A mujerón and a mother in pain: the challenges of translating Junot Díaz

(This is a short log I submitted to my seminar on Literature across Cultures at the University of Utrecht for the session on (un)translatability)

Lawrence Venuti (2001) states that translation is more than a mere communicative act, it is possible to say that the primary aim of the translation process is communication but in this process many factors intersect, factors related to cross-cultural communication, ethics, domestic interests among many others.

In the particular case of the work of Junot Díaz, a Dominican-American author whose style involves the depiction of Latino communities in the United States, it is very easy to find many of the traditional obstacles that Venuti mentions about the translation process: regional or group dialects, jargons, clichés and slogans, stylistic innovations, archaisms, neologisms. All of those are present in the dialogues and narrative voices of Díaz’ universe populated by these characters who will never talk “official” English because there is even some sense of pride about that.

However, is not the practicality of translating specific Spanish neologisms to English the major challenge for the translators of Díaz’ work. Certainly the biggest task is to translate what Venuti calls “the remainder”, referring to those variations that exceed communication because of not having a univocal meaning, the remainder draws attention to the conditions of the communicative act that ultimately embrace social and political factors.


The Mother in Pain

In Invierno, one of the short stories of the collection This Is how you Lose her (2012), a family just arrived from the Dominican Republic to the United States, a man brought his wife and his two children, he’s never at home and, in a non-surprisingly patriarchal way to behave for a Latino male, he instructs that the rest of the family must be inside the house and never go out, not to play nor to make friends, he impedes his wife to learn the English language so day after day this mother spends the whole day doing nothing beyond housework.

Yunior, the son who narrates this story, expresses the differences between his mother’s current behaviour and her personality back in the island. He is surprised that his father spends the whole day watching television and her mother doesn’t even call him a “zángano”. In order to translate a paragraph like that, it is not only necessary to face the difficulty of translating the word “zángano” (an insect who feeds by sucking blood) but also address the endeavour of understanding the cultural and emotional implications of a Latin American woman who is losing in this battle with a man who is in such position of power, a Latin American woman who misses her friends and family, a Latin American woman who is alone and depressed.

But her depression could not be comparable to the same case happening within people from a different cultural background, of course this kind of intra-familiar violence exist across all cultures, but the abuse described in Invierno is particularly painful when considering the archetypes of the Latin American woman. There is a reason why her son is surprised that her mother doesn’t call his father a “zángano”, he probably expected a comeback like that after such annoying behaviour of this man. Central America is an area where femicidios are unfortunately very common but it is also an area where the figure of the mother is widely respected, some theorists relate that respect to the majoritarian Catholic religion and its cult to Virgin Mary. It is not unusual to find these women screaming at their lazy husbands, to see them gathering with their friends from the neighbourhood to complain about their men, is a kind of confrontational personality (as the mother in The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao also by Junot Díaz) that is respected by the community, is a surviving strategy in an extremely sexist demographic.

A translator should be able to incorporate those factors when proceeding with this piece and not transform it to a non-situated story of abuse. This is an approach that, as Doris Bachmann-Medick (2008) proposes, considers translation studies a form of cultural studies, a critical practice that involves a strong link to the real world, the ideological factors, the acknowledgement of local materialities. Actually Bachmann-Medick goes even beyond and states that cultural studies should be seen as translation studies.


The Mujerón

Junot Díaz is particularly eager to speak about interviewers or readers who ask him on his style and the autobiographical dimension of his work. He makes a big emphasis on the factor that his rhythmical style is not a given way of writing for being Latino, is a way of writing that took him several years to develop and master, he also seems kind of annoyed when he is asked to which extent Yunior’s stories are Diaz’ own life experiences, addressing some sort of implication that he is just replicating real-life episodes.

A brief analysis can reveal that the writing of Díaz is full of references to the power relations within the Latino communities, especially when it is about gender and masculinities. Díaz has had to deal with questions about the objectification of women in his work because of the several times he has covered the subject of infidelity and the presentation of male characters who seem to be addicted to have sexual relations with different women dismissing the possibility of a serious romantic commitment.

In the realm of words strictly, it is possible to find the example of the word “mujerón”, this untranslatable word means something like big woman but has a masculine determinant, like “he big woman”. And it is used in Latin American Spanish to describe females with a specific kind of body and attitude, generally a mujerón has a big ass and big breasts, she is meticulously dressed and, in definitive, she dominates her sexual powers. When Díaz’ characters say “that’s a mujerón” analysts could read that as an objectification of women since the characters are only considering the physical features of a woman, however they are dismissing the power structure behind that linguistic construction.

The mujerón is a powerful woman because she is aware of her sexual power, Díaz even opposed the idea of the mujerón to the “blanquita” (small white woman), a phenotype that Yunior rejects. This is a very important gesture regarding the racial dimension, is a reaffirmation of our community aesthetics over the female figures that Western society promotes: a super skinny white woman. Moreover, Díaz is capable of incorporating a somewhat progressive gender factor too, in The Cheater’s Guide to Love, the last short story of This Is how you Lose her, Yunior the main character is devastated because of the mistakes he made, the fault is all his, a man who became addicted to the masculine behaviour proper of the Latino community. The thing that Yunior wants the most is to have his girl back but she is not returning, she was a mujerón and certainly is not an irrelevant detail that mujerón is a word defined by the masculine determinant. Díaz allocates power over the Latino women.

This example does not only show a case in which cultural factors have to be taken into consideration at the translation process, it is also a case where a proper translation could foster communities with new understandings of masculinities. Junot Díaz is an author who is very concerned with the political dimension of his works, he explicitly acknowledges the privilege of us Latinos who grew poor and had the possibility of travel and study. Both examples presented in this log carry a strong component of race, gender and class, in this sense, a proper translation must consider this factors not as merely cultural variations but as political statements. If the aim is to find the multiplicities among languages and within languages proposed by Barbara Cassin (2014) it will be necessary to adopt a translational perspective with a strong political sense, that considers this hybridisation of languages a result of political struggles where the author is unavoidably in a specific political position.


Works cited

  • Cassin, Barbara, et al., eds. Dictionary of untranslatables: A philosophical lexicon. Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Lawrence Venuti (2001) ‘Translation, Community, Utopia’ in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. L. Venuti, 468-488.
  • Junot Díaz (2012) This is how you lose her, New York: Riverhead Books
  • Junot Díaz on ‘Between the covers’ (27 Sept  2012),  available  at: http://www.davidnaimon.com/2012/09/27/junot-diaz-on-this-is-how-you-lose-her/
  • Lecture by  Junot  Díaz  at  MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing (MIT CMS/W, episode 1) available at: http://cmsw.mit.edu/conversation-with-junot-diaz/
  • Doris Bachmann-Medick/Boris Buden (2008) ‘Cultural Studies – a Translational Perspective’


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