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Two sides of Mexico's best short fiction

May 23, 2009 |  1:13 pm


The new anthology of short stories "Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction," edited by Álvaro Uribe, is out now from the Dalkey Archive Press. Nothing unites the writers "beyond the quality of their work," Uribe writes in his introduction. "I decided to reverse the usual chronological order so that the reading begins in the present day and ends in a vanishing point in which today's Mexican narrative merges with the rich tradition it inherited." The book begins with Vivian Abenshushan (born in 1972) and ends with Héctor Manjarrez (born in 1945).

At more than 500 pages, it's a big book for containing only 16 stories -- but that's because they are printed in both Spanish and English, side by side (Spanish on the left-hand pages, English on the right).

It's a lovely idea, encouraging a dual reading of the works, all of which appear in English for the first time in this collection. But will those who don't know Spanish really try to read it?

At first, I didn't. My Spanish-language training consists of a quarter-long seventh-grade class. I've picked up a little bit of Spanish from the signs I've seen and conversations I've heard as an Angeleno.  I can say please and thank you and hurl an insult or two, but I can't put a sentence together.

In Álavaro Enrigue's story "On the Death of the Author" -- a marvelously spiraling work of a professor trying to tell the story of the last Native American, alternating between sincerity and skepticism, I found a way into the Spanish version. The culprit was an American colloquialism:

As I imagined it, my ex-wife and I would drive from south to north as if navigating a hip dream; we would see huge things; we would linger in impossibly sinister places; we would talk with free spirits and radical types.

En ese viaje, tal como lo pensaba, mi ex mujer y yo manejaríamos de sur a norte como navegando el sueño de un hipster y veríamos cosas descomunales, nos detendríamos en lugares imposiblemente siniestros, y hablaríamos con espíritus libres y francamente irregulares.

Because the phrase "hip dream" sounded strange to me, the italicized "hipster" on the opposite page caught my eye. And it made me wonder -- isn't "hipster" a certain type of person, rather than the equivalent of the adjective "hip"? Does "the dream of a hipster" (which is how the Spanish phrase seems to read to me) mean something slightly different from "a hip dream"? I am absolutely unqualified as a translator -- I know almost no Spanish, and any familiarity I have with the culture of Mexico is filtered through Mexican-American-Angeleno culture -- but my curiosity was sparked.

The sentence above shows another difference beyond hipster/hip: The chain of semicolons in the English version is in the Spanish version a series of phrases connected by commas and the conjunction "and" ("y"). The rhythm has been changed by translator C.M. Mayo.

Clearly, Mayo knows what she is doing; she's fluent in Spanish. But these differences point up the fact that translation is also creative writing, not transliteration. This is obvious to people who think about works in translation, but it is a reminder to me that as much as I like this story in the version I can read, I'd really love to be able to consume it in its original form.

Which is perhaps one of the motivations behind setting the stories next to each other in their original and translated versions: to generate a thirst for the one you can't have.

Editor Uribe and contributor Cristina Rivera-Garza ("Nostalgia") will be at Skylight Books for a reading and discussion today at 5 p.m.; there will be, I hear, mini-burritos from the delicious L.A. restaurant Yuca's.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Daveness 98 via Flickr