Review: Elizabeth Bryeron Yuri Herrera

In This Fruitful Darkness: Signs Preceding the End of the World

A blow that is ‘sharp’ in English is ‘dry’ in Spanish; English has it that water without salt is ‘fresh’ while in Spanish it is ‘sweet’. Any translator knows that isomorphism—when the spheres of meaning at which a word gestures in one language match, exactly, those encompassed by a single word in another—is to be celebrated, especially when she needs to complete a job fast. The places where it is absent can inspire exceptional instances of creativity or, in contrast, can cause the translation act to be haunted by loss.

Yet even isomorphism is no guarantee of a quick translation. None of my friends smoked in the country where I first encountered Spanish; when I was studying in another, they all did. When someone asked me to pass the ashtray, or cenicero, it was the first time I had heard the word; I understood cenicero to represent that object on the table in front of me but also, because of the sound, to be cognate with a word I already knew, ceniza, or ‘ash’. As I reached for the salt-glazed ceramic disc before me and passed it to my friend, I experienced a kind of shaking down of disbelief at the fact that the image in my mind that ceniza represented—the bruise-coloured softness my boots had crushed into diamond treads at the peak of a volcano—was in language no different from this prosaic image before me, the white and slate flecks being tapped from my friend’s cigarette. My mind seemed no less amazed by the fact that the same was the case in my mother tongue,  given that the word ‘ash’ likewise points to the residue deposited by volcanoes and cigarettes. At the time, this did not even register.

And so both ‘ash’ and ceniza point to the contexts of cigarettes, volcanoes, campfires, infernoes: isomorphism. But the belaboured process of recognition that I have detailed shows how arduous translation can be, especially for novice translators, even when isomorphism is present. Communication between those parts of the mind where each language lives is a matter of continually forging routes back and forth. In the example above, there was no existing path—none conveniently laid down at the moment of acquiring the word in the other language—between the constellation of meaning governed by ‘ash’ and that signalled by ceniza. I imagine that this is more dramatically the case when the languages are less closely related. When it comes to literary translation, there is much more to consider, such as how to recreate effect and whether to privilege form or meaning (a question that becomes particularly thorny for poetry, in which form often is meaning). Umberto Eco has put the complexities involved succinctly: ‘One could say that a good translation is not concerned with the denotation but with the connotation of words’.

Yuri Herrera’s novella Señales que precederán al fin del mundo is a special case: a work for which translation is a logical extension of its rationale. That the first publisher to buy the English-language rights apparently reversed its decision, relinquishing those rights after judging the work ‘untranslatable’, might appear to negate but actually underscores this claim. What I mean is this: when a work is so concerned with arduous journeys, borders, transculturalism and the underworld, reading a version of that work rebirthed in a new form after it has undergone its own transformation seems fitting, especially when its crossing into another language has been—as that first publisher’s decision attests—such a challenge.

First published in 2009 following the 2008 republication of Herrera’s 2004 debut Trabajos del reino, it has now been released in English as Signs Preceding the End of the World by And Other Stories. (Herrera has published one other novella, the 2013 La transmigración de los cuerpos. His third and first novellas will be published in English by And Other Stories in 2016 and 2017.) It is narrated by Makina, a young woman who embarks on a quest across a frontier that is never named, but it shares features with the Mexico–US border. Her goal is to rescue her long-lost elder brother, who was lured there by what Makina and her mother, Cora, suspect to be a falsehood and who, for reasons unknown, is stuck on the other side. To complete this task Makina must first undergo a series of tests that include meetings with gangsters, whose machinations she needs to ensure her safe passage. She also must face and overcome a number of dangers, challenges and obstacles along the way.

