NEA Literature Fellowships

Dick Gerdes

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(2011 - Translation)

from Península, Península by Hernán Lara Zavala

[translated from Spanish]

III. Miss Bell (1)

February 15, 1847. I have travelled a long ways in order to get to Hopelchén, the town where I will work as a governess. I left London three weeks ago. The day before yesterday, we arrived in Havana, and today we finally made it to the port of Campeche, a place so remote and exotic that I thought it only existed on ancient maps and in novels about pirates. Upon arrival, exhausted and seasick, I had thought I would be living in the port city, because from our letters I understood that Campeche would be my new residence. But from what I managed to infer, whenever they would mention Campeche, they were not referring to the city but the region and a town near Señor Quintín's estate, several miles in the interior, which is where I will be living . . . and I have no idea how long, God will decide.

After such a prolonged trip, our ship entered the large Bay of Campeche in the morning, with the sun in full splendor illuminating a calm sea, silky and resplendent, as fishing boats glided across its tranquil surface. From the deck, I was able to view the city with its impressive ramparts, turrets, and bulwark that captivated me immediately. Campeche is a walled fortification protected by solid bastions jutting directly into the sea and an entrance that controlled its access. It is green all around the city, and along the beaches I saw for the first time the beautiful palm trees swaying in the breeze that brought to mind the exotic lands that I had only known through novels. On the horizon, modest, green hills could be seen. Since the sea is low, we had to anchor at some distance from the port and disembark in small boats that transported us to the docks, where my employer -- Señor Quintín Silvestre, accompanied by his secretary, José María -- were waiting for me. Despite my limited observations, Campeche is a small city, but very prosperous, with much commerce, sailors from all over the world, and an enormous church overlooking the bay. The docks, market, main plaza, customs offices, military arsenal, and bulwarks are all very near what they call the Gateway to the Sea. The breeze helps to alleviate the oppressiveness of the heat, at least for now, as Señor Quintín explained. The market next to the docks is a display of enormous activity. I realized that there were more indigenous people than I had imagined. Before arriving, I thought that it would be a place similar to Spain or Portugal. To my surprise, there are many Indians here, all of whom are easy to recognize: they wear bleached cotton, many with short pants just below the knee, straw hats, and many go barefoot or at most wear sandals. They have slightly triangle-shaped and angular faces, almond eyes, protruding noses, high cheek bones, and straight, abundant, black hair. They are short in height, the men are thin, and the women are chubby, because for them plumpness is a sign of prosperity. Their skin is dark, not black, but coppery, firm, and terse. They are quiet and peaceful, and they act submissive. I was surprised to see only men -- whites and Indians -- at the market, and almost no women.

"Why?" I asked Señor Quintín.

"Because of your countrymen," he answered.

I looked at him askance.

"My countrymen?"

"Yes, due to the pirates, it is customary for only men to go to market in order to prevent the English and Scottish filibusters from stealing our women."

"That still happens?"

"Less and less, but the tradition has remained among the people."

Excerpt in Spanish

About Hernán Lara Zavala

Mexican writer Hernán Lara Zavala was awarded Mexico City's 2009 Elena Poniatowska Ibero-American Prize for his novel Península, Península (Alfaguara, 2008). The 63-year-old native of Mexico City with family roots in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, Lara Zavala is a novelist, essayist, editor, and university professor. Lara Zavala's novel generates an air of both taboo and atavism. Taboo refers to the shameful relationship of war -- the fratricide -- to Mexico's history and the atavistic element refers to two conflicts that Mexicans have yet to resolve, namely, the resentment that the Conquest provoked and the difficulty for Mexicans today to assume a new identity that is neither indigenous nor Spanish. Hence, the title of the novel, Península, Península, the Yucatán Peninsula and the Iberian Peninsula.

Dick Gerdes was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, grew up in Calgary, Canada, and was educated at Colorado State University (BA, Humanities), Texas A&I University (MA, Spanish), and the University of Kansas (PhD, Latin American literature). He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru. He spent his entire academic career at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he and Aída Elena Alva raised their two children, Nicole and Jeff. Later in his career, he serendipitously became involved in literary translation when he was asked to translate a novel by Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique, which won awards from the American Literary Translators Association and The Translation Center at Columbia University.  Having traveled extensively throughout Latin America, he has also translated works by Chilean Diamela Eltit, which won an award from the Texas Institute of Letters, Argentine Ana Maria Shua, Ecuadorian Holocaust writer Salomon Isacovici, Venezuelan Ednodio Quintero, and Mexicans Ilán Stavans, Rosa Nissan, Gonzalo Celorio, and Alfonso Reyes.

Photo courtesy of Dick Gerdes

Translator's Statement

Throughout my translation career, I have held the belief that translation is impossible, but necessary, and it has always framed my sense of humility and modesty. It is a reminder that much of the rest of the world does not speak English, nor is world literature written only in English. To be able to read what the rest of the world writes and for the rest of the world to experience our literature, the art of translation is indispensable and a daunting task. Translation has also been an antidote to doom, and has always managed to stimulate my sense of curiosity, audacity, sensitivity, patience, perseverance, and dedication -- all of which tips the scales away from its impossibility to an unswerving faith in its possibility. Given that the translator's task involves much more than simply understanding the ins and outs of one language and translating it into another, questions of style versus accuracy make the translation act much more complex. How far a translator will take certain liberties with the literalness of a text in order to re-create the mood and style of the original is a constant challenge but many more times a rewarding one. It takes enormous skill and patience to capture the intent and especially the cultural context of not only the source language, but also the target language. Limits put on time and budgets make it even more difficult to find that delicate balance between fidelity and readability. It is for this reason that I am deeply appreciative for having received a coveted NEA translation fellowship that will ease the burden of expediency and celerity.