Guest Post: Moored to Rhythm. The Point of Honest-dealing in a Translation into English of Haroldo Conti’s novel Sudeste

by Jon Lindsay Miles

The translation discussed in this article brings the Argentine novelist and short-story writer Haroldo Conti to the attention of English-language readers. The particular “difficult interest, as I describe it in the translator’s note to South-East, “centred on the presentation of [Conti’s] respiration in a language with a quite distinct music”. Respiration is the term I use to identify the particular rhythm in Conti’s novel Sudeste, first published a half-century ago, and the first of his works written into English, a rhythm in the telling, where the punctuated pauses breathe as much life into the narrative as the lyrical quality of his words.

           I first quote from John King’s Afterword to place Conti in the context of the Argentine and broader Hispanic literary moment, before using selected paragraphs from the translator’s note to present the difficult interest in writing Sudeste (the source text) into South-East (the translated text). An illustrative excerpt – from both the source text (ST) and translated text (TT) closes.

John King on Haroldo Conti

While writing South-East, Conti would have been living at a time of both political confusion and also excitement: how should Argentina become more modern and develop (modernisation and “developmentalism” were the terms used at the time); how might it embrace the new; how might it react to the imaginative proximity of revolution, with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959? One of Conti’s answers seems to be to step back from the glitter of the new, and shine a torchlight from the brow of his boat on hitherto unexplored spaces of popular culture. In particular he would look to eschew the notion of writer as celebrity, someone – in Tom Wolfe’s phrase – leading the vanguard march through the lands of the philistines. As Conti remarked in a handwritten note:

No sé si tiene sentido pero me digo cada vez: contá las historia de la gente como si cantaras en medio de un camino, despojate de toda pretensión y cantá, simplemente cantá con todo tu corazón. Que nadie recuerde tu nombre sino toda esa vieja y sencilla historia

[I don’t know if it makes sense, but I tell myself these same words every time: narrate the people’s story as you’d sing along a journey, relinquish all ambition, simply sing with all your heart. Let no one remember your name, but everything there is of this old and simple story].[i]

            The novel that seemed to both represent and guide this optimistic embrace of the new was published one year after South-East: Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963). This novel, in its “hopscotch” between the cities of Paris and Buenos Aires, was a playful but also sophisticated search for freedom, both existential and profoundly literary. It stressed the need to “un-write” the novel, to free it from convention and high seriousness – the solemnity and pomposity of much of national literatures – and to play the game with grace and intelligence. It was the novel’s freshness, its limitless cultural breadth and its eroticism that captivated a new audience, who wanted to be Cortázar’s active readers: engaged, modern, experimental and hip. It was one of the first “boom” novels in Latin America, chiming with the literary, modernist experimentation of the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, La ciudad y los perros (literally: The City and the Dogs, but translated under the title The Time of the Hero) won the Seix Barral Prize in Spain in December 1962, and was published in 1963 to critical acclaim. These were the writers who would be promoted by publishing houses, critics and cultural magazines, and would be translated throughout the world.[ii]

            It would be wrong to argue that the attention given to particular writers distorted the market, because the readership for Latin American literature as a whole grew throughout the sixties, both at home and abroad. But it would be fair to say that, in their excitement to promote the boom, publishers and critics in the sixties paid less attention to the quieter, seemingly less ambitious, narratives like those of Conti.

Moored to Rhythm. From the Translator’s Note

Discussion of the practice of translation is keen in the matter of the basic beliefs, policies, or procedures – the theory – a translator works from; it requires the study of a fiction-translation alongside the novel in its first language to suggest where the work of translation has been moored, to which aspects of the source text it shows “fidelity”. But a translator is firstly a reader, and Marcel Proust has something to say about the unfaithfulness of readers:

Saddening too was the thought that my love, to which I had clung so tenaciously, would in my book be so detached from any individual that different readers would apply it, even in detail, to what they had felt for other women.[iii]

            Were the reading translator able to feel sure of any such ascribed authorial intention, writing its exact reproduction into a new language would still be the commonly argued “impossibility” of translation.

            The concern of the practising translator might better be seen as that of an honest dealer in the work of bringing the source text into a new tongue. It may be of interest to signal where I moored my point of honest dealing in this translation of Haroldo Conti’s Castillian-Spanish-language text Sudeste.

            It was the rhythmic sensibility that drew me into the novel, and from its first lines:

            Entre el Pajarito y el río abierto, curvándose bruscamente hacia el norte, primero más y más angosto, casi hasta la mitad, luego abriéndose y contorneándose suavemente hasta la desembocadura, serpea, oculto en las primeras islas, el arroyo Anguilas.

Nicolas Abraham describes rhythm as the origin of the “fascinated consciousness” that projects a story forward, and produces the sense of enchantment we know when reading the best of stories.[iv]

My reading of Sudeste was formed by this immediately intuited aspect, the rhythms ever-present in the novel’s written style, and which are reinforced and intensified by the cycle of the seasons and the movements of nature, the intervals of the protagonist Boga’s journeys and the laconic dialogues with those he comes across around the rivers of the Paraná Delta. Mooring a translation to this stylistic feature of the novel was for me the natural choice, but it required the identification of suitable points of anchorage.