That this crossing is a kind of epic for our times is signalled by allusions to the underworld at the opening and close of the narrative: we are introduced to Makina when a sinkhole forms at her feet and we leave her in a factory located underground. The nine chapter titles, too, are evocative of the loci and trials of a mythic journey, even as the places they describe are firmly entrenched in the present. As it turns out, ‘The Obsidian Mound’, for example, references that most standard of structures, a stadium, with the mention of obsidian evoking an Aztec then-made-now. Makina’s opening declaration is ‘I’m dead’ and her destination, by the time she gets there, has become an abyss. Just as epic heroes cross beyond the threshold of life and death, those who cross the borderlands illegally can undergo a kind of death for loved ones left behind, in that the departed may never return and word from them may never come. Makina’s crossing is embedded in a much broader and allusive context than a perilous journey across national lines, which is in part why the work lends itself to the idea that its very translation is an extension, through form, of its meaning. Inversely, latter-day heroes worthy of memorialisation—our Odysseus counterparts—are shown to be illegal immigrants (and young, and female, and indigenous, and at home in Homi K. Bhabha’s ‘third space’).

Makina is toughminded, smart and unsentimental. She is also brave, but her bravery does not spring from the folly or impatience that motivate her brother, a group of youngsters at the border and a US teenager who enlists. This contrast between her and each of the narrative’s young men suggests she is fit for such a quest because of, not despite, her gender; Cora tells her, ‘I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?’

Yet the world that Makina moves through is most definitely a man’s one. She must farewell her sister, who also serves as a symbol of Makina’s child self, but she finds occasional relief over the course of her journey in maternal characters whose nurturing, protection and sense of fairness stand in contrast to the posturing, predatory nature and violence of most of the men. Makina’s very different treatment of two gangster sentries owing to her history with them—one is shamefaced because he ‘misfired’ in a romantic encounter with her, while the other is livid because she spurned his advances previously—is a comic example of her incisive navigation of this world of men. She plays ‘man games’, for example downing the beer that gangster Mr Double-U offers her as if competing in a contest, and displaying a calculated insolence when negotiating with gangster Mr Aitch (on being delivered pulque, she demands another: ‘I want it cold, take this frothy shit away’). She injures a boy who touches her thigh in what might seem a violent overreaction, but she knows better: it is an essential pre-emptive strike. Makina’s wiliness is such that the one time she is unsure how to extricate herself from a situation with a man—she ‘wanted to go now but couldn’t muster enough of a voice even for the first syllable’—it comes as a shock.

Mythic echoes ripple below the skin of the story especially in the form of allusions to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld to which most of the dead were believed to depart, thought to be located far to the north of the Aztec empire, and also to other mythic traditions about the underworld. For instance, when Makina metaphorically ‘skins’ herself of her clothing and, later, of her identity, readers with some knowledge of Aztec mythology might wonder if this is a reference to the fact that Mictlan was also known as the Land of the Unfleshed. Could her being shot represent the stage of the Mictlan journey—one of nine—in which the obstacle faced by the dead is being pierced by arrows? Might the ‘little package’ that Makina delivers to the dreaded Mr P. find semblance in the jade bead that the deceased could offer up to the Lord of of Miclan as a kind of currency in lieu of one’s heart?

Such echoes also reverberate in the characters: there is a gangster who is snakelike, and another who is a kind of seer, dispensing commands that resound with prophecies when Makina is poised to embark on her quest. In such characterisations the mythic is mashed up with the everyday. For example, we meet Chucho, one of the few men who respects Makina from the outset, in the form of a coyote/Xolotl/Charon who conveys Makina in a tractor tube across the Río Bravo/Apanohuaya River/River Styx; he engages in a shootout to aid her escape; and he re-emerges later in the narrative as something of a guardian angel.

