Honors Summer Research Program
Can I Call Him Crusty? Translating Carnavalito by Ana María Matute
The act of translation can rightly be considered an art form. This summer I worked to translate Ana María Matute’s short children’s story Carnavalito. At first, this task would not seem so complicated, but mere knowledge of the original language (Spanish) and the target language (English) is not enough to produce a faithful translation. An authentic translation requires understanding of the author, her works, her style, and the characteristics of the genres she works in.
It would be impossible to detail all that I learned this summer in a short paper; an analysis of Carnavalito alone would take many chapters. Instead, I will touch on the information that most affected my work on the translation during the second half of the summer. This mostly concerns information regarding Ana María Matute as an author, and the complexities inherent in the translation of children’s literature. Finally I will discuss my work on translating Carnavalito, including the major difficulties and solutions I found for them.
I spent the first four weeks of the summer reading as much of Ana María Matute’s work as I could in that short time. I also learned as much as I could about Matute herself and read literary criticisms of her works so that I could more easily pick up on the subtleties of Carnavalito that I would have to be aware of in order to remain as faithful to the original as possible. Because her work has been greatly shaped by her experiences, an understanding of the major events in her life is essential to reaching a deeper comprehension of her writing.
Ana Maria Matute was born in 1926 in Spain. Her family often moved between Barcelona and Madrid and they spent summers in Castilla la Vieja, and so she often felt like an outsider throughout her childhood. She and her siblings were educated in religious schools, and Matute often described her education as being very sheltered and isolated from the real world. As a child she was enthusiastic about the arts and painted, acted and played instruments in addition to producing her endless stream of writing.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 when she was about ten years old, and the injustices and cruelty she witnessed during the war, in addition to representing her own loss of innocence, have markedly shaped her writing. The archives of papers from her childhood at Boston University include short plays that she wrote and put on for her siblings and cousins, short stories, and even a few “magazines” that included serial stories, fairy tales, and “reviews” about books she had recently read. These very early works, written during the war, demonstrate themes of justice, equality, sympathy, and peace.
Matute married novelist Ramón Eugnio de Goícoechea in 1952, but the marriage wasn’t a happy one. Goícoechea, according to friends of the couple, was jealous of his wife’s literary success. They divorced in 1963. By law, Ramon was given full custody of their son, Juan Pablo, who was about nine years old at the time of the divorce. Though Matute was allowed to visit him, not much is known about her relationship with her son; Matute is very open about her childhood experiences, but doesn’t talk much about her personal life after her marriage. She has dedicated a few works to her son, however, though she claims that none of it was autobiographical in any way. It has been inferred that writing to entertain Juan Pablo was part of her motivation in writing so many children’s stories.
Her works vary in length from paragraphs (like the short pieces found in the collection Los Hijos Tontos) to full length novels (most famously, the Los Mercadores trilogy featuring Primera Memoria). As of yet, only the more popular works have been translated into English.
The Spanish Civil War had a profound effect on Matute’s work as an author. She writes almost obsessively about childhood and the loss of innocence. Other major themes include war, violence and isolation. Her main characters are often children or adolescents (or adults coming to terms with their childhood) who are orphaned, disabled, or otherwise cast out by society. The story of Cain and Abel is often present in her works, as she believes it was reflected in the Spanish Civil War. Also, social criticisms relating to the war and treatment of the disadvantaged are regularly found in her writing.
Her style is very distinctive. Even Matute’s adult fiction is written with a poetic plainness that reflects the way in which children view the world. One article I read about her portrayed her use of description as “cave paintings” that were stark but expressive, and later observed that Matute wrote in “primary colors as opposed to pastels” (Winecoff “Style and Solitude”).
Matute has won numerous awards for her writing, and was made a member of the Real Academia Espanola (Royal Spanish Academy) in 1996. She is the third woman to become a member, and the only female member currently living. This is a great honor that recognizes her importance in Spanish literature.
Children’s Literature in Translation
Children’s literature is easily recognizable for its oral quality, simple vocabulary and structure, frequent repetition, and nonsensical tendencies. Readers might not be immediately aware of the cultural aspects imbedded into the text, however. Children’s stories are often moralizing or instructive, and the values often vary from culture to culture.
