Persuasions #7, 1985                                                                                                                                            Pages 21-27


Spanish Translations of Northanger Abbey


English Department, Stetson University, DeLand, Florida 32720


When, last August 18, I opened the books section of the Orlando, Florida, Sentinel, I felt a shiver not unlike that felt by Catherine Morland when she saw the mysterious manuscript in the ebony chest.  “Austen in Australia – She Should Have Stayed Home,” the headline read.  And I was even more frightened by the title of the book reviewed: Antipodes Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen in Australia.  Good grief, I thought; someone has purloined my title.  When Professor Lorie Roth called me a few months ago to ask the title of this paper, I could come up with one no more imaginative than “Spanish Translations of Northanger Abbey.”  In the meantime, though, I’d toyed around with something a bit zingier, like “Catalina y Enrique Go to the Antipodes.” So I felt quite as though my thunder had been stolen.


Later, though, after reading Barbara Ker Wilson’s fictional account of Jane Austen down under, I realized that my fears amounted to nothing more than a mere laundry list.  Her story deals with what might have happened had Jane Austen and the Leigh Perrots travelled to New South Wales during that mysterious time in her life between 1801-05 when, possibly recovering from disappointment in love, she might have accompanied her uncle, a lover of exotic flora and fauna, to a place where she would meet people named Elizabeth, Emma, and a certain dashing D’Arcy Wentworth – but a place which she later contended she would not write about.  “No,” Ms. Wilson’s Jane says, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.  My talents, such as they are, must be contained within a smaller, happier framework.”


Nevertheless, those who feel that Jane Austen thrives most happily in the smaller world of speakers of English, whether it be in Steventon, Bath, DeLand, or Savannah, must realize that she does travel – and often – and often in very strange vessels.  I remember my own Jane Austen binge when my husband and I were living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1976-77, a time when I was able to find copies of her works in English in numerous bookstores – in the fancier ones, with their rows of Penguin paperbacks, as well as those wonderfully cheap and dusty shops lining Corrientes Street (also known as the street where the tango came to life).  I read works about her in the library on the top floor of the building belonging to the Associación Argentina de Cultura Inglesa.  I remember, in addition, seeing in many stores books entitled Orgullo y prejuicio, Sentido común y sensibilidad, and even La abadía de Northanger.  At the time, I read the works in English.  Knowing now what was occurring in that country at that time – for this was one of the worst times of the “dirty war” conducted by the military dictatorship, though we certainly wouldn’t have known that from the newspapers – I feel rather like P. D. James reading Jane Austen through the London blitz.  But there was a certain comfort in secluding myself in our seventh-floor apartment with Elinor and Marianne while that vast and noisy city rumbled on below me; there was even a certain odd pleasure in taking Emma along on a twenty-six-hour bus trip across the vast and empty pampas.  So when I thought about a topic for this session, I thought it might be worthwhile to see a few ways in which Jane Austen does travel to the Antipodes, both in her own language and transformed by the fitting – or ill-fitting – garb of translation.


Of course most of my references will be to Argentina, since I spent six weeks there this summer and since my husband was commissioned to search for copies of the works during the seven months he was there while on sabbatical.  I should make it quite clear that her works are published and sold in many Spanish-speaking countries.  It is the company named Sarpe in Spain, for example, that has published the most handsome recent edition of Pride and Prejudice, in a series called Immortal Novels, whose offerings sell out bi-weekly at newsstands and bookstores throughout the Spanish-speaking world.  My references, though, will be to Argentina – a country distinctly different from any other, not the least of which differences spring from a large Anglo-Argentine population, whose allegiance to the British Isles, despite the Falkland Islands War, is still strong.  I remember only weeks ago hearing a third-generation Anglo-Argentine, a burly man whose English is British and whose Spanish is Argentine, speak with genuine feeling of his reverence for the Queen.  He was discussing the displaying of a picture of Prince Charles and Lady Diana on a wall in the Dorado Club, whose membership is restricted to those who can speak English.  There is thus a native audience within the country, frequently educated in England, who can appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the original version.


But it is with the novels translated into Spanish that I intend to concern myself here.  Judging from the listings in the Spanish edition of Books in Print, Jane Austen is popular.  Though the number of books actually in print varies from year to year, a healthy number always remains.  I should mention that the copies of the Spanish Books in Print that I was able to consult were shown me by a very helpful Argentine librarian in the United States government-sponsored Lincoln Library located in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires.  Pride and Prejudice was listed every year for which I could see copies of the listings, and Northanger Abbey, was a frequent name, as well.  The publishers ranged from places as far apart as Barcelona to Madrid to Mexico City to Buenos Aires.  She has been published by names familiar to those who haunt Spanish bookstores – Espasa Calpe and Planeta, for example.  One series very popular with the generations just previous to ours is the one published by Sopena.  Their books, according to my informant, an Argentine professor whom I will mention later, were pirated editions, but they constituted quite an institution in the Spanish-speaking world.  They were good translations and they sold very well; they were the conduit through which many classics of Western literature entered into Spanish households and consciousnesses.


