Six Latin American Authors Whose Translations We Treasure
Back to articles

Six Latin American Authors Whose Translations We Treasure

Latin American literature became internationally acknowledged as part of world literature in the 1960s and 1970s, when Latin America gained worldwide attention due to the drastic changes in the political landscape that were shaped by the dynamics of the Cold War.

After largely failed revolutionary attempts, most Latin American countries came under the rule of authoritarian military regimes, such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil or Peru. These administrations cooperated with each other under Operation Condor (Operación Cóndor/Plan Cóndor/Operação Condor), a campaign of governmental repression and terror involving assassination and intelligence operations. Ten thousands of people, mostly alleged dissidents or sympathizers, were incarcerated, tortured, killed or “disappeared” throughout the region.

This political turmoil and its drastic impact on society produced a new approach to writing and reading Latin American literature, as well as it changed the self-perception of Latin American writers. A new literary movement was born, the so-called Latin American Boom. The works of novelists like Julio Cortázar of Argentina, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, Gabriel Garcìa Márquez of Colombia or Carlos Fuentes of Mexico mirrored their (and by extent, their nations') experience with violence, pain, and loss. Their works provided a unique perspective of the political and cultural developments in Latin America, which were closely followed by the European and U.S. American public. Aside from its depiction of Latin America's social reality, this new type of literature appealed to European and U.S. American audiences because of its exoticism and fantastical style.

In addition, there was a dearth of major novelists in Western literature, with most English-speaking authors deceased (Fitzgerald died in 1940, Faulkner and Hemingway between 1961 and 1962 and Steinbeck in 1968) and American and European intellectuals having declared the novel dead. The Latin American Boom propelled the international success of writers form the region, which was further enhanced by the rapid urbanization, an emerging middle class, increasing communication among the countries, and the rising importance of mass media.

European and U.S. American audiences were mesmerized by the imaginative world of Latin American literature. Europeans were weary of the drabness of the West-European social democracies and the grayness of the Soviet bloc, Americans were jaded by the Watergate scandal and the horrors of the Vietnam War, and both were worn out by the bitterness of the Cold War.

Latin America's novels took place in distant countries like Colombia, Argentina or Mexico; they often involved “thrilling” historical developments like revolutions, coups d'état or dictatorships; and they were rife with powerful themes like desperate love, endless agony, inevitable death and eternal loneliness. The narration was innovative and compelling, the language was sensual and playful, and the stories were worldly and phantasmal at the same time (known as magical realism). Latin American fiction introduced new modes of storytelling to world literature at a time when European and U.S.-American audiences were longing for something different.

Even though earlier writers like Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina or Miguel Ángel Asturias of Guatemala had been revered in Spanish-speaking America, they had a rather marginal status in the literary world, whose centers in the 20th century were Paris and New York. Yet, Latin America's flourishing publishing industry of the 1960s and 1970s significantly accelerated the circulation of Latin American literature, with big publishing houses in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Havana or Asunción turning these cities into cultural hubs similar to European or U.S. American metropoles. The Spanish publishing house Seix Barral in Barcelona introduced Boom literature to the European marked and awarded Borges, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes Guillermo Cabrera with literary prizes. Despite the politically hostile environment in Francoist Spain, Boom novelists became very successful there and soon took over the English-speaking market – through translation. As a result of their growing success, many Latin American writers travelled and moved abroad (or were forced into exile) to write and speak on behalf of their home countries.Vargas Llosa and Co. became central figures of the world literature, which helped preceding authors like Borges or Asturias to find a broader audience and paved the way for later popular novelists like Isabel Allende, Paulo Coelho or Luis Sepúlveda.

Now let us have a closer look at a few Latin American novels and their impact on world literature:

  1. The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962) by Carlos Fuentes describes the last days of the titular character during which he contemplates his life as a soldier, politician, tycoon and lover. The story of Cruz' life mirrors the historical development of Mexico: the idealism of the Mexican Revolution, the failed labor and peasant movement, the establishment of oligarchy, Americanization, and the rise of corruption and violence. The novel has several narrators and moves between past and present. The Death of Artemio Cruz can be read as both the portrayal of an individual and a nation.

