The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, Suzanne Jill Levine. Dalkey Archive Press. $13.95. 208 pp. October 2009.
Being editors of a magazine that has devoted much coverage to Latin American fiction, we jumped at the opportunity to publish an piece by one of the region’s most esteemed translators and critics. The piece is doubly nice for us, since it deals with Manuel Puig, one of our favorite—though unjustly overlooked—writers from Latin America.
Levine’s essay deals with issues of translation and publishing, as well as critiquing Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Puig’s second novel and one that catapulted him to fame. We hope it intrigues you to read both more Puig and more Levine.
— The Editors of The Quarterly Conversation
Writing Against Authority
It would appear that ambiguity yielded to clarity (which does often happen in commercial publishing) in the title translation Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, the English version of Manuel Puig’s cheeky title La traición de Rita Hayworth. A literal translation of the Spanish would be “The Betrayal of Rita Hayworth,” and one might think that this is yet another case of publishers adulterating the title of a foreign-language work. But, there is more to this than meets the eye.
|Manuel Puig in 1969.
Manuel Puig, born in Argentina, was one of the most significant as well as one of the most enigmatic Latin American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Movies, mainly popular American “women’s” movies, had been the vehicle of escape for him as a sensitive young boy growing up in the Thirties and Forties in the oppressive atmosphere of a small town in the Argentine pampas. As an adolescent seeking his sexual identity, Puig experienced male and female models of behavior in his world as stultified and stultifying. To achieve success and happiness, men had to be aggressive, women submissive. Movies represented these values, but in glamorous, glorified terms, and the imaginative young Puig could identify safely with both men and women on the screen, live vicariously in this unreal world, which became for him the only reality.” The budding writer’s first aspiration was to invest his creativity in the cinematic site of imaginary freedom, but as a film student at Cinecittá in Rome in 1959, he soon discovered that he felt incapable of assuming the authoritative role of director, that his pleasure lay not behind but in front of the screen, in spectatorship.
Throughout all his works the alienating as well as inspiring influence of models imposed by American mass culture would provide a pre-text as well as a pretext for writing. His first novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth, began as a film script, but Puig realized that the autobiographical “material was too complicated to be analyzed in film.” He explained in an interview (City 5) that
I needed more space and freedom. I wasn’t sure about any of those characters. The kick was to find the truth about these [people] who had been with me during my childhood: my cousin, my mother, my father, my closest friends.
Monologues, conversations, letters, diaries, and other forms of everyday narration would serve here to retrace his past, the relationships, the movie fantasies at the root of his identity and sexuality.
Why he couldn’t “analyze” these characters with sufficient “freedom” in the cinematic genre becomes abundantly clear in the trajectory of his writing. Kiss of the Spider Woman, his fourth novel, realizes a direction begun in Rita Hayworth, where Toto, Puig’s alter ego, “reconstructs” the plot of one of his favorite films in a school composition (chapter XII). Toto inserts his own interpretation of The Great Waltz, subtly changing and completing the plot and characters in ways that reveal or carry out his own fantasies. Kiss is structured almost entirely upon this device. The exploitational popular films that Molina, an imprisoned homosexual, verbally re-creates for his cellmate, a political prisoner, demonstrate how Puig unveils mass culture in order to analyze the values and ideologies that rule lives and mediate desires.
Rita Hayworth is structured by texts spoken and written solely by its characters, silencing at least on the surface the presumed narrator. The latter’s function seems limited to putting these texts in chronological order, except for the last chapter, giving them descriptive titles (such as “Toto’s Monologue, 1941,”) and titling the book that contains them. Puig passes no authorial judgment upon his characters; as Lucille Kerr observes, complementary, even contradictory readings are possible. Puig questions the authority of the father, and of cultural models, by allowing the characters to speak for themselves. Such rebellion against authority could never be simple: As Puig himself confided to Cuban photographer Germán Puig (no relation), if he couldn’t be a great director, he would become a great writer. Puig comments in the City interview: “Authority frightens me. I hate it. I don’t accept it, but at the same time I find great difficulty in rebelling against it, in facing it directly.”
The Title, Indeed the Name
The title literally represents the ambiguities of the characters and of the novel’s discourse, suspended grammatically between two opposed meanings. Again, titles guide us but are also interpreted through the reading of their texts. The “Betrayal of Rita Hayworth” refers us to Toto’s outing with both parents to the movies, to see Blood and Sand, starring Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth. This episode and its aftermath constitute the “key” or primal scene, so to speak (in chapter V, narrated by the nine-year-old Toto), which sets up Toto’s sexual am-bivalence and unresolved identity.
