My favorite or most influential Spanish-language works

by on November 17, 2017 at 1:07 am in Books, Education | Permalink

Greg Irving emails me:

Hello Prof. Cowen,

I wonder if you might be tempted to create a blog post, at your convenience, of Spanish language works, ideally read in the original, that have most impacted either a) your appreciation for some till then unknown nuance or beauty in the language or b) your knowledge of/appreciation for some aspect of life in general. Might you?

Quizás obviamente, soy alguien que va aprendiendo el idioma poco a poco sólo de interés y no de necesidad. Si usted se digna a crear una respuesta por este correo electrónico, o en su blog, me alegraría mucho. Gracias por todo el conocimiento que nos da en sus escritos y por leer mi nota.

My Spanish-language reading is slow, but these are the works I found it profitable to devote a great deal of time to.  They have influenced me significantly, and mostly I found the English-language version a poor substitute.  Here goes:

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones.  This was super-slow going, but it is one of my favorite books of all time, philosophical and conceptual and in Spanish deeply hilarious.  OK in English, but this book alone is almost reason enough to study Spanish.

2. Juan Rulfo, Pedro Paramo.  Imagine redoing parts of Dante, with more narrative, in rural Mexico and with lots of comedy.  The English-language version does not come close.

3. Julio Cortázar, Rayuela [Hopscotch].  One of my very favorite 20th century novels, again unsatisfying to me in English, I would not recommend that you try at all.  Also try his short stories, most of all Bestiario and Historias de cronopios y de famas.

4. Jose Donoso, El obsceno pájaro de la noche [The Obscene Bird of Night].  A masterpiece, quite neglected in the U.S., I found this one so hard I often had to juxtapose it with the English-language text to read it at all.

5. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Noticia de un Secuestro [Notice of a Kidnapping], and Vivir para contarla [Living in Order to Tell It].  Oddly, I think his greatest works are the non-fiction.  But these are at least pretty good in English too, unlike what is listed above.

6. Pablo Neruda.  Non-Spanish readers certainly have heard of him, or maybe like him, but don’t really have a sense of how he is one of the very greatest poets of all time.  It is Canto General, a book-length narrative poem retelling of the story of the New World, that influenced me most, but I love all the classic Neruda poems.

I don’t find it so profitable to read 17th century Cervantes in Spanish, though the defect is likely mine.  The Savage Detectives and One Hundred Years of Solitude I find as good in English as in Spanish; Marquez himself suggested that was true for this work.  Vargas Llosa is “good enough” in English, except perhaps for the inscrutable Conversation in the Cathedral, which I cannot follow in either language.  Javier Marías I find “good enough” in English.  The Goytisolo brothers are often too hard for me, not fun in English but I can’t quite manage the Spanish, perhaps in my dotage.  Fuentes has never clicked for me, period.  Hombres de maíz, by Asturias, is especially good in Spanish and pretty much neglected in the English-speaking world.

What else?

1 Antonios November 17, 2017 at 1:37 am

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares is another classic.

Unfortunately its translation into English is pretty bad — even key sentences are not included.

See here:

2 Tyler Cowen November 17, 2017 at 8:00 am

fully agree, I almost listed that one as well…

3 Axa November 17, 2017 at 1:45 am

Garcia Marquez worked as journalist, that explains his mastering of non fiction.

In a already long reading list I’ll just add Benito Perez Galdos and Fernando del Paso. Perez Galdos was a XIX century realist, such as Zola. Fernando del Paso makes history a pleasure to read in his novels.

4 whahae November 17, 2017 at 2:39 am

Same question but for German.

Gleiche Frage, aber für Deutsch.

5 Art Deco November 17, 2017 at 4:28 am

The idea that the English language cannot accurately capture the original is frankly absurd and academic.

6 Peter Akuleyev November 17, 2017 at 5:13 am

You are a monolingual English speaker I assume.

