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North American translation theorist Lawrence Venutti sees literary translation as a key weapon in the struggle against the global hegemony of English. He certainly has a point: everything is so Anglophone-oriented that monolingual English speakers –of which there are so many- are often heard to complain about foreigners and their ‘funny way of saying things’. You know what they mean is that English is so much more logical and, well, sensible. As Venutti says:
To shake the regime of English, a translator must be strategic both in selecting foreign texts and in developing discourses to translate them. Foreign texts can be chosen to redress patterns of unequal cultural exchange and to restore foreign literatures excluded by the standard dialect, by literary canons, or by ethnic stereotypes in the United States (or in the other major English speaking country, the United Kingdom) at the same time, translation discourses can be developed to exploit the multiplicity and polychrony of American English (Venutti 1998: 10-11).
Leaving aside the obvious inattention to minority English dialects -like Australian, or West Indian, or South African, which have slight variations in their prestige standards with respect to US and UK English, as well as marked departures at colloquial level (curious how when it comes to redressing power imbalances, the US wants to dominate there too!)- it’s easy to see how some digging by the translator can bring some unsuspected riches to the fore.
Insofar as a minority project, this short story by my good friend Andres Moreno qualifies on most counts.
Andres, a Barcelona resident, is a 30-something devotee of the fantastic genre as practiced by Poe, Lovecraft, et al. He is so far unpublished, except on his own website, which I came across around three years ago while searching for a Spanish version of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. I started reading El Túnel, only to discover the end was missing. An email interchange ensued, I got the ending, and began to muse on what a knotty translation problem the story would pose. As Andres readily admits, his style is exuberant and wordy, although definitely within the norms for Spanish. It’s also mercurial: character monologues, for example, contain elements of the colloquial juxtaposed with very structured, formal, even anachronistic discourse most uncharacteristic of oral production – unless the speaker happens to be morphing into a fey Lovecraftian gentleman, which here is exactly what is supposed to be happening! But then, that’s not so strange since unlike Sydney or New York, there are abundant reminders of a darker, more sinister past in the buildings and cobblestones of Barcelona’s old quarter, or the plastic and eerily organic stone formations of Antonio Gaudi. So I found I could reconcile the leaps of style with the polychronicity of Andres’ Barcelona, where the monumental stonework harbours old terrors, and a man with a strange and rare tale to tell can somehow find himself narrating in a manner not unlike that of A. Gordon Pym.
Of course, when you read closely enough you see that all the ornateness is accompanied by a nod and a wink; however, there’s a great deal of seriousness behind what Andres writes. He’s very concerned at the decline in literacy, in particular amongst the young, and so, with tongue lightly in cheek, but hand very definitely on heart, he turns out stories that give free reign to the imagination, and the expressive possibilities of Spanish. Of course, there are additional resonances, because as I mentioned to him in passing, his stylistic references all come from Spanish translations of the principal horror masters in English, writing over a century ago. He’s well aware of this, and it simply adds to the echoes and cultural-temporal cross-talk.
I hope you get a smile, and a chill too, from The Tunnel.
V. Stevenson, November 2002
Andres Moreno Galindo:
(Original Spanish title: El Túnel)
I’d no sooner set foot on the threshold of that last bar than I knew it was not a good idea to go inside. In tow with my friends on yet another evening of wine and good times, I found myself standing before a doorway hung with dark, heavy curtains: The Cavern, it was called - although whether the name was more tireless Fab Four homage by yet another tragic Beatles fan, or simply an excuse for the expense undoubtedly spared on the decor, I remain unenlightened. At any rate, with my senses dulled by the abundant quantities of alcohol consumed during the evening, and my confidence bolstered by the presence of my friends, I decided I could manage to keep my fears walled off in some remote part of my brain. Besides, I told myself, The Cavern's undoubtedly hokey interior would most likely prove to be a source of ridicule rather than terror.
So I screwed up my courage and, incoherently proclaiming myself leader of that merry, motley band of barflies, I drew aside the curtains with a theatrical flourish and went stumbling inside the tunnel. My momentum carried some three or four steps into the long, dark and stony interior before I fell to my knees and began to scream in terror, covering my face with my hands while the old nightmare throbbed again inside my head like some obscene and blackened heart. Far from giving me courage, the alcohol in my veins made me even more exposed and defenceless, amplifying my panic until I was left lying paralysed on the floor. I screamed all the more when I felt the hands grab hold of my arms and begin to pull me along the ground, until the rough caress of the curtains in the doorway made me realise that someone was dragging me bodily outside. While they sat me on a nearby bench and tried to calm me down I could still hear the drunken giggling coming from behind the door, as my friends in their ignorance continued to celebrate my latest practical joke.
