26 September 2010

"The Slaughter of the Ponies" (João Guimarães Rosa)

     "I'll bet they're killing our ponies!"
     And the hell of it was, they were. The corral was full up with our mounts and the poor horses were trapped, hardy and blameless as they were; and they, the damned dogs, with no fear either of God or the law in their hearts, outdid themselves to torment and plunder—as if they were tearing our hearts from our bodies—firing into our ponies, to right and left! It made you sick to see such a sight. Bobbing up and down—somehow understanding, without knowing for sure, that the devil had been turned loose in their midst—the horses whirled crazily around and around, galloping in fits and starts. Some of them reared up on their hind legs and pawed the air with their front hoofs, and fell on top of one another, and tumbled in a whirling jumble. And some with their heads held high in the air beat the necks of others, shaking their stiff and prickly manes: they seemed no more than twisted, curved lines! Their whinnying came as it clutched at their hearts: a shrill, brief cry, if neighed out of rage; short also, but deep and hoarse, if neighed out of fear, like the shriek of a wildcat, blasted from flared nostrils. They spun madly about the enclosure, colliding with the stakes as they ran wild, kicking in frenzied welter. What we were seeing was like an infinity of wildly fluttering wings. They raised dust from the very stones! Then they began to fall flat on the ground, their legs widespread, holding up only their jaws or forelocks: their bodies rippled. They began to fall, nearly all of them, and finally all. Those that were slow to die whinnied in pain. From some it was a piercing, snorted groan, almost as if they were speaking. From still others a constrained whine in the teeth, uttered with great difficulty. That whinny was not breathed out as the animal gave up its strength; it was squeezed out as the animal gasped for its final breath.

This long quote comes from the first paragraphs of an excerpt published in The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature, Volume II: The Twentieth Century – from Borges and Paz to Guimarães Rosa and Donoso (1977), edited by Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie. The excerpt is titled "The Slaughter of the Ponies," one of the "Two Texts" by João Guimarães Rosa included in the anthology; the other is the short story "The Third Bank of the River."

The two texts are prefaced by a long introduction on the life and works of Guimarães Rosa. The introduction mentions near the end that: ' "The Slaughter of the Ponies,' is taken from Grande Sertão and is one of the episodes eliminated from the U.S. translation [emphasis added].' The U.S. translation is The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, published by Knopf in 1963.

The text of the "Slaughter of the Ponies" (pp. 683-686 of the anthology) is attributed as taken from "Grande Sertão: Verédas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands), especially translated by Jack E. Tomlins." It's not clear whether Tomlins was credited for the U.S. translation (a clear mistake) or to the excerpt itself (possibly a mistake too, according to Gregory Rabassa below).

In his memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents (2005), Gregory Rabassa sustained the assertion that the text was left out in the U.S. translation:

[Grande Sertão] had already been translated but a lot had been slurred over and a lot had been left out. When Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie were putting together their Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature they both agreed on the chunk of Grande Sertão that would give the best sense of the book as a whole. Since a good part of their anthology made use of extant translations they went to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and found that their sought-after selection had been one of the many parts left out. Tom Colchie had to do his own translation, which stands out when held against the purported version. [pp. 71-72]

This claim, that the slaughter of the ponies was not included in the Taylor-De Onís translation, turns out to be false. The incident occurs in pages 280-284 of the book. The same opening paragraph reads:

     "Look, they are killing the horses!"
     Damned if they weren't. The corral filled with our good horses, the poor things imprisoned there, all so healthy, they were not to blame, and those dogs, with neither fear of God nor justice in their hearts, were firing right and left into that living mass, to torture and sear our souls! What an appalling sight. Realizing without understanding that the devil was at work, the frantic horses galloped around, rearing and pawing and coming down with their front hoofs on the backs of others, stumbling, colliding, their heads and necks stretched, their manes stiffly flying: they were just a lot of writhing curves! They were whinnying, too—high, brief whinnies of anger, and whinnies of fear, short, hoarse, as when a wildcat snarls through wide-open nostrils. Round and around they went, bumping into the fence, kicking, scattering, panic-stricken. They began falling, sprawled on the ground, spreading their legs, only their jaws or foreheads held upright, trembling. They were falling, nearly all, then all of them. Those slow to die were crying in pain—a high snorting groan, some as if they were talking, others whickering through their teeth, struggling with their last breath, gasping, dying.

This section is indeed one of the most memorable parts of the book and shows why Guimarães Rosa is considered a writer of descriptive power. The incident described runs for a few more paragraphs. In it, Guimarães Rosa evokes at once cruelty and sympathy—disgust at the suffering of animals at the hands of men, and men's genuine compassion for them.

Rabassa's observation that a lot had been left out may be true, but this particular incident at least is not one of them. However, it is clear from the length of the extracts that the Taylor-De Onís translation compresses a lot of the phrases and sentences compared to the earlier quoted Tomlins/Colchie translation. In the penultimate paragraph of the excerpt itself, the Tomlins/Colchie translation contains several sentences that are not present in the Taylor-De Onís translation. Other than that, the whole incident in the U.S. translation corresponds well with the Borzoi anthology excerpt, albeit in shortened form. This indicates that the U.S. translation possibly used a minimalist strategy that affected the lyricism and verbosity in the prose style of Guimarães Rosa. The minimalist prose has its charms but could alter the perception of a writer known for his verbal skills and wordplays.

To further illustrate whether the Tomlins/Colchie translation really stands out when compared to the Taylor-De Onís translation, perhaps it's best to quote the ending of the Borzoi extract and its counterpart to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands:

Tomlins/Colchie translation:

     The flow of time during those days and nights got choked and snagged in confusion: it was all directed toward one final horror. It was a block of time within time. We were trapped inside that house, which had become an easy target. Do you know how it feels to be trapped like that and have no way out? I don't know how many thousands of shots were fired: it was all echoing around my ears. The shots continued dizzily whining and popping and cracking. With walls and plaster still standing around us, the beams and tiles of another man's ancestral home set themselves up between us and them as our only defense. I can tell you—and I say this to you so you'll truly believe it—that old house protected us grudgingly: creaking with complaint, its dark old rooms fumed. As for me, I got to thinking that they were going to level the whole works, all four corners of the whole damn property. But they didn't. They didn't, as you are soon to see. Because what's going to happen is this: you're going to hear the whole story told. . . .

Taylor-De Onís translation:

     Those days and nights went by in sluggish confusion, directed toward one single terrible objective. Time took on a different rhythm. We inhabited a roofed and walled target. Do you know what it is to be holed up like that? I don't know how many thousands of rounds were fired—my ears were filled with the dizzying noise, the constant whining, popping, cracking. The plastered walls, the beams and tiles of the big old house, these were our shield. One could say—and I want you to believe me—that the entire house felt outraged, creaking complaints, and smoldering with rage in its dark corners. As for me, I thought it was just a matter of time before the whole thing would be razed and nothing left but the bare ground.  But it did not happen that way, as you will soon see. Because you are going to hear the entire story.


  1. Thanks for this very interesting post. I am Brazilian and teach GSV in one my courses at Yale using the English translation. Besides, there is a friend of mine is doing his dissertation on this translation and he will certainly like to read this.

  2. You're welcome, Paulo. I was eager to read the excerpt from the Borzoi Anthology when I read about it in Rabassa's memoirs. I thought it was really a deleted section from the US translation but was surprised to find it was not.