(Literatura Random House, 2017)
(Literatura Random House, 2021)
Fernanda Melchor’s prose hits you square in the face. « If he regretted anything it was not having had the balls to kill them all: that prick Luismi, and, while he was at it, the hobbling loudmouth cunt Munra, and then get the hell out of that stinking, fag-infested town », the narrator says of the character Brando towards the end of Temporada de Huracanes (2017). The novel appeared in English as Hurricane Season in 2020, translated by Sophie Hughes, after more than eight reprints in its original Spanish. (I remember seeing passengers in the women-only cars of the Mexico City metro reading it almost daily.) Its rich, often aggressive language is a heightened form of Mexican quotidian speech, always vivid and very often vulgar.
In English, the aggressive density of slang and sexual imagery is a rough and jarring ride. Hughes’ translation renders the prose closely, finding approximations for Melchor’s colorful language. She has explained that she decided not to include any Spanish expletives in her translations « so as not to...lift the readers out of the characters’ minds or out of the text even momentarily ». Instead, she translated into an idiolect that combines both American and British colloquialisms, needing the slang of both Englishes to approach the spectrum of Mexican possibilities. It’s at once literal, loyal, and inventive. But it sacrifices the cohesive register of the narration. The translation puts « quite innocently » in the same sentence as « dipshit », « tummy troubles » alongside « clogged up to his nuts ». Some of the vernacularisms feel so dated or esoteric as to be unnatural: « grandma really blew her top… she accused them of being shit-stirring harpies, despicably greedy. »
Melchor’s lyricism works differently in Spanish. The lived-in-ness of the language makes its violence secondary. It flows like someone is retelling a story they’ve rehearsed again and again, the performance perfected for a listener. It washes over you until it doesn’t — until it shakes you by hardening into something dark. Only then are we made to reflect on the violences of quotidian speech; only then are we sufficiently estranged from our daily vocabularies that their literal violence can sink in. In the English translation, the unfamiliarity of the speech switches that order of operations. The violence hits first, both as language and as plot. But this is a loss: what’s most impressive about Melchor’s language isn’t the aggression per se; it’s the elevation of the rhythms of slang into a literary register, and the suspension in which its simultaneous lyricism and violence are held. It celebrates Mexican speech’s musicality, but doesn’t let you forget.
Translations from Aquí no es Miami are my own; those from Hurricane Season and Paradais are quotations from New Directions’ editions of Hughes’ translations.
What Hughes translates as « mill » is known in Spanish as ingenio, literally « engine. » It includes not only the mill but the cane fields, the boiling houses, and the facilities for clarifying, crystallizing, and drying. Because sugarcane must be ground as soon as it is cut, writes Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power, « factory and field are wedded in sugar making. »