“You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light” | A Conversation with Ilan Stavans (Part 1)

Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American writer and translator. His work spans from the study of Latin American culture, to “Spanglish,” to translation; his work takes the form of books and comic-strips; and he is highly regarded internationally as a literary and cultural critic and has received numerous awards and honors. He is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stavans at Amherst’s Frost Library to discuss The Plain in Flames, his 2012 translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection, El Llano en Llamas. His is the second translation of this work into English, the first being George Schade’s The Burning Plain.

Juan Rulfo, a highly influential Mexican writer, was born on this date 96 years ago. He died in 1986. Stavans introduces Rulfo beautifully here.

Sophie Leetmaa and Lauren Flinner illustrated / collaged two of the stories from The Plain in Flames.

They Have Given Us the Land - Sophie Leetma
They Have Given Us the Land – Sophie Leetma


You mention in the introduction your fascination with the book growing up. When did you first read El Llano en Llamas, and when did the translation project begin?

Growing up in Mexico in the 70s and 80s, Rulfo was already an established figure, a classic.  When I first discovered Latin American literature in general, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, Conversation in the Cathedral, and other important books of the 1960s and 70s, to which I was coming somewhat late, maybe a decade or so after they had been published, there was a constant reference, a constant moving around the figure that had fostered that type of new writing from Latin America. More than one figure, there were two or three to be honest – one of them was Borges, another one was unquestionably Juan Rulfo.

Juan Rulfo was by then already known as a man of very few words. He had published only two books: El Llano en Llamas and Pedro Páramo, a collection of short stories first, and two years later, a relatively short novel – and I say relatively short because, in that period that I am recalling, the novels that were coming out from Latin America were hefty and ambitious and epic, and this was ambitious and epic and hefty but short. It had myth as its main quest. And, you know, there are writers that you read, you enjoy, and you forget. And then there are writers that you read and you are transformed. Rulfo, from the moment I discovered him is … in very few words, in very few pages, he’s capable of creating an entire world, entirely complex and entirely vivid in its imagery. And growing up in Mexico, that world was very close to me. It is the world of the countryside, of the provinces; it is the world of pride, and proud working- class people living in the llanos, in the villages, outside of Mexico City.

And so I had a reference, I knew what he was writing about. And I also knew that he was writing about it in a way that, for us, illuminated their existence, if you would see them as simply part of the landscape. Now it was giving them an inner life. It was simply stunning.

I went beyond and wanted to meet Rulfo at one point. I knew that he was the head of El Instituto Indigenista, an institute created and devoted to fostering a better understanding of aboriginal and indigenous communities and indigenous cultures, but it was always very hard to get in touch with him. He was never in the office. And only as time went by did I discover how difficult it was to get to talk to him because of his reserve, his shyness.

He is one of the towering figures of Latin American literature.

Did you ever get a chance to meet him?

I saw him in an event, but I never talked one-on-one to him. In retrospect, it is… it’s fine [laughs]. I find sometimes that talking to writers that one admires is a difficult task.

Was his speaking rhetoric like his writing?

He was a man of very few words. Even when he was…

…in front of the microphone.

But he was a man that, when you saw him, you would not think necessarily that he would be able to create these astonishing stories. I think the stories are part and parcel of how Latin American reality should be understood.

Garcia Márquez, in an entire novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, can make you understand what is it in the DNA of the culture that makes it move. I think that Rulfo does that in one story, sometimes in one paragraph. Not surprisingly, Garcia Márquez sees Rulfo as a major influence.

When did the translation of this begin?

At one point I was doing a book of conversations that a Chilean historian had invited me to engage in on Hispanic culture; it’s called What is la hispanidad?. It was a very festive project. In delivering it to the publisher, who had already given us a contract, the editor said to me, “Would you consider doing some translations for me?” And I said, I love translation; it would have to be something precious, it would have to be a diamond or a jewel. “What do you have in mind?” And I said, if you had, Ilan, to choose the one book that you think you would like to translate and you think people should see differently, which one would that be? And I said without hesitation, El Llano en Llamas. They had published it in an earlier edition.

