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Cuentos de Averoigne: Todos los Cuentos de Averoigne de Clark Ashton Smith, traducción de Enric Navarro (Pickman’s Press 2019)

Evelyn Waugh and Clark Ashton Smith wrote some of the best English prose of the twentieth century. But could either of these writers actually be better in translation than in English? Theoretically, yes, of course they could be. Somewhere in Borges’ Library of Babel there are translations of Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall (1928) that are subtler and funnier than the original, and translations of Smith’s story “The Dark Eidolon” that are stranger and more lapidary than the original.

There are two main ways for such Babelean translations to be better than the original. It could be because they’re better as literature or because the new language is better suited than English for conveying Wauvian satire or Smithean strangeness. But that second way – a better language – is less likely in Waugh’s case, because Waugh set his work almost exclusively among speakers of contemporary English in the real world. His novella Helena (1950), set in the fourth-century Roman empire, is the big exception and also the big failure (though not in Waugh’s own eyes: he regarded it as his best book). Modern English is exactly right for Waugh’s world because Waugh’s world was the modern English-speaking world.

Clark Ashton Smith, on the other hand, set his work almost as exclusively outside the real world, in fantastic worlds of the far future and distant past where English was replaced by exotic languages speaking of exotic things. And so, as I describe in my essay “Wizard with Words”, Smith’s English had to depart from the everyday, using borrowings from Latin, Greek and French to conjure the medieval ambience of magic, mystery and supernatural intervention that is so important in fantasy. And it seems obvious that Smith’s tales of Averoigne, set in the past centuries of an invented French province, might read even better in French if the translator has sufficient literary skill.

And perhaps they do read better in French. My French isn’t good enough to tell. Nor is my Spanish when it comes to Cuentos de Averoigne, the translation under review here. But my Spanish was good enough for me to enjoy the stories thoroughly, to recognize the skill of the translator, and to wonder whether, in fact, perfectly bilingual readers would tend to find the stories better in Spanish. For one thing, Spanish has retained more of the right cultural flavour than English has. One big example: Spanish still naturally makes the distinction between the formal and intimate second persons that English once made with “you” and “thou”. And so you could say that something is gained in translation when Smith’s English is turned into Spanish. For example, this is how Moriamis the Enchantress addresses Brother Ambrose in English when she first meets him in “The Holiness of Azéderac”:

The woman stared at Ambrose, with open amazement and pity. Her brownish-yellow eyes were bright and clear as a mellowed wine.

“Poor little one,” she said. “I fear that your dreadful experiences have served to unsettle you. It was fortunate that I came along when I did, and decided to intervene. I seldom interfere with the Druids and their sacrifices; but I saw you sitting on their altar a little while agone, and was struck by your youth and comeliness.”

And this is how she addresses him at the end of the story, after they have fallen in love:

Ambrose told her of the singular mishap that had attended his journey in time.

Moriamis nodded gravely. “The green philtre was more potent than I had supposed,” she remarked. “It is fortunate, though, that the red philtre was equivalently strong, and could bring you back to me through all those added years. You will have to remain with me now, for I possessed only the two vials. I hope you are not sorry.”

Ambrose proceeded to prove, in a somewhat unmonastic manner, that her hope was fully justified.

It’s “you” all through in English. But not in Spanish. Here’s their first meeting:

La mujer contempló al clérigo sin ocultar su sorpresa y compasión. Los ojos le brillaban como un vino suave y resplandeciente.

–Pobrecito mío –dijo–. Me temo que vuestras recientes y horribles peripecias os han trastornado un poco. Por fortuna me hallaba cerca y fue acertada mi decisión de intervenir. No suelo inmiscuirme en los asuntos de los druidas y sus sacrificios; ahora bien, cuando os vi sentado sobre su altar, me sorprendieron vuestra juventud y candidez. (La Santidad de Azéderac)

Moriamis uses the formal vuestras, os, vuestra. Now here’s their re-union at the end of the story:

Ambrose le narró el singular episodio de su viaje por el tiempo.

Moriamis asintió gravemente.

–La poción verde era más potente de lo que había calculado –comentó–. Por fortuna, el líquido rojo tenía la misma concentración, pero a la inversa, y has podido regresar junto a mí desde esos años de más. Tu única opción es quedarte conmigo, sólo tenía esos dos frascos. Espero que no te importe.

Ambrose le demostró, de modo más bien poco monacal, que no se equivocaba.

As you can see, the formal has become the intimate. For example, the formal vuestra juventud y candidez – “your youth and comeliness” – of their first meeting is replaced by the intimate tu única opción – “thy only choice” – at the later re-union. In French, Moriamis and Ambrose take the same lexical step from formality to intimacy. And so Spanish carries the reader closer to what French-speaking Averoigne would really have been like. Or perhaps you could say that French and Spanish supply something that modern English lacks and that all speakers of modern English are deprived of.