7 Todd K November 17, 2017 at 7:24 am

“The English-language version does not come close.”
” One of my very favorite 20th century novels, again unsatisfying to me in English.”

I don’t see how these extreme statements are possible when English and Spanish are so close.

8 Court November 18, 2017 at 3:37 pm

It’s because of very subtle differences – words that have no EXACT translation for example – that can change tone or meaning in a pretty noticeable way.

I assume you speak no other languages, simply because for a bilingual person this is an ever-present reality.

9 So Much For Subtlety November 17, 2017 at 8:43 am

Perhaps the English language cannot accurately capture the original. Perhaps it can. The real problem is that all too often translations don’t. This is more likely to be the fault of the translator than of the language.

10 Ricardo November 18, 2017 at 5:18 am

Idioms, wordplay, alliteration, and rhyming are difficult and sometimes impossible to capture in translations. Even something as basic as the formal versus informal “you” in other languages gets lost when you translate into an egalitarian language like English.

11 Adrian November 17, 2017 at 4:45 am

Mario Benedetti: La Tregua
Mariano Azuela: Los de Abajo
Miguel de Unamuno: Niebla

12 Mario A November 17, 2017 at 5:29 am

I find Tyler’s answer quite revealing of a fact often talk about in Spain, how unknown spanish culture is outside Spain. How can it be that he fails to mention more spanish writers from a country with such a rich history? He mentions Marías and the Goytisolo brothers and no word about the titans of spanish literature and poetry such as San Juan de la Cruz, Santa Teresa de Jesús, Quevedo, Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Unamuno, Azorín, Valle Inclán, Benito Pérez Galdós, Larra, Leopoldo Alas Clarín, García Lorca, Benavente, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Miguel Delibes, Camilo José Cela, just to name a few. That’s like asking about jazz and replying Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Well, Spain, just as jazz, are not very well known.

By the way, I also fail to understand why he is not seduced by spanish cousine.

13 Matt November 17, 2017 at 7:55 am

“By the way, I also fail to understand why he is not seduced by spanish cousine.

Because so much of it is hopelessly bland?

14 Tyler Cowen November 17, 2017 at 8:02 am

I love Spanish cuisine. And Calderon, but still for me he is hard in Spanish.

15 Marcos November 17, 2017 at 5:58 am

Adolfo Bioy Casares, El sueño de los heroes
Manuel Puig, El beso de la mujer araña and The Buenos Aires affair
Alejandra Pizarnik, La condesa sangrienta
For a more contemporary reader, Lina Meruane, Sangre en el ojo.
I’ve read those in Spanish or in good Portuguese translations. I have no idea of the English versions.

16 Hoosier November 17, 2017 at 6:19 am

So happy to see Cortazar on this list! I received Historias de cronopios y de famas from an Argentine I was dating and it’s one of the prized books on my shelf. Whenever I want to immerse myself in a bit of Argentina I take it on down and read a story.

While living in Mexico I picked up a copy of Don Quixote in the original Spanish and was pleasantly surprised how much I understood. I’d say it was no harder than Shakespeare is in English. A fair amount of vocabulary I had to figure out, but the grammar wasn’t that tough really.

As for poetry, you should add Antonio Machado’s Campos de Castilla. If you’re enchanted by Spain and it’s landscapes it can’t be missed. Maybe something similar to what Housman’s A Shropshire Lad does for England?

17 Juan J November 17, 2017 at 6:45 am

Check Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio or Rafael Cribes and pay also some attention to Mario A’s suggestions
Thanks for this post.

