In a new translation, “Mister President”, by Miguel Angel Asturias is reintroduced to the world

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If you’ve used any of these online translation tools, you’ve probably quickly realized that just generating the literal meaning of a string of words can produce incomprehensible mush.

The language defies such formalism two plus two equals four. Instead, it requires a more complex equation, a fusion of literal meanings with an understanding of what the original author was trying to say.

This is one of the many challenges that David Unger overcame in his masterful translation of “Mr. President,” a classic but often overlooked novel by Miguel Ángel Asturias. In making this work accessible, Unger didn’t just replace Spanish with English. He also sailed in a work that draws inspiration from the vernacular of a country where half the inhabitants don’t speak Spanish, instead communicating primarily in one of more than 20 indigenous Mayan languages.

Unger, a self-proclaimed “Guategringo” (born in Guatemala; raised and educated in the United States), explains his task in a fascinating “Note on Translation” that gives readers a glimpse of his artistry. Even two Guatemalan aficionados from Asturias were baffled by some of the 250 questions he had to check with them.

Unger’s rating is one of three—three! – introductory sections to this Penguin Classics translation, which is a sure sign that some context and accumulation was needed to prepare the reader for this seminal work of the Latin American dictator genre. In a foreword, the famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa – author of one of the best books on Latin American dictators, “Goat Festival” based on Dominican Despot Rafael Trujillo – calls ‘Mr. President” “qualitatively better than all previous novels in Spanish.

Then, in an introduction, Gerald Martin, professor emeritus of modern languages ​​at the University of Pittsburgh, states that it was Asturias – and not Gabriel García Márquez as is commonly believed – who invented magic realism. Martin tells the gripping story of the origins of “Mr. President”, a novel that Asturias partly wrote in Guatemala in 1922 and finished a decade later in Paris in 1932 after fleeing political persecution in his country of birth. Fourteen years elapsed before the book was finally published, in 1946, in Mexico – the delay necessitated by the threat of further political persecution because Asturias, no longer having the means to live abroad, had been forced to return to Guatemala. The book was a flop.

It was only when “Mr. President,” set in the early 20th century, was republished two years later in Argentina and became an “overnight sensation,” writes Martin. Years later, Asturias, who died in Madrid in 1974, became a Guatemalan diplomat but went into exile after a surreptitiously backed US-backed coup. In 1967, he again achieved great literary success, sealing the reputation of one of the greats of the region, becoming the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel Prize.

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The award has renewed interest in “Mr. President,” which is inspired by the autocratic rule from 1898 to 1920 of Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. The book, which even its translator considers to have “often too poetic, and sometimes repetitive and redundant” prose, revolves around the murder of a colonel known as “the man with the little mule”.

The search for her killer is manipulated by a callous president, who is never named, and his confidant, a slippery and ultimately tragic character named Miguel Angel Face, who “like Satan” was “both good and evil.” Face warns a suspect not to “ask if you are innocent or guilty. … An innocent man, without the support of the president, is worse off than a guilty one.

Asturias fills the novel with beggars, idle wealthy people, simpering aristocrats and political sycophants. There are dungeons, vicious beatings, capricious execution – all in the service of a president known as “Supreme Godfather”, “Benefactor of the People” and “Defender of Studious Youth”.

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In the president’s erratic regime, even his closest allies are at risk. Betrayal is the norm. In the house of a military leader, the maid spies on the general and the cook, while the cook spies on the general and the maid.

Given such oppression and mistrust, it follows that the novel’s characters would be plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, each a manifestation of the traumas they face in their real lives. At times, the graphic horror and desperation of the novel can be hard to digest. But Asturias knew how to moderate these horrors, happily releasing the tension with absurd or mocking scenes. During one such moment, a beggar’s hallucination includes what must be one of the longest compound words ever in print: “Curve of a curve of a curve of a curve of a curve”. (The beggar was in agony, but when I came across that crazy word, I couldn’t help but laugh.)

Reading “Mr. President”, it is impossible not to think of the current sad situation in Guatemala, where endemic corruption, lawlessness, savage drug traffickers, heartless human smugglers and staggering economic inequalities — combined with climate change-induced agricultural woes — have driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to attempt risky illegal entry into the U.S. (Guatemala is consistently ranked among the most corrupt countries by international good government advocates. )

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As “Mr. President” sinks into a pit of injustice, violence and despair, a prisoner launches into a long lament that reads almost like a premonition: “We are a cursed country. Heavenly voices cry out when it’s thundering : Vile and filthy creatures! Accomplices of wickedness!

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post editor who served as the newspaper’s Mexico City and Miami bureau chief.

By Miguel Angel Asturias. Translated by David Unger

Penguin classics. 282 pages. Paperback, $17.99

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