Translating The Book of Mourners

Kayla Garcia

Translation and creation are twin processes. On one hand, as the works of Baudelaire and Pound have proven, translation is often indistinguishable from creation; on the other, there is constant interaction between the two, a continuous, mutual enrichment. Octavio Paz

Los Dolientes is related in the first person plural even though any one of six brothers may be speaking at the time, and one of these is actually the narrator, though he “is never identified in order not to privilege one brother’s account over another.” This is just one of numerous complexities in the novel that is Kayla Garcia’s latest translation project.

The work is an autobiographical novel written by Jacobo Sefami, a Mexican author whose ancestors were Sephardic Jews and whose grandparents emigrated from Turkey and Syria to establish themselves in Mexico City. Though written in Spanish, the book includes Hebrew and Arabic words and phrases.

“My translation will be primarily into English, while maintaining most of the Hebrew and Arabic words as well as some carefully chosen Spanish words to preserve the Mexican flavor of the story,” said Garcia, a Research Fellow and professor of foreign languages and literatures at OSU. During a previous fellowship, Garcia wrote Broken Bars: Perspectives from Mexican Women Writers (U of New Mexico Press: 1994). She also has translated two novels and collection of short stories by Brianda Domecq, one of the writers featured in Broken Bars.

After hearing Sefami read from the book at a conference in Cordoba, Garcia translated some sample pages, presented them to the author, and became the official English language translator for the novel. Her method is to work “paragraph by paragraph, rather than sentence by sentence. I often rearrange words or entire sentences, and move information from one sentence to another in order to maintain fluency and rhythm. When a metaphor sounds like a cliché or simply falls flat in English, I create a new one. When wordplay is lost in the target language, I create new wordplay within the same paragraph.”

Los Dolientes (The Book of Mourners) begins with the death of the narrators’ father, and as the siblings grapple with their loss and the ensuing cultural and religious demands made upon them, the point of view shifts from one brother to another in a literary technique reminiscent of the omniscient narrator, but with the unusual predominance of the pronoun “we.”

“Each brother faces the possible disintegration of his family and traditions, and shoulders his new responsibilities in a different manner, with reluctance or religious fervor, defiance or denial. . . This work is important because of its treatment of religious, philosophical and spiritual themes as well as for its description of a multicultural family whose members are coming to grips with different aspects of their traditions and individual identities.”

Born in Mexico City in 1957, Sefami is now professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books as well as Los Dolientes, his first novel. It was published in 2004 by the Mexican publishing house, Plaza y Janes, and is to be his first work to appear in English.