When I finally regained my composure, I took my hands away from my eyes and found myself face to face with Rafa, good old reliable Raphael. Most responsible and wisest of friends, my sudden access of panic had dragged him rudely away from the arms of Bacchus and his train, obliging him to join me in a short and most unpleasant journey back to sobriety. He was looking hard into my eyes, his face set in that mask of perplexity and concern I knew so well - perhaps because I was the person who most often made him wear it.
- Hey, you alright now kiddo? You know maybe it's time you gave up on your solo attempt to drain the Rioja. Want me to call a taxi?
Little by little I managed to steady my shakes and trembles until I was able to return Rafa's gaze. We went back a long way, Rafa and I, to the days when our backsides had warmed the same seat in school, and our friendship had remained intact over the intervening twenty years. We still saw each other regularly, and I had often stopped to wonder just what it was that kept our friendship going. Somehow the two of us were like the core of an onion around which, like layers, the rest of our group just kept peeling away - the kind who later on would try and slink off if they saw you in the street, or at the most would mutter an embarrassed hello in their confusion at a meeting as unwanted as it was unexpected. But Rafa and I still kept up. I suppose that on my part I had an unconscious yearning for a little of the stability that ruled my friend's life - a guy so happy, centred and focused that there've been times when I've felt like mercilessly beating the secret of his disgusting contentment out of him - while I suspect that Rafa could still see the same irresponsibility and immaturity he'd had at sixteen preserved intact in me at age thirty-four. If now and then he liked to indulge himself by tying one on with his old mate Tony, retracing our steps around the old dens of iniquity and houses of ill repute that still formed the centre of my existence, I'm convinced that those ostensibly fun evenings really served to reassure him of the pathetic nature of my existence and my condition as willing and (un)conscious loser. Satisfied, he could dump me off the next morning at my place, leaving me half paralytic and talking incoherent drivel to the already fading photographs of the last decent girl who'd had the momentary misfortune to cross my path - and whom I'd failed dismally for her trouble - while he waltzed off home to his wife with enough partying on board to last him another couple of months.
But at that moment he was sitting right in front of me, and I knew I had to tell him: I was long past caring whether he might think my brain had finally slipped its moorings and sailed permanently for lala-land, it didn't matter if he believed me or not, if he told me it was all hogwash and pointed out for the umpteenth time that I'd been messing with my own mind for far too long... I was already coming to a decision as I heard Rafa saying in a worried voice:
- Shit, snap out of it will ya? You're giving me the heebies!
I heaved a long sigh and motioned for him to relax, and then almost to my own surprise I found myself letting it all out, my voice slow, even and steady - any anxiousness about gaining Rafa's belief swamped in the relief that came with finally being able to publicly parade the monstrous entity that had been blighting my existence. It was only an occasional glance up at the entrance to "The Cavern" that brought a chill running back down my spine. And so I spewed it all up in front of the only person I knew who could have believed me, the tale taking shape with each misty puff of breath I breathed into the frigid, razor-keen night air...
"Rafa, I'm going to tell you something that's been tormenting my soul for months, and this time it's got nothing to do with women or booze" At this Rafa pricked up his ears, sensing he was in for something other than the normal round of mopey confessions from his flaky friend. "Lately I've been even harder to find than usual; the break-up with Paula left me feeling pretty shattered, and I didn't want anything to do with anyone who could remind me of the whole thing - not even you." Rafa gave a shrug: he had the situation down right off the bat, as always. "Anyway I found a job in a bookstore in the city centre, something where I didn't need to think and that brought in just enough to pay the rent and keep me in the rarefied company of that select band of Counts, Dukes and Marquises who lend their names to those delightful vintages I love so well. Now, as you can well imagine, given my brilliant academic record and numerous doctoral qualifications - Rafa grinned at my laboured irony - I was consigned immediately to the storeroom as the principal, and in fact, sole manager of the Bulk Movement of Enormous Boxes of Books Department, which itself in turn headed up a series of other departments, all equally concerned with tasks of an eminently physical nature and of which I was again sole manager and employee. The storeroom was located two floors below street level: a huge warehouse space with two wide passages that ran to the plant room on one side and, on the other, workrooms and offices. My job had me in the warehouse area in the middle of hundreds and hundreds of books, which although I found fascinating when I first started - you know how much I love to read - I eventually wound up ignoring, or trying to at least, since my habit of buying two or three of them a week was playing havoc with my pathetic pittance of an income.
