October 6, 2020
I speak Spanish, which I learned as an adult, and I write in English. But to write a full novel in English about one of the principal Spanish-speakers and writers of the last hundred years does present a challenge. This despite my having translated three of that author’s books to English.
I had read about the very dangerous passage that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda made in 1949, escaping from Chile to Argentina on horseback through the Andes Mountains. He had been barred from his senator’s seat in the Chilean Congress, and there was a warrant out for his arrest…all due to grave political disagreements with then-president Gabriel González Videla. It was decided by the Communist Party in Chile, of which Neruda was a member, that the only way to get him out of the country safely was on horseback through the Andes. It was a very dangerous undertaking in which Neruda was led through the cordillera by trackers familiar with the territory. Despite very rough conditions and a couple of close brushes with death, they completed the trek, and Neruda was able to move on to Paris, where his wife Delia del Carrill was awaiting him. He went on to even greater international fame and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973.
I succeeded in finishing the novel, which has the title The Splendid City, and it was published in 2019. I’ve always thought that there would have to be a Spanish-language translation of the book, Neruda’s fame and readership in Spanish-speaking countries being of legendary proportions. Through a friend of mine, a prominent Chilean novelist living in the United States, I made the acquaintance of Jaime Collyer, who is himself a noted novelist and short story writer, and a prominent figure in contemporary Chilean writing. We talked. Jaime read my novel (he is remarkably fluent in the English language) and liked it. We decided to work together.
So…La espléndida ciudad will come out in its Spanish-language edition on December 1, 2020 in the translation by Jaime Collyer. It will be available in bookstores everywhere (especially, of course, in Central and South America) and online at the usual sites.
Despite all this, which was pretty fast-moving for me and exciting, I worried that because the original is in English, a Spanish-language translation wouldn’t have the kind of authenticity that such a book would have, had its author been hispanic. English has such a northern European twist to it (a combination of Celtic, Britannic, Germanic, Danish and who knows how many other frozen-tundra linguistic elements) that a rendering of it into Spanish may not have the sunny, warm-breezes, wine-induced, olive-oil Mediterranean flow that such a story deserves.
You realize that this is a real possibility once you’ve studied the two languages and understand the difference in feel, one from the other. For me, a romantic tale is not the same in English as it is in Spanish. (I’m talking about the languages here and the cultures they represent. To talk about the more carnal differences between the two peoples is another matter altogether.)
Luckily, I have read many, many Neruda poems in Spanish as well as his very entertaining memoir, Confieso que he vivido (I Confess That I Have Lived). So, I have a ready sense of his often breezy and very adventuresome writing style. Neruda is a poet who goes out on a limb almost constantly. You have to pay attention to what he’s doing, while at the same time relaxing and flowing with it. That attention is often super-rewarding, although not always. (To punish yourself a little, read Neruda’s political poetry, most especially his odious “Oda a Stalin.”)
I decided to go out on a limb myself. Neruda describes his escape in Confieso que he vivido, but in just thirteen pages. It’s cursory and quick, hardly satisfying if the reader wants to know everything about this extraordinarily dangerous trek. In his account and those of his biographers, there are place names or hints about the weather, the mountains, and occasional dramatic moments. But not enough to give us the real story in detail.
Realizing that Neruda is himself a fantasist in so much of his work, I decided to be one in my novel. I put him and the others in the situations that he describes; but then I made up what happens in those situations mostly out of whole cloth. For example, the trackers lead Neruda into a lava tunnel (a common result of volcanic activity when hot lava makes a stream for itself through the volcano’s rocky structure.) Neruda and his helpmates did indeed encounter such a tunnel (by now millions of years old and, thankfully, free of the searing lava flow) and passed up it. But what they see in that tunnel, as described by me, is complete fantasy. No such visions have ever been found in South American caves as far as I know. There are several other very unlikely events in the novel, including conversations with long-dead gauchos condemned to wander through these terrifying mountains forever.
To my great pleasure, Jaime understood what I was trying to do in those sequences, and his translation honors the adventure that is presented in them…adventure both historically accurate and thoroughly made up, fantasms and all, by the author.
My hope is that I’ve written a South American-Mediterranean novel, despite my own rainy, teeth-rattling, Irish-English, cold weather antecedents.