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Jessica Powell

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(2011 - Translation)

from Mujer en traje de batalla (Woman in Battle Dress) by Antonio Benítez Rojo

[translated from Spanish]

It all happened very quickly. I was on my way to the General Staff Headquarters when a mob of foot soldiers, wielding battle axes and fixed bayonets, streamed into a side street and began assaulting a provisions depot with such violence and clamor it was as though they were attacking an enemy position. Cheval spooked, I tried to bring him under control, he reared up, slipped on the ice and that's where my memory goes blank...I came to in a hospital ward, lying on a straw-stuffed pallet situated between a wall and a Russian with compresses over his eyes. My astrakhan coat had disappeared and I was covered by a green cloth that, once upon a time, had lined a billiard table. My head hurt horribly and I could barely move my left arm. I was also cold and nauseated, but above all I could feel a growing panic rising within me: had the doctor who had attended to me discovered my secret?

Uneasy, I nevertheless drifted back to sleep, awaking in the middle of the night with a terrible need to urinate. I raised myself up on my good elbow and lifted my head, which still hurt horribly. I noted that it was bandaged and I could feel a large swollen place above my ear. The ward was poorly lit, but I could make out various women attending to the patients. I called out several times and one of them hurried over to me, almost at a run. She helped me to stand and took me to the latrine. Walking brought on such dizziness that, without her help, I would never have managed even a single step. She asked me my name and to which regiment I belonged. I didn't answer. At that moment I could remember only that my name was Henriette Faber-Cavent and that I shouldn't say so. She continued talking without pause, speaking in a classical, old-fashioned French. She wore a faded ball gown, very outdated, with a chestnut-colored velvet bodice, and over that, nothing to keep her warm but a silk shawl wrapped about her head and neck. Her name was Nadezhda and she told me that my arm was not broken; the worst of my injuries was the contusion on my head, although I was fortunate that the skin had not been broken. I guessed that my hat had cushioned the blow, and I asked after my coat and horse. She claimed to know nothing. They had brought me in along with two others who'd been wounded and, like them, all I had been wearing were the clothes currently on my back.

"Did they, by any chance, leave a painting, a portrait of a woman wearing a shako?"

"I'm sorry," she said. "Those who brought you here left nothing."

I remembered that my fictitious name was Enrique Fuenmayor, from Havana.

"My name is Enrique Fuenmayor, from Havana, on the island of Cuba. I belong to the General Staff.  I am an assistant to Baron Larrey."

"We shall sort everything out tomorrow. I'll see to making the proper inquiries" she said, smiling tenderly, then gave me a sip of water and a spoonful of cognac.

Excerpt in Spanish

About Antonio Benítez Rojo

Antonio Benítez Rojo (1931-2005) is widely considered one of the most significant Cuban authors of his generation. An essayist, novelist, short story and screenplay writer, his work has been translated into nine languages and has been included in more than 50 anthologies. His final novel, Mujer en traje de batalla (Woman in Battle Dress), was published in Spanish in 2001. Epic in sweep, the novel re-imagines the fascinating story of Henriette Faber, a nineteenth-century historical woman who, dressed as a man, studied medicine in Paris, served as a military surgeon under Napoleon, and eventually travelled to Cuba where, still living as a man, she continued to practice medicine, married another woman, and ultimately became the subject of one of the most sensational legal trials in nineteenth-century Cuba. Compulsively readable, the novel raises important questions about gender and sexuality, "true" identity and performance, and the multiple facets of exile. It is an achievement that has solidified Benítez Rojo as one of the most important Cuban writers and thinkers of his time, and I am thrilled to be translating it for an English-speaking audience. 

Jessica Ernst Powell holds an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published numerous translations of a vide variety of Latin American authors, including Jorge Luis Borges, César Vallejo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Edgardo Rivera Martínez, María Moreno, Edmundo Paz-Soldán, Liliana Heer, Alan Pauls, and Anna Lidia Vega Serova, as well as a play, Persistence Until Death, by the Spanish Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA, with her husband Abraham, and their two children, Olivia and Leo.

Photo by Cara Peace

Translator's Statement

I initially became interested in translating Antonio Benítez Rojo's Mujer en traje de batalla (Woman in Battle Dress) eight years ago when I first began the research that would culminate in my doctoral dissertation: "Fabricating Faber: the Literary Lives of a Nineteenth-Century Transvestite in Cuba," which examines three Cuban historical novels about a little known, yet riveting historical figure, Henriette Faber. I knew, before I'd even finished reading the novel that first rapt time through, that I wanted to be the one to translate it. Obstacles to achieving this goal intervened, most notably, and sadly, that of the author's death in 2005. Years passed, other translation projects arose, and yet, my desire to translate the novel persisted. Unwilling to give up on the project, I contacted the author's widow, Hilda O. Benítez, who I found to be equally enthusiastic about seeing her late husband's final novel, the last work in the oeuvre of a celebrated and worthy writer, made available to an English-speaking audience. With Hilda's blessing I was now one crucial step closer to realizing my long-held goal of translating this marvelous novel. Nevertheless, while the life of a freelance translator has its indisputable rewards, financial freedom is typically not one of them, and I was not yet in a position to commit a year or more of my life to the project. Then came the call from the NEA, and the door swung open. I am incredibly grateful to the NEA, not only for their confidence in me as a translator, and for their recognition of the value of Benítez Rojo's work, but also for their enthusiastic, generous, and critical support of translation, not only as a practical necessity, but as a vital form of art.