The shape-shifting magic of translated literature

Graphic by Meghan Joyce


It was “One Hundred Years of Solitude” that first made me sign up for Spanish classes in the sixth grade. I hadn’t even read Gabriel García Márquez’s landmark work yet. Really, I had only heard the first line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One line, and I was hooked. I remember thinking: “If just the English translation is that remarkable, then I have to read the original.” And so I signed up for Spanish with one goal in mind: to not read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” but rather “Cien años de soledad.”

At the time, I saw translated literature as a sort of consolation prize for monolinguals. For those with tongues that knew only the dips and curves of a single language, the translation was the best they could hope for and was forever inferior to the original.

However, as I continued to study Spanish in high school, and then linguistics in college, my original views — which now seem so unnecessarily hierarchical — have melted into a more fluid approach to translation and literature.

This transformation has affected how I see that gorgeous opening line, where the English states that the Colonel’s father took him to “discover ice.” In Spanish, the line reads “conocer el hielo” instead. It is this subtle semantic shift in verb choice between the Spanish and English versions that reveals how dynamic different languages can be.

In English, the verb is discover. But in Spanish, the verb is conocer, ‘to know,’ instead of descubrir, ‘to discover.’ The verb conocer is not the only one with that meaning in Spanish — saber technically has the same definition. However, saber is used more in the sense of knowing facts. With conocer, there is a level of intimacy, of familiarity. The Colonel and the ice start to appear more like friends in this light.

And that was just the choice of verb in Spanish — when comparing to English, the choice of the verb discover further changes the original line. To know something and to discover it are cousins, sure, but not identical. Before, I would have seen this difference as a stain, a mark of the limitations of English compared to the sonorant subtleties of Spanish. It would have further fueled my placement of the original on a pedestal, as the “true” and best work.

Now, I see it instead as an example of how the original work and its translation are equals made more beautiful by their differences. Rather than considering the English version a close second, I now value it in its own right for offering, from the very first line, a new way of imagining that “distant afternoon.”

Conversations surrounding the translation of literature — between languages, between mediums — often center around the concept of fidelity. The question I see over and over again: “The English translation, the film adaption — were they faithful to the original?”

The implicit assumption here is that translation should vow to be a mirror, a 1:1 ratio. Faithful. However, this is an impossible task. It would make adulterers out of translators and film producers. By definition, the new work can never be precisely the same as the original.  

You could interpret “faithful” more broadly, then, and think of it as “staying as true as possible to the voice of the original.” And I understand that. The interpretation or movie adaption should seek to respect its progenitor. However, I believe even this view misses an opportunity. Each language and medium has its own weaknesses, yes, but they also offer unique strengths that can lead to new interpretations of the original, as seen with Márquez’s opening line.

Interestingly, Márquez himself refused to sell the film rights for “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” famously turning down a million-dollar offer. He prohibited the translation of his novel into film because he wanted readers to “imagine the characters to be as they wish, and not as the borrowed face of an actor.”

As I wrote about in my last column, I prefer books to films precisely for this reason: Books allow readers free reign when it comes to filling in the gaps. Márquez is correct in that the film adaptation of a book only offers one gaze, that of the director and actors.

However, unlike my literary hero, I believe film adaptations are just that: one interpretation, not the interpretation. There is still value in the fact that film can provide yet another perspective on the original work.

I like to think this is a more optimistic stance. It portrays works of art as breathing, mutable, endless. With each adaptation, the original casts off its clothing and sheds its skin, as if to say, “Look at the new me! See how multifaceted I am!”

This is my answer to another question often asked: “What is the point of reading the book if I have seen the movie? What value is there in reading different translations of the same text?”

Liquid, solid, gas — it is all water. And so is “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in English and Spanish and French. As film or novel or even adapted series of poetry-turned-comic-book. This is true.

But as marvelous as Marquéz’s writing is, for me the beauty lies in that strange and wondrous nature of translated literature, where the essence of the work may remain the same, but the view we are afforded of it shifts with each new transmutation.

And so, yes, I will read “Cien años de soledad.” Then, I will read “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” If there were a film adaptation, I would watch it.

I do this because with each version, I am able to, over and over and over again, discover a new way of knowing ice.

Samantha Resnick is a senior linguistics major at Pomona College. She likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.

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