            Conti’s use of punctuation forms a distinctive “respiration” in his text, a rhythmic feature that is also pronounced in well-known authors such as Isabel Allende – and often cancelled in the translation of their texts. The difficult interest in writing Sudeste into English centred on the presentation of this respiration in a language with a quite distinct music. The work of translating the poetic quality of a text is housed in the selection of words and phrases with appropriate sounds to convey the relevant meaning; but the flexibility required when structuring such phrases into sentences that present the rhythmic style of Conti’s writing, brings word size into play.

            The register of Conti’s text is poetic, but at the same time its narrative is simple and direct in its presentation of the particular world of its characters. Shorter words are not only more flexible bricks in the building of lines of rhythmised text, they also lend themselves to such a plain- speaking register. It is at the level of this bricking that South-East is anchored to Sudeste.

            Not that I was aware of this for many months into the writing: while reading lends itself to the analytical act of interpreting the textual surface at this level, writing is rather more intuitive work. It was the rhythmic sensibility of the work at both its underlying, narrative level, and at the surface level of its respiration, that formed the enchantment through which the writing of the translation found its form.

            I have retained terms from the Spanish text to name particular features of the geography of the Delta where the use of an English term might mislead in what it suggested. The most important of these terms is related to the spectacular movements in the water-level in the rivers and streams that are the principal influence on the lives of those who live here. The bajante is the fiercest of these, when the rivers can literally empty themselves of water, but the crecientes – which can reasonably be translated as the surges experienced in other environments – under the influence of winds from the south or east, are also impressive, and intervene in the novel with particular force. I do not use italic print when the word bajante occurs in the text, but do for the occasional English-language terms Conti uses in Sudeste, and italicised in his text.

            Local geographical names are also retained, despite the obvious temptation of signalling the Terror Shallows [Bajo del Temor], for instance. The reminder that the source text of South-East is outside the English language is also present in the contextual framing of the translation.

            The success or failure of a translation might be decided by reference to Proust’s concern: A text that releases in the reader’s mind the riches of an additional and quite personal material, and that liberates it from the particular textual world of the author, strikes this reader, at least, as the signal of a job well done.

            I would be pleased to read further translations of Sudeste, for it is through a return to the source text that a classic work continues to renew its vitality.

 © (Jon Lindasy Miles) 2013

To read an excerpt of Sudeste and its English translation South-East go to our page Translations and Other Writings

Jon Lindsay Miles completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, before founding Immigrant Press in Andalusia, Spain, in 2009. The Press is an independent and not-for-profit publisher working to bring important, but previously untranslated literary works, into English. Haroldo Conti’s “South-East” is the first volume in its Library of Translation series.


I would like to bring to your attention, and invite you, to the UK presentation of the first translation of the work of Argentine novelist and short-story writer Haroldo Conti in English.

South-East is Conti’s classic first novel, first published in 1962, and set on the Delta of the Paraná River. It follows the wandering, and increasingly dramatic journey of its protagonist Boga around the rivers and the islands in search of fish, of shelter, of the boat of his dreams. It is a rhythmic meditation on the relationship between man and nature, the nature of man and on our time in this world. Conti’s novels won him international prizes, culminating with the Casa de las Américas Prize in 1975 for his final novel, completed before he became another victim of the Argentine military regime in 1976. He has already been translated into French and German.

With a translator’s note, a biographical note introducing Conti to this new reading audience, an extended afterword by John King of the University of Warwick, and a quire of colour plates in a special limited edition, Immigrant Press launches its Library of Translation, with its model of not-for-profit publishing to bring classic world literature into English.

The presentation will take place at the Argentine Embassy in London on Thursday October 3rd, 2013, starting at 7pm. 

If you have an interest in attending the event, please send an email to <> so that your name can be added to the list to be submitted to the Embassy in the first days of September. I will then send you exact details of the venue address nearer the time.

[i]  Haroldo Conti, handwritten note, La Rioja, June 1967, published in Crisis 16 (August 1974), p. 44.

[ii]  In Argentina, the highly influential magazine Primera Plana would put certain boom writers on the front cover (primera plana) and do close readings of their work, often accompanied by interviews placing them “en primer plano [in the foreground]”.

[iii]  Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past Vol. 3, Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin; and by Andreas Mayor, London: Penguin 1989, pp. 939-940.

[iv] Nicholas Abraham, Rhythms. On the Work, Translation, and Psychoanalysis, Translated by Benjamin Thigpen, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 1995, see p. 23.


1 thought on “Guest Post: Moored to Rhythm. The Point of Honest-dealing in a Translation into English of Haroldo Conti’s novel Sudeste

  1. Pingback: Moored to Rhythm. The Point of Honest-dealing in a Translation into English of Haroldo Conti’s novel “Sudeste” | IMMIGRANT PRESS

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