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On Becoming a Fuentette

Carlos Fuentes’s former translator spent one transformative week sequestered with the author

En español | Fuentettes: During the 1970s, these literary groupies were easily identified, trailing Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes through the University of Pennsylvania campus, where he taught. Characteristics included hanging onto Fuentes’s every word and harboring a deep-seated admiration for his literary prowess.

In my case, a long apprenticeship would be necessary before I joined their ranks.

It began in 1984, when I became editor of Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, a publication of the Americas Society. I thought publishing an excerpt from Carlos’s new novel, Christopher Unborn — which I’d heard him read in English (from his own translation) at the University of Oklahoma — would be a coup. I contacted Carlos, then teaching in Washington, D.C., and he sent me a chapter in Spanish, telling me, “Do whatever you like with it.” I translated it, sent it to him and quickly learned he didn’t like what I’d done.

Chagrined, I assumed my brief relationship with him had come to an abrupt conclusion. I was wrong. One evening, the telephone rang. It was the sonorous voice of Carlos Fuentes, saying, “Alfred, I've been thinking about you.” The old image of Uncle Sam pointing his finger metamorphosed into Carlos Fuentes. He needed a translator to pick up where he’d left off with his own translation of Christopher Unborn, and he thought that, despite my misstep, I could do it. Would I take on the job?

I did, though with tremendous misgivings. After all, the novel is long, unimaginably complex and contains a huge range of styles, including long passages in the local slang of Mexico City. My Spanish, my English and my sanity would all be put to the test. This was unlike anything I’d ever translated in my life, but the honor of translating the author of The Death of Artemio Cruz was an opportunity I would never turn down.

Close collaboration with Carlos would be critical. That led to a unique and unforgettable experience: a trip to Mexico with David Rieff, then Carlos’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and a one-week marathon editing session. How Carlos managed to convince Roger Straus, then head of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to send David and me to Mexico is still beyond my comprehension. Publishers are notoriously reluctant to part with cash. Nevertheless, after I finished the translation, in the spring of 1988, Rieff and I flew down to Mexico City, then drove south into the state of Morelos to the picturesque town of Tepoztlán. Yet another example of Carlos’ powers of persuasion: He cajoled a friend into lending us his country house — cook, staff and pool included — so we could be totally secluded.

Carlos organized the work schedule with military discipline. Wearing a bathing suit, a robe draped over his shoulders, he sat at the head of a long table with the original manuscript in front of him. Rieff and I sat on either side with the translation, taking turns reading aloud. We worked like galley slaves, with occasional breaks for lunch, a swim or a stroll into Tepotzlán. I still remember Carlos pointing out women washing clothes in a stream while their children returned rented cassettes to an — in that town — improbable video rental agency. “That’s modern Mexico in a nutshell,” Carlos commented. “No running water, but TV sets everywhere.”

"One of the great satires of 20th-century Latin American literature, Christopher Unborn came into English only through the blood, sweat and tears of author, editor and translator." —Alfred MacAdam

Back at translation headquarters, however, this collaboration was a shock for Carlos. Our daily reading exercise was actually the first time he’d ever gone over his Spanish original with an editor. The editor — as we know that person in U.S. publishing — has only recently come into existence in the Spanish-speaking world. In the past, it was simply assumed that the author would watch over his own work. Because of David Rieff’s suggestions, Carlos found himself making changes in the English text he wished he could have made to the original, paring and deleting to make the narrative more fluid. Producing the translation actually changed the author’s perception of the original. By the end of the week, hoarse and exhausted, we had accomplished our goal and transformed my rough translation of Christopher Unborn into a readable book in English.

English-speaking readers could now enjoy Carlos’s indictment of Mexican fiscal mismanagement and his lambasting of the 1492–1992 celebrations, and see how the author imagined his country in the near future: in debt up to its ears and willing to not only sell itself to the highest bidder but only too happy to give itself away in a grand raffle. One of the great satires of 20th-century Latin American literature, Christopher Unborn came into English only through the blood, sweat and tears of author, editor and translator.

I was now a full-fledged Fuentette.

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