The particular translation of Northanger Abbey that I consulted is by someone named Isabel Oyarzábal.  I was unable to find out anything about her, nor did any of the three professors of English literature with whom I talked in Argentina know anything about her.  The edition that I used was published by the Acme Agency in Buenos Aires in 1944; it also appeared in the Espasa-Calpe Austral Collection of popular paperbacks in 1951 and 1952.  Although I have not made a word-for-word comparison, the pages I have compared appear to me identical, so I will refer to them as one.


And what can we say about the translation?  For that matter, what about translation itself?  Can the world of Jane Austen be lifted across into a quite different tradition?  A Guatemalan friend who has a B.A. in English was musing about this recently.  Speakers of English, he felt, have an almost instinctive nostalgia for the green and pleasant land of the English country house and village inhabited by the Emmas and Knightleys and Catherines.  Of course we could say that Argentines may view the almost feudal ranches on the pampas with similar eyes.  Those houses, with their retinues of servants, are quite manorial.  Also, the Argentine ideal of success – as a rare-book dealer once told my husband – is not the American businessman but the English lord.


Yet it is not for landscape or for the faded rose petals of the dear days gone by that we read Jane Austen.  Nor could we say that all readers, especially in this country, feel nostalgia for the green world of Meryton and Fullerton.  We read Jane Austen for those marvellous people to whom she gives flesh and blood; we read her for her presentation of human predicaments and themes universally acknowledged to be relevant; and we read her for her rich and elegant language.  And these things can be translated – with varying degrees of success, to be sure, but they can be translated.  In fact, in the history of translation some have even been considered better than their originals.  It has been reported, for example, that the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, quite possibly the most highly-respected writer living today, has said that he prefers to read Don Quixote in English.  And Nobel-Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said that in many places he prefers the American translator Gregory Rabassa’s version of his famous work One Hundred Years of Solitude to his own.


So let us consider how good a traveller is Northanger Abbey – through the guidance, of course, of Isabel Oyarzábal.  Let us look at her treatment of characters, at her accuracy, at her ear for language, and her capacity to capture the flavour of various aspects of the art of the novel.


Let us see first how some of the characters survive the trip to the Antipodes.  As one might expect, General Tilney floats along wonderfully on his buoyant ego.  Although it is obvious that the translator would not have access to the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that Jane Austen would use to take the General down a peg, the rather high-flown Latin terminology she gives him suits him admirably.  Here he is describing his garden. In English, Jane Austen has him say, “he loved good fruit – or, if he did not, his friends and neighbours did.”  The Spanish version says (and here I am converting directly back into English), “If I have an aficíon [by which she translates the English hobby-horse] it is that of possessing a beautiful garden.  The desire to gratify my children and my neighbours would suffice to make me strive to that end.”  The words the translator uses are unctuous polysyllables, and they are very much in character.  Also, she allows him to speak in the first person rather than in the more modest indirect speech Jane Austen gives him.  He talks more elaborately than anyone else in the book, and the elaborateness of his language is set against the hypocrisy of his actions just as much as in the original.


Unfortunately, not all characters travel with equal success.  In Spanish, Mrs. Allen seems to be more of a fat sigher of sighs than in the original.  For one thing, she is called a very fat lady, a judgment that does not appear in the original (at least in my copy; perhaps it did in the translator’s).  That judgment may be true about her head, but not necessarily about her body.  In Spanish, she expresses her sorrow at Catherine’s not dancing, whereas in English, more in character, she simply blathers on about the same subject placidly.  What makes Mrs. Allen Mrs. Allen is not her maudlin sentiment but her colourlessness.


John Thorpe, also, loses a bit in translation.  In English he has a plain face and ungraceful form, but in Spanish only a common appearance – more abstract and less telling than in the original.  Of course he does not break forth with an “Oh, D – –!”  Rather, he expresses his feelings of outrage and nonsense with “Qué barbaridad,” a phrase I have heard spoken by genteel ladies.


Catherine’s translation is of mixed success.  Right at first – perhaps to make the later butterfly more beautiful – she is uglified more than the original would warrant.  Whereas Jane Austen tells us that her features were in general very plain, the translator says they all lacked in physical beauty.  Her body in Spanish is excessively skinny, not the rather touching thin and awkward of the original.  She has, surprisingly, not strong but inexpressive features.  In short, the Spanish version pronounces, she lacked absolutely in beauty.  We can’t help feeling that that’s not fair to our Catherine, and it misses the point of her ordinary, but promising, nature.


