the utmost rigour of the law.  You see, there are people who steal a free read as sparrows pick at a meal, and some who read books here and there and then piece the story together; and this is a great pity because they criticize the book even though it hasn't cost them anything; which is a mean swindle, as foul as anything I described in my Knights of the Princess.  Dear Reader, may God protect you from bad books, police, and nagging, moon-faced, fair-haired women.
(Francisco de Quevedo, The Swindler [translated from the Spanish by Michael Alpert], 83)

Although Borges mentions Francisco de Quevedo two or three times in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," that's not my main reason for "introducing" him here now (the timing, I'll agree, was fortuitous).  In fact, I have two or three essentially disconnected reasons for mentioning Quevedo at all.  The first is that I've finally started reading Quevedo's 1626 El Buscón [usually translated in English as The Swindler] and am heartily enjoying its post-Lazarillo de Tormes approach to the picaresque novel format.  Gotta love those early explorations in first-person storytelling that build up laughs at the expense of the series of misfortunes that befall their poor, beleagued narrators!  The second reason has to do with the excerpt above.  I'm an extreme sucker for the captatio benevolentiae and other forms of writing where the writer directly addresses the reader, and this one's insult-laden tone ("I doubt if anyone buys a book as coarse as this in order to avoid the inclinations of his own depraved nature") and acknowledgement that readers can be swindlers, too, displays more genius to me than all the Man Booker prize winners combined.  The only catch is that the excerpt above doesn't appear in my Spanish-language version of the text.  In fact, it's kind of bogus.  Which brings us to the third thing I wanted to talk about, translations.  Although the extra "Quevedo" introduction that appears in the English version of The Swindler likely has to do with an editorial decision rather than a translation decision (see note below* if interested), I'm still bothered by at least two choices that translator Michael Alpert has made.  In chapter four, for example, the narrator Pablos arrives at an inn of ill repute on the road to the university town of Alcalá de Henares.  In Spanish, the text reads: "Metióme adentro, y estaban dos rufianes con unas mujercillas, un cura rezando al olor" (33).  In English, Alpert's translation reads: "I went inside where there were a couple of roughs with some whores, a priest saying his prayers to protect himself from their stink..." (101).  While the casual reader could read the English translation without finding anything much amiss, there's a small but not inconsequential joke missing in Alpert's reproduction.  My lovingly-annotated Spanish version of the text explains that the priest's act of praying "al olor" or "to the smell or scent" of the prostitutes actually means to say that the priest was "atraído por la presencia de las mujeres" ("attracted by the presence of the women") rather than praying to protect himself from their stink (33).  In other words, the priest is a target of Quevedo's barbs and not just an innocent bystander at the scene.  While I'd like to think that this was just an innocent mistake that could happen to anyone, Alpert's introduction to the work leaves me concerned that so-called good taste might have competed with accurate translating on his list of priorities: "Oaths and obscenities are a problem as Spanish uses them in profusion," he writes in the 1969 edition.  "I have tried to produce the same effect without being either crude or mealy-mouthed.  I have certainly not been afraid to use four-letter words when I thought they were what the author intended" (16).  Am I reading too much into Alpert's thoughts about translation strategies?  Perhaps.  But it bothers me that a professional translator would be worried about being "crude" when he or she should really be more concerned with being faithful (a slippery concept, I know) to the source text.  Thanks to Quevedo and/or "Quevedo" for the timely reminder.

*There are three source manuscripts for Quevedo's text.  In his edition of the Buscón, Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza writes that "La 'Carta dedicatoria' que figura en los manuscritos S y C y el prologuillo 'Al lector', incluido en la primera edición, tampoco parecen deberse a Quevedo" ("Neither the 'Dedicatory Letter' appearing in manuscripts S and C nor the little prologue 'To the Reader' included in the first edition appear to owe themselves to Quevedo") [8].

**To add to the "Pierre Menard"-like atmosphere surrounding the apocryphal note to the reader above, I should note that Quevedo, considered one of Spain's greatest Siglo de Oro poets, wouldn't own up to authoring The Swindler even though it was commonly attributed to him by both his contemporaries and most modern scholars.

  • Francisco de Quevedo (edición de Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza). La vida del Buscón.  Barcelona: Crítica, n.d.
  • Michael Alpert, ed.  Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler (El Buscón).  London: Penguin, 1975.

9 comentarios:

  1. I have a tranlation by Charles Duff, circa 1926, that omits the spurious introduction, and omits any reference to odor - "some wenches, beside whom a priest was saying his prayers." That's one way to "solve" the problem.

