Gladys

You park in front of the restaurant where you’d agreed to rendezvous. You met him on the plane. How often such chats filled the space of the hours of flight, sometimes against your will, sometimes with it. You weren’t the one who started the conversation. It was almost never you. It was the man on the other side of the aisle who wanted to know what you were reading. His interest seemed genuine; he told you about his college. You thought he was interesting. He was older than you and unattractive, but you were clear that interest wasn’t synonymous with seduction, and you were even clearer that a guy like him, chatting from the other side of the aisle on the Buenos Aires-México City flight, could be useful for your projects. He was president of a university in the interior of the country; you sold cultural and educational videos. Like a ring on a finger. So you gave him your phone, your email, and your name. Your name last. Two weeks later he called when he happened to be in town. “This is Daniel Sánchez,” he said and you asked, “Who?” You’d forgotten his name. His card was buried in the bottom of your wallet. He had to identify himself as “the guy from the plane,” with whom you had talked. He very much wanted to continue the conversation. It seemed perfect. The bacon didn’t come home by itself: it needed projects, money. Money, the object of your scorn, was something you’d never been able to manage well or keep. You only chased after it. Fine, Daniel. You suggested the time and place. On arrival, you asked for his table; he was waiting for you with a Cuba already half-gone. To begin with, you were disgusted that he was drinking a Cuba. It wasn’t a proper apéritif. How ugly he is, you thought. Being seated on the plane had disguised his size, his lack of charm. You took a deep breath. You like to eat well and drink good wine but prefer to choose your company. He sat very close to you at the uncomfortable round table he’d picked. You defended yourself with square tables, whose corners fend off invasion of personal space, that bubble someone had explained to you we all have around us and within the boundaries of which it’s difficult to let anyone pass. But they also say everything’s in the eye of the beholder and while to you it was convenient to meet with someone who could buy your products, to him that encounter on the plane had been magical, and ever since, he confessed, he had been very agitated. You buried your face in the menu, seeking refuge between the garlic shrimp and tongue in green salsa, wished you could turn yourself into a dragon and exhale garlic as a repellant for certain kinds of men. You tried mentioning the videos that you’d produced, their themes, and the institutions that had purchased them, but the man from the plane looked at you without hearing your words. From his jacket pocket, he retrieved the poem he had written and you were grateful for the interruption of the waiter bringing the shrimp. The situation was beginning to oblige you to abandon your style. You thought of chewing with your mouth open, belching, but you still had hopes that the All Powerful would agree to some project; in an attack of practicality, even thought that you could use his veneration for your own ends. Machiavelli sat down on your shoulder to observe. Daniel began to read his poem that spoke of destiny and seats shared in an airplane row, above the clouds, in the air, in the firmament. You hated the word “firmament.” But you forced a smile between bites of tongue taco. You thought suddenly that it had been imprudent to order tongue: what if it occurred to this stubby man to ask if you liked tongue tacos? He handed you the paper while you wiped your mouth with the napkin and told you that he hoped that the next time you met, you would know it by heart. Your eyes widened. This guy assumed there’d be a next time and that you wanted to please him. You felt like a slave. I have a very poor memory, you stalled. But you just gave me such a resume of your work as few could recall, he retorted. Machiavelli was no longer listening. Daniel’s cell rang. You exhaled and seized the opportunity to hide his poem, which you’d trash when you got home. “I’m with some friends,” you heard him say. You already felt his boot on your back. You would stand and demand, “Who do you take me for?” But he hung up nervously and came back to the table with sheepish eyes. “This is so special, Gladys,” he told you. And you, who were not Gladys, who surely was waiting for him in front of the TV, believing her Adonis was conquering women harmlessly, you felt like a telenovela actress, but B grade (the telenovela and the actress) because you couldn’t complete your one-act farce nor stand abruptly, nor smack him with your purse nor tear that poem to pieces before his astonished face. You finished your tongue tacos and said goodbye with “thanks, Sergio, it was an enchanting evening.”

