Calf to the board

Not quite by coincidence, I recently read Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, El héroe discreto, just as the English version was coming out amid critical hoopla. The title of the translation is, unsurprisingly, The Discreet Hero. A literal translation, to be sure. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, yes and no. I have done some translating in my life, and I have always believed that the title should bear, more or less, the same relationship to the content in translation that it does in the original. Does it, in this case?

I would guess that the English-speaking reader, on seeing a novel titled The Discreet Hero, would assume that it’s about a character who in some way — perhaps ironically — embodies the two qualities named in the title. But in fact this novel is about three such characters. The reader would then wonder: which one of them is the discreet hero? Don Felícito, Don Rigoberto, or Don Ismael?

What about the reader of the original? Well, someone familiar with Spanish literature would know that the title is a conflation of two classic titles from the Spanish Baroque, El Héroe and El Discreto by Baltazar Gracián. The former (1637, The Hero) is “a criticism of Machiavelli, drawing a portrait of the ideal Christian leader”, while the latter (1646, The Complete Gentleman) “described the qualities which make the sophisticated man of the world” (descriptions from Wikipedia). Neither embodies what we nowadays think of a heroism or discretion, but then Gracián was known for his highly idiosyncratic way with words, and in any case what matters is the titles, not the content. Probably not that many people nowadays have read the books, but it’s generally known that they are didactic treatises of a “how-to” variety.

By basing the title of his novel on these classic titles, Vargas Llosa lets us know that he has written a didactic novel, showing us by means of three entertaining examples that one can be brave without being reckless and discrete without being timid. If I had been the translator I would have tried to make the title reflect this. Perhaps How to Be [or Being or On Being] a Discreet Hero, or Discreet Heroes, or maybe, à la Jane Austen, Heroism and Discretion.

Word-for-word translations that don’t convey the intended meaning are famous from the world of menus (for example here). My favorite, which I encountered in Spain in the 1980s, is “Calf to the board” as a translation of ternera a la plancha (which means grilled veal or beef). But they are not what one would expect in the world of literature.

Let’s look at another Vargas Llosa novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, tiled The Feast of the Goat in English. If you scan the title word by word, la does indeed mean ‘the’; fiesta may be translated as ‘feast’ (though in a very limited sense); del means ‘of the’; and chivo means ‘goat’, though also in a limited sense. ‘Goat’ as the name of a species, with no reference to gender, is cabra, and chivo means very specifically a billy-goat. Note that the word is capitalized in the title, implying that it’s used as though it were a proper noun, and El Chivo was in fact one of the nicknames given to Rafael Trujillo (around whom the novel revolves) on account of his notorious randiness. ‘The Billy-goat’ would have been an adequate translation, since “as horny as a billy-goat” is a common English expression. But just plain ‘goat’? No way.

How about fiesta, then? It can, of course, mean ‘feast’ in the sense of a periodic religious holiday, but not in the sense (far more common in English) of a large and sumptuous meal. The title The Feast of the Goat would, I believe, evoke a banquet at which goat is served, or perhaps a religious ritual at which a goat is worshiped or sacrificed.

Needless to say, the book is about none of the above. It’s about a party (by far the most current meaning of fiesta) that is supposedly given by the Billy-goat and to which the novel’s female protagonist is invited, except that she turns out to be the only guest and is duly raped by the dictator. The Billy-Goat’s Party would have perfectly conveyed the meaning of the title in relation to the book.

But then there is the case of another Vargas Llosa title that was not translated literally, and should have been. La tía Julia y el escribidor was rendered as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Now, escribidor means ‘scribbler’ or whatever other word one might use for a bad writer. ‘Scriptwriter’ sounds like someone who might be a bigwig in Hollywood or on television, but in this book the character writes silly scripts (yes) for a provincial radio station.

Then there is the mystery, which I’ve never solved, of why Vargas Llosa’s first novel, La ciudad y los perros (‘The City and the Dogs’), was published in English as The Time of the Hero. Perhaps, the book being by a heretofore unknown author, the translator felt freer  But then I never actually read the book.


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