So I had started the conversation, and one thing led to another; he got in touch with the Juan Rulfo estate. The Juan Rulfo estate is partially run by one of his sons who is a filmmaker. I was asked to translate one of the stories to see how my translation would be different. I did “It’s Because We’re So Poor.” They liked it very much and we decided to do it.

The project altogether took a year and a half; the translation was commissioned in 2010, thereabouts.

It's Because We're So Poor_Lauren Flinner
It’s Because We’re So Poor – Lauren Flinner

You said you wanted to pick a gem. But was there any indication to you that it was in need of a new translation? Because The Burning Plain has been out since 1967. I’m wondering if you thought that that translation was merely dated, or if you think there is an historical significance in publishing it in 2012, and if there were any faults in The Burning Plain that you noticed.

Let me answer that question by taking a step back and telling you that over the years I have been very interested in translation, not only in the practice of translation, but what translation means for us as a culture, the history of translation, and the impact of translation in the shaping of Latin American identity. Who were the first translators? What role did they play upon the arrival of the conquistadors and the missionaries? How has translating foreign culture shaped Latin American civilization? Who did the 19th century politicians read… of the French, or of the British, or of the Italian politicians of the time, or political philosophers? So the idea of translation has been with me for quite some time.

I also, in 2001, published an autobiography, a memoir, called On Borrowed Words, that is an investigation of the life that I have lived in four different languages. My first language was Yiddish, then I switched to Spanish, and then switched to Hebrew, and now I’m communicating with you in English. So this coming and going of languages is very close to my heart.

In 2003, I, by then, was already really deep into the study of Spanglish, the mixing of Spanish and English. I had published a translation into Spanglish of the first chapter of Don Quixote that later on I finished, and it’s now coming out in comic strip form at the end of this year. And so, the idea of what we translate, how we translate, what the impact of translation is, was very much with me when the editor of Texas University Press suggested this project.

And I knew that classics are books that need to be reread. And that, when doing a new translation, you are inviting readers to reread the book. You are not supplanting, necessarily, the first, earlier translations; you’re inviting readers to see them anew. Dressing them up in a different way. There are 22 full translations of Don Quixote into English. And so the question is, do we need 22? And the answer is, well, every generation needs its own reading of Don Quixote. And I think El Llano en Llamas is a classic; it needs different approaches, different interpretations, and that’s why I wanted to do it.

I had my own qualms with the translation that had been published in 1967, but more than anything I wanted to bring new attention to the book, try my luck, and also, show that the English language has changed, and that the approaches to translation have changed since the 60s.

I noticed, in The Plain in Flames, certain Spanish words are italicized. Whereas, in The Burning Plain, words like “chicalote” and “jarillas” are not italicized. They seem to be more integrated into the text that way. Does that ignore their origin?

No… I don’t believe that that is fully accurate. I did actually the opposite in many cases. There were words that were not italicized in my translation that are italicized in the George Schade translation because they had become much more common; they are less foreign from the 1960s to 2012; Spanish has become commonplace, a common language in the United States, and my argument is that in doing a new translation, we are reaching a readership that doesn’t have the foreignness, or the kind of alienation from the Spanish language that readers in the 1960s had.

However, there are certain words that are underlined in the original Spanish. For instance, in the story “It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the name of one of the daughters is italicized, and the name of the cow is italicized, and we did not want to take that away.

It’s an idiosyncratic strategy of Rulfo’s. He has a selective, unique way of choosing what to emphasize, and I thought my duty as a translator was to replicate that.

On the other hand, there are words that you don’t need to italicize anymore. And there are other words that, I thought, by using the italicized form, you would be telling the reader that this word is unique in English as it is unique in Spanish. And that was the purpose of it.

If I had to do a recount, I would say that there are fewer words that are italicized in my version than the Schade.

So for example, in the title story, “¡Viva mi general Petronilo Flores!” is not italicized.

Exactly. You also have to factor in that, in my age, I’ve already learned how to deal with the presence of copy editors who on occasion will tell you, “Are you sure you don’t want to italicize this word? English language readers are not going to…” and you have to defend your position. You have to make sure that by the time you reach the copy editor, you have a strategy, you have a declared approach to how to do it, without necessarily including that in the prologue or in a glossary or anything of that sort.

