Beyond The Language Barrier In Fantastic Literature

In 1940 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, three writers -- Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and Adolfo Bioy Casares -- published an anthology of fantastic fiction, Antología de la Literatura Fantástica, much of it what today would be considered literary fantasy, and much of it translated to Spanish from other languages, mainly English. When the same anthology was re-edited in 1965, however, many of the new stories were originally written in Spanish. Borges, Ocampo, and Bioy Casares were all also authors of fantastic literature, as fantasy is usually termed in the context of Spanish American fiction, and the growing number of fellow-Argentines and Latin Americans writing fantasy throughout the twentieth century produced a very thoughtful, interesting, and challenging corpus of speculative fiction that is perhaps not as well-known as it deserves to be. Though not comprehensive, these suggestions can point an interested reader towards some stand-out Spanish-language (in English translation) stories and novels.

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. This nineteenth century Spanish writer's collection of folk-tales, "Legends," is beautifully written in an ornate style somewhat out-of-use in our time. That said, these tales are bursting with suspense and the supernatural.

Adolfo Bioy Casares. Argentine like many of the writers on this list (for whatever reason, "la literatura fantástica" is much more of an obvious current in Argentine literature than in other national literatures of the Spanish speaking world), Bioy Casares is best known for his short novel, The Invention of Morel (1940). The book plays with the notions of repetition, reality, and mechanized reproductions.

Jorge Luis Borges. A literary master, Borges has been widely translated and read. His most popular works are his short stories, though he also wrote essays and poetry. His stories require a great deal of attention, but richly reward the reader who takes the time to put the puzzle together. My favorites are "The Circular Ruins" and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."

Julio Cortázar. Another towering figure of Argentine literature, Cortázar is known for his short stories as well as a very experimental novel, Hopscotch. Some call him surrealist, but there are certainly fantastic elements in his work. If you enjoy film you might be familiar with aspects of it - Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) is an adaptation of one of Cortázar's stories. I have yet to meet a Cortázar story that I didn't enjoy, particularly "Axolotl" and "The Southern Thruway."

Elena Garro. Garro's work dialogues with Mexican cultural conversations, but despite this specificity, her work can speak to a larger, global audience as well. Recollections of Things to Come (1963) is an excellent novel that weaves the fantastic into every-day life in a small town during the unrest of the Cristero War (1926-29). For a shorter taste of her writing, check out "It's the Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas."

Angelica Gorodischer. Gorodischer became well known in the English-speaking world due to her professional relationship with Ursula K. LeGuin, whose translation of Kalpa Imperial allows all the English-speakers of the world to enjoy Gorodischer's allegorical tale of politics and power in "The Vastest Empire that Never Existed." Gorodischer has also written several collections of science fiction stories, one of the most commented upon being "The Violet's Embryos," in which (male) astronauts are stranded on a planet where they can create anything they can imagine being.

Though necessarily limited (and focused upon a certain kind of fantastic literature - magical realism would require an entirely different post!), I hope that you take a moment to check some of these pieces out and report back.

(Thanks to Patricio00 for this great CC-licensed photo.)

9 Responses to "Beyond The Language Barrier In Fantastic Literature"
  1. Default Prophet says:

    Is reading them in Spanish a necessity? And by that I mean do they lose much when translated into English or another language of choice?

  2. FrenchToast says:

    Thanks, Casilda. I’m queueing some of these up right now on my library list. Just need to find the time to read them. Awesome recommendations!

  3. Casilda says:

    DP – I read all of them originally in Spanish (except Borges), but the English translations are generally pretty good, particularly for Borges and Cortazar (I’ve read both in English, too). LeGuin’s translation of Gorodischer is also very good – and if you’re interested in translation in general, their relationship is very interesting.

    FrenchToast, I’m glad, let us know what you think once you read some of them!

  4. Audra says:

    I think “The Violet’s Embryos” sounds so cool – I’m going to get a copy of that SF anthology so I can read it! Thanks for posting, Casilda – this is a wealth of information!

  5. Hi!
    I’m a native spanish speaker, and a scifi fan, and I have the luck to read all this great authors.
    I want to suggest one more piece of the finest fantasy written in spanish: “Sobre Héroes y tumbas” (On Heroes and Tombs) by Ernesto Sábato, an also recognised physician. A chapter of this work, “informe sobre ciegos” (“report on the blind”) is a great piece about how our society maybe governed by a secret conspiracy of blind people. Great!

  6. Pike says:

    That would explain much, Agustin.

  7. coco says:

    On the topic of blind people, may I recommend Blindness by Jose Saramago? I’ve only read the English translation, but it’s a fabulous book. Saramago’s books in general are a great read.

    Can anyone recommend a particular English version of these books that you found to be a good translation of the originals (unless they’re all the same)? I’d love to read it in Spanish (….if only I can read in Spanish).

  8. LisaSLC says:

    Casilda, Great post. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve added them to my list.

  9. Casilda says:

    Agustín – bienvenido seas! Sadly, Sobre heroes y tumbas is not very available in English translation unless you have an excellent library nearby. Also – I’ve heard through the grapevine that there are a lot of lesser known writers working on science fiction in Chile, but I haven’t had the chance to check them out yet.

    Coco – I haven’t read Blindness, but I read Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in translation (to English) and it was beautifully done. I can’t recommend his work enough.

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