NEA Literature Fellowships

Kelly Washbourne

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(2011 - Translation)

excerpt from Leyendas de Guatemala by Miguel Ángel Asturias

[translated from Spanish]

In the city of Tikal, palaces, temples and mansions are uninhabited. Three hundred warriors, followed by their families, abandoned it. Yesterday morning, at the door of the labyrinth, grandmothers and visionaries were still telling legends of the people. The city went off singing down the streets. Women's full hips swaying water jugs side to side. Merchants counting out cacao beans on puma skins. Favorites who on pita thread strung chalchihuitls, whiter than the moon, which their lovers carved for them when the sun went down. The doors to an enchanted treasure were closed. The temple flame was extinguished. Everything is as it was. Down the deserted streets, lost shades and ghosts with empty eyes wander.

Resounding cities like open seas!

At its feet of stone, under its loose-fitting raiment girdled by legends, a young town plays at politics, at trade, at war, foretelling in ages of peace the appearance of master magicians who throughout the cities and countryside would teach cloth-making, the value of zero and the seasoning of foods.

Memory reaches the stairway leading to the Spanish cities. Upstairs, windows that faded into the shadows or passageways made with the wall's thickness, like those that lead to the choir in the Catholic churches, open onto occasional spaces, in the tightest coils of the winding stairs. The passageways offer views of other cities. Memory is a blind woman groping through the hazy shapes of things. We go up, up the stairway of a high-rise city: Xibalbá, Tulán, faraway, mythological cities blanketed in mist. Iximche, on whose coat of arms the captive eagle crowns the galibal, the throne of the Cakchiquel lords. Utatlán, the city of nobles. And Atitlán, the observatory set gemlike on a rock overlooking a blue lake. The corn in bloom was no more beautiful than the last morning of these kingdoms! The Nightmare Man is weaving tales.

In the first city of the conquistadors -- the twin city to that of St. James the Apostle, a famous lady bows before her husband, who is more feared than loved. Her smile saddens the Great Captain, who, wasting no time, kisses her on the lips and departs for the Spice Islands. Bringing to mind an ancient tapestry. Three ships rigged out in the blue gulf under the silver moon. Seven cities of Cibola built in the clouds of a golden land. Two Indian chiefs asleep on the journey. With echoes of the steeds still hovering around the Palace gates, Her Highness, captive to amazement, sees or dreams that a dragon sends her husband to the pit of death, and drowns her in the dark waters of a bottomless river.

Footsteps in a colonial city. Down the sandy streets, voices of clergymen whispering ave marias, and of lords and captains quarrelling, offering God as their witness. Wrapped up in his cloak, a night watchman sleeps. Shades of purgatory. Flickering of lamps burning in their niches. The sound of a Spanish spur, a bird of ill-omen, a sleepless clock.

About Miguel Ángel Asturias

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974), novelist, diplomat and Nobel Laureate (1967), was Guatemala's most notable writer, and the first modern Spanish-American author to bring a genuine ethnographic consciousness to literature. His El Señor Presidente (1946), an incisive, hallucinatory excursion into dictatorship and its evils, virtually charted the course of the new narrative in Latin America. Asturias's work contains deep wells of indigenismo (indigenous reality and consciousness), and the historical struggle of indigenous peoples confronting modernity. Asturias was an indispensable pioneer of the Boom of the 1960s and 70s, and helped recover the Mayan cultural identity and heritage for world literature.

Kelly Washbourne is an Associate Professor of Spanish Translation at Kent State University. His works include the translations Literary Memoirs by José Victorino Lastarria (Oxford's Library of Latin America, 2000), After-Dinner Conversation by José Asunción Silva (University of Texas Press, 2005); An Anthology of Spanish American Modernismo (edited and co-translated, MLA Texts and Translations, 2007), and a collection of sixty-five tales by Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga (in preparation). He also authored Manual of Spanish-English Translation, a translator-training textbook (Prentice-Hall, 2009). In addition to the National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, he was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend in 2010. A curricular co-coordinator for an academic enhancement program for Latino youth in Akron, OH, Proyecto RAICES, he interprets at the Hartville Migrant Clinic.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Washbourne

Translator's Statement

Ricoer, suggestively, saw a translation as a living organism of interdependencies. How tempting to mystify translation even more: as some kind of plunging into the ‘fire infolding itself' that is the text and its mysterious wheels within wheels. Mystic talk about the translator's task is all good fun, but the best translators I've read have mastered technique more than intuition; they use strategies; they are resourceful, meticulous problem-solvers rather than freewheeling visionaries.

Translation to me is the ultimate act of attentiveness; it becomes an ethical act because we have to be totally present in an authentic ‘I-Thou' relationship. It's a paradox -- the successful translator produces through receptivity. To shift images slightly, translation is a kind of meditation in movement, a sympathetic migration from and between other, self, and perhaps a ‘third bank of the river'.

NEA support for translation reminds Americans to listen more -- the whole world is talking. More than breaking bread together, the word -- written, spoken, cried, or dreamed -- joins us all together. If we're willing.