But the reader’s first association is extratextual: “Why Rita Hayworth?” A Marxist reader would view this reference as a symbol of the false, alienating values imposed on a marginal culture by a dominant imperialist culture. True enough. And if we dig further, we discover that this proper name is a pseudonym, that Ms. Hayworth was really Margarita Cansino, the daughter of a Spanish dancer who to survive, but even more to succeed, “betrayed” her Hispanic origins by adopting a name and values of this dominant culture.
The title, indeed the name pulls us “in several directions at once,” writes Lucille Kerr, referring at once to the real world and the world of fantasy. But Rita Hayworth’s signification is ambiguous especially because, even though she explicitly betrays Tyrone Power in the movie Blood and Sand, what she means to Toto is implicitly betrayed. 1
This particular movie outing is special because it is the first and only occasion father accompanies his wife and son to the movies. It is Toto’s conscious hope that his father will like the movie and want to go again, and his unconscious hope that his identity will not be polarized against the male model, that he will be able to be a man because not only women but men, too, like movies. This hope is crushed: Berto imitates (indeed appropriates) Toto’s desire by going to and liking the movie, but he likes most the pretty, “wicked” actress. Disturbed by her wickedness (her power to castrate), Toto is in turn motivated to imitate his father’s attraction to the woman who betrays the man who desires her. And after Toto is “seduced” in his desire to imitate his father into liking her, he (like Tyrone Power) is abandoned by his father, who finally rejects the movies because going to movies won’t pay the bills, won’t solve life’s problems. Toto’s version ends up confusing the two subjects, Rita Hayworth and his father: Berto is both identified with the subject to whom he’s attracted and rejects her and the world of fantasy that she represents. Toto at first identifies with his father, to whom he is attracted, and finally rejects him and all that he represents, patriarchal oppression.
The novel ends with a never-sent letter by Berto to his brother that reveals the final irony. The betrayer is betrayed: Berto’s insecurities—and consequent oppressiveness —originate in the powerless position he occupied in his “family plot” vis-á-vis an older brother whom he originally loved. Toto’s victimization merely repeats that of his victimized victimizer. The letter restates what Toto’s monologue began to demonstrate, as Kerr writes, “to be or to see oneself as the victim of betrayal by those to whom one is also deeply attached is to become the subject of an irresolvable ambivalence toward those same figures.” Toto as betrayer, manipulator of words (if not realities), is “born” here.
The polyvalence of the original title reflects, therefore, multiple betrayers and betrayals. Rita Hayworth (woman), Berto (man), or heterosexuality betrays—and is ultimately disavowed by the betrayed principal who becomes principal betrayer, Toto.
The English translation still betrays, of course: “Rita Hayworth”—the name—serves a different function in a foreign text than it does in American English. It signals the imposition of American popular culture in Argentina, whereas in English it signals merely the imposition of pop culture upon a literary domain. Nevertheless, the American English reader knows that he is reading an Argentine novel, in translation.
Translation betrays because, like criticism, it makes choices. Even though one can read two meanings into La traición de Rita Hayworth the title sounds, strikes the Spanish reader’s ear as a raw, forceful, even blasphemous statement. Traición is stronger than betrayal since it also means treason. “Betray,” the verb, strikes the English reader stronger than the noun “betrayal,” and grammatical changes (noun to verb, for example) often serve a translated phrase better than lexical ones. Betrayed by Rita Hayworth sounded stronger, more emphatic in English, a language that privileges “clear senses.” Colloquial immediacy should also be privileged in a novel that has been called a “gallery of voices,” in which the characters speak for themselves in a living Argentine idiom. Ambiguity—or, rather, vagary—would weaken more than enrich the reading of the title in English. The Betrayal of Rita Hayworth sounds literary, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth sounds more spoken: This phrase should sound as if it were uttered by Toto, just as the original Spanish does.
The lesson Toto (Manuel Puig) learns in his coming of age, as several critics have observed, is to become a betraying subject. Nothing is ever resolved at the level of plot or discourse in Puig’s novels. He betrays the reader, as he does the role of author, but that’s because there are no clear-cut messages to be communicated in the world of the emotions. Like Toto, he is an ambiguous manipulator, and in this sense like the translator herself: writing between languages and cultures as she uncovers and replays the elusive relationship between words and feelings, between the spoken and the unspoken.
Suzanne Jill Levine is the author of numerous studies in Latin American literature and the translator of works by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig, among other writers. She is a professor in the Spanish Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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