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Te estacionas frente al restaurante donde han quedado de verse. Lo conociste en el avión. Cuántas veces esas charlas llenan el espacio de las horas de vuelo, a veces contra tu voluntad, a veces por tu voluntad. No fuiste tú quien comenzó diciendo algo. Casi nunca eres tú. Fue ese hombre al otro lado del pasillo quien se interesó en lo que leías. Te pareció genuino su interés, te habló de la universidad que él presidía. Te pareció interesante. Era mayor que tú y muy poco atractivo pero tú tenías muy claro que lo interesante no era sinónimo de seducción, es más tú tenías muy claro  que un tipo como aquel que te hablaba al otro lado del pasillo en el vuelo Buenos Aires-Ciudad de México podría ser útil para tus proyectos. Presidía una universidad del interior del país, tú vendías videos culturales, educativos. Como anillo al dedo. Por eso le diste tu teléfono, tu correo electrónico y tu nombre. Tu nombre al final. Te habló a las dos semanas pues casualmente estaba en la capital. Habla Daniel Sánchez, dijo y tú preguntaste ¿quién? Habías olvidado su nombre. Su tarjeta yacía en el fondo de tu cartera. Tuvo que identificarse como “él del avión”, con el que habías charlado. Estaba muy interesado en seguir la charla. Te pareció perfecto. El horno no andaba para bollos, se necesitaban proyectos, dinero. Ese dinero objeto de tu desprecio que no habías podido administrar ni guardar nunca. Sólo lo perseguías. Muy bien, Daniel. Sugeriste el lugar y la hora. Cuando llegaste, preguntaste por su mesa; te esperaba con una cuba a medio beber. De ante mano te disgustó que estuviera tomando una cuba. No te parecía un aperitivo.  Que feo es, pensaste. Sentado en el avión disimulaba su estatura y su poca gracia. Tomaste aire. Te gusta comer y beber buen vino pero prefieres las compañias de tu elección. Se sentó muy cerca de ti en aquella incómoda mesa redonda que había elegido. Abogaste por las cuadradas cuyas equinas defienden de esa intromissión del espacio personal, de esa burbuja que quién sabe quién te había explicado todos llevamos puesta y nos es difícil tolerar que alguien se acerque demasiado. Pero bien dicen que cada quien mira según el cristal y mientras a ti te pareció conveniente la charla con quien podía comprarte un proyecto a él le pareció mágico aquel encuentro en el avión, después del cual, confesó, se había quedado muy intranquilo. Tú hundiste la cara en el menú buscando refugio entre los camarones al ajillo y una lengua en salsa verde, deseaste volverte dragón y exhalar ajo como repelente para ciertos hombres. Intentaste mencionar los videos que habías producido, los temas, y las instituciones que te los habían solicitado, pero el hombre del avión te miraba ausente de tus palabras. Del bolsillo del saco extrajo el poema que había escrito y tú agradeciste que el mesero interrumpiera con el plato de camarones. La situación comenzaba a obligarte a perder el estilo. Pensaste en masticar con la boca abierta, en eructar, pero aún tenías esperanzas de que el todo poderoso se inclinara por algún projecto, incluso en un ataque de cordura pensaste que podías utilizar su reverencia para tus fines. Maquiavelo se sentó en tu hombro para observarte. Comenzó a leer el poema que hablaba del destino y los asientos compartidos en una fila de avión, sobre las nubes, en el aire, en el firmamento. Odiabas la palabra firmamento. Pero sonreíste forzada entre el mordisco al taco de lengua. Pensaste de golpe en lo imprudente de pedir lengua ¿y si al hombre bajo se le ocurría decirte que si te gustaban los tacos de lengua? Te entregó la hoja mientras te limpiabas la boca con la servilleta y te dijo que quería que en el próximo encuentro te lo supieras de memoria. Abriste los ojos. El hombre asumía un próximo encuentro y tu deseo de complacerlo. Te sentiste como una esclava. Tengo muy mala memoria, te defendiste. Pues me acabas de soltar una lista de trabajos que no cualquiera recuerda, te reviró. Maquiavelo se había mudado de oreja. Sonó su cellular. Respiraste y aprovechaste para ocultar aquel papel firmado por él, que tirarías al llegar a casa. “Estoy con unos amigos”, escuchaste pronunciar al hombre a boca de jarro. Ya sentías su bota sobre tu espalda. Te levantarías y dirías ¿por quién me tomas? Pero el colgó nervioso y  se volvió con ojos de borrego. “Esto es tan especial, Gladys”, te dijo. Y tú que no eras Gladys, quien seguramente lo esperaba frente a la television creyendo que su adonis conquistaba mujeres a mansalva, te sentiste actriz de telenovela, pero mala (la telenovela y la actriz), porque no pudiste hacer tu sainete ni levantarte de prisa, ni darle un bolsazo ni hacer cachitos el poema aquel frente a su semblante atónito. Acabaste tus tacos de lengua y te despediste con un “Gracias, Sergio, fue una velada encantadora.”