My hours were from two in the afternoon right up until closing time at ten in the evening. It was a shift that allowed me to freely indulge in those little self-destructive nocturnal escapades of mine, and sleep off enough of my hangover to turn up to work next afternoon in a more or less presentable state. The office staff used to leave at seven, and during those last three hours I was the only person left in that enormous place, lugging boxes of books around with only the constant buzzing of the air conditioning in my ears for company. Occasionally one of the sales staff from upstairs would come down for a book or a bit of a chat - more to escape the drudgery of dealing with customers than for my scintillating conversation I'm afraid. But for the most part I was down there alone; it was a boring job that pretty much allowed me to remain isolated from whatever went on outside the storeroom's big steel door. I could just plod along mechanically at my work, smoke myself a few cigarettes and, occasionally, chug down some of the cheap spumante they served up at book launches and which some irresponsible individual had left in my charge - but it was rough stuff, and its taste was enough to counteract any kind of ethylic euphoria I ever managed to get out of it.
All that aside, by holding down that job I'd managed to create a small speck of order - however fragile and unstable - inside the chaotic mess my life had turned into. Like I already told you, every now and then I got a visit from upstairs and it wasn't always on a strictly work-related basis. The one I saw most in my subterranean realm was J., who had a broad and fairly blurry job-description that allowed him to wander around as he pleased, without having to give too much account of his movements. We'd established an almost instant rapport, and he was one of the few people who could coax a smile out of me on even my roughest days.
I tell you that guy was practically born in that store: he knew all its nooks and crannies like the back of his hand, and it was him I was with the day I found out about the tunnel. We were in a little room in a corner of the warehouse area - just opposite the offices and the exit up to the shop - working together shifting an enormous mountain of boxes stacked right to the roof. As the pile of boxes grew smaller I found that instead of the patch of wall I'd been expecting, we'd uncovered a short flight of stairs that went down a couple of metres to a small landing. At the bottom I could see the mouth of a crudely dug tunnel which ran off to the right and whose end was lost to view; there was an unpleasant odour coming from its entrance, a smell of putrid mud and stale air crawling out of its gloomy insides... J. must have noticed my surprise and puzzlement, and he shot me a grin as he launched into a thoroughgoing exposition of all the many and varied ideas he'd come up with to explain the existence of the tunnel, before finally admitting that he had absolutely no idea what it was doing there. All he could tell me was that the tunnel ran parallel to the rear wall of the storeroom, underneath the street, and came to an end in a stair just like the one we'd uncovered, its opening also blocked up by boxes and plastic bags. About ten metres in from the entrance on the left hand side, went on J., you could see the beginnings of another little tunnel that struck out perpendicularly to the main one, but it was a blind opening that stopped after barely a couple of metres, as though its diggers had been suddenly interrupted in their task... Now I'd always felt a bit nervous around caves - whether big or small, natural or artificial - but this time my curiosity got the better of me, and I pushed past the thick cobwebs that shrouded the opening and went a few steps inside. The evil muddy stench was immediately stronger.
The tunnel's interior was narrow and crudely dug, without any kind of lighting, electrical wiring or airshaft that might justify its existence. It was nothing but a long, damp grotto whose claustrophobic squalor made a dramatic contrast with the huge, antiseptically clean warehouse space that lay just behind the wall. I felt oppressed by the sense of desolate loneliness and abandon that came from its depths, and I remember thinking to myself that being shut up alone in there for even a few minutes would be enough to bring me seriously unhinged. When I turned to my buddy J. I saw that he too was staring at the entrance with the same uneasy expression I felt certain was mirrored on my own face. Then, as we were turning back towards the storeroom, I spotted a detail that at the time I considered merely curious, but now fills me with absolute horror: for as far as I could see into the gloom the tunnel walls were sooty and blackened, as if there had been a tremendous conflagration inside. But at the time this fact seemed as inexplicable as the presence of the tunnel itself.
For my part I would have been perfectly happy to stop up the entrance with tens, dozens, hundreds of bags and boxes, and I'm absolutely certain J. would have been with me one hundred percent, but as the boss was in a hurry for a stock inventory we were forced to leave the mouth of that stinking tunnel wide open. It definitely had me feeling nervous and uneasy, but I figured it would only be for a couple of days and anyway, what were two more negative emotions compared to all the others already galloping around inside my head? So I resigned myself to lump it for the time being and we left it the way it was.