  2. Julio Cortázar's seminal work Hopscotch (1963) is a challenging stream-of-consciousness novel that offers several overlapping narrative voices, as well as multiple endings. The book is about a bohemian intellectual named Horacio Oliveira living in Paris, who is involved in a passionate but unequal relationship with his jaunty muse Lucia la Maga. With its episodic narration, multiple voices, use of slang and puns, “riffing” jazz aesthetic, Hopscotch picks up the postmodern approach of fragmented storytelling. Translator Gregory Rabassa won the inaugural National Book Award in the “Translation” category.

  3. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's first novel The Time of the Hero (La cuidad y los perros, 1963) tells the story of a community of cadets in a Lima military school, the actual Leoncio Prado Military Academy, through experimental and complex narration from multiple perspectives. The novel gives a detailed description of the cruelty and corruption in the military academy (and by extension, in Peruvian society), which was so accurate that the academy's authorities burned 1000 copies and called it Ecuadorian propaganda to undermine Peru.

  4. Gabriel García Márquez is the most internationally renowned Boom writer. His novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad, 1967) is the multi-generational tale of the Colombian Buendía family, which is told in a non-linear matter through different time frames. The story demonstrates how the past inevitably shapes the present, echoing the history of Colombia, from the Spanish colonization to the Violencia period. The protagonists are visited by ghosts, history and myth overlap, and time is complex and fluid. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most successful Latin American novels and has been translated into thirty-seven languages and sold more than 20 million copies.

  5. Isabel Allende, a relative of the toppled Chilean president, exiled to Venezuela after the coup, where she wrote The House of Spirits (La casa de los espíritus, 1982). The post-Boom novel is also a multi-generational narrative, chronicling the life of the Trueba family from the perspective of the two protagonists, Esteban and Alba. The storyline is shaped by the historical developments in Chile (most notably, the coup and the Pinochet dictatorship) and contains various mythical/magical elements. The House of Spirits was first rejected by Latin American publishers until it was released in Spain, where it became a huge success and was subsequently translated into a number of languages.

  6. Paulo Coehlo is not really linked to the Boom, but he is one of Latin America's (and the world's) most read authors. The Alchemist (O Alquimista,1988), his international bestseller about the young Andalusian shepherd Santiago and his spiritual journey to the Egyptian pyramids, where he hopes to find a treasure. He encounters an alchemist who tells him people want to find the treasure of their personal legends but not the personal legend itself, which makes Santiago question his motivations. The Alchemist has sold more than 65 million copies in more than 160 countries and has been translated into 71 languages.

Latin American fiction has made a significant contribution to world literature in the past decades. The genre introduced or revived multiple narrative structures, the magical-realist aesthetic, different angles on historical developments, unorthodox conceptions of time, and the integration of spiritual and existential themes. Its huge international success has been made possible though the work of skilled translators who interpret both language and culture. In The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation (2000), Peter France writes that “[once] their words were translated, [they] became something other, depended on the writerly choices of a significant group of translators.” Yet, these translators remained hidden due to the assimilation process preferred by the British and American publishing industry. It seemed as if those Latin American novelists actually wrote in English.

However, France points out that for the last four decades, the linguistic and cultural frontiers have blurred. A number of Boom writers live abroad and engage in “intercontinental travel, cosmopolitan living and bilingual writing.” Other authors like Sandra Cisneros or Junot Diaz have multicultural/bilingual migration background and fuse Spanish and English in their writing. In some cases, this leads to a “new labyrinth of Spanish and English.” For example, Cisneros' work was first written in English, but then translated into Mexican Spanish for Mexico and Chicano Spanish for the U.S. This would have pleased Borges who considered translation “as part of an endless cycle of infinite possibilities” without a definitive text. Nowadays, translators are very visible and often work with the author. France reminds us that their work has created a canon of Latin American literature in English “that has a noticeable impact on original writing in English.”