The main question or problem stemming from this is concerned with faithfulness to the text: how much can the translator change to make the text suitable for the intended audience while still remaining loyal to the original? How does one handle onomatopoeia, rhymes, nonsense words, or names? If the values in the original text aren’t the same as those of the target culture, is it alright to change or omit those parts of the work? I read some children’s stories targeted to different age groups (which can be found in my bibliography) in both English and Spanish to see how those translators solved these sorts of problems. Issues discussed in my research on children’s literature in translation were helpful in guiding me in my decision-making for my translation.
Matute’s children’s literature, though written for a much younger audience, is layered with adult themes and ideas. Some of these works fit in with the fairy tale tradition, including magical beings and the requisite happy endings. The way she writes her children’s literature feels similar to the way one would tell a story: run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, and descriptions tagged on to the end of sentences are ever-present. Similarly, they tend to include a bit of repetition like one would expect to find in children’s stories. I did my best to maintain these elements throughout my translation of Carnavalito.
Carnavalito is a short story that centers on an orphan named Bongo. Bongo lives with a blacksmith who, though hated by the village they live in, is a father figure for Bongo. The blacksmith tells him marvelous stories about his life, and about how he found Bongo. Then one day the war comes through his village, and many escape, but Bongo is left alone, and he finds the blacksmith’s shop in ruins. As he’s sitting alone crying, a Harlequin comes and introduces himself as Carnavalito. Carnavalito offers to take Bongo to the land of peace, and Bongo follows. The two travel around in the path of the war, and collect other children and animals that were abandoned as well as “treasures” (golden leaves, seeds, etc). Finally they cross a great ditch, their last obstacle before they reach the good land, but Carnavalito is not there once everyone makes it to the other side. His harmonica, which plays mesmerizing music, then tells the truth of Carnavalito: he is the collection of “colorful lies” that the blacksmith had told throughout his life. The lies were dressed and sent to the earth to see what good came of them. Bongo realizes that neither he nor the blacksmith were who he thought they were, but now all of the outcasts have formed a peaceful family and live happily ever after.
The main themes I identified relate to identity, the horrors of war, and the nature of man and treasure. Bongo, like almost all of Matute’s main characters, suffers the loss of his innocence when he realizes that he is alone, and that neither he nor the Blacksmith were who he thought they were. Identifying the themes helped me to find the details that were most important so that I could ensure that they were equally prevalent in the English version of the text.
Though maintaining Matute’s blunt style at times presented a challenge for me, the biggest problems I found had to do with the issue of names in the story. Bongo calls the Blacksmith “maestro”, which has numerous meanings in Spanish, including “master”, “teacher”, and “maestro”. Even though Bongo is like an apprentice to the Blacksmith I found I was not comfortable changing the term to the formal “master” because of their close relationship. “Maestro” is currently changed to “teacher” in the story, though it loses the musical connotation of the Engligh “maestro” that links itself with Carnavalito and his harmonica.
The name Carnavalito itself means “little carnival”. His character is the fool who reveals the truth, and so it was important to maintain that playful aspect in my version of the story. As of this paper’s completion, Carnavalito has been changed to “the Jester” following the idea that English-speaking children would have an easier time pronouncing this name while maintaining that Harlequin image, although it is possible that in subsequent drafts the name will be changed back to the original.
The second little boy that Carnavalito and Bongo find on their journey is named Cuscurrín, which means “little bread crust”. Cuscurrín is always mentioned second in conjunction with another little boy, Cuco and a puppy called Nabucodonosor, creating a certain melodic rhythm. I had already decided to translate the latter names literally, since the change was not great, making them Cuckoo and Nebuchadnezzar, respectively, but Cuscurrín was not as simple. At present, the character is called “Crusty” in my version, which fits in with the intended rhythm of the original, though because of its slightly negative connotations I’m still searching for an alternative.
Though some small changes will be made in subsequent drafts of the translation, it is mostly complete. I am satisfied with the solutions I have found for the various problems, and I feel that my translation is loyal to the original in both the content and the overall feel of the story. I found the practice of translation (which can be very frustrating at times) enjoyable in its complexity, and I am considering the possibility of taking on other pieces to translate in the near future. This fall I plan to contact Matute, who holds the rights to her work, about the possibility of publishing my translation.
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