Bilingual Border Kids: The Dilemma of Translating Summer of the Mariposas into Spanish

By David Bowles

Pretty soon after Summer of the Mariposas was published by Tu Books in 2012, teachers in the US started asking for a Spanish translation. This story of Mexican-American sisters who go on an odyssey into Mexico, confronting obstacles both supernatural and all-too-human, resonated with Latinx readers, and teachers especially wanted immigrant children and other Spanish-dominant ELLs to have full access to the narrative.

But author Guadalupe García McCall (and editor Stacy Whitman) had a very specific vision for the translation. The novel is narrated by Odilia Garza, oldest of the sisters, and it was important that her voice stay true to that of border girls like Guadalupe, even in Spanish.

Ideally, that vision meant hiring a Mexican-American from the Texas-Mexico border to translate the novel.

Five years later, Stacy approached me (full disclosure: she’s publishing a graphic novel that Raúl the Third and I created, Clockwork Curandera). I was excited at the chance to translate a book that I loved and had been teaching at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley, one written by a great friend, to boot!

Guadalupe and I dug in at once. As I translated, she was always available as a sounding board. I’ve discussed the particulars of our collaborative process on the Lee and Low Blog as well as in the journal Bookbird, but here I want to focus on a particular post-publication issue.

Some people just don’t like the translation.

Specifically, a couple of reviews—in Kirkus and elsewhere—fault the Spanish used in the translation as occasionally a “word-for-word” echo of the English, replete with Anglicisms.

Fair enough. I’m not going to actually claim there’s no truth to the critique. But there are some things you should definitely know before you leap to judgment.

The most important one is … most of that English flavor? It’s on purpose.

Quick digression. When I hear these sorts of complaints, they feel to me like code for one or more of the following: 1) this doesn’t read like typical juvenile literature written in Spanish; 2) this isn’t a recognizable Latin-American dialect of Spanish; 3) this feels too English-y in its syntax (though not ungrammatical); and 4) this has been clearly translated by someone who grew up in the US and was schooled primarily in English.

What none of those points takes into account is an obvious and pivotal fact. This book is a first-person narrative, by a Mexican-American teen. The strange Spanish? It’s how she sounds.

Guadalupe Garcia McCall and David Bowles

Let’s talk for a minute about Guadalupe García McCall and David Bowles. Both Mexican-American (yes, I’m half Anglo, but my family is Mexican-American and I identify as such). Both from the border (Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras versus McAllen/Reynosa). Both schooled EXCLUSIVELY in English (no bilingual education, no early efforts to promote our Spanish literacy). Both of us were robbed of that linguistic heritage. Both of us went on to earn degrees in English that we used to teach middle- and high-school English courses.

Our native dialect is border Spanish. Pocho Spanish, some would rudely put it. Rife with English syntax and borrowings, centuries-old forms and words that the rest of Latin-American might giggle or roll their collective eyes at. But it’s Spanish, yes it is. Aunque no te guste.

Now, I started studying formal Spanish in high school, then went on to minor in it for my BA and MA. I ended up teaching AP Spanish Literature for a time, etc. This process gave me a second, formal, literary dialect. I also have lived in Mexico, and I married a woman born in Monterrey. That’s where my third dialect arises, a version of Northern Mexican Spanish.

So, when I set out with Guadalupe to craft the voice of a border kid who loves to read and still has roots in Mexico, this mestizaje of Spanish dialects is what we hit upon.

It amazes me to no end that writers can do odd and/or regional dialogues all the time in English, but a similar attempt in Spanish elicits disapproving frowns.

I’m sorry, but not all books need to be translated into some neutral, RAE-approved literary Spanish. Some are so deeply rooted in a place, in a community, that we have to insist on breaking “the rules.”

To wrap this apologia up, I’ll just toss out two excerpts from chapter 8. No critic has added specifics to their negative reviews, but I will.

As a counter to the implication that the translation is too word-for-word, let’s look at this passage.

“Yup. According to this, the National Center for Missing and Exploded Children is looking for us,” Velia continued reading on.

“Exploited,” I corrected.

“What?” Velia asked, looking at me like I was confusing her.

“Exploi-t-ed, not exploded,” I explained. “The National Center for Missing and Exploi-t-ed Children.”

“Whatever,” Velia said.

Here’s the Spanish version.

—Pos, sí. Según esto, el Centro Nacional de Niños Desaparecidos y Explotados nos está buscando —continuó Velia—. Qué bueno que en nuestro caso no hay bombas.

—Claro que no hay bombas, mensa —corregí.

—¿Cómo? —preguntó Velia, mirándome como si la confundiera.

—Explotados en el sentido de “usados para cosas malas”, no explotados como “volados en pedazos por una bomba” —expliqué—. Ese centro busca a niños secuestrados, esclavizados, etcétera.

—Ah, órale —dijo Velia.

With the exception of “mirándome como si la confundiera” (someone else might’ve said “con una mirada confundida” or some other less English-y variation), the passage doesn’t ape the English at all. Sure, I can see some Spanish speakers objecting to “como si la confundiera,” expecting it to be followed by “con X cosa” (confusing her with X thing). But, yikes, this is pretty much the way lots of border folks would say it.

The other example is from the first paragraph of the chapter:

After I got back to the dead man’s houseI told Inés they were all out of newspapersthen we ate breakfast in record time.

Cuando volví a la casa del difuntole dije a Inés que ya se habían agotado los periódicos y luego desayunamos en tiempo récord.

Yes. Each part of that Spanish sentence is a (grammatically correct) mirror of its English equivalent.

Yes. There are multiple ways to have translated it more freely so that it doesn’t echo the original as much.

Yes. There are more “Mexican” ways of saying “in record time” than the (still pretty common) Anglicism “en tiempo récord.”

But that’s not what we were going for here. As a result, some people are going to not like my translation, just like some editors don’t like the peculiar voices of writers of color in English, with their code-switching and so on.

There are gatekeepers everywhere. Pero me vale.

ABOUT THE WRITER-TRANSLATOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written thirteen titles, most notably the Pura Belpré Honor Book The Smoking Mirror and the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz as part of The Unicorn Rescue Society series, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Translation Review, and Southwestern American Literature.

One comment on “Bilingual Border Kids: The Dilemma of Translating Summer of the Mariposas into Spanish

  1. This is an essay that every single editor and reviewer should read, David.

    I am from northern NM. I grew up there. Most of the kids I went to school with were from families that traced their roots to Spain, or, to Mexico. Most everyone spoke Spanish, and English, and some spoke Tewa. My grandmother spoke all three of those languages. My point: I know how it sounds. And when I see books written or illustrated by White people who are in NM because they fell in love with it and moved there… and then try to tell a story from there… and sprinkle Spanish words in their books… from a dictionary… It is jarring! And wrong! Appropriative in the worst ways!

    So–I hope people read what you’ve written here. It is very important. It is real. Whiteness dissing on Guadalupe’s writing or your translation… well, all kinds of images and words come to mind. Suffice it to say they are wrong.

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