- Negotiating Dialect to Preserve Identity:Translating Guadalupe García McCall's Summer of the Mariposas into Spanish
It is arguable that no real body of Latinx literature for children and teens existed before the 1970s. With a few notable exceptions—the work of Pura Belpré, Anita Brenner, Leo Politi, and a handful of others—earlier books purporting to represent Latinx children and culture merely provided exoticized, stereotyped images intended to make Latin-American countries quaint fairylands and US Latinx simple souls in need of assimilation for true happiness. This smattering of titles was only marginally improved by books from Latin America translated into English.
Truly representational literature for US Latinx kids arose out of grassroots efforts in the 1970s from indie presses like Quinto Sol and Arte Público, alongside the tireless advocacy of REFORMA, the Council on Interracial Books for Children, and similar advocacy organizations. Still, it would take another two decades and the creation of several high-profile awards for this corpus to begin to expand at an appreciable rate.
Though far from an equitable proportion of the some 3,400 books published annually for children, greater numbers of books with Latinx protagonists, written by Latinx, have found their way to bookshelves over the past twenty-five years. The unique voices found in this burgeoning corpus—a mestizaje or mélange of regional and immigrant English dialects laced through with Spanish and slang—have provided literary mirrors for the 17.9 million Latinx in the United States under the age of eighteen. Ironically, however, this linguistic uniqueness results in the particular difficulty of translating these English-language works into Spanish, a vital task if we are to support the waves of economic and political refugees that make their way to the United States each year.
Here is where the Latinx label creates a false sense of sameness, putting the rich nuances of individual groups and regions in danger of erasure. Some US presses sell translation rights to Latin-American and Spanish publishers who, upon rendering the text in the standard educated dialect of their country, dilute the distinctiveness of the work and skew the identity of the protagonist. Others turn to professionals working in the United States, but some of these highly educated and capable translators flatten the local color and character of a work by using a generic Spanish that strips out regional peculiarities seen as non-standard or "incorrect."
It is my contention that the personal Spanish idiolect of authors—or the regional version of the [End Page 58] area they hail from—must be kept in mind during the translation of their English-language books into Spanish. Such caution is especially needed with young-adult work narrated in the first person, as the voices of protagonists are an integral part of their identities.
As a Mexican-American from Deep South Texas, I am quite sensitive to the need for extensive familiarity with northern Mexican Spanish when translating fiction by Chicano authors of the borderlands. A clear example of this sort of novel is Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe García McCall, a YA novel published in 2012 by Tu Books. Its protagonist, Odilia Garza, is a sixteen-year-old Mexican-American teen from Eagle Pass, Texas, who embarks on a magical odyssey into Mexico with her four younger sisters when the girls decide to return the corpse of a drowned man to his family.
For the better part of five years, teachers across the United States had requested a Spanish translation of the novel, but Tu Books—an imprint of the multicultural children's publisher Lee & Low Books—wanted to avoid the pitfalls I have outlined above, aware that Odilia's unique Chicana voice should not be erased by translation missteps.
Tu Books editor Stacy Whitman has been working with illustrator Raúl González and me to publish our graphic novel Clockwork Curandera in 2019 in both English and Spanish versions. Knowing my work as a translator and my upbringing on the border not far from Guadalupe, Stacy asked in late spring of 2017 whether I would be interested in translating Summer of the Mariposas into Spanish. As I adore...