La ciudad literaria de Julio Ortega

Transatlantic Translations

Posted by jortega@brown.edu on July 17, 2008

JULIO ORTEGA. Transatlantic Translations. Dialogues in Latin American Literature. Trans. Philip Derbyshire. London: Reaktion Books. 2006. 222 pp.
Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 31.3 (Spring 2007): 540-541.
Julio Ortega’s immensely readable book is one of the first full length works translated into English from his extensive oeuvre. In it the reader will find a development of some of the themes that have interested Ortega for years, namely, the cultural clash of the conquest and the social, linguistic and artistic consequences of intercultural exchange. The book follows in the best tradition of the Latin American essay and the fact that the quite satisfactory scholastic apparatus is placed at the end of the work makes it a very readable text. In this review I will comment on this book in general but, given the wide scope of the book, I defer to specialists to evaluate each distinct chapter.
The book reexamines Latin American cultural history and proposes a reading in which representations must be understood within the geotextuality of colonialism. Thus, the study of Latin American history and literature cannot be a reformulation of the marvelous or the unique, but one that takes into consideration the transatlantic exchange of interpretative configurations and discursive flows. The identity of the Latin American subject, Ortega argues, is constructed between the European gaze and local testimony, proving that for each foreign interpretation of America there has always been a counter response.
The eight chapters are structured upon the basic elements of communication: speaking, reading, writing, translating, drawing, representing, judging and interpreting. As the book progresses these elements become a fundamental part of Ortega’s critical practice. The most theoretical argument of transatlantic translations occurs in both the introduction and the conclusion. In these two sections the author presents the operative metaphors of abundance and scarcity, thus bookending the different chapters. Abundance and scarcity also give way to a third metaphor: utopia, its possibility or its impracticability in the continent that derives from the former phenomena.
The book covers the history of Latin America quite extensively: from the classical and by now unavoidable comment on Caliban to a study on Gabriel García Márquez. Chapters on Guamán Poma and Inca Garcilaso argue that for these two authors there was no conquest but rather a transfer that consequently needed cross translation. It is in this dislocation that the preservation of indigenous culture (memory and history) becomes also a chronicle of the present and a way not only to denounce but to solve the conflicts of the present and institute good government. The issue of representing reality is not unique to local authors. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and the authors of other Historias naturales and chronicles face the challenge of how to depict and explain the overwhelming nature of the Americas from the point of view of their respective epistemologies. From this point the book moves to issues of language as national foundation in Palma, Bello, Martí and Altamirano. The discourse of abundance and scarcity runs through the work of these authors, who foresee utopia in the richness of the language and the nature that surrounds them. The chapters end in successive readings of both Pedro Páramo and Love in the Time of Cholera.
Despite the overarching connection, each chapter could stand alone. Ortega’s perceptive readings of the subjects at hand lend a tone of master class to the chapters. If seen as a whole, however, the book loses some of its unity be-cause it jumps – from chapter five to six it leaps two centuries ahead to the eighteenth. In this second part of the book, chapters of uneven length disturb its symmetry. The sudden eruption of French theory in chapter seven adds another odd note considering the tone and flow of previous chapters. This, of course, has no bearing on the quality of the text or the argumentation, but it does seem to disrupt the tenor and pace.
In conclusion, Transatlantic Translations is an excellent introduction to the critical work of Julio Ortega for a non Spanish-speaking audience. Philip Derbyshire’s flawless translation closely captures Ortega’s tone in Spanish. This book serves to open the dialogue between disciplines, so often barricaded behind languages, time frames and critical apparatuses. Its major contribution is to offer readings of Latin American cultural history within a natural and social context of processes that moves away from mechanical models and reminds us that subjects are produced both in history and language. These reflections on aspects of colonial and postcolonial exchanges make this book an elegant con-tribution to the field of transatlantic studies from a Latin American perspective.
FRANCISCO FERNÁNDEZ DE ALBA
Wheaton College