In an essay for WWB, Andrea Rosenberg speaks about her translation of Silvina Ocampo's lyrical fable, “The Golden Hare,” from this month's issue of the magazine. You can read the story in its entirety over here.
I knew I had to translate “The Golden Hare,” Silvina Ocampo’s mysterious fable, as soon as I read the first few sentences. Now often published separately as a children’s book in Argentina, it is the first story in Ocampo’s 1959 collection La furia (The Fury). Silvina, the less famous and more ethereal of Argentina’s most renowned literary siblings, is perhaps best known in the United States (if she is known at all) for her associations with other more prominent literary figures—she was Victoria Ocampo’s sister, Adolfo Bioy Casares’s wife, Jorge Luis Borges’s close friend—but she was a prizewinning poet and short-story writer in her own right and published more than two dozen collections of short narrative and poetry during her lifetime, as well as a novel and a play. She was also, to my great delight, a prolific translator, bringing such writers as Dickinson, Melville, and Poe into Spanish.
In translating this story, I wanted most of all to recreate the unique atmosphere of the original, something by turns delicate and eternal, teetering between myth and whimsy. The hare is a much more elusive animal than the rabbit, angular rather than pleasingly plump, skittish and wild. Hares are rarely domesticated for children’s stories the way Peter Rabbit, the White Rabbit, the Velveteen Rabbit, and countless others have been. Ocampo’s story is similarly standoffish, impenetrable in a way that makes the reader doubt an Argentinian schoolchild could get much out of it. (“Mami, what’s an aphrodisiac?”) It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, despite the carefully constructed pretense of artless storytelling. I therefore embraced Latinate words, especially in the descriptive section that begins the story, and the elevated air of inaccessibility they created. I also emphasized the lyrical qualities of the story, especially with anaphora and alliteration (“they finally dropped, drained, near death, their tongues lolling out like long red cloths”).
One of the perpetual problems encountered in translating from Spanish is how to deal with gender. Since it is a gendered language, translators are accustomed to discussing how much less ambiguous Spanish is about biological sex than is English, and the challenges we sometimes face in making that unambiguity apparent in translation. In Ocampo’s story, however, we find that rarest of beasts, a profound gender ambiguity impossible to replicate in English, which provoked a major debate for me about how best to render sex throughout the story. The word for hare in Spanish is feminine [la liebre], and the word for dog masculine [el perro]. A hare, whether male or female, is always described in terms that are gendered feminine [la liebre dorada]. There is a feminine variant for dog [la perra], but the standard masculine form would be used for any dog whose sex is indeterminate. The animals in Ocampo’s tale, then, occupy a space that is at once gendered (grammatically, at least) and ungendered. In English we have the great flexibility of being able to do either, but to do both simultaneously presents more of a challenge.
At first I decided to err on the side of the ambiguity of the original, and referred to all the animals as “it.” It’s a flat word, though, and while the dogs are already a somewhat amorphous mass and didn’t suffer too greatly at having another layer of identity stripped from them, the hare did lose a bit of its personality and dynamism. In English we gender animals when we have relationships with or sympathy for them—no one has an “it” for a pet—and rendering the hare with a word that evokes inanimate objects more than it does sentient beings made it seem distant and, yes, a little lifeless. Also vanished was the subtle interplay of gendered nouns that was so fundamental to the Spanish: though grammatical gender and biological sex are not the same thing and can even contradict each other, it is impossible to read Ocampo’s original without noticing how the contrast between dogs and hare is underscored by their opposing grammatical gender. And so it was not to perpetuate age-old paradigms of femininity and masculinity that I decided in the end to move away from the ambiguity of the original and make the sweet, gentle hare female and the rough herd of dogs male, but instead an attempt to replicate the emphasized opposition between them.
Another issue seemed fairly minor and yet I grappled with it almost as long: what was I going to do about the first line of the story? Ocampo’s style is elaborately metaphorical, even precious at times, and the first sentence of “La liebre dorada” is a doozy. Most strikingly, the sun is described as illuminating the hare like a holocaust. It’s a loaded word at this point—and was loaded, as far as I know, even back in 1959, especially in a country that suffered the unusual fate after World War II of having a large Jewish population and also being famous as a haven for Nazis fleeing prosecution in Germany. Still, use of the word to refer to Nazi genocide would have been relatively recent and probably not as totalizing as it is today. I went back and forth on the word quite a bit and eventually decided to use “conflagration” instead. And rather than point out the flaws of “holocaust,” which are probably apparent, I’d like to take a moment to meditate on what is lost by using “conflagration,” whatever its advantages. First, holocausts are ancient, biblical, the stuff of foundational myths. One of the major elements of Ocampo’s story is its gesture toward the timeless and the mythic—the hare, over the course of its soul’s transmigrations, has seen civilizations rise and fall—and this single word helps establish that atmosphere in the first sentence. In addition, however much havoc a conflagration might wreak, the word “holocaust” is ominous, with a powerful sense of loss of life built into it. A conflagration may only destroy a building or two, but a holocaust slaughters people and animals. A conflagration describes a great fire as it is happening, but a holocaust points toward what the outcome will be. In that sense, my translation slightly dampens the menacing tone of Ocampo’s Spanish. Like all translators, I can only explain my decision and put myself at the mercy of the reader. I prefer to think that Ocampo herself would have understood.