I noticed that in The Burning Plain, Schade omits certain words that in your translation, you have included. For example, “tequesquite salt” and “pasojos de agua,” which is an idiom. Are those common enough Spasnish phrases and words now? Are some of them uncommon? Do you think that, if we keep having future translations, like with Don Quixote, will we see more of these Spanish idioms?

One of the differences between the George Schade translation of 1967 and the one that I did is that in the interim, Juan Rulfo died, and the Juan Rulfo Foundation established a standardized Spanish version of El Llano en Llamas. And when I said to the foundation that I wanted to do the translation, they said they’d want me to work on the standardized version.

The standardized version included a few more stories than the one that Schade had, and it also included stories that had more paragraphs, or less paragraphs, or sentences that had been twisted and changed. [Rulfo edited some of the stories even after they were published.] Ultimately, the foundation had decided that the most authoritative version of any particular story was the latest one approved by Rulfo. So that meant that the text that I had in front of me to work on was not necessarily the same that Schade had.

At the same time, I did thorough research in every single story and when I found that there was a discrepancy between what the standard edition had, what Schade had, and what two other versions that are also considered canonical in Spanish had, I would send a letter to the foundation that asked, “Are we sure that we want to have this paragraph here?… Is this approved?…” and there would be a dialogue with them.

So, on occasion it was a creative decision on my part; on many others I was basing it on the authoritative text that the foundation had established.

They Have Given Us the Land - Sophie Leetmaa
They Have Given Us the Land – Sophie Leetmaa

In the introduction you mention the perfection of some of these stories. On the outset you talk about the “elusive quest” for perfection in short story writing. As a translator, that must become an extreme obstacle or difficulty. I’m wondering how this idea of perfection impacted your work. And also if you think, concurrently, that a perfect translation is possible. How does perfection translate, if you will? Does the idea of perfection always change with time?

There is no such thing as a perfect text. For the same reason, there is never going to be a perfect translation. And yet, as translators we should strive for as close to perfection as our translation is capable of being.

And what do I mean by perfection? As genuine, as authentic, as truthful, as loyal, and as artistic and creative as that can be. Every translation is a product of its time and space. My translation was defined by the factors that have defined me as an individual, and the translation by George Schade likewise was defined by the factors, the forces that shaped him as an individual. Whoever is going to come in 10 years, 15-20 years, 40 years, is going to live life differently, is going to register the temperature of language, the Spanish and English languages, in a different way, and the languages will have changed by then. So those translations will reflect the time and the cultural texture of the moment.

I think that a classic is a book that survives its time and space. It survives very often thanks to translation, and very often it is the translator that “updates” the original by making it palatable, by making it accessible, by fitting it in to the time in which we live.

I believe that the explosion of Hispanic culture in the United States in the last 20-30 years has redefined the way we see Latin American literature, that the first translations of some of these classics were the result of a moment of initiation, of discovery, of freshness, and today we have assimilated that work and we see that Spanish is not as foreign; there is a Latin America living within the United States. And so the translation that I tried to produce is a translation that reflects some of those changes.

I adore Chekhov. I adore Isaac Babel, I adore Kafka. I don’t read Czech, I don’t read Russian. I partially read German. And for that reason, the way I will access any of these writers will always be through translation. There is always going to be an intermediary between me and Isaac Babel, or Kafka, or Chekhov. I have to trust the translator as an intermediary, as a conduit, and yet I know – and I hope everybody knows – that we are not reading the original, that somebody has offered a filter, or a veil. There is a very important, early modern Jewish poet who said once that to read a book in translation is to kiss a bride through a veil. You are kissing the bride, but there is something in between.

In the second part of Don Quixote toward the end, Don Quixote and Sancho enter a bookstore in Barcelona, and they are talking about translation, and Don Quixote tells Sancho that to read a book in translation is the equivalent of looking at a Flemish carpet from the back. You know there are colors, you know there are silhouettes, but they are not fully what you’re seeing.

One hopes to come as close as possible, and that is the strife that we have in perfection. Not hoping to be perfect is a failure; achieving perfection is impossible.

Coming from the translation so recently, do you think that future translations seem possible at all? That there are future readings or events that could impact how this work is retranslated?

