Posted by: istop4books | March 20, 2011


I love Isabel Allende – I knew her when I was a kid living in Chile; she wrote a column in a ladies magazine called Paula. It was on the last page of the magazine and  was the first thing I’d read.   Always funny, witty and right.

Over the years, 32 to be exact, of living in the States, I’ve navigated away from reading in Spanish and stuck to English. My eyes travel English words at warp speed; they also travel Spanish words at warp speed but my brain lags far behind, meaning that when I read in Spanish it takes a concentrated effort to slow down and I often have to reread passages for comprehension.  All that to say that I read this book in English and wish I had been patient enough to read it in Spanish.  Actually, first I tried to listen to it on audio, and had to quit because my mind wandered far too much.  So I obtained the hardcover copy and set out to read the translated version and HATED the translation. I don’t know how it could have been worse. The translation took me away from the story which was good and different and had so many layers of people and places and historical events, well written and well researched.

I loved getting to know Zarite (Tété), Valmoran, Violette, Maurice and the entire cast of characters. This could easily have been a trilogy, as she had so many wonderful characters in her book.  Allende brought the reader to Haiti and allowed us to live in 18th century Saint Domingue on a sugar plantation and feel chills at the treatment of the slaves, cheer them on in their uprising and hope for safe passage for Tété. It is a place where the price of slaves was so cheap, that it was costworthy to work them to death in a few years and replace them. They were a commodity to be used and abused at will, and through Tété, we learn their fate with the owner, Valmorain with whom she bears two children, and the overseer Cambray, from whom she tries to steer clear. During the 1804 uprising of the slaves, all non-slaves were either chased out of Haiti or slaughtered, whites and those of mixed race. Tété, Valmorain and the children escape first to Cuba and then onto New Orleans. In New Orleans the pace of the story picks up with the children and their relationships and the reading becomes somewhat easier and quicker.

This is a story masterfully told, as Allende weaves in just enough history to understand the context of the story, but not so much that my eyes glazed over. Her characterizations of powerful women – whether they knew how powerful they were or not – were superb. The differences between Mulattos, Africans, Cocottes, quadroons as well as their hierarchy and interrelationships were well explained and well integrated into the narrative.

However, the translation totally distracted me.  I recognize it may not bother anyone else on the planet, but it bugged the hell out of me.  A few examples follow, they seem to have come straight out of google translate:

Often in the book I would read: “the little black walked down the street” or “the black wondered” or whatever. In Spanish, we say “Negrita” which means LITTLE BLACK GIRL, “Negrito” means LITTLE BLACK BOY – the translation made me uncomfortable.

Page 207 reads: “He seemed to be a man of no great intelligence, with the mentality of a functionary and without ambition.” I’m fairly sure although I haven’t checked a Spanish volume, that in Spanish this reads: “con mentalidad de funcionario y sin ambicion.” Typical Spanish phrase “con mentalidad de funcionario” but not so typical in English. Possibilities would be”with a bureaucratic mentality and lack of ambition” or “with the mentality of a bureaucrat and lacking ambition.” Either of those phrases would have helped in the sentence structure in English.

Same page: “You sin from modesty.” I know exactly what was said in Spanish – “pecas de modestia” it’s a colloquialism which doesn’t translate as smoothly into English. Something less stultified needed to be added. “You commit the sin of modesty” doesn’t quite cut it – but it’s better than the original translation.

Page 233 reads: “… but a blond, well dressed boy, cowed and weeping in the street, could not pass unnoticed.” No podia pasar desapercibido is what she must have written in Spanish. In English it should read ” he wouldn’t go unnoticed.”

Page 234 reads: “…dragged Tete to the calaboose…” who the heck (other than English majors) knows what a calaboose is? In Spanish it is the much used word for dungeon. I know the word Calabosa very well as it is often used and by deduction I understood calaboose – but unless your goal is to use obscure language in your writing (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then words should be translated into like words – a seldom used word in the original language can and should be translated into something similar; but a very familiar word in the original language should translate easily so the words flow nicely along the original idea of the writer.

Page 253 reads: “because in the country he ate and took the sun…” tomaba sol in Spanish means to bask in the sun, receive the sun’s rays, enjoy sunshine – anything other than taking sun.

Page 271 reads: “A cupid fell off the sky of the bed” off the roof of the bed? Off the canopy of the bed? In Spanish cielo can mean ceiling or sky, but in this case, I can’t believe that Allende meant sky.

Page 271 reads: “…the two ended by falling in love” This must be a translation of “terminaron por enamorarse” which is a typical expression in Spanish, but in English we say ended up falling in love, or wound up falling in love – not ended by… This is something found throughout the book.

Page 284: a sum in way of a loan – would sound so much better as “a sum by way of a loan”

Page 311 reads: (and in several other places): “…who had a horror of the army..” In Spanish it probably reads “le tenia horror al ejercito” very common and typical. The typical sentence structure in English then would read: “was horrified of the army…”

Page 332 reads: “…separate the violent..” separar a los violentos” in Spanish sounds fine, but in English violent is not a noun. So, separate the violent ones, the violent people, the violent prisoners

Pages 331 reads: “he never forgot to console the punished in the stocks…” Same deal. Punished is not a noun. Punished prisoners, the condemned, or some other choice would work much better.

There are many other examples, this is by no means a comprehensive list. But after reading many of Allende’s books in English – the translation really gets on my nerves and for me, as a Chilean American spoils the smoothness of the lecture.


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