12 April 2021

A good sock to the jaw

"A terrible time is coming" [220], Remo Erdosain warned a pharmacist near the end of The Seven Madmen. Surely he was not referring to the present 2021 terrible but to the continuation of his story in Los lanzallamas (1931). On the previous page, he already said the same to the pharmacist:

I have to do something to bring down this society. There are days when I suffer unbearably. It's as if everything that happens is out of control, like a plunging wild beast. It makes me want to go out into the street and preach mass murder, or to set up a machine gun on every street corner. You must see it: terrible times are coming.

That was from the translation of Nick Caistor. In an afterword to the book called "Arlt's Life and Times", Caistor explained his approach to the translation, a fitting way to deliver in English a South American's mass murdering and mass shooting psyche:

Critics have often complained of Arlt's repetitions, his lack of grammatical accuracy, his wayward logic. The temptation as a translator is to straighten him out, to bring back a decent sense of order and common sense. In translating The Seven Madmen, I have tried not to do this, while at the same time avoiding adding any incoherencies of my own. I only hope that this crazy, disjointed, glorious book still has in English the power of a good sock to the jaw – as Arlt himself described the power of literature.

That was Arlt surely, incoherencies and all. And "a good sock to the jaw" was the knockout he was aiming for in his violent Buenos Aires world. By page 76 of The Flamethrowers, translated by Larry Riley, I was already enamored (read: battered) by the lack of order and common sense to the proceedings. Whether it was the translation of the story or the chaos Arlt deliberately brought to the table, who could tell. As can be gleaned from the first half of the story (in Los siete locos), crazy disjointed glorious was the order of the day.

Larry Riley was kind enough to reproduce and translate for the reader the "Words from the Author" that gave Arlt's standard for a powerful piece of work.

The future is ours, for powerful work. We'll create our own literature, but in our proud solitude we can write books that include the violence of a "left cross" to the jaw. Yes, one book after another, and which those eunuchs [literary critics of newspapers] will spit on.

The novelist Rick Harsch, who supplied the introduction to the book, revealed that Riley "determined to translate [Los lanzallamas] from a language he did not know at all into English". True to the spirit of the Argentinian novelist, who discussed in the foreword how "style", "beauty", and "embroidery" were somehow antithetical to his writing, Riley – with the help of Harsch, presumably, but this was in question – persevered and completed and published his translation. Like Arlt, Riley was brave enough to put out a work for readers other than his family members.

They say I [Arlt] write poorly. It's possible. However, I wouldn't have any difficulty in citing any number of people who write well and who will only let certain members of their family read their work.

If indeed what we have in our hands is sub-par work, then so be it, I'm still rubbing my hands together. The translation could readily capture Caistor's observation of Arlt's penchant for repetitions, ungrammatical formulations, haphazard logic. A terrible translation was in keeping to the terrible times that we – also, Arlt circa early 1930s – live in. You see, Caistor did not smoothen the diction or grammar. So the reader could enjoy Riley's translation as a parody or satire of what could have been. Amateur Reader provided some writing samples. 

It might not be such a shame at all to read flawed translations. In "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" (translated by Natasha Wimmer, and used as an afterword to the 2015 Serpent's Tail edition of The Seven Madmen), Roberto Bolaño noted how Arlt himself was weaned on this kind of translations.

Arlt is quick, bold, malleable, a born survivor, but he's also an autodidact, though not an autodidact in the sense that Borges was: Arlt's apprenticeship proceeds in disorder and chaos, through the reading of terrible translations, in the gutter rather than the library.

While Arlt's standard of a powerful work – that it was like a decisive uppercut to the jaw – was kind of violent and heavy-handed, a rather diplomatic test of a translation's worth, especially in Arlt, is if it made you laugh the way, say, Kafka's confused characters or Bernhard's megalomaniac rants made you laugh. Early scenes in The Flamethrowers – e.g., the virginity scene in pp. 50-55 – already fanned the flames of comedy. Let's see if Harsch, I mean Riley, could keep it consistently.


  1. In some clearly defensible ways, it is the ideal translation. Iam so glad the book found its way to you.

    1. I have a copy of the book even before finishing The Seven Madmen. It’s a good counterpoint to the writings of Borges although poor translations are also defended by Borges (this may warrant another blog post.)

  2. Not to be pedantic but I'm not sure why Caistor speaks of Arlt's "sock to the jaw" when Arlt himself used the English word "cross" in the line from his intro to Los lanzallamas. A perfectly good boxing term sanitized for something less Arltian, you know?!? If I recall, Onetti and Piglia claimed Arlt--whose parents were both non-native Spanish speakers--might have picked up some of his distinctive Spanish from reading poorly translated paperbacks of Dostoyevsky and Andreyev; however, it's hard for me to remember who made that claim and neither one of those generally pro-Arlt writers were beyond a gag at the expense of Arlt or the reader anyway. In other words, exciting post!

    1. The sock was may be a wayward paraphrase of Caistor's. I also like "cross" better: it was used several times in a Japanese boxing series anime I'm watching: Hajime no Ippo.

      I will not be surprised if Bolaño cribbed the idea of Arlt's "reading of terrible translations" from someone else. (He copied Borges's idea on translation in an interview and in an essay.)

      Maybe from Onetti: B said Arlt, like Onetti (and unlike Borges and Bioy), "opts for the parched and silent abyss", as B failed to recognize the humor in Arlt. "From Arlt's abyss was born the most demented kind of utopia: a story of sad gunmen that anticipated, like Sábato's Abaddón, el exterminador, the horror that much later would hover over the country and the continent". In any case B still placed A "in the company of such exceptional writers and literary giants" as JLB, Julio C, Bioy C, and Sábato.

      This is a "pedantic" reply to your comment. I've been called pedantic and I might as well embrace pedantry like a pendant.

    2. All quotes from Between Parentheses as translated by Natasha Wimmer.