Meanwhile, Makina’s strong links with language and communication place her not only as an epic hero but also as both an Iris and a La Malinche figure. She communicates messages in three tongues through the switchboard in her village, including from correspondents on the other side of the border to the north, and she later journeys across that northern border carrying a message. Taking into account that the north was the direction of the land of the dead for the Aztecs, both these acts call to mind Greek goddess Iris, who was believed to convey messages to and from the dead. And just as La Malinche, conquest-era interpreter to Hernán Cortés, conveyed messages in a new world order within the interstice of three cultures (Aztec, Mayan and Spanish), so too does Makina (‘native’, ‘latin’ and ‘anglo’). One of the rules Makina follows when delivering these messages is ‘You are the door, not the one who walks through it’. Like any good messenger or ethical interpreter, aside from clarifications she makes on one occasion during a lovers’ tiff, she conveys the messages entrusted to her without disseminating them among others or trying to influence their reception. By journey’s end, however, she determines to cease being the door in favour of taking up the more active role of the one walking through it.

This walking through the door connects to another narrative thread, that of the shaky grounds of the imperialist nation-state and those who would cross a border or some other threshold to enter it. Baseball is described to Makina as a celebration of identity and a ritualisation of imperialism: ‘you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right?’ Makina’s pivotal act of communication—a demonstration to a self-described ‘patriot’ cop of her ability to write, in which she sardonically describes her kind as ‘we the barbarians’ who shoulder the burdens of his nation—is a case of the subaltern speaking. Yet, speak she does not, at least not literally, maybe as a nod to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s contention that such is impossible, because the cop is the one to read her words aloud. After this, Chucho soothes Makina’s bewilderment and disillusion: ‘They need us,’ he says. ‘They want to live forever but still can’t see that for that to work they need to change color and number. But it’s already happening.’ If the nation-state is to survive, it must change its configuration. In this light, the titular world that is coming to an end can be viewed as the one patrolled by the racist cop. In other words, Makina presages a new order.

How, then, to go about translating all this complexity? As a translator, you understand the words, can identify the places where isomorphism is present and where it is absent. You might have set yourself the task, following Eco, of conveying the connotation instead of the denotation of those words. You know the difference, but now you have the demanding task before you of putting this knowledge into practice.

‘In this betwixt-and-between period, in this fruitful darkness’, wrote Victor Turner of liminality, the ambiguity or disorientation of the middle stage of rituals. Don’t look down; there’s an abyss yawning just before your toes. Don’t force it, let the words come. Shift, make it fluid, back and forth. The Latin ‘translatio’: a ‘carrying across’: just a simple relocation, no labour of transformation, no alchemy involved here. Likewise the metaphor of the translator as a bridge: so passive! But the liminal space of translation as a fruitful darkness, now that bears greater reflection.

In the middle of this fruitful darkness, you could take the unusual privilege of looking to the work’s protagonist for advice. Makina herself has to contend with equivalence and the unstable nature of isomorphism; she too must try to fix routes between words. She packs what she calls a ‘latin–anglo dictionary’, which she describes as ‘by old men and for old men’ but still useful, ‘like people who don’t really know where a street is and yet point you in the right direction’. Routes between words are more rivers than highways in that their course is always shifting. Revise, and revise again. Make sure you keep up. Maybe all a translator can do, in the end, is point the reader in the right direction.

Makina muses on Spanglish, that language-between-languages, dependent on the existence of both Spanish and English and also on a large enough community of speakers who know both; it is a manner of communicating that is, of course, a kind of language-in-translation. She names it ‘a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born’, which recalls, again, liminality, the point at which the old self is dead and the new self, not yet birthed. There are creative possibilities in this space; translational decisions can reinvigorate the world, can make it new: ‘if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things’.

