A Cuban Dream

Our weekly Seen and Heard update will return soon, and we hope that it will contain a lower percentage of obituary coverage. We recently heard from LitKicks member Rubiao who also noted this trend and wrote in to share some thoughts on another great writer that passed away on February 21, 2005.

It seems that this month was a bad month for famous literary icons and for at least one major religious icon as well. Those giants who have passed away have overshadowed at least one of the lesser-known writers who have moved on recently, namely one Guillermo Cabrera Infante. This Cuban giant living in exile wrote with the most unique style I have ever encountered.

His scope has included non-fiction about cigars and the early days of American Cinema (his passion) as well as journalism and fiction. He was also an early critic of the Castro regime after supporting the revolution against Batista. His masterpiece is Three Trapped Tigers, a glorious novel set in a pre-Castro Havana which follows the lives of a group of young men around the cabarets of the city, crossing paths with plenty of bizarre characters along the way. The other work of fiction I have read is Infante’s Inferno, a bawdy tale of the narrator’s love affairs, complete with the same word play that made him famous. That is the stripped down introduction to the man, as I am unsure as to how many people know who he is.

Three Trapped Tigers is impressive as itself, but the fact that someone translated this book is nearly unfathomable (It was Infante along with some other folks in tow). He is famous for his endless strings of puns and alliteration, along with reminding us of the less humorous fact that art is not supported/allowed in Cuba. His craft is brought to life in a character he created called Bustrofedon, who reads the dictionary as a novel, creating a new syntax out of chopped up words, especially palindromes and word puzzles. The following palindromic haiku will explain a small part of what I cannot put into words:

I saw, I was
Psychic, chic spy

Eve, Adam’s rib:
A maid, a bride:


Eve’s mad:
A river’s dam
Is bad:
I’ve made bras!

Have you ever read a translated book where you felt the style, tone, and flow all seeped through? I have read lots of translated books, and I have truly enjoyed a great many of them, but never, outside of this one, have I felt the meaning/purpose/idea/style shimmer so brightly. I try and do lots of research when I decide to read translated works, but I get the feeling that different languages cannot be channeled through an impartial medium and still convey the poetry of the original author. I believe the story can come across, and that they can make it appear real, but it always seems like a photograph of the language rather than the actual language itself.

For that matter, have you ever read someone in any language who comes across as being truly different in the very basic syntax they use, someone whose style is completely different than other authors? That just has that ineffable quality that others don’t? It could be a good or a bad trait, I am interested either way. For instance, JP Donleavy writes in incredibly short fragments. The book Bright Lights, Big City is the only book I have ever read that was written in the second person. Both were very disconcerting in that after reading them it took an adjustment to get used to the next book I picked up. After I finished Three Trapped Tigers, I wrote and spoke in puns and alliteration for a long time. I also found I did a lot more bursting into ravenous laughter during this period. Prognosis: puns and alliteration are hilarious. But I think the quality I speak of is more identifiable in poetry, where syntax gets a higher billing, but should this be the case?

And what are your Latin American favorites? If I had to name a favorite genre, I would be hard pressed not to say this one. Anything you think the rest of us might have missed? Has anyone read Infante and if so, what did you think? I’ve reached a point in time where I have a giant stack of books I have already bought that I want to read, but don’t feel particularly compelled by any of them. I’ve picked up each of them and begun, before moving taciturnly on to the next. What to do …

Please chime in with your thoughts on Infante, Latin American writers and translated literature.

18 Responses

  1. If only I knew moreThe names
    If only I knew more

    The names of the translated Latin-American novels your correspondent’s read escapes him but they turn reality on its head unlike anything in English!

    In Spanish, I can only understand the killer stories. The beauty of the language is lost on me. Also, only slapstick humor translates from one culture to another.

  2. It’s all Greek to
    It’s all Greek to me…

    Rubiao, this is a most fascinating article! I have often wondered how one would translate work that use puns, rhymes, alliteration, and other techniques where the actual word shapes & sounds are significant, not just the meaning of the words. It would obviously be a lot simpler to translate pure action.

    I must confess, I don’t know any languages besides English and I can’t think of many translations I’ve read. I guess the closest thing I come to that is looking up the Greek and Hebrew translations of words in the Bible.

    For example, in the King James version of the Bible, first published in 1611, Job 39:9 says, “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?” but in the American Standard Version, published in 1901, that same verse says, “Will the wild-ox be content to serve thee? Or will he abide by thy crib?”

