Travelling Textualities and Phantasmagoric Originals:

A Reading of Translation in Three Recent Spanish-Caribbean Narratives.


Guillermo Irizarry

Yale University




This paper will comment upon the value of translation and double translation in three recent Spanish-Caribbean narrations: Julia Álvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accent published originally in 1991 by Algonquin of Chapel Hill and its Spanish version, De como las chicas García perdieron su acento, published in 1994 in Barcelona, Spain by Ediciones B, When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago, published in New York by Addison-Wesley and reissued in 1994 by Vintage Books, and its translation, Cuando era puertorriqueña, published the same year by Vintage Books in its series Vintage Español, and Rosario Ferré's The House on the Lagoon from 1995, published in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and its translation, La casa de la laguna, published originally by Emecé in Barcelona, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1996 and 1997 respectively, and reissued by Vintage Books in 1997 in its Vintage Español series. I group these texts, because while they were originally published in English, each of them textually inscribes a connection to an original Spanish text, which was either lived or said to exist in manuscript form. In a rather anachronistic fashion these textualities become translations without originals, as the texts they claim to have as sources do not have a material existence. To convolute matters further, a translation in Spanish of each of these texts was published swiftly after the original version in English was released. It is clear that as we attempt to value the canonicity of these writings we experience an affect of deterritorialization, as we have a displaced original and a phantasmagoric primary cultural-referential space. These narrations make reference to an original locus of culture, encoded in Spanish, while existing in and interpolating another (encoded in English).

With respect to the process of translation and its effect on the canonization of a text, Walter Benjamin in his much anthologized essay "The Task of the Translator" notes that through translation "the life of the originals attains . . . its ever-renewed latest and most abundant flowering" (72). It is, therefore, through translation that a text is fixed and given canonical value. According to Jacques Derrida: "The translation will truly be a moment in the growth of the original, which will complete itself in enlarging itself . . . And if the original calls for a complement, it is because at the origin it was not there, without a fault, full, complete, total, identical to itself" (188). But it is simplistic to think that the fixity obtained by this process implies a neutral relationship of power, as sites of enunciation and dissemination exist in a geopolitical complex of relations of power.

Regarding this point, Richard Jacquemond affirms in "Translation and Cultural Hegemony" that "A political economy of translation is consequently bound to be set within the general framework of the political economy of intercultural exchange, whose tendencies follow the global trends of international trade" (139). In this sense it is important to note that the way in which the texts of "dominated" cultures are translated articulates "a particular mode of reading and thus a particular image of the foreign culture" (Robinson 34).

The first novel that I would like to discuss is The House on the Lagoon by Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferré. In reading it is clear that the English version constructs a Spanish original for it inscribes the text with untranslatable elements and phrases that recall the original articulation of phrases, lived-experiences, emotions, places, and objects in Spanish. Due to the fact that this original text does not exist, the first translation (to English) refers to a phantasmagoric original.

The House on the Lagoon creates a world of binary oppositions. The novel historicizes the experience of an aristocratic Puerto Rican family of creole and Spanish lineage, living in a mansion and enjoying the benefits and privileges of their social position. At the same time, the narration delves into the lives of the Afro Puerto Rican servants living in the basement of the Mendizábal family mansion. From the start the novelistic structure is ordered by two voices, those of Isabel and Quintin. The masculine and feminine voices confront and reproduce each other in the binary logic of masculine and feminine epistemologies. If Isabel takes interest in the emotional and the intrahistorical, Quintin focuses on the historical. Isabel concerns herself with the history of romances, passions, the semiotic, Quintin the historiographical, the law, events of national transcendence. The narration exploits this binary logic by imposing a clear separation between black and white, such that the novel presents two family trees: that of the family of Petra, the black servant, matriarch of the basement, and that of Quintin, the white businessman, patriarch of his house. Puerto Rican culture and society are categorically divided. Petra's line is matriarcal and endogenous, Quintin's patriarcal and exogenous. Petra's religion Yoruba, Quintin's strictly Catholic. Her biological, historical and cultural origins are in Africa, his in Spain. The central metaphor of the house orders and disseminates this binary logic; the black servants permanently occupy the basement and their masters, the upper living quarters.