An important feature of Herrera’s work is his dexterity with language, reflected in Makina’s. This creates a compelling challenge for the translator, who is required to be just as inventive.  Lisa Dillman seems to take particular delight in the wordplay of the source text. To take one example of Herrera’s neologisms, the verb jarchar—as in ‘Makina jarchó’, which Dillman renders, ‘Makina versed’—is based on a thirteenth-century Mozarabic word that referred to part of a poem usually delivered in a female voice (and Mozarabic was a language in transition, given its use of Arabic script for what would become Spanish). In the novel, Herrera uses his coinage to mean ‘to leave’, thereby linking the act of moving through space with that of composition and communication, as well as alluding to a state of shift. That the part of the poem referenced was the final refrain, coupled with the fact that ‘to leave’ implies the end of something, also accentuates the novel’s focus on the end of the world. Dillman’s discussion of her decision to translate ‘jarchar’ as ‘to verse’, which is reproduced on the publisher’s blog, makes for fascinating reading; she describes her final choice as ‘a term clearly referring to poetry, and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the “end” of the uni-verse’.

At times Dillman  recreates Herrera’s innovations by shadowing her source. For example, the opening of the translation closely approximates the uncommon syntax and punctuation of Herrera’s text, which is breathless and suspenseful. It evokes the way a calamitous moment in time can be magnified and can seem to draw out, not unlike the spaghettification produced by black holes. In this case, the effect is achieved by clauses that accumulate details ranging from the matter-of-fact to the surreal in a crescendo of experiencing a place in one brief but tense moment.

Estoy muerta, se dijo Makina cuando  todas las cosas respingaron: un hombre cruzaba la calle a bastón, de súbito un quejido seco atravesó el asfalto, el hombre se quedó como a la espera de que le repitieran la pregunta y el suelo se abrió bajo sus pies: se tragó al hombre, y con él un auto y un perro, todo el oxígeno a su alrededor y hasta los gritos de los transeúntes. Estoy muerta, se dijo Makina, y apenas lo había dicho su cuerpo entero comenzó a resistir la sentencia y batió los pies desesperadamente hacia atrás, cada paso a un pie del deslave, hasta que el precipicio se definió en un círculo de perfección y Makina quedó a salvo.

Pinche ciudad ladina, se dijo, Siempre a punto de reinstalarse en el sótano.

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest the verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

Slippery bitch of a city, she said to herself. Always about to sink back into the cellar.

As can be seen above, the voice abruptly moves from those breathless, time-slowed-down clauses to foul-mouthed humour. The pizazz and brevity of the latter’s two-sentence delivery, after the two sentences that precede it, might arrest readers and swing them from one end of the emotional spectrum and expectations about genre (drama, pathos, lyricism, surrealism) to another (humour, pragmatism, the voice now more that of a noirish straight-talking protagonist).

This punchiness is elsewhere fashioned by Dillman in the way she capitalises on the abundance of single-syllabic words in English, as compared with the often lengthier Spanish counterparts. She further emphasises this by using contractions and sentence fragments, the latter mirroring Hererra’s. For example:

Llegó al lugar. Pulquería Raskolnikova, decía el letrero. Debajo, el guardián. A éste no podía contonearlo de largo, así es que se le paró enfrente y le dijo Pregúntale si puede recibirme.

She got to the place. Pulquería Raskolnikova, said the sign. Beneath it, the guard. This one she couldn’t swish past, so she stopped in front and said Ask him if he’ll see me.

Disregarding the business name this almost halves the number of syllables that are present in the already pacy Spanish version. In this way, Dillman has taken advantage of the possibilities that are specific to English to further Herrrera’s purpose.

As for Herrera’s neologisms, Dillman’s rendering is often virtuosic. To mention just two examples, when Makina and Mr Double-U are drinking together, Herrera’s ‘se empinaron la botella’, instead of becoming the standard ‘they upended the bottle’, makes use of the more staccato, alliterative coinage ‘uptipped’. Elsewhere, Herrera uses the neologism gabachería to describe the people Makina observes in the self-checkout section of a supermarket. He concocts ‘gabachería’ by adding the suffix –ería—which roughly equates to the English -ery and in this case means ‘a collection of’—to ‘gabacho’, a word used in different parts of the Spanish-speaking world to refer to specific instances of a more powerful Other living across a border. Dillman takes advantage of the richness and comic potential of English’s terms of venery and creates humour through syllabic alliteration: her coinage is, delightfully, ‘anglogaggle’.

