I discovered El Eternauta while translating a poem. Until recently I considered myself to be primarily a translator of poetry. I’d made a few forays into prose, but poetry is always where I’ve situated myself as a writer, and following the conventional wisdom that one must be a poet in order to translate poetry I stuck to it. The poem, by the contemporary experimental Puerto Rican poet Nestor Barreto, is called El Eternauta, and was ultimately too hard at the time, too much in allusion to the graphic novel for me to understand it. But through it I stumbled upon El Eternauta and was hooked. As I began researching this project, my comics-world friends and I were all shocked to discover that, despite being wildly influential in Latin American literature (and even reaching into some German and Italian literature), El Eternauta had never been translated into English. More than fifty years later it seemed high time to give English readers access to this masterpiece of Latin American science fiction.
The title is a portmanteau, combining “eter” [ether] and “astronauta.” I created a similarly constructed English portmanteau combining “eternal” and “astronaut,” changing the “a” in “eternal” for the “o” in “astro” to create the prefix “eterno,” also reminiscent of “cosmonaut.” Since the words are cognates, I could have left it as The Ethernaut, but the emphasis on the first syllable in this word seems uncomfortable in English. Naturalness in English was a goal for me in this choice, and throughout, since there is such a specific register and level of expectations for comics writing in both English and Spanish. But I wanted to achieve that naturalness without grinding away at the literariness of the original work, one of its defining and most important features.
The multiplicity of voice is one of the most engaging, and challenging, elements of the book. The narrative of The Eternonaut is framed by the insertion of a comics writer (a fictionalized Oesterheld, omitted in this excerpt) who introduces the story to the readers and introduces The Eternonaut himself. The Eternonaut takes over as narrator for the rest of the book, but the narrative panels are only about a third of the actual text; the overwhelming majority of the story is told through dialogue. The narrative voice is a layering of the reflections of the exhausted Eternonaut, filtered through the comics writer’s retelling. From the beginning the reader is distanced from the story, given the critical perspective both of retrospection but also of the narrator’s construction. This distance is unexpectedly engaging, helping to frame the story within the realm of possibility, despite the progressively strange sequence of events.
Most of the overt literariness is relegated to the narrative voice, and the most obvious element is the repeated allusions and images. In this section, the predominant allusion is to Robinson Crusoe, and its repetition is as much a literary device as an artifact of its initial publication as a serialized comic. The Spanish editors of this edition did most of the work of editing out redundancy, including removing the “resumen,” or summary, and the advertisements included at the beginning and end of each installment. But they preserved the heavy repetition within the narration of phrases like “fatal snowfall” and “sealed suit.” The decision to leave these in is in some way to preserve the historical context of the original, because they signal to a modern reader of comics that these moments were meant for readers who hadn’t been reading all along, or may have forgotten key plot points in the interval between installments. The narration is also where most of this redundancy happens; the dialogue is rarely used to remind readers of previous events, discoveries or characters. This seems self-conscious in the original—a choice that keeps the narrative distanced from the present-tense immediacy of the dialogue. For that reason, I hope to have constructed a more “literary” narrative voice, despite the indication of the framing device that the narration is actually also being spoken by The Eternonaut to the comic writer.
My goal with the dialogue was to create various voices that were all similarly historically positioned while not sounding either cheesy or stilted. The lasting popularity of El Eternauta leaves me with no doubt that the original Spanish dialogue is engaging to a contemporary audience. Spoken language changes so dynamically that even a difference of ten or fifteen years marks writing as being not-quite current, so I tried to strike a balance between contemporary and historical language and create a register that is believably spoken but clearly situated in the past. And, of course, a primary goal in translating both the narration and the dialogue was to create language that is not dull—an essential requirement for comics being coolness. El Eternauta is one of the coolest comics I’ve read, and that’s ultimately what I want readers to come away from it thinking.