18 Juan J November 17, 2017 at 6:46 am

Chirbes sorry

19 rayward November 17, 2017 at 7:31 am

I’ve been fortunate to have spent most of my adult life in a very ethnic city. Spanish, Italian, Greek, along with the Gringos like me. My best friend ‘s parents were from Spain, and he grew up in a very ethnic house located in a very ethnic neighborhood. Indeed, his father and his father’s best friend (both old now) came from the same small town in Spain. My friend is very close to his family in Spain, as he visits often and they sometimes visit him. Conversations always include remembrances of the family’s home in Spain. My observation is that Spanish are very much attached to place and community. Where I have a home now and spend much of my time is very different from that ethnic city. The closest to Spanish are the Mexicans who provide much of the labor. Families that have been here many generations are mostly from Scotland, Ireland, and Africa. Two of my best friends are a couple from France. When they first arrived he spoke English fairly well, she spoke none at all. Even now, many years later, they and their children will often switch to French when speaking to each other even though their English is excellent. My observation is that, unlike my Spanish friends, my French friends do not share the same attachment to place. Seldom do my French friends refer to their place in France. A couple of years ago he noticed a photo in my den of a grave marker in a field with hundreds of them and asked about it. I explained that it is the grave marker for my only uncle, who died on the battlefield in France in October 1944 as the allied troops marched across France toward Berlin. He was overcome with emotion upon learning that someone in my family had made the ultimate sacrifice liberating France from the Germans. On the other hand, the history between Spain and America during the war is fraught, the Franco government having pro-Axis leanings, Spain remaining neutral during the war, and the Spanish government destroying evidence of cooperation with the Germans after the end of the war. Not to mention more than a few Americans supporting the dictator Franco during the civil war. Of course, I don’t mention it to my Spanish friend.

20 middle aged vet November 17, 2017 at 10:42 pm

Thanks for the interesting comment. The Republicans in that war (the Spanish Civil War) were “Union of Soviet Socialist Republic” type Republicans, for the most part, and murdered many anti-Communist people, just as Stalin, their hero, did. They would no doubt have murdered many more if they had won – perhaps the Spanish Gulag they would probably have created would have consumed half or more of your Spanish friends …. not that Franco, who succeeded in the alternate version of history that we call, plain and simply, ‘history’, was all that admirable, in our timeline. Anyway, Korea, the Congo, Spain, and cold war Germany, and (interestingly for us Americans) the former Confederate states of America, all have two versions, in near contemporaneity, of ‘Republican’ (in the recently Confederate States, in the first couple of generations after they had been accepted back into the Union, Republican was the party of Lincoln.) I am sorry that your uncle died young, it is good that you have a picture of his gravesite.

21 WB November 17, 2017 at 8:26 am

I totally agree about News of a Kidnapping; it’s one of Garcia Marquez’s best books. It’s nearly as surreal as his fiction work, only it’s all true.

Like Garcia Marquez, some of Mario Vargas Llosa’s best work is his nonfiction writing. His memoir about running for the Peruvian presidency, A Fish in Water, is phenomenal. I’m not sure if reading it in its original Spanish makes a significant difference, though. (My favorite novel of his is Death in the Andes.)

22 Dick the Butcher November 17, 2017 at 8:27 am

My kid was accepted to a graduate engineering program at University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. He quickly became fluent in Spanish and read Don Quixote in Spanish.

I studied Spanish in high school and two college years. The issue is idiom. Many times literal translations do not communicate.

Also, many years riding NYC subways I sometimes saw literal translations of safety instructions, etc. that made me cringe as I imagined would a Spanish speaker.

23 Adrian November 17, 2017 at 8:42 am

The song “100 mentiras” by Joaquin Sabina, “Pacas de a kilo” by Los Tigres del Norte and any press conference with Diego Simeone.

24 Stuart November 17, 2017 at 8:55 am

I very much enjoyed Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote, pub Andre Deutsch with an intro by Carlos Fuentes:

25 Mark November 17, 2017 at 9:22 am

To me, Borges is the greatest writer of the 20th century. Still, I struggle to read many of his most challenging stories in Spanish, because of the esoterica therein.

Cortazar’s cuento “CasaTomada” is one of the greatest works of literature ever in any language. It is 1984 or Animal Farm in 5 pages.

