It started, as many things do, with a chat in a pub.
This particular chat was with Stephen Beechinor, a writer and translator from the Spanish and Catalan. We had published one of Stephen’s remarkable short stories in Structo 9. A little later he had a stint as a member of our editorial team. That day he was telling me about a Mexican author called Juan Rulfo. I’d never heard of him.
When Stephen left the magazine to concentrate on his own writing, I asked him to keep an eye out for any interesting work which could do with an English translation. Juan Rulfo, it turned out, was an incredibly well-regarded author in Latin America who had published two books in his lifetime: a novel called Pedro Páramo in 1955 and, two years before that, a story collection called El Llano en llamas. The novel was published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail but, for whatever reason, El Llano en llames was not available in English anywhere outside of North America. This became more mysterious when I came across this quote from Gabriel García Márquez:
Juan Rulfo didn’t write more than three hundred pages, but they are almost as many and, I believe, as durable as those we’re acquainted with from Sophocles.
Which isn’t a bad recommendation, as it goes.
A few months later we had begun on the path to commissioning a new translation. It was to be the first book from Structo Press.
I caught up with Stephen in the week of the book’s release to talk about the process of translating El Llano in flames.
How did you first encounter Rulfo?
Through Meritxell Pucurull, a translator in Barcelona. I put her on to Raymond Carver’s stories and she gave me El Llano en llamas. And it was like Juan Rulfo had carried you a great distance, the writing was so laconic and quietly tense, yet immediate and kind of undeniable. Unfamiliar country.
What was it about El Llano en llamas that made you want to take on the translation?
It was nothing short of a gift to be offered the chance. The sheer craft was there and not in an ostensible way. Rulfo is not a showy, watch-this kind of writer: it’s hard to figure out quite how he casts the spell he does. Which for the translator also heightens the prospect of outright failure, and that’s always a powerful incentive too.
What was the most challenging part of the translation process?
Being a process you only learn it by doing, which means getting it wrong in all sorts of ways, and allowing for that, before you will even begin to identify how you might get it right. Perhaps it’s like building a bicycle wheel from scratch. First of all, you accept that whatever wheel you build will never turn out perfectly true. However, at least the formal principles and outcome of the process appear straightforward: you know what it’s meant to look like, the design and architecture have already been decided for you. But there’s no set number of passes either before you’re done: it’s finished when all the spokes have the proper combined tension, their own internal coherence, so that the wheel may spin freely. And the editor is the person who comes over to let you know, just when you think you’re done, that all these spokes need changing. Vital.
Any idea why Rulfo isn’t as well known in the UK and Ireland as he is in North America?
At a guess, the mystifying quirks of cultural commerce have something to do with geography, trade, theatres of influence and conflict, traffic of people, and timing. Pedro Páramo has been translated here, but he’s still under the radar, still a writer’s writer. Fortunately though, this is a time when you have small presses like Peirene and Comma picking up on books of serious quality in other languages, just as Comma Press did with Hassan Blassim and his remarkable stories from Iraq.
How did you settle on ‘El Llano in flames’ as a title for this new translation?
El Llano or El Llano Grande is the name of the arid, treeless, shrubless, birdless flatland in Jalisco, Mexico, where the stories are set. It’s shown in the relief map on the cover of this translation.
In El Llano we have a proper noun, a toponym, a place name that describes the land. And as a general noun, a llano is a dry plain of sometimes great extension, a feature of the northern parts of south America and the south-western US. Like veldt or steppe or glen or bayou, a llano is a geographical particularity and to transpose the particular into the generic would be to traduce it. And finally, typographically, that initial ‘Ll’ digraph holds your eye nicely; it snags in the mind in just the right way.
The em-dash dialogue markers are carried over from the original. This typically doesn’t appear in English. What was the thought process there?
Declutter. Clear the page of surplus furniture and allow the syntax to perform freely as much work in translation as it does in the source. Here it should be said that Rulfo’s punctuation is not especially light: depending on the individual story, he’s apt to use every kind of mark, plus italics. Much in line with the standard in Spanish, which happens to be far more prescriptive and set in terms of how you can mark up a sentence. So, for dialogue Rulfo is using this em-dash or raya for direct speech and comillas or quotation marks (“ ”, « ») for quoted, remembered or imagined speech. Nothing out of the ordinary. These marks you also find in French and Catalan: it’s more of a European convention than anything else.
In English there’s bags of scope and licence in the language to use the em-dash to mark direct speech, with occasional italics for remembered or quoted speech. Which probably throws up as many issues as it pretends to resolve, but you select your restrictions to serve your ends. An economy that comes back to Rulfo’s clean, unfettered syntax. Lines are weighted and stressed not only so that they roll into one another but do so in such a way that the emphasis will invariably fall to good effect. This is what lends the stories their as-told quality: you hear the teller’s voice without intermediary, there’s nothing in the way.
Incidentally, right now in English, Jen Calleja uses em-dash marks for dialogue in her very fine, fluid translation from the German of Kerstin Hensel’s book titled Dance by the Canal. As does Preti Taneja in her novel We That Are Young.
This is your first book-length translation. How does it feel to have it out and about?
As though I may have inflicted a well-intentioned travesty on the original, but it’s either too early or too late for regrets – let’s see. Ultimately the book belongs first and last to the author and the person who will read it next. All you’re doing really is trying not to tarnish it too noticeably before passing it along.
El Llano in flames is available now in paperback. More details here.