Joseph Mulligan: “One Sentence of Tungsten: Translating Vallejo’s Prose”

The opening sentence of César Vallejo’s social realist novel El tungsteno reads: “Dueña, por fin, la empresa norteamericana “Mining Society”, de las minas de tungsteno de Quivilca, en el departamento del Cuzco, la gerencia de Nueva York dispuso dar comienzo inmediatamente a la extracción del mineral.” The precariousness of rendering these lines in English may not be immediately apparent to a reader of the Spanish or a translation thereof. I would argue, however, that the translation problem here is at least twofold, in the syntax and semantics, and is revealing of the author’s agenda in this, his only complete novel. In the following, I want to complicate one line of Tungsten in an attempt to shed light on Vallejo’s idiosyncrasy.

The reader first comes up again a gnarly convolution and is required to parse out the clauses, the clusters, work out the syntactical relations, identify the agency of the elements and aspect of the action. A more or less literal rendering could be: “Owner, finally, the North American enterprise “Mining Society”, of the tungsten mines of Quivilca, in the department of Cuzco, the New York management ordered the immediate commencement of the extraction of the mineral.” So as a translator, one wants to undo this syntactical knot, but this desire is then met by the question: can the end result be a loose thread? Isn’t the clarification of syntactical relations on an interpretative register just as essential as the replication of the entanglement on a creative register? As we look closely at the phrasing of the Spanish, the word order takes on a specific importance. It is by no accident that the word “dueña” (owner) inaugurates this book that unabashedly wields a socialist critique of capitalism during the high tide of 20th century revolution. This story is the tragedy of the highland miner, the innocent “indio” who gets exploited by the capitalist system, and this tragedy transforms one petty merchant, Leónides Benites, a bourgeois mestizo who prefers to think of himself as more Spanish than indigenous – the contrary is true – whose personal ambition, social pursuits and avarice lead to his moral downfall, a terrible reckoning, and search for redemption. To begin the sentence, begin the chapter, to begin the book, without the immediate image of the owner, the proprietor, the overlord, the master, is to pull a punch precisely where Vallejo goes for an uppercut.

The second problem is raised by the company name – it is “la empresa norteamericana ‘Mining Society’” – where we find an egregious mistranslation already in the original. There is little evidence to sustain that the author knew much English, whereas he spoke and wrote in French, made use of Russian sporadically through his later writings, and was comfortable enough in Quechua to pepper it through Hacia el reino de los sciris and proliferate that usage in La piedra cansada. The name “Mining Society” is a transliteration of “sociedad minera”, where “sociedad” means company (e.g. a “sociedad anónima”, often abbreviated as S.A., is a public corporation). The supposition of the transliteration is confirmed if we look at Vallejo’s farce Colacho hermanos – a play created out of Tungsten – where he has renamed “Mining Society” as the “Quivilca Corporation” in an early draft and then the “Cotarca Corporation” in a later. This leads one to believe that his attention had been drawn to the mistranslation after the novel had already been published, and that he saw fit to make the change. Therefore, one must decide whether the name should be “corrected” in Tungsten or should be altered. Yet there is another problem here too, since “norteamericana” is probably not intended to refer to Mexico or Canada, but to the U.S.A. Vallejo could have used the explicit “estadounidense”, but preferred the generalization.

Robert Mezey’s 1988 translation offers the following: “Having finally gained control of the tungsten mines in Quivilca, in the state of Cuzco, the New York management of a North American corporation called Mining Society ordered extraction of the mineral to begin immediately.” When I read these lines I am pleased to have in my hands what is, to my knowledge, the one existing complete English translation of César Vallejo’s only full length novel, but I am also disconcerted by the ease with which it reads. I’m afraid there is no knot, but only loose thread. Even though Vallejo’s language in prose does not usually present the same complexity as does his poetry, it is still remarkably idiosyncratic. Mezey’s rendering also makes me wonder why he preferred “state” over the very literal “department”, which is what the administrative divisions of Peru are typically called. And I share my confusion not to belabor apothegms on what gets lost in translation, but to show that, when we do translate Vallejo, what we find is not as simple as we might expect, that we are not through reading his work, and that – unless U.S. readers decide to read the Spanish – only when his idiosyncrasy (in poetry, in fiction, in drama, in journalism) is available to us in English will we be able to evaluate his literary project with a fair and discerning eye. And so, going on the supposition that there has not yet been some mass acquisition of the Spanish language among English speakers, and with a first draft of chapter one of Tungsten still on my desk, the first line, to my ear, to my eye, for now, goes like this:

“Owner, at last, of the Quivilca tungsten mines in the department of Cuzco, the American company, Mining Incorporated, had its New York management give the go-ahead for immediate extraction of the mineral.”