  3. Actually, I just found the
    Actually, I just found the example I really wanted to use but couldn’t quite remember earlier (too late to edit):

    In the King James Bible, Jeremiah 12:9 says, “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird.”

    In the American Standard Version of the Bible, that same verse says, “Mine heritage is become unto me like a lion in the forest.”

  4. translation & stuffHaving
    translation & stuff

    Having studied two languages other than my native English (Spanish and Italian), I’ve come to believe that a language is more than a set of words for things — it’s an entire way of thinking. From that standpoint, I tend to think that it’s impossible to translate anything truly, because even though words may mean the same thing, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing, if that even makes sense.

    I guess it’s all a game of approximation.

    I mean, English isn’t my father’s first language, and I can tell when he talks to me that he’s translating everything from his native Arabic into English before he says it, and that he takes everything I say in English and mentally translates it back to Arabic before he understands me. Sometimes he doesn’t understand me, and sometimes I don’t understand him, and I know that it will take me becoming fluent in Arabic before he and I can ever have a real conversation.


    That said (typed, whatever), one of my favorite writers is Milan Kundera, and since I don’t read either French or Czech, the only way I’ve been able to approach his work is through translation. I have faith in these translations, however, because I’ve read that Kundera is very exacting about how his work is translated. Judging by the perfection of the architecture of his novels (by this I mean the way the story lines are constructed), I’d guess that would be essential to getting that whole Damn you, Milan Kundera effect that his books elicit.

    As for Latin American writers, I’m woefully out of touch, even though I studied Spanish for a long time. There’s a really good story I read once, though, and I can’t remember the title or the author, but it was set in Argentina and involved a man who was kind of a drifter-type being crucified in someone’s living room. Or something like that. It’s been about seven years since I’ve read it, so the details are a little hazy, but I’d like to read it again. So if it sounds familiar to anybody, let me know.

  5. FrenchI once tried to learn

    I once tried to learn French so I could read Verlaine and Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I didn’t get very far. It’s been a while, but I can probably still fake my way through a few phrases. Still, I’m stuck reading everything in translation. I’ve never known a different way, and so I probably don’t miss the richness of the other languages in the world as much as I would if I had ever experienced them.

  6. Those are some strange
    Those are some strange translations. One thing I do know from teaching in English in other countries is that idioms do not translate. Especially animal idioms. Though when in other countries, I always translate my favorite English idioms into other languages. If I can’t speak the other language, I find a pub and enlist help from local teenagers, always too happy to help. Nothing brings a smile to someone’s face better than a mispronounced jumble of words about raining cats and dogs. It also helps to meet strangers in a bar.
    -Excuse me, do you speak English?
    -Yes, a little
    -Could you write for me how to say I am as happy as a clam in Serbian?
    -Hahahaha. Sure, but you should try this….


  7. KunderaMilan Kundera is an

    Milan Kundera is an interesting case in that I think he wrote entirely in French, and is one of the many Czech writers who didn’t write in the language (Kafka too). And most people I know really dislike his work. Having lived there for some time I asked people why no one wrote in Czech. A common reply was “The Czech language is not good for writing.” Apparently the Czech Republic is a good place for writing because a lot of majestic books come out of it. One good book I read by a Czech that was originally written in Czech was Ivan Klima’s Waiting for the Dark Waiting for the Light.

    In Turkey, lots of writers use German or English because the reading population of Turkey is so small. Someone put it to me that unless your family was ultra liberal, the fact that people make a living writing fiction is unheard of.

    This all being especially strange because Turkey has now produced Orhan Pamuk and the Czech Republic has produced Kafka, Kundera, Klima, Havel (their ex president), Hrabel, Hasek, and many more internationally acclaimed authors. As small publishing houses go searching through tiny countries for these people with incredible stories, we are going to be flooded with translated books that are neccesary to read. In a few years, the new ‘greatest novel ever’ might come out of Iraq. It has all the ingredients.

  8. A Russian woman once told me
    A Russian woman once told me that Russians preferred to read Solzhenitsyn in English because the translation was better. I’ve only read Camus and Sartre in English and the translations flow and the arguments concur with what I know so believe they work. I read Dostoyevsky’s The Double and Notes From Underground effortlessly but only made it half-through Crime and Punishment. The translation was so boring that I took notes to remember what I’d read. I never made it off the first page of Brothers Karamzov but possibly I’ve been too busy or haven’t been bored enough to not find something else to do.