Because of the laws and the mechanics of the market, this translation is going to be around for some time, and things are going to be seen through what is happening between now and whenever the next translation comes along: things that have to do with immigration, that have to do with assimilation, that have to do with ways of changing culture.

The original book came out in 1953; that is mid-20th century. We are already in the 21st century. Mexico continues to be a poor country, but now there’s a growing middle class. The middle class reads Rulfo in a way that the middle class in the 1950s didn’t, because poverty has changed in Mexico and because the countryside is now seen as a tourist destination, because there’s something kitsch about peasant life in Latin America that these writers, like Rulfo, have helped to provide. The scene of a donkey, with a poor campesino walking around, carries a certain cache that is kitschy and what we call in Spanish “cursi” that didn’t exist 50 years ago and that might change dramatically later. Cultures are always in persistent transformation, and that pushes us to read writers in a different way.

I wanted to ask more about the act of translation. Julio Cortázar also speaks about perfection in the short story in his essay “On the Short Story and Its Environs.” In it he speaks of writing a short story as a sort of exorcism, and how the story gains autonomy separate from whomever wrote it. He argues that the story is projected “into universal existence, where the narrator is no longer the one who has blown the bubble out of his clay pipe.”

Surely there is a responsibility of the translator to maintain a certain style of the writer himself. But do you think that there is a similar ecstasy, or exorcism, in translating a short story?

I believe that writing a short story, in literary terms, is arguably the most difficult task. In my view, it is much harder to produce a good short story than to produce a good novel. A short story is, as I mentioned to you before, like a diamond, like a precious stone. Every single corner, every single edge, needs to polished just in the right way. There are hundreds and thousands of short stories. But there are very few extraordinary short stories. And those short stories are the ones that, you read them and you feel the world is no longer the same. You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light thanks to this particular writer, thanks to 3 or 4 pages of this particular writer. That is enough for that transformation to happen.

But once the short story takes place, once it is published, it no longer belongs to the author. It no longer belongs to its original creator. It belongs to whoever is reading it; and the act of finding the story, and of having an intercourse with the story, is an act of creation, because the story is the encounter between he or she who gave birth to it, and he or she who receives it. And without the receiver, the story doesn’t exist.

Likewise with translation, a good story needs a midwife that will enable it to get into the world just in the right way. There are hundreds of thousands of translations. But a good translation, it seems to me, is the one gets into the essence of the story, is able to read the DNA of the author and tries to convey the mapping of that DNA in the new language, in the receiving language. It is a big task [laughs].

You have to be synchronized in two cultures. You have to understand beyond the words how the original cultures moves, what makes it tick. And you have to get into the receiving culture and be able to translate, meaning transpose, meaning recreate, in that receiving language, what is conveyed in the first one. I think it is as much as a creative task as the task of writing a story. And it is as much the writer’s and the translator’s as it is the reader’s. But it is none of theirs anymore the moment it is published. Once my translation is out, it is not mine anymore but it belongs to a man whose last name is Stavans, who could be really anybody… the fact is, it’s already in the world as it is, and I have become secondary. It is the object as such that has life.

5 thoughts on ““You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light” | A Conversation with Ilan Stavans (Part 1)”

  1. Must read more Rulfo. Pedro Paramo is without doubt one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read (I struggled through it in Spanish – not easy because of the parochial Mexican that gives the book so much of its flavour).

    I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that new translations are constantly needed to capture the current zeitgeist in the translation. What about novels in English? No one is rewriting Moby Dick in English for example. Or are they?


    1. I get your counterargument and pretty much agree. But to a certain extent, we do translate (and update) classics into English—Moby-Dick, for example, in abridged versions, illustrated versions, comic book versions, kids books versions, pop up versions, movie version. That’s just one example. I mean, I know film is different, but I think that those are the zeitgeisty adaptations we tend to get now (Gatsby is an easy example now).


      1. I think it’s exactly what you said, Tim, about Rulfo’s parochial Mexican, that makes future translations possible or necessary. Spanish slang and idioms are starting to blend in more and more with the English language, much more so in the 50 years since the last English translation. I think, though, that the number of translations must hit a limit eventually, especially with short stories. Stavans says translations remind us of the classics – why not just republish, instead of retranslate?


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