Certain unfortunate omissions change certain aspects of her personality, as well.  We are not told of her fear of opposing the opinion of a self-assured man; thus we don’ see how she can be under the control of John Thorpe.  Nor do we see the effect of another influence upon Catherine when the subtle touch of her being fearful of Isabella’s smile is omitted altogether.


Another kind of disappointment is the simple error.  Though the following example may have resulted from late-night translator’s exhaustion, to say that the Chapel of St. Anthony is two minutes, not two miles, away does result in the loss of one of Henry’s exaggerated romantic fantasies.  Still another probably results from unfamiliarity – explainable, to be sure – with English literature when Camilla, Cecilia, and Belinda become the names of readers of novels rather than their titles.  And the translator betrays a lack of knowledge of that monument of British education, the Merchant Taylors’ school, when she says that Edward Thorpe is not studying at Merchant Taylors’ but rather is living in the home of a businessman named Taylor.


The most disappointing feature, however, is the missed irony.  Fortunately our text does not have any passage that falls with quite such a clunk as does the first sentence of the latest – and very popular – Sarpe edition of Pride and Prejudice mentioned earlier.  Here is a direct translation back into the parent language: “It is a truth recognized by everybody that a bachelor owner of a large fortune has to feel some day the necessity of getting married.”  Fortunately, Northanger Abbey does not have any passages so universally acknowledged as classics of irony whose mistranslation should so disappoint.


One does wonder, though, if the translator could see the smile playing about the lips of the author when she wrote that a family often children “will always be called a fine family when there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number” – for she leaves the whole passage out.  She leaves out, also, the anti-heroic apostrophe “What a strange, unaccountable character!” referring to young Catherine.  She does not include the shocking truth about prosaic Fullerton that “There was not one lord in the neighbourhood – no, not even a baronet.”  In short, we miss the delicious vision of Catherine as a romance heroine manqué.


Henry Tilney’s fine ironic view is not always present, either.  His statement “That little boys and girls should be tormented is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny” is simply not there; perhaps the translator considered the statement too shocking for a clergyman to make and omitted it.  The delightful irony of linking the romantic and heroic with the mundane is also missed when the statement “neither robbers nor tempests befriended them” becomes “they were not surprised by thieves nor battered by storms.”


But lest I begin to sound too excessively negative, let me say that there is much that is positive.  The Spanish language, for example, offers subtle definitions of human relationships by way of the formal and informal you.  Isabella and Catherine immediately call each other , but Catherine and Henry always use usted, as proper decorum would dictate.  And when General Tilney uses with his daughter, though that is natural between parent and child, somehow we do not sense fatherly tenderness; we also sense a master speaking to a servant.


Some translations are really quite felicitous.  It may take one aback a bit, but after a while one feels that the connotations are not far apart when calling a man caballero rather than sirDaughter of my soul may be a trifle excessive for my dearest creature, and that’s the limit for well, I declare, but referring to the people at Bath as bañistas (bathers) is curiously charming.  You may decide for yourself about the success of Henry Tilney’s “Alas … alas!” becoming “Ay! … ay!”  It is also quite satisfactory to say that the Morland family behave with inexplicable composure upon Catherine’s departure rather than with merely a degree of moderation and composure, that’s very much in keeping with their quite baffling ignorance of the rules of romance.  Isabella’s where is her all-conquering brother converted into her conquering and all-powerful brother has a nice ring to it.  One can almost hear an actress like Joan Greenwood speak such a line, as one could hear her say imposible, increíble, e incomprensible.


Nicely effective also is the scene in which Henry interrogates Catherine in the style of a Bath beau.  Let us look at the English first.  Henry begins:


“I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether.  I have been very negligent – but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars?  If you are I will begin directly.”

“You need not give yourself that trouble, sir.”

“No trouble, I assure you, madam.”  Then forming his features into a set smile, and affectedly softening his voice, he added, with a simpering air, “Have you been long in Bath, madam?”

“About a week, sir,” replied Catherine, trying not to laugh.

“Really!” with affected astonishment.

“Why should you be surprised, sir?”

“Why, indeed!” said he, in his natural tone.“  But some emotion must appear to be raised by your reply, and surprise is more easily assumed, and not less reasonable than any other.  Now let us go on.  Were you never here before, madam?”


The Spanish – which I am retranslating directly back into English – carries across the affectation:


– You will pardon me, miss, if I have not complied with my duties toward you, interrogating you about the time you have been in Bath – if it is the first season you have spent in the spa and if you have been in the High Salons as well as the concert and the theater.  I confess my negligence and I entreat you to help me repair my failure and satisfy my curiosity.  If it appears acceptable to you, I will help you to formulate the questions in correlative order.