Translator’s Note:

The challenge on first translating any writer is becoming acclimated to her vocabulary, syntax, rhythm—all the things that make up individual style. Counting “Gladys,” I’ve translated ten of Monica Lavín’s stories. Many aspects of her writing have become intimately familiar, the way they only can if you’re translating them. There is no closer reading of a text than translation. As Simon Leys said, “Translation is the severest test to which a book can be submitted.” You start noticing phrases a writer likes, ways of putting a sentence together. You become better at rendering them, at being able to say, “I know what she means here and I can find the way to say it in English.”

“Gladys” is a second-person account with a clear-eyed view of a professional woman in a classic situation. The voice is brisk and no-nonsense. Our nameless heroine (who is not Gladys) is hoping for a sale but cornered into finding a way out of an awkward encounter. The menu at this restaurant offers “lengua en salsa verde,” a dish exotic to us, and a good reminder that what we’re reading in English is actually a contemporary urban Mexican story. And the sexual reference, which occurs to our heroine, since the dish is tongue, works fine in English, too. The chief translation challenge with “Gladys” was maintaining the rhythm and pace of the original. The story is one paragraph, no breaks, and has a punch line. It has to keep rolling right to that moment.

Mónica Lavín is one of Mexico’s important writers in this generation and deserves to be more available to readers in English.

As for translation in general, I’ve developed a reliable process:

Step 1: Read the story en español, usually twice. Do I like it enough? Translation is a commitment, much like signing a teaching contract: too much work to dedicate to something I’ll be tired of next week. Do I have a sense of what the problems will be and whether or not I can resolve them?

Step 2: First draft off the top of my head, at the computer with the original next to me. Do it like a free write: don’t stop, don’t think. Anything I can’t figure out as I’m typing, input in Spanish, often a word, sometimes whole sentences. Just get the draft done, no matter how ugly. As Raymond Carver said, you write first drafts so you’ll have something to revise.

Step 3: Begin the painstaking work of poring through dictionariesamong others, an old Velásquez, a Harper Collins, several Mexican slang dictionaries and a Larousse Ilustradoto work over the draft. Don’t discount online translators. Their renderings are often wrong, almost always awkward, but can provide a needed hint. Compile lists of possible alternatives for expressions that shouldn’t be translated literally. This phase takes hours, may require pacing, getting a headache, or giving up and doing the dishes instead.

Step 4: Enter draft two and repeat Step 3. Input drafts three and four, same process. Weeks go by. By draft four I’m ready for one or two English-only readers who will tell me if it “doesn’t sound right,” if I’ve missed some proofing, if there are oddities of phrasing or culture that haven’t quite made it into English.

Finally, I send the story to the writer. Responses vary. The author may not be competent enough in English to say much. Or just competent enough to suggest something that doesn’t really work. Or have very good English and give you great insights or corrections. Mostly, they are grateful.

Mónica LavínMónica Lavín is a Mexican writer with eight collections of stories and eight novels. She won the Gilberto Owen Literary Prize for her short story collection: Ruby Tuesday no ha muerto. Her 2009 novel Yo, la peor, won the Elena Poniatowska prize for fiction. Her latest book of stories is Manual para enamorarse, 2012.  Lavín lives in Mexico City. www.monicalavin.com

 

 

Pat DubravaPatricia Dubrava’s translations of Lavín stories have appeared in Metamorphoses,  Reunion: The Dallas Review,  and the Canadian journal K1N. Others are forthcoming in The Norton Anthology of International Flash Fiction, The Dallas Reviewa second story—and Lunch Ticket. Dubrava lives in Denver, CO and blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com