There could hardly be a more apropos time for the English publication of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. For, in its nine short chapters, this remarkable novel explores not only the timeless themes of epic journey, death, and the underworld, but also many of the pressing issues of our times: migration, immigration (and two of its stomach-churning corollaries, so-called nativism and profiling), transnationalism, transculturalism, and language hybridity – not to mention, of course, the end of the world.
How, then, to recreate all of this in English? Undertaking a translation requires first determining what makes the text in question so striking and, in the case of Signs, that turns out to be quite a long list. In the same way that the novel delves into a large number of themes within a very short space, Yuri Herrera’s prose, too, exhibits a multitude of distinct characteristics, displaying great variations in what is always creative and often non-standard language: its rhythm and orality; a style that is elegantly spare; striking metaphors, which are often unusual but rarely jarring; a mix of registers both low and high – slang and colloquial but also lyrical and eloquent, some rural and others urban and both often very Mexican (or very much of its border); and neologism, to name just some. There is also the overall tone, which is intimate and often infused with understated affection and tenderness. And there is the fact that all of this manages to sound entirely natural. Yuri Herrera’s use of language is nothing short of stunning, and translating it is both fulfilling and daunting; what makes his writing so unique corresponds directly to why it is so challenging to translate.
To prepare for the project, as many translators do, I first read widely. I read for theme; I read for tone; I read for style. I read texts that took place on borders. I read about Aztec mythology and Alice in Wonderland and Dante’s circles of hell. I tried to read writers who might have styles, or tones, or non-standard usage that I would find in some way comparable or analogous. The most helpful was Cormac McCarthy (in particular The Road, another tale – coincidentally, or not? – that can be read on different levels, one of which is “the end of the world”). I made word lists and devised ways to be non-standard in English (unusual collocations, creative compound nouns, nominalization of verbs and verbalization of nouns). I looked for ways to work in alliteration to lend the English rhythm, to lend it sonority. And even if much of this was culled during successive revisions and edits, these strategies informed the entire undertaking of the project, leaving their mark.
In addition, I tried to create an English that was geographically non-explicit, although, like me, the translation speaks mostly American English. To explain what I mean by that, let me offer a couple of examples. The novel’s dialogues are often peppered with language – colloquialisms, slang, expressions, culturally-embedded references – that could only take place in Mexico (or on the Mexico-US border). Translating only what readers might see as the meaning of these conversations and references might arguably produce a comprehensible and accurate text, though it would lose its regional flavor and intimacy (think of the difference between “a bonnie lass” and “a pretty girl”, for instance). Nevertheless, attempting to find an English dialect that would serve as a linguistic “parallel” is problematic. Should Mexican gangsters speak like mobsters in The Godfather? If not, is there another group they should speak like? My answer is “no”. Instead, I’ve endeavored to do two things. First, I have sometimes “marked” the language as non-standard in ways that are not geographically recognizable. In dialogues, this meant emphasizing the oral nature of the language (using colloquialisms such as “yonder” for “over there”, abbreviating “about” to “bout”, for example). Second, I have occasionally left specific words in Spanish, deliberately choosing not to translate. When a character calls his mother jefecita, for example (literally, “little boss” – a not terribly uncommon term of endearment), she remains jefecita in the translation. My intention here is to leave a linguistic reminder to the reader that this is, in fact, a translated text, and to avoid renderings (“momma”, “moms”, etc) that might be genuinely intimate, but cringe-makingly American for language meant to come out of a rural Mexican teenager’s mouth.
Unsurprisingly, I also spent a tremendous amount of time considering possibilities for the novel’s most talked-about neologism: jarchar. Yuri himself has discussed this verb in multiple places. Within Signs, it means, essentially, “to leave”. The word is derived from jarchas (from the Arabic kharja, meaning exit), which were short Mozarabic verses or couplets tacked on to the end of longer Arabic or Hebrew poems written in Al Andalus, the region we now call Spain. Written in vernacular, these lyric compositions served as a sort of bridge between cultures and languages, Mozarabic being a kind of hybrid that was, of course, not yet Spanish. And on one level Signs is just that: a book about bridging cultures and languages. Jarchar, too, is a noun-turned-verb. I wrangled with myself – and spoke somewhat obsessively with others – about how best to render this term, debating multiple options before finally deciding on “to verse” (the two runners-up were “to port” and “to twain”). Used in context it is easily understood, and has the added benefits of also being a noun-turned-verb, a term clearly referring to poetry, and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the “end” of the uni-verse. Makina, the protagonist, is the character who most often “verses”, as well as the woman who serves as bridge between cultures, languages and worlds. Would readers realize any of this had it not just been explained? I doubt it. But that’s ok; the same is true of the Spanish. Opening with a sinkhole large enough to kill people and closing with another subterranean sequence, the book takes us full circle in a variety of ways.
This translation has benefited from the direct and indirect input of many people whom I’d like to thank. It was Katherine Silver who initially sent the opportunity to translate Yuri my way. I also gained from the encouragement, suggestions, edits, discussions, pep talks, emails, readings and other forms of support of friends, mentors and editors including Peter Bush, Jean Dangler, Lorna Scott Fox, Danny Hahn, Henry Reese, Samantha Schnee, and Lawrence Venuti. I would like especially to thank Drew Whitelegg for multiple re-readings, endless discussions and encouragement. And my absolute deepest thanks go to Yuri himself, for answering hundreds of emails (often many per day, sometimes with a dozen questions each) as well as generously discussing in person some of the novel’s many issues, providing constant encouragement and always being open to exploring new avenues of interpretation.
Decatur, Georgia, USA