A final word on Dillman’s translation. There is a terse verbal exchange between Chucho and a border-patrolling vigilante in which Chucho demonstrates his smarts, to the detriment of the vigilante’s comprehension. Dillman’s rendering of that conversation in English includes slight but crucial changes that point to a number of considered and imaginative translation strategies. Here is the exchange:

Éste fue tu último viajecito, pollero.

No soy un pollero, dijo Chucho.

Já, si te he visto cruzando gente, dijo aquél, Y ya te atrapé en el acto.

No, si no niego el acto, dijo Chucho, Pero no soy un pollero.

El gabacho puso cara de que violentamente sufría la oscuridad del concepto.

You just took your last trip, coyote.

I’m no coyote, Chucho said.

Ha! I seen you crossing folks, the man said. And looks like now I caught you in the act.

Not the act I’m denying, said Chucho, tho I’m no coyote.

The anglo’s expression indicated that he was engaged in a mighty struggle with the nuances of the concept.

First, a privileging of form over content is visible in her rendition. In Chucho’s utterance ‘Not the act I’m denying’, the organisation of the hard stresses gives a laconic rhythm reminiscent of something delivered by a filmic Western hero. This inventive rendition does introduce a possible change in meaning, however, in that the word order could suggest that there is another act that Chucho is, in fact, denying (compare ‘I’m not denying the act’, which loses the connotive rhythm and markers of spoken speech, but is more clearly a straight denial of the act rather than a potential gesturing towards another, unmentioned one).

Second, in the context of the exchange, ambiguity is introduced by both the change in word order of this phrase and, later in the same sentence, the rendering of pero (but) as ‘tho’ (which alters the relationship between the act and the nomenclature pollero/coyote, making the final utterance more of an addendum). In ambiguity, there is potential for confusion. This might point to a consideration of the audience, now English- rather than Spanish-speaking and so more likely to be culturally if not sympathetically aligned with the vigilante foe rather than the scene’s hero, Chucho. It is easy, in the inhabiting of the interior world of another that is facilitated by reading, to forget such an alignment. By bringing this alignment to the fore, Dillman’s focus is on producing meanings rather than preserving those of the author. This supports Rosemary Arrojo’s view of the translation act as a kind of palimpsest—erasing a text to write another text on the same page—where the translation no longer protects an author’s ‘original’ meanings but becomes, instead, a generator of meanings. It is also a political decision to generate discomfort. Unlike the reader of the source text, the translation reader, in his reflected ‘struggle with the nuances of the concept’, is—even if just for the time it takes him to re-read the exchange until it becomes comprehensible, rendering the ground on which he stands firm again—the bad guy.

I suggested earlier that Herrera’s is a work for which translation is a logical extension of its rationale. In other words, to read it in translation seems almost to provide the opportunity, and create the destination, for the text’s own journey into otherness and a different incarnation. Yet, given the parallels between Makina’s crossing and the process of translation, maybe this is not exactly the case.

Dillman forges a route between worlds and across frontiers much like the narrator of Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, minus, of course, the physical risks and subaltern status of Makina, which should not be understated. These exceptions notwithstanding, like Makina, Dillman must negotiate languages and cultures in order to arrive at her envisioned destination. Given the boundary crossing involved, maybe engaging in that translation process, rather than devouring the translation product, offers the richest, most fitting readerly experience. In other words, one of the best ways to encounter this work might be to translate it.  If we accept that this is the case, it makes us, as readers of the translation, privileged onlookers. Yet I find it hard to regret such a position because the view from here is remarkable.

Works Cited

Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2001).
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313.
Victor Turner, ‘Betwix and between: the liminal period in rites of passage’ in his The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967), pp. 93–111.
Rosemary Arrojo, Oficina de Tradução. A Teoria na Pratica (São Paulo: Ática, 1986).