Translation Notes · 09/29/2016

Translating Alejandro Jodorowsky

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book into English, or to offer perspectives on global literatures from which they translate. In this installment, Alfred MacAdam writes about translating the novels of Alejandro Jodorowsky for Restless Books.

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Sometime in 2012, I received an email from Ilán Stavans, publisher of Restless Books, wondering if I might be interested in translating a novel by Alejandro Jodorowsky. For an instant I thought Ilán might be teasing me because the only Jodorowsky I knew was the director of insane movies like El Topo, which were, as my friends all said, calculated to make us crazier than we already were.

He was dead serious. It turned out that Jodorowsky had become—without, I confess, my knowing it—a novelist, and a successful novelist at that. The book in question was his 1992 Donde mejor canta un pájaro (Where the Bird Sings Best) which would certainly have attracted Ilan’s attention because of his interest in Jewish culture within Latin America.

I did a sample, the kind I do for all my translations: the first pages. If a reader is going to embark on a 300-page journey with a novel, the first pages had better make the case for the text. The seduction must be instantaneous, so the opening paragraphs are critical both for the author and the translator.

Jodorowsky indirectly acknowledges this by alluding to books in the first paragraphs of Where the Bird Sings Best, his mythologized family history: how Jews from the Ukraine reach Chile. He begins with his grandmother Teresa, simultaneously real and a fictional character, who takes issue with God for allowing her son José to drown when the Dnieper River overflows its banks in 1903. José thinks he can avoid drowning by hauling a trunk out of the house and riding it the way Ishmael rides Queequeg’s coffin in Moby Dick. Unfortunately the trunk is filled with “the thirty-seven tractates of the Talmud,” so it sinks taking José down with it. Outraged, Teresa invades the men-only area of the synagogue, scatters the pious, presses her face to the Torah, and curses at the Hebrew letters she cannot read.

Her act is probably unique in world literature. She does not deny God’s existence, but she does, in her own way, excommunicate Him:

I curse you, I erase you, I sentence you to irrelevance! Stay on in your Eternity, create and destroy universes, speak, and thunder, I’m not listening anymore! Once and for all: out of my house. You deserve nothing but contempt! (4)

The passage, which deserves preservation in the annals of invective, also shows many of the issues involved in translating Jodorowsky.

First, the matter of tone. Teresa is insane, at least on the subject of her son’s death, but her way of punishing God (the ultimate insanity) is to exclude Him from her house, and by extension, from her body and her being. The numerous exclamation points in the text indicate Teresa’s raised voice, but her exclamations are all matter-of-fact, so the prose had to be a paradoxical mix of screaming madness and straightforward declaration.

The passage also contains a fine example of one of the several kinds of humor Jodorowsky deploys. For many, the author who most clearly delineates our incomprehensible relationship with God is Kafka, and this entire passage is saturated with Kafka’s deadpan, ironic tone. The absurd situation abruptly ends when Jodorowsky’s grandfather, also named Alejandro, dashes into the synagogue, apologizes to the astonished congregation, and dries the tears Teresa has wept onto the Torah. We think we’re in for some domestic comedy, but instead Jodorowsky shifts focus to Alejandro, whose life is a series of catastrophes: the family’s Hungarian maid goes insane and hacks up his mother with an axe; the Cossacks beat his father to death because he won’t spit on the Torah; he becomes the ward of the congregation, relegated to milking cows and reciting Hebrew prayers he doesn’t understand.

So the novel’s first pages speak volumes: these Jews are novelistic individuals, but they are also archetypes, Jews in the Ukraine who will always be outsiders. Their relationship with their religion simultaneously defines them and confirms their eternal difference. Violence is their daily bread, and to survive they must, like Jodorowsky’s prose, keep moving. So the translator’s task in this opening sequence is to find a tone that will bring Jodorowsky’s grotesque depiction of the impossibilities of Jewish life into English. This could only be accomplished by transmuting the author’s Spanish, a mélange of Chilean Spanish with admixtures from all the places Jodorowsky has lived over the course of his long life, into a neutral, crisp English: imitating regional speech just doesn’t work in translation.

Stavans next offered me the opportunity to translate Jodorowsky’s 2002 novella Albina y los hombres-perros: novela fantástica (Albina and the Dog-Men: a Fantastic Novel). Compared to the first novel I translated, this new project was different in an interesting way. Where the Bird Sings Best skillfully interweaves the fantastic with the plausible, a technique used by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude that became synonymous with Latin American writing. Novellas on the other hand are overtly artificial and usually allegorical, which is certainly the case with Albina.

The book begins not with Albina—who doesn’t appear until page 10—but with her sidekick la Jaiba. Jaiba means crab, as does another Spanish word, cangrejo. Neither term necessarily carries the cantankerous freight of crabby in English, but since la Jaiba is crabby it seemed only logical to translate her nickname as Crabby. Of course, that’s not the character’s real name. Her real name is Isaac, because her father’s name was Abraham and her mother’s name was Sarah. The father dreamed of having a son he would name Isaac and wouldn’t change his mind even though the baby was a girl. The toddler howls at the name Isaac even before she can talk, so she must be renamed: her first metamorphosis.

Able to read by age four, she rejects “the Ladino translation of the Torah,” the translation of a sacred text into a vernacular tongue, so her first book is, improbably, Paul Féval’s The Hunchback (1887), the translation of a vernacular text into another vernacular language. Obsessed with the character Henri de Lagardère, “she began to walk hunched over, her legs spread, the tips of her shoes pointing in opposite directions, and her arms bent at right angles.” Her posture earns her the nickname Crabby, and she becomes a grotesque misanthrope. Cast out by her mother, she wanders Chile. Jodorowsky reactivates the theme of the wandering Jew who must suffer and undergo metamorphoses and pain before achieving her true identity.

Féval’s swashbuckling romance, a tale of revenge and vindication, provides an ironic model for Jodorowsky. The question, again, is what kind of English best suits such a fantasy? The language of fairy tales was my model for this translation because they say the most outrageous things as if they were ordinary and banal. Jodorowsky takes his cue from Surrealism’s blatant flirtation with fairy tales: Jean Cocteau’s 1946 reworking of “Beauty and the Beast.” Like Cocteau, Jodorowsky concocts a fantasy, but one that also contains a message about love and redemption.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, despite the mysticism of Where the Bird Sings Best and the magic of Albina and the Dog-Men, is conscious of the effect every word will have on the reader. My task, as I saw it, was to ease his work into English, that is, to be utterly faithful to the original. I hope I’ve kept my word—and his.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean-French filmmaker, playwright, actor, author, musician, comics writer, and spiritual guru, best known for his avant-garde films including Fando and Lis (1968), El Topo(1970), The Holy Mountain (1973), and Santa Sangre (1989). He is also the author of novels, poetry, short stories, essays, works on the Tarot and “psychomagic” healing, and over thirty successful comic books. Restless Books will publish the first English translations of three of his best known books: Donde mejor canta un pájaro (Where the Bird Sings Best), El niño del jueves negro (The Son of Black Thursday), and Albina y los hombres perro (Albina and the Dog Men).

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Alfred MacAdam is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi among others.