The House on the Lagoon is a fluid translation, richly inscribed with objectifying dichotomies which make the culture of Puerto Rico easily comprehended and canonized. Similarly, the second translation, a faithful rewriting of the English version, reproduces these binary, stereotyped notions of Puerto Rican society and culture. The reception of the work may be variegated, but the effect of the Puerto Rican reading is a learning about what is Puerto Rican by the subjects themselves through foreign cultural codes. The clear demarcation of cultural spaces by race, central to the novel in its two versions, articulates a hardened map of the Puerto Rican subject, where lower and upper classes are spacialized and strictly segregated, and where borders are stiffly demarcated. If the island's dominant national discourse insists that "el que no tiene dinga tiene mandinga," The House on the Lagoon rejects this proposal of hybridity. The novel, when compared to dominant discourse, produces an affect of deterritorialization that makes the national subject (an) other to her/himself. In the end the hegemonic position of the metropolis, its culture, its language, its national program, is reproduced.

The language of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is subscribed to the American dialect of English, even as the novel includes within its diction several verbal items directly from Spanish: songs, phrases, minor idiomatic expressions: "patrón," "finca," "pobrecito," etc. In addition to those terms, frequently the narrative voice communicates to the reader that what is being narrated or quoted in English was said in Spanish: "'What's up?' Vic asks in his heavily accented Spanish" (207). As with The House, García Girls constructs itself as a translation of a lived original. However, since the referred original text does not exist, the English version is a simulacrum of translation. But as a translation it articulates several generalized postulates of the dominant position of English: firstly, that this language is an adequate tool for understanding other cultures; secondly, that the other cultures are sufficiently simple to be translated with fluency to English; thirdly, that other cultures are easily understood because they are similar to the culture of the U.S. and/or to the stereotypes of those cultures within the U.S. Furthermore, those untranslatable items are superfluous differences which appear as decorative items. To a certain extent they add to the exotic nature of the Other but they do not interfere with the fluid reading of the text (the literary, material, and symbolic).

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent tells the story of four sisters who immigrated to the United States during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The girls left their elevated social position and reputation, escaping political persecution, and came with their doctor father to mingle with the dominant classes of the United States. Despite suffering minor discrimination and financial difficulties, they were able to attend single sex boarding schools and elite residential colleges. A reverse chronology structures the novel providing the reader with an originary sense of self. As readers we understand the traumas of these poor immigrants as they suffer bouts of depression, anorexia, a general sense of placelessness, because the plot of García Girls maps the construction of their biographies.

The overall sensation of disorganization in the structure of the novel is flattened because the novel takes on the pretense of a biography. At that it works as a logotherapeutic session by travelling to the "root" of trauma. The ideal reader will attempt to piece together the broken self, which will be done earnestly following the reading process. The narrated subjects, immigrant Dominicans and Dominicans in general, are seen as traumatized beings, split because of their separation from their homeland and home culture, or because of the innate political unrest in their island. The coding of this narrative as a biographical move from a premodern to a modern space, from a place of repression to a place of liberty, constructs a dichotomy of inferiority/superiority (coinciding with Dominican Republic/United States). This dichotomy is the master code of the García Girls.

But the novel also narrates the translation of a subject whereby the "route" of the girls maps the "way finding" of a subject in translation from Spanish to English (Deleuze), from the repressive political and social environment of the Dominican Republic as a whole and of the familial environment in the private sphere to the liberating space of the more progressive United States and the newly reconstituted therapeutic institutions of the nuclear family, the private lay school, and the psychiatric clinic.

As a whole the Old World, that is the Dominican Republic, is represented as a stage populated by submissive and faithful non-white servants, a mulatto lower-class, and a white ruling elite. This ruling elite lives in familial semi-feudal complexes, protected by walls that demarcate their status and protect their property and lineage, and whose preferred manner of sexual reproduction is endogenous, maintaining and reproducing power through marriage to other elite and white families. The dominant figure of this feudal house is the patriarch, Papito in the case of the García de la Torre family. Within this isolated community live the servants in a pure dyadic relationship. The cast of secondary characters reinforces that semi-feudal imaginary. Chucha, the black Haitian maid who has been in the family for two generations, practices voodoo in her private chambers and sleeps in a coffin. The security forces of Trujillo are represented by two agents who come from poor rural communities and are hungry for material and symbolic wealth, and who have certain proclivity for pedophilia.

