To gift, or not being careful enough with don julio

Recently I wanted to admonish a friend who has three copies of every LP he's ever bought (or something ridiculous like that). He defended the fact that he had this rather expensive hobby saying, and I quote, "You never know what can happen - kids, cats, drugs and alcohol, they're all potential vinyl destroyers".


I thought his defense deserved a styled retort so I turned to a better writer than myself: Julio Cortázar, quite possibly my all-time favorite.


Yes, I did just say that. My all-time favorite writer. Those are strong words for a reader to say but he's worth it.


Don Julio writes in Spanish though and my friend doesn't speak Spanish. I was on the metro, whatsapping away happily, so I did a quick Google to get the text I wanted in English. I was looking for a piece in Historias de cronopios y de famas (Cronopios and Famas) called Preambulo a las instrucciones para dar cuerda al reloj (Preamble to Instructions on How to Wind a Watch). I found one on, a translator community and platform. Its translator had a name (wow!), that name was included in the translation I found (wow wow!), and appeared to have been published (triple wow!). I read through it quickly and sent it along to my collecting friend, the one who feared for the life of his belongings on this earth. 


I went back to enjoy the little piece after having gotten through with my literary tsk tsking and read the first sentence:

Think of this: when they present you with a watch, they are gifting you with a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air.


Wait, what? They are "gifting you"? That must be a typo, I thought. Then I thought, maybe Julio made up a verb, he could do that. Julio is cool enough to make up words. But did it sound that awkward when I read it in Spanish? Wasn't this a beautiful poetic little treatise? I puzzled but had to get off the metro and about my business so I put the phone away and my puzzlement got hidden in the confines of my purse to be bustled through Madrid.


This was a few days ago and I've been pulling out the puzzlement to rub between my fretting fingers since. This evening, after I finished working, I went to my bookshelf and got Historias de cronopios y de famas down and flipped to the little story in question. What exactly does my fav say? What are Cortázar's exact words?


Piensa en esto: cuando te regalan un reloj te regalan un pequeño infierno florido, una cadena de rosas, un calabozo de aire.


So for the non-Spanish readers out there, he does not make up a verb that is "to gift". He uses the same verb twice in fact: "regalar", "to give" or maybe, if you wanna get fancy, "to make a gift of". Don Julio plays with this repetition and it gives the text part of its special musicality. A translator should try to imitate that in English, not make the reader stop short and read it again. So I was already disapprovingly scrunching my eyebrows together. But it gets oh so much WORSE!


Cortázar is speaking to the woes of material possessions (excuse me for summarizing what's already brief). When he says a "cadena de rosas" he means a chain of roses, as in you are being locked in by beauty. He does not mean a wreath, a perfectly acceptable translation in another context but not here. A wreath can't tie you into anything. It hangs on a door. And who makes wreaths of roses anyway?


If I thought my friend cared, I might take the time to translate the piece myself, typing it into my little whatsapp screen, but he's probably on to other things. Not like some people we know of course, people who fret and puzzle and re-think what's already been good and thought.


But I love Julio and I love words, so that's what I do, I think on them.


Think of this: When they give you a watch they're giving you a tiny flowering hell, a chain of roses, a dungeon of air. [...] They give you its brand, and the knowledge that it's a better brand than the others, they give you the tendency to compare your watch to the other watches. They aren't giving you a watch, you're the gift, they're offering you to the watch for its birthday.





I'm going to include his picture because he's a wonderfully monstrous looking man of a writer.

Don Julio Cortázar
Don Julio Cortázar

Write a comment

Comments: 0