  2. Very, very interesting. I noticed also with The Library of Babel that different translations on the web evinced subtle differences, which is very amusing in a meta sense, given the story's theme.

  3. *Amateur Reader: Ha, I guess pretending an uncomfortable word or image isn't there in the original language is the old school/gentlemanly way to translate then! Will have to keep my eyes peeled for other translation irregularities in Quevedo since I'm sure that my readers will be begging for more posts on the Golden Age Spain translation theme any moment now!

    *Jill: The upsetting thing for me in terms of the Quevedo novel is that I'm not sure English readers would have too many different recent translations to choose from (Amateur Reader's own anecdote above notwithstanding). With Borges, at least the meticulous reader/fan could compare different options if so desired, which also touches on the meta theme you mention. On a slightly unrelated note, two responses to an English-only Quevedo post are about one to two more than I'd expected--extremely gratifying. I'm off to celebrate!

  4. Quevedo: madrileño de pro.
    Me pierdo en muchas partes, mi inglés deja mucho que desear... pero de "mujercilla" a "puta" hay un trecho, jajaja.

    Me encanta que divulgues la obra de Don Francisco. No quiero imaginar lo que tiene que haber en las traducciones de sus poesías..

    Un abrazo.

  5. Very interesting—and I'm disappointed by this too. Obscenity, and levels of obscenity, are notoriously hard to get quite right in another language, but of course that sort of thing is exactly a translator's job (i.e., not even getting into the thorny idea of "fidelity to the text," but just in terms of being truly fluent). Fortunately, my total lack of Spanish insulates me from these worries while I'm actually reading in translation from Spanish, just because I can't know and can't do anything else anyway.

  6. *Katrina: Entiendo lo que dices sobre la diferencia entre "mujercillas" y "putas", jajaja, pero incluso el editor de la edición española me explica que el uso de "mujercillas" por don Quevedo significa "'prostitutas', por eufemismo". ¿Qué curioso, no? En cuanto al Buscón en general, estoy disfrutando su lenguaje y sus muchas diversiones--pero todavía me queda muchos capítulos para llegar hasta el final. La reseña será bilingüe, por supuesto. ¡Saludos, mi amiga madrileña!

    *Nicole: I don't usually look at Spanish/English translations too carefully unless I'm looking for help with something particular to run in the blog, so this was rather a rude awakening for me in some ways! Totally agree with you about grappling with obscenity and other such things falling within the nature of the translator's job...and that it's hard to know what we're missing whenever we read in translation without being able to spot-check the original. The Quevedo translation's making me a little uneasy about things so far, though, which is quite a drag since the novel itself is so amusing.

  7. Just catching up with blog reading/commenting after an offline bday weekend, Richard, but this is a fascinating post. Love, love, love thinking about translation issues and all the sticky wickets they bring up. On a related note re: obscenity, I'm fond of Bertolt Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper to the point of owning several English translations in Threepenny Opera form, and they vary insanely widely. And I don't speak German, & have no idea which is the most accurate representation of the original. One of them (translated by Ralph Manheim, who did Celine!) is a lot dirtier than the others, and I've actually heard that it's dirtier than the original German.

  8. Andrew Hurley touches on this subject in his note on his translation of Borges' stories - defending his use of certain obscene words or racial slurs. I really appreciated that he seemed to be trying above all to represent the original text accurately. It both staggers me and at the same time doesn't surprise me that translators would try to tiptoe around ungentlemanly language...

  9. *Emily: Thanks for the kind words on the post! The translation thing must be in the air these days (I'm sure a lot having to do with the recent release of Edith Grossman's book on the subject), but you're right, it is a delicious topic in general. Your Bertolt Brecht story's a crack-up, of course, and I can imagine an ad campaign pushing books as "dirtier than the original German" could only be a huge success! Eternal props to Ralph Manheim for those Céline translations, too (can't really imagine struggling with those in French right now).

    *Sarah: I tried to borrow that Borges compilation from my library but both of the copies were checked out at the time, so thanks for the tip on what Hurley touches on in his introduction. I'll have to check that out one of these days. On obscenity and translations in general, I do--perhaps naively--wish translators would just avoid works that make them feel squeamish about presenting the original's language/themes. I'd rather wait for a good translation to come around than to read somebody's doctored version of one ("good," in this case, meaning unexpurgated or not otherwise altered to appeal to somebody's sense of decorum). The whole language prude angle makes me kind of grouchy, I'm afraid!