Spain’s literary giants are lost in English translation

Three cheers for Javier Marías for making it into Penguin Modern Classics: the first Spanish writer to do so since Federico García Lorca. Isn’t it about time the English-speaking world woke up to the Spanish literature of the last 75 years?

An indisputable criterion of success for any novelist is when Penguin Modern Classics signs up your backlist, especially when it’s for a five-figure sum. Which is what has happened to Javier Marías. The 60-year-old Spanish writer, whose latest title, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos), will be published in English in early 2013, joins an exclusive group of Spanish writers in Penguin’s catalogue: Cervantes, Quevedo, Jacinto Benavente, and Lorca.

Yes, that’s it. Four writers: the first two of whom died in the 17th century, the next in 1954; although he stopped writing long before that. For Penguin, and most US and UKpublishers, it seems that, until now, Spanish literature ended with the murder of Federico García Lorca in 1936.

But did literature inSpainreally cease with the outbreak of civil war and the ensuing four decades of military rule?

The impact of the Spanish Civil War on Spanish literature was devastating. When the military launched its botched coup in July of 1936, the country was enjoying a literary flowering unseen since the 17th century. Most of the main writers of the three major generations — 1898, 1914, and 1927 —were still at the height of their powers, and figures like Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado, and Federico García Lorca, among others, were internationally celebrated. But within three years, by the war’s end in 1939, most writers had either gone into exile, or were dead.

The writers who emerged in the years after the destruction of the Civil War lived in a climate of fear engendered by the arrest and disappearance of tens of thousands of men and women with Republican sympathies. Fortunately many of them were brave enough to write about a society crippled by inequality and mired in petty corruption ruled over by the unholy alliance of the military, the Roman Catholic Church, the landed gentry, and the petty bourgeoisie.

Some writers from this period have made it into English: Nobel Prize winner Camilo José Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte, Carmen Laforet’s Nada, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio’s El Jarama, but many, many more, have not, and notable among them Miguel Delibes.

As regular readers of Iberosphere will remember, we published an obituary of Delibes when he died in March 2010. While writing his death notice I looked for his titles available in English, and to my surprise, and disappointment, discovered that only one of his more than 50 titles, many of them best-sellers throughout the Spanish-speaking world and high-school texts, had been translated —The Heretic, his last novel.

At this point I should declare an interest. I approached Penguin last year with a proposal to translate three of Miguel Delibes’ novels for inclusion in their Modern Classics collection: his so-called rural trilogy, made up of El camino, Los santos inocentes, and Las ratas.

But the people at Penguin hadn’t heard of Miguel Delibes, as I would guess that they hadn’t heard of many other modern Spanish writers.

Would it be too much to hope that the inclusion of Marías’s backlist in the Modern Classics collection might prompt Penguin to think about including a few of his more recent predecessors, and in so doing, provide a better representation of the literary output of Spain over the last 75 years?

NICK LYNE

Iberosphere, January 11, 2012