– You do not need to molest yourself, sir.

– It is not a molestation, miss – and, adopting an expression of exaggerated seriousness, and affectedly lowering his voice, he added:

– How much time have you been in Bath, miss?

– A week, approximately – answered Catherine, trying to speak with proper gravity.

– Really? – said he with a tone that affected surprise.

– Why does it surprise you, sir?

– Your question is logical – said the young man in his habitual tone of voice – but it is necessary that your words provoke in me some emotion, and surprise is not only easy to dissemble, but also as reasonable as any other sentiment.  But let us continue: Have you spent any other season in this watering-place?


Despite some differences, the translation is really not half-bad.


We have seen omissions, changes, and happy interpretations.  However, our translator does something else; she adds to the original text.  The reasons for each, however, should be fairly obvious.  When she mentions the game of cricket, she adds parenthetically for her non-English audience, a game especially British.  A squire, she adds, is the most important man in the district.  And when she identifies the romantic hero and future lover Henry Tilney as a clergyman, she adds to the (we may suppose) largely Roman Catholic audience that this is a minister of the Anglican church.


These are a few of the ways in which one work has been misunderstood, changed, and even felicitously reborn into another language.  Is it a success?  I think I would have to say, as with many other things, yes and no.  The work generally reads smoothly.  Naturally, English sentence structure has to be changed to accommodate Spanish patterns, and paragraphs are shortened.  But most of the characters are clearly drawn, the actions and themes cannot be lost, and the language, though often lacking the bite of the original, is clear and smooth.


But at this time, I would like to change course and speak of translation – carrying across – in yet a larger sense.  Not all native speakers of Spanish read La abadía de Northanger; quite a few read Northanger Abbey.  This past summer, I was extremely fortunate to be able to talk with professors of English literature at two separate university-level schools.  The report that I can give is a mixture of bad and good news, triumph and frustration.  At both schools, all works must be read in the original version (the students are, after all, English majors), yet simply getting the works presents difficulties.  The price of a single work can be triple the British or U.S. price.  Not all works are always in print.  And, because of bad relations between the governments of Great Britain and Argentina following the Falkland Islands War, book shipments are unreliable.


But somehow copies do arrive.  And they are studied with care and devotion.  Last August I was able to spend a generously long amount of time with the rector, Rosa Moure de Vicien (a former English teacher) and the current English literature specialist, Maria Elena Passeron, at the Instituto Nacional Superior del Profesorado en Lenguas Vivas Juan Ramón Fernández.  This is a separate school on the level of a university college of education devoted to foreign language instruction.  English literature, I am happy to report, is in good hands: both women are devoted to their field; both spoke effectively of the difficulties of teaching literature in a language that is not native to their students.  And judging from what they said, I think they must transmit their knowledge and enthusiasm – as well as an intelligent methodology for approaching literature – to their students, who will teach on the secondary level.  I was not able to hear a class discussion of Jane Austen; it was mid-winter when I was there and they were reading Chaucer.  It was interesting to learn, however, that on the occasions when the students do not read Pride and Prejudice for their English literature survey classes, the choice is Northanger Abbey.


The second school was the University of Buenos Aires, from whose English department I talked with Professor Laura Juarroz, also very generous with her time and knowledge.  One would like to think that, with the hopefulness promoted by the new Argentine government and the kind of openness signified by, for example, the trials of the previous juntas still in session, the state of English studies would be optimistic.  Such, according to Professor Juarroz, is not the case.  As has happened in many countries, the university – once so cosmopolitan – is becoming politicized and even xenophobic.  Teachers are being removed for reasons Professor Juarroz could not discern, tenure not respected.  In the general education degree, foreign literature is being omitted as a requirement.  Elsewhere, it is reduced in scale: in a new university, that of Lomas de Zamora, all foreign literature is included in two survey courses, called European Literature I and II.  The number of those concentrating on English at the University of Buenos Aires, says the Professor, has diminished from three hundred to ninety.  And throughout there is a conscious effort to encourage only literature in Spanish and discourage the study of English and other literatures.


For these reasons, the next few years look bleak for the study of English literature at Argentine universities.  And what makes this especially ironic is, as Professor Juarroz pointed out, one can’t really understand Argentine literature without knowing world literature, particularly literature in English.  How can one understand Jorge Luis Borges without knowing his love of and use of English literature?


As we have seen, the problems concerned with translation in the fullest sense of the word are great indeed.  At the moment it would appear that in one important part of the world xenophobic pride and stupid prejudices are leaping into the saddle, and we can only hope that common sense and literary sensibility will one day rule again.