It all happened the next day. I'd always thought that kind of thing needed to take its time - you know, build up the suspense with little clues, playing slowly and surely on the victim's nerves until he begins to doubt his own senses, then unleash the hideous finale... So much for that idea. It came suddenly, without warning, and I was hardly a victim: I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual. That particular day it had been raining since dawn, but not with those fresh, heavy downpours that leave a sweet smell of wet earth behind them, even in the dirtiest big-city streets... Instead, thick gloomy clouds hovered overhead, sweating out a warm, thin drizzle that formed a slippery, oily film on the sidewalks and a sheen of irritation on the faces and souls of the passers-by.
I went down to the storeroom at two p.m., flustered by the muggy July heat and with my clothes clinging to my body like a warm, clammy shroud. The air conditioning was on the blink, and the absence of its familiar hum made the storeroom a gloomy and ominous kind of place, like a giant tomb, with the silence only broken now and then by the sound of water running through the plumbing in the ceiling above. I could see the doorway to the little room away off in the corner, and I felt a shiver run down my back as my mind's eye again recalled the image of the four steps leading down to that tunnel with its scorched and blackened walls.
I threw myself into my work, thinking that by keeping busy I could keep my fears at bay, but I couldn't stop myself from dwelling on that black wound piercing the earth behind the storeroom wall, scarcely a couple of metres from my desk. Being summer, half the shop staff were on vacation, and those who were left were either too tired or too run off their feet to come down and socialise. Even J. had the day off, so there I was with the whole storeroom to myself on the very day I least wanted to be left alone.
Around nine p.m. I traipsed up the two flights of stairs to the bookstore with a bundle of cardboard to throw in the dumpster outside, and discovered that the afternoon's sticky drizzle had turned into a raging storm. Sweeping curtains of water seemed to hang from the menacing black clouds perched just overhead, while vicious whiplashes of lightning announced a regular succession of earth-shaking thunderclaps. It was a display that had me casting my memory back a long way in search for an equal, and I remember thinking how it was more like a night-time air-raid than a storm; I even found myself musing idly for a few moments about where I would go for shelter if bombs suddenly did start falling around me. In hindsight now those thoughts seem uncannily prescient.
I headed inside around nine-fifteen, and by then the shop was half-empty; there were only two or three temporaries who'd been hired on to cover for the staff who'd taken their summer holidays. The storm wasn't letting up, and back downstairs in my work area I could still hear the sound of the thunderclaps coming muffled through the two floors above... The blackout would have hit around nine-thirty, with only a half-hour left to go to quitting time, and the storeroom was plunged into almost total darkness - the only illumination coming from a small emergency light above the entrance to the tunnel-room. It was an eerie, unnatural looking light, and in its soft, milky glow I could only vaguely make out the silhouettes of the boxes stacked around it.
Back then I was trying to give up smoking via the highly scientific method of hiding my cigarettes and lighter in weird places. The theory was that when the nicotine cravings finally got too strong I'd have forgotten where I put them - although I never actually did of course, it was about the only thing my memory was any good for. But not this time: I turned my work trays inside-out in a frantic bid to find my lighter and make it over to the main door without crashing into half the stock along the way. Meanwhile my skin was literally crawling as I tried to ignore the ghostly-looking entrance to the little room. I was in the grip of a mounting panic that was gradually switching off all those parts of the brain where logic and reasoning are supposed to reside. It was while I was scrabbling around for the lighter that the horrible smell penetrated the room, rooting me to where I stood: it was a burning smell, but at no time did it suggest a short circuit or housefire. I only wish it had. No, the smell that was making me gasp and tremble was the smell of roasting flesh. I could only think of human beings in flames, of fires in discotheques, of gas explosions and the horribly burned and twisted bodies in that campground that went up in a ball of flame, of heretics at the stake driven mad in their agony, of mothers and children leaping like living torches from burning buildings...
