Today sees the publication by Planet Books of Eduardo Blanco Amor's classic novel A esmorga, translated into English as On a Bender by Craig Patterson. Craig, who is lecturer at Cardiff University and president of the International Association of Galician Studies, kindly agreed to give the following interview about the book and his translation.
What is On a Bender?
On a Bender is my translation of Eduardo Blanco Amor's 1959 novel in Galician A esmorga. The novel centres upon the main character Cibrán's account of an extended spree of drinking and shenanigans in Auria, an imaginary transposition of Ourense. The novel's psychological depth lies in the way Cibrán retells events to the police and in his attempts to save his own skin by prolonging the narrative and distorting events and details. The novel is constantly rated in surveys by Galicians as their favourite of all time, so it has been an honour to work on the English version which will hopefully contribute to Galicia's international cultural profile.
What's this business about the book being censored? Do we now have the original as the author intended?
The manuscript of A esmorga was taken to Galicia from Argentina by Isaac Díaz Pardo on behalf of Blanco Amor at the end of 1955 and handed to the Galician-language publisher Galaxia, which then began the process of submitting it to the Francoist censor. The first attempt at publication in Galicia in 1956 failed because the text was rejected on the grounds of its expletive language rather than for political reasons. After some further difficulties, Blanco Amor followed a course familiar to many writers who could not get their work past the gatekeepers of the dictatorship's moral and religious codes and sought publication in Latin America. A esmorga appeared in Buenos Aires on 3 April 1959. The novel was submitted to the censor on two further occasions in 1969 in a new attempt to get it published in Galicia. Although the literary quality of the work was praised on this occasion, it was nonetheless cut in five places in order to suppress criticism of authority, including the reference at the end to the possible causes of the protagonist's death (at the hands of the Civil Guard). It was finally published in Galician in December 1970. In 2010 Galaxia published a restored version which retained the five fragments suppressed by the censor over forty years earlier. If anybody wants to learn more about the history of the novel's publication history and the censorship it encountered, then they should consult Xosé Manuel Dasilva's excellent study "As vicisitudes editoriais d'A esmorga" (Grial 184, pp. 36-51).
I am delighted to say that On a Bender will be the first translation of the restored novel by Blanco Amor into any language. Luís González Tosar told me recently that Blanco Amor had hoped that his most well-known novel would be translated into English one day and I am honoured to have been a part of this endeavour.
What does a piss-up set in the nineteenth century have to do with the global crisis?
The novel is about what ordinary people do in extraordinary circumstances and also how they cope with those circumstances, warts and all. It's about what people with nothing do to make their lives worth living. So there is some universality there. There is greater contemporary resonance, however, in the novel's treatment of the relationship between the mainstream and the periphery, between the conventional, the marginal and the marginalised, between conformity and being true to one's own identity, however flawed we may be as human beings. Also the novel deals with the relationship between a repressive authority and possible criminality or social deviance. All of these factors held great relevance for Blanco Amor at the time of the novel's publication, given that he was a homosexual writer producing the work in exile when the Franco dictatorship was firmly in power in Spain and Galician culture just beginning to emerge, if only in a fragmented way, from the bleak period that followed the Spanish Civil War. But in the same way the novel can still travel across cultural specificity today, in our times, when decades of progress in terms of social welfare, mobility and inclusion seem to be being rolled back at an alarming rate, when economic inequality in the form of bankers' bonuses and levels of unemployment are never higher and when we must question more than ever the discourse imposed upon us by superstructure, be that a government, the media or advertising. For me one of the many essential truths of the novel is: together we stand, divided we fall. That may mean something for us today and for our need for solidarity in the face of disaster capitalism and shock doctrine on both a large and smaller, everyday scale that challenges our serenity.
What were some of the peculiarities of translating this book?
I can think of four peculiarities: two general and two specific.
The first general peculiarity was of course deciphering and translating the heavily colloquial Ourensan Galician in which the narrator-protagonist relates the events that supposedly took place during the notorious bender, in a style which reflects his struggle to surpass his own cultural, educational and social condition. Translating that strand of Galician in general was extremely challenging. The second was that of trying to emulate or capture the voice of a narrator-protagonist who is not educated to a great degree, but who nevertheless shows occasional lyrical flourishes and a creative tendency in his exposition. So register had to remain mid to low whilst at the same time almost reaching higher levels now and again.
In addition there were two specific cases relating to vocabulary. One of these was the translation of the Galician noun follateira. The search for the meaning behind the term went on for some time and, to cut a long story short and after many linguistic trials and tribulations, friends reminded me that Blanco Amor himself defines the term in his novel La catedral y el niño as "misteriosa fiesta de Auria, reminiscencia, quizás, de cultos báquicos del latino colonizador". This of course led to a new challenge: how to reduce that down to a term without the recourse to a footnote, textual or otherwise. I opted for "those drunken fiestas that go back to old Auria".
The other principal linguistic challenge encountered was the phrase fóra a ialma, which appears six times in the text. The expression has the equivalent grammatical value of the conjunction agás or excepto, expressing anomaly, exception or even contradiction. Its function is not semantic, but pragmatic and euphemistic and is employed when animals are compared with humans within a clearly Catholic socio-cultural context: its cultural specificity is rooted in the blasphemous connotations of such a comparison. For example it is still not uncommon today to hear the expression in regards to domestic animals such as cats and dogs when humans are compared to them or vice versa: "fóra alma e fé [os cans] son como a xente". In Catholic doctrine God created man in his own image and animals were doctrinally inferior. Therefore to suggest a person is like an animal is to offend the work and image of God and therefore blasphemous. This rhetorical exemption clause allows blasphemy to be avoided without excluding the recourse to animalisation through simile. It has an apologetic core that seeks to redress the overwhelmingly blasphemous essence that it conveys in a southern European socio-religious context.
In order to translate this specific and peculiar Galician idiom with no direct equivalent in English, I favoured retaining some its strangeness whilst attempting to render it as a seamless part of the dialogue and rhetoric of the narrator-protagonist, just as it functions in the Galician. I achieved this by consolidating and reinforcing the sense and lexicon of the original Galician so that it attained some idiomatic plausibility in English: "save for his/her/their blessed souls". By introducing the adjective "blessed", a liturgical and hallowed sense of spiritual exclusivity is retained, thereby emphasising the religious quality of the rhetorical device and reminding what will probably be a largely secular readership of its purpose, origin and cultural specificity. Furthermore this solution communicates the peculiarity or otherness of the source idiom precisely by highlighting its origins through an appeal in the English to archaic religious lexicon that evokes the pre-Reformation period.
The great irony is that A esmorga has been extremely challenging to translate, yet it is a relatively short novel. By comparison Castelao's sprawling masterwork Sempre en Galiza, which I am also translating, has been relatively straightforward in linguistic terms. The only challenge with that text is of course its length and the need to provide a critical edition for it. Watch this space.
Our congratulations to Craig and to Planet! The book can be ordered here.