The 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre occurred while Mexico was in the midst of an ideological revolution. It was a battle: the Partido revolucionario institucional (PRI — Institutional Revolutionary Party) and its oppressive capitalist plans against the rural working class and their sympathizers. It was a revolutionary fight between the right and the left. The massacre occurred at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in Mexico City. Members of the 1968 student movement gathered to protest the PRI, the lawless imprisonment of their comrades, and the injustice that had prevailed for forty years. Violence erupted, shots were fired, and at least 200 protesters are estimated to have died. In 2018, fifty years later, a government official admitted that the Mexican government had used “snipers who fired to create chaos, terror and an official narrative to criminalise the protest.” Growing up, I remember hearing conspiracy theories claiming that the Mexican state was responsible for the initial outburst that prompted mass violence against the protesters. Now, we know that this theory is true.
José Revueltas (1914-1976), a Marxist political activist and writer involved in the 1968 student movement, is believed to have been one of the leaders of the protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. After the massacre, he was imprisoned in the infamous, clandestine Lecumberri Prison. He spent three years at Lecumberri, keeping a diary that contained self-reflections, free writing, recounts of prison life, existential thoughts on the situation in Mexico and humanity as a whole, and even an unsent letter to his wife, María Tereza Retes. These past eight months, I have been working on a translation of his diary, which I obtained courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.
José Revueltas is an odd man. In my readings of his diaries and biographies, I felt as if I was getting to know an old friend. When he complains about his cellmate’s sickness and “pseudo-cultured, intellectual beliefs,” I laugh. When he contemplates the world, I do the same. When he writes a suicide note, I can only imagine the pain that he feels. Empathy, however, is not enough. To translate his work, I had to become Revueltas. I needed to adopt his humor, intellect, and anguish to transfer his thoughts, sounds, and way of being to the anglophone world.
There are times, of course, when he writes something like “Es de noche en Monterrey” and I know that in another iteration of humanity — one in which this diary’s native language is English — he would write “It’s nighttime in Monterrey.” Unfortunately, most translation work is not this simple. It requires a degree of judgment to determine how Revueltas might express himself in English.
The best example of this lies in Revueltas’s humor. In his free writing, he develops a character named “Orejamocha,” which is derived from the Spanish phrase “hacerse el de la oreja mocha,” meaning to “play dumb.” The name, “Orejamocha,” has a way of rolling off one’s tongue like any ordinary name would. “Playsdumb” or “Dumbplayer” or whatever other English equivalent you can think of, does not. By keeping the original name and adding “Plays dumb” in parentheses after the first use of “Orejamocha,” I tried to maintain Revueltas’s sense of humor and the flow of the original piece. However, it is not perfect.
In another diary entry, Revueltas writes that prisoners fight inside an invisible net of fictions “like people trying to desembarazarse of a spider web that they can’t escape.” “Desembarazarse” is a peculiar word to any reader, Spanish-speaking or otherwise. It literally means “to unimpregnante oneself.” Strange, right? Who speaks like that?
In my experience with the Spanish language, I have always found that it is far more willing to allow its speakers to invent words than the English language. Common words are altered to create new words with more complex meanings. Some of these semi-made up words are in common use. For example, “piernudo” comes from “pierna” and describes someone with long or muscular legs; “chicludo” comes from “chicle” and describes someone who chews their gum loudly or annoyingly; “trabajal” comes from “trabajo” and describes something that requires a lot of work. None of these are real words in the sense that they don’t appear in the dictionary and you probably wouldn’t learn them in your average Spanish class. However, they all have real meanings. Other words, like “desembarazarse,” feel even less like real words. They’re not in common use, but are still somehow intelligible and meaningful. Spanish speakers see “desembarazarse” and extract “embarazarse,” or to get pregnant. The added “des” denotes a negation of sorts, hence the word “unimpregnate.” These made-up combinations of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes are permissible in Spanish in a way that they are not in English. For this reason, I decided that Revueltas would not write “like people trying to unimpregnate themselves of a spider web that they can’t escape.” Instead, I translated this particularly difficult phrase to “like people trying to abort a spider web that they can’t escape from themselves.” However, it is not perfect.
The perfect translation does not exist. Even if José Revueltas himself had translated his writing into English, it wouldn’t be perfect. Like Spanish and English, other languages have different capacities and linguistic cultures. They cannot represent the same meanings in the same ways. At times a translation will require more words to explain a particular idea, like in the case of “Orejamocha.” Other times it will require an entirely different word, like “abort.” Even “It’s nighttime in Monterrey” is not exactly the same as “Es de noche en Monterrey.” Would Revueltas have contracted “it” and “is” or have left them as two separate words? The truth is, I don’t know for sure, but as I sat on a couch in my campus library in my coziest sweater, I attempted to embody the José Revueltas who wrote that sentence while sitting in a prison cell in Lecumberri in 1969. And that is the closest that I can get to the right answer.
 Woodman, Stephen. “Mexico students v the state: Anniversary of 1968 massacre reopens recent wounds.” BBC News, October 1, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45705009.
Image credit: José Revueltas: Posing in a Cell in Lecumberri Prison. From: The Paris Review, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/11/07/mexicos-marxist-prophet (accessed 11/25/19).