Garcia Marquez himself preferred Rabassa’s English translation of Cien Años de Soledad. The use of non-Latin words in places simplifies the polysyllabic original and makes for a much better flow.

26 Ann November 17, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Borges’ poems are very much worth reading in Spanish, with an English crib if needed.

27 E. Valleys November 17, 2017 at 9:30 am

I am recent to Spanish learning, but Platero y Yo (by Jimenez) is great … also, lots of poems from other languages translate into Spanish more accurately than they do into English – translations of pre-copyright era poems into Spanish are easy to find on the internet. Rosalia de Castro is wonderful, too.

28 jseliger November 17, 2017 at 9:48 am

Recently, I like Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who is underrated by the literati and maybe overrated by his admirers.

29 mnlgrc November 17, 2017 at 10:27 am

in poetry I recommend Claudio Rodríguez, “Don de la ebriedad”

30 Mitch Berkson November 17, 2017 at 10:46 am

I have enjoyed Mikis Theodorakis singing (with orchestera) Canto General:

31 Mitch Berkson November 17, 2017 at 10:49 am

Whoops. Maria Farantouri is the singer.

32 David Patel November 17, 2017 at 11:12 am

I was surprised Roberto Bolaño was not on the list. And Mario Benedetti and Juan Jose Arreola. Once again, not a single woman on a MR list. Why not at least put Cristiana Peri Rossi and Silvina Ocampo on there?

33 steve November 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm

As Tyler notes, the translation of The Savage Detectives is excellent.

34 Jo November 18, 2017 at 8:20 am

Because those women are bland. I’d put Elena Garro.

35 Bob November 17, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Cervantes is not really worth it in Spanish: It is obtuse enough for natives in it’s original prose.

I’d recommend Quevedo though. I would argue that El Lazarillo De Tormes is the key work in understanding the Spanish psyche.

36 Cuban Literature November 17, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Paradiso by José Lezama Lima

37 Manuel November 17, 2017 at 5:55 pm

Saga/Fuga de JB, by Torrente Ballester. No idea about English translation

38 mnlgrc November 17, 2017 at 7:09 pm

i fully agree, highly recommended

39 Joan November 17, 2017 at 9:00 pm

Tyler, what do you think about younger people, such as Javier Cercas or Roberto Bolaño?

40 Efim Polenov November 17, 2017 at 10:15 pm

Although I can’t claim to be all that proficient in Spanish, I still think Cervantes in Spanish is clearly different from Cervantes in English, in a couple basic ways, which anyone who works even a little on his Spanish can discover for herself or himself. One way – Don Quixote himself is much more eloquent in Spanish, and the eloquence of his words is even more contrasted to his unusual perceptions of the events around him than it is in English (difference being similar to seeing a High Renaissance painting under fluorescent light in a very bright room (English Quixote) compared to seeing the same painting in sufficient candlelight in a room that is just bright enough) – the final effect being the effect Cervantes worked so hard for, to make Quixote at once deluded and at the same time an eloquent and almost wise philosopher and brave Christian. Another way – Sancho Panza seems much more intelligent in Spanish, more like Yogi Berra or Vin Scully than the translated versions, where he comes off more like Yogi Bear or a peasant version of My Cousin Vinny. Third – Cervantes’ vocabulary is amazingly varied. He mixes Celtic root words, old Hispanic words, metaphysical words, and the most ordinary words of his day, in never-ending rings of changes – and he is self conscious about it, in a way (in Spanish) that reminds you of Shakespeare but which (in English) sounds like a necessarily second-rate imitation of Shakespeare.

41 Per Kurowski November 18, 2017 at 10:13 am

Forget the books… you will never find a Cantinflas in these

42 peri November 18, 2017 at 2:11 pm

My recalled titles from high school Spanish class: “Marianela,” which I just googled and it is as melodramatic as I remember; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “El Colonel No Tiene Nadie Quien Le Escriba,” which I don’t remember at all, but I do recall that the reading of it was much easier than old “Marianela.”

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