A thick, acrid, chemical smoke began to flood the storeroom, and then suddenly through its midst a vivid light came shining from the mouth of the tunnel. It danced and flickered, as if projected by an enormous bonfire blazing inside, and it slid through the smoke creating a ghostly, fluorescent mist that blurred objects and rendered them into vague silhouettes. It was then the things began to emerge from the room, scarcely visible amongst the thick clouds of smoke: tiny, black, horrible parodies of the human form with twisted smoking limbs. I hardly noticed the hot flow of urine running down my legs, my eyes fixed on those terrible things that were advancing towards me, painfully pushing aside the boxes with their charred and flaking fingers. Two glowing coals shone blood red inside what had once been heads, and from a horrible bloody gash beneath them came moans and whimpers of pain like an animal in unimaginable torment. I managed to retreat a few steps before I was again paralysed by terror, and then they were right in front of me, dozens of red points staring at me as maddening notes of pain swelled inside the storeroom in a symphony of agony and insanity. I thought they were going to attack me, tear me apart and drag me back with them inside the cave, to some pit that opened into hell itself, but no. Instead they began to take each other by the hand, painfully linking their deformed and twisted fingers: they were falling into line, and in a few seconds had made three or for neat ranks in hideous mimicry of a company of soldiers waiting for inspection or drills, or... Sweet Jesus! Suddenly I understood!!. I screamed and screamed in front of those unfortunate creatures, half mad with the truth that was forcing its way into my mind, and my cries brought me sufficiently back to myself to get away from that cursed place, running blindly into boxes, pylons and who knows what else on the way. I somehow got the storeroom door open and made my way through the thick smoke that was already filling the bookstore.
The books and shelves began to burn behind me as I ran through the deserted shop, but I knew I was safe from the smoke and flames - it was something infinitely more subtle that would choke and burn me for the rest of my days. Finally, a fireman's gloved hand grabbed my shoulder and I was hauled out into the street, where my frightened workmates stood gaping at the sudden, intense and inexplicable blaze that was razing the store to its foundations. Given the circumstances the state I was in must have seemed entirely comprehensible. As they were carrying me to the ambulance I'm sure I was the only one who saw the band of black things wandering disoriented through the flames, as they searched for the exit in a building that had changed beyond their recognition."
I'd barely managed to mouth the final words before collapsing into great heaving sobs. Rafa sat in silence, watching the tears rolling down my face while he waited for me to regain my composure.
- Well that's it. Like I told you before, just pretend you believe me, even if you think I'm crazy. Just help me cope with this hideous thing.
- I believe you, mate - if he was putting on an act, it was a good one - at least I believe most of what you've told me. But there's just one thing...
- Yeah, I know what you're going to say. I didn't think you'd bring it up, in fact I really wish you hadn't, but I can see that curiosity has got the better of your fears. It was the same with me. Although I already had a pretty good clue from the behaviour of those things I wanted to find out more, so I've been doing some digging around of my own, looking for facts to confirm my suspicions. I'm sorry I did. That building wasn't always a bookstore, or any kind of store; true, fifty years ago it did contain books, but they were schoolbooks belonging to the children at the Mosén Jacint Verdaguer school. - Rafa's face suddenly went very pale as the terrible truth began to dawn -. I've seen its photo in old newspapers from those days, during the Civil War, and I've spoken to a couple of the teachers who, unfortunately for them, lived through that horrific event. The Falangists kept it all hushed up of course, like a lot of other things. Back then most of the students at Jacint Verdaguer were the children of Republican leaders, and when the Nationalists took Barcelona there were around forty still at the school - their parents hadn't had time to flee to the countryside, and since they were worried about reprisals they thought it safest to stay away from their kids and leave them in school a while.
It was a tragic mistake. A unit of militiamen drunk on victory and grappa got in there and ran amok, they beat the daylights out of the teachers and marched everyone down to the basement: the same basement which would later become the storeroom. One of them had a flame-thrower - my friend's eyes started in terror -. The children were half dead with fright, standing huddled together in the air-raid shelter that had been hastily dug over the last month, and the teachers pleaded with the soldiers to let them go. But they were too drunk, too fanatical, and they laughed at them and shouted fascist slogans and yelled about how they were going to wipe all the red whelps from the face of the earth. The one with the flame-thrower was down there for half an hour, hosing out the tunnel with flames. The teacher who told me about it was crying as it all came back to him, he said the screams of those children hadn't allowed him a moment's sleep in fifty years...
How could the poor devil have known he was giving me a glimpse of my own future? Of course by now you too must have realised what those charred things were, and why they came marching from their shelter and lined up in rows in front of me, like a school assembly: to them I was simply the long-awaited teacher who had come to lead them to safety.
Translation ©V.Stevenson 1999, 2002.
 Venutti, L. (1998) The Scandals of Translation: Towards an ethics of difference, London and New York: Routledge.