This premodern image of the Dominican Republic is, needless to say, the fantasy of Otherness held in high esteem within the so-called First World countries. It is in this topos, this neat tracing of the Other in its geographical, social, and cultural sense, that the writer/translator builds her narrative. In this essentializing depiction of the Dominican Republic lies the fluidity of the translation and the canonization of that image, which simultaneously reproduces the fantasy of domination of the hegemonic position. The line of escape of the narrated subjects, abandoning the country, the culture, and losing their "accents," is neatly accepted as the only solution to their crises.

García Girls was translated by Jordi Gubern and the language of the Spanish version adopts the modality of Spanish spoken in Spain. Thus, the second translation responds to two hegemonic centers: the old colonial power, which certainly still maintains its fantasies of transnational domination, and the new dominant metropolis, whose dreams of domination are couched in the neo-liberal program. Within these new coordinates the Dominican Republic appears as this highly structured Other, insufficiently modern and excessively hierarchical, whose institutional realities exist as antidemocratic and hardened. It is indeed, as seen from the narrative eye, a point of departure and escape. Not only are the Girls slowly acculturating to their new host nation and recovering from their traumatic origins, but also those in the nation are depicted as persons who wish to escape to the United States. In a particularly revealing moment one of the young and salacious maids of the García de la Torre home sings

Yo tiro la cuchara

Yo tiro el tenedor

Yo tiro to' lo' plato'

Y me voy pa' Nueva Yor' (257)

With this second translation, the novel De como las chicas García perdieron su acento becomes a brutish and simplistic interpretation of its cultural landscape. The class dynamics, the relations between races and the construction of gender has a deterritorialized affect that adjudicates Otherness onto the Dominican reader. In addition, the need to escape, to be liberated from this semifeudal and highly masculinized society makes the private landscape of the island, in contrast to the public and liberating landscape of the United States, a space where the relation of the subject with its space is negatively charged and impossible to negotiate by any means except escape. On the other hand, the centers of geopolitical power, mostly the United States, are connoted as the place of liberation, even if the route is not without pain and suffering. Therefore, the dichotomy of inferiority/superiority is supported by this reception from the position of the subaltern subject.

As with the previous works, When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago's autoethnography, gains authority articulating the heuristic device of the translation, making reference to a lived original in Spanish, and giving the writer the value of translator. Considering that the text narrates the life of Esmeralda Santiago, and that she is inscribed in the narration as the first person narrator, we may read the text as a self-translation, which grants this artifact a double meaning considering that the text itself is about a poor Puerto Rican country girl who migrates to the United States and is forced to translate herself into a diasporic subject within a new territory.

What is of interest in considering the symbolic exchange implicit in the text and its reception in transnational contexts is that When I Was Puerto Rican does not follow the same pattern of representation and figuration of the locus of narration as the previous texts. In contrast with Alvarez's and Ferré's text, Santiago presents a landscape of flux and crisis which becomes less canonizable than the images represented by her counterparts. In terms of the narrative structure When I Was Puerto Rican follows a chronology of memories loosely connected as vignettes of thea author's life. The settings of these are diverse and hardly respond to a simplistic design easily mappable within an a priori conception of migration. For this reason, the text lacks fluidity in that it does not address the horizon of expectations of its readers. Additionally, Negi, Santiago's narrated ego and heterodiegetic narrator, does not create an orderly or easily reproduced image of the island's culture and society, but rather the narrator portrays a nation in quick and erratic transformation, marked by her own constant displacement in a myriad of dysfunctional environments. Negi moves several times from a neobucolic environment in the mountains of Puerto Rico, to the unsanitary caño Martín Peña, to a minuscule and noisy Santurce neighborhood, back to the mountains, and to the house of an unloving aunt, before definitely leaving Puerto Rico. Her peripatetic travels produce an image of dissolved hierarchies, where politicians, teachers, school administrators, and social workers are parodied. The same institutions seminal to the easy articulation of hegemony within the state are entirely dysfunctional and the relation of the protagonist to them is tenuous at best. A perfect example of this is seen in Negi's family. Her parents are not married and her father disappears and reappears without rhyme or reason, new siblings are born yearly, the mother is forced to take on the role of the provider, Negi then turns into the caretaker, the children are split up, and eventually the father disappears completely from the scene. Negi as a person may not be understood as an entity within a family, whatever type of family, nor within any other social institution, for the social realities within which she is defined are constantly changing in a nefariously unpredictable fashion.

