It’s funny the paths one is led down by what one gets to translate. After having translated Juan Pablo Villalobos’s stunning debut, Down the Rabbit Hole, last year, I now seem, somewhat bewilderingly to me at least, to be considered by some as practically an expert on Mexico and Mexican literature—something I am not by any stretch of the imagination and do not claim to be. I was recently asked to participate on a panel talking about social realism in the Latin American novel, am regularly asked about Mexico-specific words and phrases and how to translate them, and have been approached to translate another Mexican book, this one nonfiction.
In fact, I have never actually set foot in this fascinating country I am supposed to know so well, although I do feel that I know at least a little more about it now through what I have read and translated. Translating "The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat" felt a little like doing further research into Juan Pablo’s book. Fabrizio Mejía Madrid's two nonfiction accounts are gripping, chilling, calmly written reportage on various aspects of Mexico’s drug culture, and describe the outside world that Villalobos’s little protagonist, Tochtli, is blissfully unaware of yet tragically affected by. Mejía describes the folk songs mythologizing the capos and their violent deeds, using slang words for machine guns, cocaine, and marijuana; songs which, unbeknownst to station controllers, have made their way onto the radio for all to hear. He talks of the films in which real drug traffickers (and their mini-skirted girlfriends) appear, and reveals how the ideal trafficker pays homage to the “individual cult of personal autonomy.” Don’t want to be poor? Tired of being a nobody? Become a narco, and they’ll give you an iPhone and a nickname. You might not last long, but while you do, you’ll be someone, someone with power, money, and a gun.
“Memoirs of a Dealer” is very moving—particularly the description of Ricardo “El Valde” Valderrama coming out of jail and weeping on the street, a man broken by his ten years in prison, and who knows only how to sell drugs and to return to his previous life. His recollection of arguing with a young classmate he thought was stealing his dad is especially poignant. His father clearly had another family that El Valde wasn’t aware of. This lack of a father figure—indeed, lack of any stable figure in his life—could be seen as what led him to his life as a narco. (When he gets out of jail he looks up his godfather but cannot find him, he hasn’t seen his father for over twelve years, and his mother is now reduced to selling clothes on the street.) The pattern of the criminal gang providing a substitute family for disaffected young men is one we are perhaps becoming more familiar with in the UK with the recent rise in violent gang culture, although thanks to the relatively small numbers of guns over here it has not affected our cities in the same way as gang culture has in the States. Mexico is clearly worlds apart from either country, and the levels of violence there are simply unimaginable for most of us. Pieces such as the ones in the current issue of Words without Borders, and fictional representations of the country such as Villalobos’s novel, allow us to get inside the violent situation in Mexico and hopefully to understand it a little more. Good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, will make us see the problem as a complex and very human one, reducing grown men to tears and turning little boys into potential mini-drug traffickers.
My first substantial translation, done four years ago as part of an MA dissertation, was actually an extract from a novel by a Mexican writer, Guadalupe Nettel. Perhaps my being led down Mexican paths was not accidental but happened by my own design, conscious or not. Through my reading and research while translating Down the Rabbit Hole, and subsequent books and articles, including Mejía Madrid’s piece, I have gained a deeper understanding of the country and the terrifyingly violent situation it is living through; and thus a deeper interest in its literature than I would have had if I had translated an Argentinian book, for example. I am now inextricably linked to the country, and I have the literature to thank for that.
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