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#2701: Willa Cather to Alfred A. Knopf, April 19, 1938

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⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ K 4/20 Mr. Alfred A. Knopf1, 501 Madison Avenue, New York City2.
My dear Alfred:

You will see by reading the enclosed letters from Madame Yourcenar3 (the first written before she came to see me, and the second afterward), that our interview greatly cooled her enthusiasm.

  • 1. Unfortunately, Madame Yourcenar made her translation4 from the Tauchnitz5 edition, which contains many errors. She was no fuarther away than New Haven6,; and had she applied to either you or me, a recent and corrected edition would have been sent her promptly.
  • 2. Madame Yourcenar has never been in the Southwest7 at all, and seems to have no conception of how very different that country is from any other part of the United States8. She has not informed herself at all about its people or customs - which, after all, are today very much as they were in Archbishop Lamy9's time. In so far as that country and people are concerned, her mind is an utter blank. Yet she says that there are some descriptive passages in the book (I don't know how many) which she must "paraphrase." How can one paraphrase descriptions of a landscape which one has never seen, or even informed onself about? You will notice she speaks of these passages as descriptions of "American landscape"; as you know, it is Mexican landscape, not "American".
  • 3. Madame Yourcenar further told me that it would be impossible to use in her translation the local names of things - i. e., nouns such as burro, mesa, adobe (both a noun and adjective), casa, arroyo, hacienda, etc., etc. These words were, of course, originally Spanish, but they are now 2⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩common words everywhere in the Southwest. All the American farmers and railroad workmen use them without knowing that they are Spanish. There are simply no other names for these things. You cannot call an arroyo a ditch or a ravine.
  • 4. I had of course thought that Madame Yourcenar would do what all the other translators of this book have done - simply employ these native words as they are used in my text. She declared that this was impossible, as the use of foreign words was very objectionable to the French taste and, moreover, they would not be understood by French readers. Explanatory footnotes, she said, were very objectionable to a French audience, and in such bad taste that she could not use them. I reminded her that the pages of CARMEN10 are peppered with Spanish words, and whole sentences in the Gypsy language which are translated in footnotes. This is equally true of COLOMBA11. She said this would merely make a book look old fashioned, and with great decision dismissed the suggestion. She said that she wouldconsented to use the word pueblo in her translation, but would promise nothing further.
  • 5. Since my meeting with Madame Yourcenar I have been running through the very excellent Italian translation12 made by Alessandra Scalero13, and I find that in every instance she uses the New Mexican nouns and adjectives, those I have usedlisted above in paragraph 3 and many others, exactly as I used them myself. The only difference being that she puts all these foreign words, even such simple ones as "poker", "rancheros" and "hacienda", in italic. She has very clear and enlightening footnotes on such words as "trapper", "gringo", and very short footnotes telling clearly what a "mesa" is, a "hogan", "wampum", etc. The Italian translation clearly and faithfully 3⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩reproduces the English text of the book.
  • 6. Now we will get to the heart of the matter. Madame Yourcenar feels that this book accurately translated would not make, as she says, "beautiful French". I have every admiration for the writer who wishes to write his own language beautifully, and I am afraid she has chosen a book which is not suited to the kind of French she wishes to write. My apprehensions have to do with:
    • First, her absolute refusal to make use of the local New Mexican-Spanish words for which there are no English or French equivalents.
    • Second, the fact that she wishes to paraphrase the passages describing a country which she has never seen and about which she has read very little.
    Paraphrasing in this case would certainly be improvising. And how many improvisions, one would like to know? Madame Yourcenar told me that some of these words were "not in the dictionary". I find very clear definitions of the several she mentionsed in the unabridged Webster's Dictionary14, published 1935.

After going through the Italian translation and seeing how possible it is to make a faithful translation, I think it is not unreasonable in me to ask that I should be allowed to see proofs of Madame Yourcenar's translation before it is published15.goes to press

Excuse this long letter.

Faithfully yours, Willa Cather