By Elisa Díaz Castelo || Translated from the Spanish by Savitri Arvey


For many years, I abided by a peculiar breed of literary puritanism. Just like tequila must come from Jalisco or the surrounding areas in order to be authentic, I thought that literary masterpieces were only themselves in their original language. I was convinced that every translation departed too much from its primordial text, just like the titles of foreign movies in Spanish: Hereditary / El legado del diablo (The Legend of the Devil)Pulp Fiction / Tiempos violentos (Violent Times)Thelma & Louise / Un final inesperado (An Unexpected Ending), and, the worst, Lost in Translation, which is completely lost in translation and becomes Perdidos en Tokio (Lost in Tokyo). Due to this groundless certainty, I put off reading Laclos, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust for years, determined to first acquire the necessary level of French to read them in their own language.

But one day –– a number of levels of intensive French later and still incapable of reading with ease the first scene of Swann’s Way where the narrator merely lies in bed ­­–– I surrendered. I seized the Spanish translation of Madame Bovary from the bookcase and polished off its many pages with the same ravish gluttony with which you stuff down a delicious tlacoyo with cactus, and green salsa (rather than a sophisticated coq au vin).

Four years after my first transgression, I committed an even bigger one. Since I came back from the U.S. and resumed writing in Spanish, I have made an effort to read in my mother tongue with the self-interested aim of incorporating its rhythm and musicality into my writing. After devouring the translations of French classics that I had put on hold for years, I embarked on a more disturbing endeavor. I decided to reread one of my favorite novels, Mrs. Dalloway, but this time I opted for the Spanish version by Mariano Baselga. Hence, I accompanied Clarissa to the florist to admire the espuelas de caballero instead of the delphiniums, wondering if the essence of a text (if such a thing exists) lurks solely in its original version or if it is also transported to the reader’s native language.

The Spanish translation of Mrs. Dalloway does indeed have a few uncomfortable twists and turns; reading it sometimes feels like walking in borrowed shoes, or putting on your favorite shirt only to discover that the washer left it a bit soapy. This doesn’t just happen with the names of flowers, the so-called espuelas de caballero, but even with the book’s very title. In Latin America, we usually shy away from calling anyone señora because it has become synonymous with an older woman. This reluctance is often taken to an extreme: even my grandma, days before her death at age 90, was called señorita at restaurants. Thus, the use of señora in the title of Woolf’s novel conjures up a much more hieratic, robust, even decrepit, Clarissa.

However, to my surprise, I also discovered that the novel’s poignant moments became overwhelming in my mother tongue. There’s a new intimacy about them, something akin to my mother’s voice when she read stories to lull me to sleep, a time when the word was closer than the world, and almost belonged to the body of the person who heard it and was warmed by its sound. Perhaps a novel like Mrs. Dalloway, one of the pioneers in the narrative technique –– later referred to as “stream of consciousness” –– that aims to capture the formation of thoughts, their routes, retreats, returns, should be read in the same language in which the reader thinks.

As I leaf through the original version of Mrs. Dalloway and the Spanish La señora Dalloway, I find the following description of a landscape:

the trouble and suspense of things conglomerated there in the darkness; huddled together in the darkness; reft of the relief which dawn brings when…, spotting each window-pane, lifting the mist from the fields…, all is once more decked out to the eye; exists again… perhaps at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it, lying cloudy, when they landed, and the hills had no names and rivers wound they knew not where — such was her darkness.

And I think I finally get it: language is not the landscape itself but rather the light that illuminates it, that delineates objects and makes their contours known. The translated version of a text does not depict another landscape; the place is the same, it’s the light that changes. Spanish is simply a different star, perhaps a moon of reflected light, that illuminates the same cloudy forest and hills, but from another angle and with a different splendor.