When I was in grad school, I took two upper-division survey courses in Spanish-American literature to cover the language requirement for my English Ph.D. I was lucky to have two excellent professors, the amazing Francine Masiello, and the wonderful Julio Ramos. I used all of my Spanish classes at Cal to further my understanding of the language, and I have said at times that the one concrete thing I got out of my college education was a reasonable fluency in the language of my grandparents.
For this reason, I was driven to read as much of the literature as possible in the original Spanish. Oh, I’d make sure to have an English translation nearby … reading those diaries from the ships of Columbus wasn’t any easier than reading 15th-century English. But I’d always make the effort.
I remember reading many stories by Julio Cortázar, who qualifies for Throwback Thursday because he died 31 years ago today. One in particular has stayed with me for many years. It was called “Carta a una señorita en París” (“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”). The story/letter begins with the writer explaining that he didn’t want to come live in the recipient’s apartment, because he didn’t want to “intrude on a compact order”:
[M]e duele ingresar en un orden cerrado, construido ya hasta en las más finas mallas del aire, esas que en su casa preservan la música de la lavanda, el aletear de un cisne con polvos, el juego del violín y la viola en el cuarteto de Rará.
It was slow going, as it always was for me when reading Spanish. Just before the above-quoted segment, the letter read, “No tanto por los conejitos” … I read this as “Not just because of the bunnies”. Didn’t make any sense to me, but I never really trusted my Spanish enough to think I was getting it right, and this odd reference wasn’t enough for me to go running to an English translation.
The rest of the opening paragraph continued further to explain how the writer felt uncomfortable changing the “compact order”. In the second paragraph, we learn what has brought him to stay in the apartment nonetheless: she is in Paris, and he is staying in her apartment until her return. Near the end of the paragraph comes another mention of the bunnies: “esta carta se la envío a causa de los conejitos”. OK, that’s two mentions of bunnies in two paragraphs. I know that “conejito” means “bunny” … it’s just the context that has me inching closer to the English translation at my side.
But in the third paragraph, as he describes moving into the apartment, he explains, “De cuando en cuando me ocurre vomitar un conejito.” I think I’ve got this translated … “From time to time I vomit a bunny.” Much of this paragraph, in fact, is about bunnies and vomiting. At least, that what I think it says. I’m starting to wish I had a better handle on magic realism, but mostly, I’m thinking, man, does my Spanish stink. When I read this, I think it’s about a man who vomits bunnies. That can’t be it … just how bad is my translation?
So I break down and start reading the story in an English translation. And, guess what? The man is indeed claiming to vomit bunnies.
Understand, I know so little about the real world that despite the word “conejito” (bunny), I’m thinking “conejo” (rabbit). That is, I’m imagining full-grown rabbits coming out of the writer’s mouth. And that seems a bit much, even for magic realism (if, in fact, that’s what this is). It was almost a relief when my wife later explained that new-born bunnies were indeed very, very small.
To this day, when I think of Cortázar, I think of the man who vomited rabbits.