  9. Haha, yes, you’re right.
    Haha, yes, you’re right. That’s a good way to learn. When I lived in Spain in 1973-1974, I learned many words, sentences and phrases at bars and at parties. The relaxed atmosphere made me not worry if I made mistakes. Alas, I don’t remember much of it now.

    Regarding animals, I’ve noticed more than one instance in the Old Testament where some kind of bird has been interchanged with some kind of cat or other animal. Very strange.

  10. I’m just guessing, but could
    I’m just guessing, but could that writer possibly be Jorge Luis Borges, from Argentina? Borges said things like, “Whoever reads my words is inventing them” and “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

    I’ve read one story by Borges and it was good. Something about a detective trying to catch a criminal who committed his crimes in concentric circles on the map of the city.

    Also, Jamelah, I think the French writer Derrida said basically what you are saying – that words hold slightly different meanings to every single person, based on each person’s experiences associated with that word.

  11. 1. That’d be relativism
    1. That’d be relativism rather than Derrida’s deconconstructionism which seeks the underlying meaning of a text where historical power imbalances are compensated for, corrections understood and their dangers of reversal; readying one for the next task, viz., contruction of a correct conceptual landscape vis-a-vis the former corrupted one. I only have one movie to watch, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and after the third viewing felt the woman’s comb stood for tanha, one of the Four Noble Buddhist Truths, i.e., the craving for sense objects which provide pleasant feeling, or craving for sensory pleasures and that her death at the end stood for the end of the Chinese communism as it had been known! For the record, I am drug-free and not suffering DTs.

    2. As for translation, in English, I speak of brothers, friends, acquaintances and associates; and in Chinese, just use the Mandarin word for friend because this differentiation’s not done.

  12. It’s an exciting time for
    It’s an exciting time for literature.

    By the way, I’m sure you already know this, but Jorge Luis Borges, said “Whoever reads my words is inventing them” and “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

  13. Amen. The first time I tried
    Amen. The first time I tried to read Crime and Punishment I forgot about it. That is, it was so boring I forgot I was reading it and went on to something else. I don’t think this had to do with the translation itself. Instead I think it was just the tediousness of the narrative. It took forever to get to the point. The melodrama was to much. Etc.

    I heard somewhere that Edgar Allen Poe was better in French than in English. I don’t know if this is true or not, since I don’t read French. He (Poe) was translated by Baudelaire I believe, and that seems interesting.

  14. AmericanOur Great Uncle Walt

    Our Great Uncle Walt Whitman wrote in the English/American language, yet he seems right at home in Spanish and Portuguese. His influence runs deep as a bone in Our (North and South American) poetry.

    I’d have to say then that Pablo Neruda is one of my favorites in Latin America, as well as the World history of Poetry. The man was fantastic as a man Himself, (using the Whitmanesque Me Myself the larger than life persona, lover, observer with in the poetry.)

    I live about twenty miles from Robert Bly, so I am partial to his translations of Neruda. Not just because of the geographical connection but because Bly was one of the first to introduce Neruda to English. And he seems to do a fine job of it.

    I am also very picky about translations. I prefer having the original language on the opposite page so one can compare and contrast. If a translator has made some poem rhyme, (as they used to do, always it seems in the days of yore) it makes me what to cry. Seriously.

    I can’t get away w-out a quote:

    “…We love the man with his hands red
    form the Oregon clay, your Negro boy
    who brought you the music born
    in his country of tusks: we love
    your city, your substance,
    your light, your machines, the energy
    of the West, the harmless
    honey from hives and little towns,
    the huge farm boy on his tractor,
    the oats which you inherited
    from Jefferson, the noisy wheel
    that measures your oceanic earth,
    the factory smoke and the kiss…
    what we love is your workingman’s blood:
    your unpretentious hand covered with oil.”

    From I Wish the Woodcutter Would Wake Up Translated by Robert Bly.
    That’s Pablo singing to US. Later in the poem he asks why we always support dictators and oppressive governments. He wishes that Abraham Lincoln (the Woodcutter) would wake up. It’s Vivid. Pure. Thick, Poetry. It is American. North and South.

