Anatomy of a Translation: “The Bloat Toad”

Note: This short essay contains spoilers. You can read “The Bloat Toad” here.

Bloat Toad or Escuerzo?”  This question predicates the translation choices made in translating anew Leopoldo Lugones’ 1906 short story about a legendary vindictive amphibian that stalked those who had done injury to it.  An earlier translation used the descriptive “bloat toad” throughout the tale so as to make it easier for those unfamiliar with the original tale to envision the creature that lies at the heart of this creepy, threateningly odd tale.  Yet in the course of reading Lugones’ tale and doing a cursory search to see if he invented this nightmarish creature, I discovered that there is indeed a South American amphibian known as the escuerzo toad that has all sorts of superstitious beliefs tied around it which Lugones references in this tale.  Therefore, in order to balance between the descriptive element believed necessary to help non-South American readers understand the physical nature of the beast and to preserve a nod to the legends from whence Lugones’ tale sprang, it was decided that it would be best to have the title be “The Bloat Toad” but that all direct references to the animal would be given as “the escuerzo” in order to preserve the sense of the legendary that the original Spanish contained.

Beyond the issue of the creature’s nomenclature, Lugones’ text provided several challenges.  Lugones tended to use more ornate descriptions in his text.  Here is an example:

Así es que el pequeño y obstinado reptil no tardó en sucumbir a los golpes de mis piedras.

A literal translation would be:

So it is that the small and obstinate reptile did not tarry in succumbing to the blows of my stones.”

 But that is a bit awkward in contemporary English, so my final translation renders it as:

Thus the small and obstinate reptile soon succumbed to the blows of my rocks.”

 I could have gone further and said “The small and obstinate reptile soon succumbed to my stoning,” but I wanted to preserve an echo of Lugones’ descriptive prose, where he would often use a more complex noun or adjective phrase in place of a simple, direct statement.  Another example of this occurs later in Lugones’ first paragraph, which I split in two in order to make for an easier read in translation:

Como todos los muchachos criados en la vida semicampestre de nuestras ciudades de provincial, yo era un sabio en lagartos y sapos.

 A literal translation would be:  “Like all of the boys raised in semi-rural life of our provincial cities, I was a wise man in [the way of] lizards and toads.”  But that sounds strange to Anglophone ears, so a simpler “Like all those raised in the semi-rural life of our provincial cities, I was knowledgeable of lizards and toads.”  Yes, there may be a slight loss of narrative power (after all, who wouldn’t want to be considered a “wise man?”), but it makes for a smoother reading experience in English.

 Translation derives from the Latin translation (transference), which itself ultimately means “bearing across.”  Translators are burdened with the Sisyphean task of trying to port across linguistic barriers as much of the letter and spirit as possible of the words and semantics of the original.  It is difficult enough when it’s a mere matter of translating adverbial phrases such as “así es que” into “thus” or “so it is that,” but the difficulty increases exponentially whenever colloquial expressions are used.  It was very difficult to make “mis primeras empresas de cazador” into something that didn’t sound too pretentious for a young boy of eight.  I finally chose “my first hunting enterprise,” even though that still sounds a bit high-falutin’ (pardon my own colloquial expression) for a child.

Another challenge was taking a story of an anthropomorphic battle, the “batracomiomaquía,” between frogs and mice, and making it intelligible for English readers.   Batrachomyomachia, the Greek story of this battle, is not as common of a story tale in English as it was in Spanish-speaking countries, so explaining it as “a battle of frogs and mice” was the compromise I chose.  Despite this, there is some semantic loss, as “batracomiomaquía” is associated with ridiculousness. 

Despite these difficult choices, on the whole the atmosphere of impending doom and horrific revenge translates well from Spanish into English.  Lugones carefully builds up the tension when the dreaded escuerzo toad makes its fateful appearance:

 Calculaba ella que sería la medianoche, pues la luna muy baja empezaba a bañar con su luz el aposento, cuando de repente un bultito nego, casi imperceptible, saltó sobre el dintel de la puerta que no se había cerrado por efecto del gran calor.

She calculated that it was midnight, as the very low moon began to light the room, when suddenly a little black shape, almost imperceptible, jumped over the lintel of the door which she had not closed due to the great heat.”

 Here, minus the choice to use “began to light the room” in place of “began to bathe with its light the room,” Lugones uses fewer adjective phrases to describe the action.  After having carefully built up the fearsomeness of the toad through the stories of the narrator’s old maid and her friend, Antonia, Lugones describes the creature and its actions in sparse, almost clipped tones.  This made the most important part of the narrative strangely the easiest to translate, as the curtness of the action narrated makes it much easier to discern intended meaning: 

Seguía saltando.  Estaba ya al pie de la caja.” 

It continued jumping.  It was already at the foot of the box.” 

Step by inexorable step.  The tension builds as Lugones pares everything down to the impending action of the escuerzo.  The match has been struck and the fuse is now lit after the descriptive dynamite was packed earlier into the story.  At this point, I began to realize just why Lugones had constructed his story in this fashion.  The descriptions, the incredulity of the doomed youth, all of this were kindle for the fire he wanted to unleash in the final, fateful paragraphs.  It is a story that is deceptive in its complexity, but once the effort had been put in to find les mots justes, the “right words” as Flaubert might say, the soul of the narrative opened readily.  “The Bloat Toad” may have been problematic in translating it precisely, but the slowly building tension ultimately makes this translation one of the more enjoyable translations that I have done to date.

(title page of original collection in which “The Bloat Toad” appeared)