And so Smith’s Tales of Averoigne gain something in translation when they become Contes d’Averoigne, in French, or Cuentos de Averoigne, in Spanish. But sometimes they may gain more in Spanish than in French, because Spanish has retained more of something than French: the ability to compress several ideas into a single word. These are the closing lines of “The End of the Story” in English:

Soon I shall return, to visit again the ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes, and redescend into the vaults below the triangular flagstone. But, in spite of the nearness of Perigon to Faussesflammes, in spite of my esteem for the abbot, my gratitude for his hospitality and my admiration for his incomparable library, I shall not care to revisit my friend Hilaire.

English expresses the first person future with three words: “I shall return” and so on. Spanish expresses the first person future in a single word:

No tardaré en visitar de nuevo las ruinas del castillo de Faussesflammes; volveré a bajar a las criptas bajo la losa triangular. Pero, pese a la proximidad de Perigon, pese a mi estima por el abad Hilaire, mi gratitud por dejarme consultar su inigualable biblioteca, no pensaré en volver a visitarlo.

No tardaré means “I shall not delay”; volveré means “I shall turn”; no pensaré means “I shall not think”. There is no first-person pronoun, because none is needed: the first person is explicitly marked in the verb. From an English- or French-speaker’s point of view, there’s something strange about the conciseness and precision of Spanish, which better suit the strangeness of Smith’s imagination and his desire to lift us out of the everyday and transport us elsewhere – or elsewhither. And there’s a stronger strangeness in Spanish because of its many borrowings from Arabic. Spanish is a language forged on a frontier between east and west, where culture and conflict have shifted and swirled.

All these things – and more – make Spanish a good language to read Clark Ashton Smith in. But perhaps Spanish would be even better suited to Smith’s Tales of Zothique, set in the final days of Earth under a swollen and scorching sun. You understand Zothique better when you’ve experienced for yourself the heat and light of California, where Smith was born and spent the whole of his life. And California – the “hot furnace” – was founded by Spaniards. But if Spanish might be best for the Tales of Zothique, that doesn’t make it any less good for these Tales of Averoigne. I enjoyed Cuentos de Averoigne a lot, and perhaps more so because I don’t read Spanish fluently. I stumble and crawl by comparison with my reading in English.

When you have to concentrate on what you’re reading, the ideas and images bloom in your head with brighter colours and sweeter perfumes – or stronger stenches, as the case may be. You can find both perfumes and stenches in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, a wizard with words who deserves to be far better known but perhaps is too skilful and subtle a writer to become so. This book proves that his skill and subtlety can survive in translation, and also proves that translation can even overturn the central theme of one of Smith’s greatest stories, “The Last Incantation”. In that story, not set in Averoigne or Zothique, the ancient and mighty wizard Malygris discovers that he can’t re-conjure a lost love and see the world again through the eyes of youth.

But the word-magic of this translation allowed me to read Clark Ashton Smith again with the eyes of youth. When I first read “The Colossus of Ylourgne” in English back in the 1980s, I marvelled at the grandeur and grotesqueness of his imagination:

Gaspard had seen certain of the experiments and evocations of Nathaire, and was all too familiar with the appurtenances of the dark arts. Within certain limits, he was not squeamish; nor was it likely that he would have been terrified overmuch by the shadowy, uncouth shapes of demons who toiled in the pit below him side by side with the blackclad pupils of the sorcerer. But a cold horror clutched his heart when he saw the incredible, enormous thing that occupied the central floor: the colossal human skeleton a hundred feet in length, stretching for more than the extent of the old castle hall; the skeleton whose bony right foot the group of men and devils, to all appearance, were busily clothing with human flesh!

But how could I read that story for the first time again? I couldn’t. At least, I couldn’t in English. But I could in Spanish, and I could marvel again at Smith’s grandeur and grotesqueness:

Como discípulo de Nathaire, Gaspard había visto numerosos rituales y sortilegios, además de estar familiarizado con la nigromancia. Hasta cierto límite, no era escrupuloso ni se echaba a correr porque hubiese visto sombras, figuras de demonios y otras criaturas deambulando por el suelo o surcando el aire de la estancia. Pero un gélido horror le paralizó el corazón cuando reparó en aquella cosa increíble, descomunal, que ocupaba el centro de la planta: un colosal esqueleto humano de más de treinta metros cuyo tamaño superaba el de la planta del viejo vestíbulo. Y hombres y demonios, arremolinados en torno al pie derecho, ¡sin lugar a dudas, lo estaban revistiendo con carne humana!

Clark Ashton Smith is a hidden treasure, an epicure’s delight, and it’s good that Spanish-speaking epicures can now discover more of his greatness in the pages of this book. The translator Enric Navarro and the publisher Pickman’s Press are to be congratulated on this act of homage to a giant – or should that be colossus? – of fantastic literature.

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Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94, consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

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