  15. Cabrera InfanteI only read an
    Cabrera Infante

    I only read an entrevista to him that was published in a magazine called “Espiral” during the eighties. I liked it and made me want to read some of his books, even though I didn

  16. translatinghaven’t read

    haven’t read infante, but what rubiao writes about his work sounds very intriguing to me, especially when he talks about infante’s use of word plays, palindromes and anagrams. i definitely need to check out the three trapped tigers… thanks for the tip!

    as for translated literature – this is hard to say, as i only speak two languages fluently enough to get a feeling for them.
    when i think about it i realize that when i read a book originally written in english, it usually doesn’t make much difference for me whether i read it in the original or in a german translation – i often even can’t quite remember afterwards (after some time has passed, of course) in which language i have actually read it.

    i have read the works of several english-writing authors (john irving, paul auster, siri hustvedt, margaret atwood, kerouac to just name a few) partly in english and partly in a german translation, and haven’t found much differences in style and tone (sometimes only the titles, that i still have in mind, remind of which of their books i have read in the original and which in the translation).

    this all just refers to prose, of course… with poetry, it’s completely different. to capture the breath and beat of a poem, the style, the rhythm, the quality in a translation seems a real art to me, and isn’t achieved very often.

    interestingly, it is different the other way round – when i read an english translation to a book (or especially to a poem) that was originally written in german, it often all sounds very strange to me, and i can’t help translating “backwards”, continually thinking that this or that should rather be said this or that way (but then, this also keeps happening to me whenever i see a hollywood movie, which, of course, is always dubbed here – i hear the american actors speak german, and keep thinking – if not saying -: “well this, i am sure, was (fill in any english phrase in english); they better had translated it with (fill in the matching german expression)”. a little annoying – but i can’t help it).

    impossible for me to tell about other languages, as i can’t compare the translation to the original there.

    i remember, though, the time when i was working in the youth book department in a publishing house several years ago – for a while, part of my job was to read foreign books and form an opinion on whether they might be suitable for a translation published by our company.

    the books i had to review were mainly written in french, italian, spanish or dutch – languages i didn’t (and still don’t) speak at all.

    they were no big novels, of course – just short childrens’ story books, maybe fifty or a hundred pages or so.
    yet, at first i found it pretty difficult – there were dictionaries in the department somewhere, but those may have helped to understand what the text was basically about, but couldn’t help with the feeling of the text’s style and flow.

    after a while, though, i’ve developed a way to an “intuitive reading” – a way to, metaphorically, squint my logic, and simply read myself into the text, accepting to absorb it in a blurred way at first, understanding only snippets or ideas behind a hazy veil, waiting to let atmosphere and meaning take shape, until the whole text became a unit that i would understand.

    of course this can only work with languages that you already have a faint idea of – for me, it wouldn’t have worked with chinese or farsi for example.
    but here, i had french, italian and spanish, all roman languages, which aren’t that unfamiliar if you have learned latin, and i had dutch, which bears quite a few resemblances to both english and german.

    it was amazing how well this intuitive reading worked after a while.

    i never used the dictionaries – i just began to read, not caring about vocabulary that i didn’t know, just continuing to read, until it eventually all cleared up (for some reason i especially remember two of the dutch words that took me quite a while to figure out – “maar”, which means “but”, and “jullie”, which stands for the plural you… these two were just too strange to be brought into connection quickly).

    i think this is how a good translation probably should work – an intuitive ‘feeling’ of the text as a basis on which then the more detailed construct of the translated text can be built. quite a balancing act between atmosphere,style and rhythm and actual words and phrases at times, i am sure.

    a craft and artform in itself….

  17. Thanks for explanation of
    Thanks for explanation of relativism, W. That is helpful.

    Here’s a question for you…Could you explain deconstruction the way you understand it? I believe I have an idea of what it means, but it’s hard to put into words. I’ve read about it, of course, but it would be nice to hear your explanation od deconstruction.

    I haven’t seen Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but I think you are correct. Sometimes when I see a symbol, like the girl’s comb in that movie, my mind goes through a process like this, “That’s a symbol. Maybe not intentional. Even if it’s not intentional, it is a symbol. Because it is, and because the movie-maker probably understands symbols, then the movie-maker knows it’s a symbol. The movie-maker either put it there consciously as a symbol to begin with, or realized it was a symbol after he put it there. Or at the same time.”

    Or, here’s another example. In my story, “The Little Robot”, I say that the child’s father gave him a toy robot and his mother gave him a rosary. For the story to work, it was necessary for the boy to have these two objects, and it seemed natural to me for the robot to be given by the father, the rosary by the mother. Then, I felt great satisfaction when I realized, these are symbols for two sides of a person: the mechanical, physical side vs. the thoughtful, spiritual side. But then I realized, that was in my subconscious mind all along, so I didn’t simply create symbolism by accident. I can take credit for the symbolism, even if the concept wasn’t fully formed in my mind at the outset.

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