The image of the nation as a loose and disorganized field of changing institutions and the lack of internal coherence puts forth a map of personal connections with a network of complex relations. This social landscape is hardly a canonizable construct. The coding of the narrative is not a fluid translation. It is not encoded to match facile emplotments of Nation and State, the Social, or even the Self as Other.

In considering the second translation, Cuando era puertorriqueña was translated by the author herself. Disregarding an easy and pernicious value judgement regarding the literary quality of the text, it must be underscored that Santiago's accuracy in her grammar is greatly diminished. But it is this very lack of correctness that makes the reception of her autoethnography in Spanish, much more interesting and radical than the English version. Cuando era puertorriqueña is an excessively faithful and difficult translation of the original, considering not only the world represented by When I Was Puerto Rican, the structure of the text, but also the frequency of calks from the English language, the excessive use of the gerund and of the impersonal "se," and the imprecise use of articles. It is plagued with linguistic interferences that force the readers to abandon the comfort of their expectations of normative discourse and therefore become empathetic with the narrator.

The ethics of this reading imply a questioning of the effectiveness of dominant discourse to understand the Puerto Rican diasporic subject, because she is an unauthentic fragment of the nation, an adulterated and bastardized subject from the perspective of the dominant hegemonic position. Even as the represented subject is shown as a dissimilarized Puerto Rican, a Puerto Rican that does not claim that fixed entity anymore, difference in this case promotes an "ethical substance" a unity in understanding and crossing borders, which imply a decentering of dominant cultural positions within the Puerto Rican island. In addition, there is an implicit learning at the linguistic, social, historical, familial, and cultural levels.

As we approach the symbolic exchange above and beyond national frontiers, translation and travel become a new cultural paradigm (Clifford). Apart from understanding the lack of fixity implicit in the travelling and translated subjectivities, we have to approach critically the value of the cultural products typical of this instability. As Coco Fusco would say: we need to "account for the distinctions between political power . . . and symbolic exchange" (27). These exchanges are not transparent, they indeed "follow the global trends of international trade" and reproduce particular modes of power and meaning. The shuttle movement of subjects, representations of subjects and their experiences, translations and double translation may not be perceived as ideologically neutral. Quite to the contrary they are inflected within particular ideological positions and they may foster a monolithic approach to subaltern subjects, reproducing in effect the purity of the self and allowing for the transnationalization of dominant colonial views.

We have spoken of the English versions of the texts as translations of phantasmagoric originals. The value of these texts, as well as the success of their sales and the interest they arouse in commercial publishing houses, is grounded in the fact that they exist as translations of cultural Others. The result of this simulated trajectory is to canonize in the dominant culture the image of subordination of those worlds and individuals, their prevalent stereotypes, as well as the hegemonic position of dominant cultures and languages. The symbolic interchange does not challenge the dominant culture, but rather affirms it. Clearly this type of movement does not occur in the same fashion in all translations but it is an undeniable trait in varying degrees in the texts at hand. The second translation, the Spanish version of the texts, closes this circuit of symbolic exchange when the Spanish-speaking "I" learns to recognize itself encoded in the cultural codes of the dominant Other.


Works cited

Álvarez, Julia. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991.

---. De como las chicas García perdieron su acento. Trans. Jordi Gubern. Barcelona: Ediciones B, 1994.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Task of the Translator." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 69-82.

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Derrida, Jacques. "Des tours de Babel." Difference in Translation. Joseph Graham, ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 165-248.

Ferré, Rosario. La casa de la laguna. Trans. Rosario Ferré. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1997.

---. The House on the Lagoon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Fusco, Coco. "Passionate Irreverence: The Cultural Politics of Identity." English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. New York: New Press, 1995. 25-36.

Jacquemond, Richar. "Translation and Cultural Hegemony: The Case of French-Arabic Translation." In Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge, 1992. 139-57.

Robinson, Douglas. Translation and Empire: Postcolonial Theories Explained. Translation Theories Explained. Manchester, UK: St. Jerome, 1997.

Santiago, Esmeralda. Cuando era puertorriqueña. Trans. Esmeralda Santiago. Vintage Español. New York: Vintage, 1994.

---. When I Was Puerto Rican. 1st. Ed. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Venuti, Lawrence. Introduction to Rethinking Translation. London: Routledge, 1992. 1-17.