Languages Within A Language: Camilo José Cela’s The Hive

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The French translator and theorist Antoine Berman has remarked that in a subset of great novels, it is exactly their “bad writing” which makes them rich. They suffer from an overabundance of voices, threatening to explode the form in an attempt to encompass their language of composition in all of its plurality and heterogeneity. The Hive, James Womack’s new translation of Nobel Laureate Camilo José Cela’s La colmena, is just such a work. Set in Madrid during the early 1940s, it is an admirable attempt at the surely arduous, and sometimes paradoxical task, of translating a polylingual novel that is richly rooted in a specific time and place.

True to its name, The Hive is buzzing with characters—over three hundred in all. They weave in and out of the honeycomb streets of Madrid, stopping in cafés, salons, dive bars, bakeries, antique shops, police stations, apartments, and alleyways. Most of them are cast in sharp, jocular detail for hardly more than a page at a time. These descriptions leave the impression that many of them are “types” more than characters proper. A favorite example of mine is a man introduced near the end of the book as nothing more than the father of another man named Fidel:

Fidel’s father, who is a pastry chef as well, had been a brute of a man who ate sand as a purgative and who spoke about nothing apart from folk dancing and Zaragoza’s protector, Our Lady of the Pillar. He thought a great deal of himself as a businessman, was proud of how cultured he was, and had two types of business card, one of which said “Joaquín Bustamante—Tradesman,” and the other said, in Gothic script, “Joaquín Bustamante Valls—Author of We Must Double Spain’s Agricultural Production.” When he died he left behind a huge amount of rough-edged handmade paper covered with numbers and plans: he wanted to double the number of crops each year using a system of his own invention: vast piled-up terraces filled with fertile soil, which would have water pumped into them via artesian wells and sunlight delivered to them by a system of mirrors.

Fidel’s father goes on to give his pastry shop a ridiculous, politically charged name—“The Sons of Our Forefathers”—and then we never see him again. His son complains about the name a bit, and then changes it, and then too disappears into oblivion, along with so many other colorful examples of 1940s Madrileños, after providing us with just a couple of pages of entertainment under Cela’s all-knowing smirk. Cela might have been writing about all of his characters when he comments on another baker, Señor Ramón, that “You could write his biography in a few lines.”

We meet many dozens of people like this before something like a plot begins to flicker into existence under the surface of these vignettes. The first chapter is composed of 46 short scenes, which are almost entirely set within the same café, and arranged in an unclear chronological order within a period of time that’s somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours long. It introduces us to more than twenty of the café’s patrons, employees, and its cruel owner, Doña Rosa. While many of their conversations appear to have no more purpose than to make us smile, or laugh, or frown, eventually something like the threat of a serious, violent event emerges. Other threats, major and minor, are much of what drives the drama throughout the rest of the equally fragmented book, which takes us out of Doña Rosa’s café and through the many shadowy alcoves of Madrid over the course of a few days. These are threats of violence, which is lurking at all times beneath the many characters’ daily toils, and of desperation, as poverty forces nearly everyone in the city to give up something they hold dear, and they seem to culminate in one major threat to one of the novel’s most frequently recurring characters, the down-and-out writer Martín Marco. But this arc is blended in with hundreds of such micro-episodes that have nothing to do with Martín Marco, and which on the surface have little to do with anything else either. It’s clear to the reader that, despite the haunting connections between the vignettes constituting the novel, its primary achievement is these portraits for their own sake. Cela’s ironic presentations of the folk of Madrid curdles into pity, and then love, as those of the best social novelists do.

A favorite irony of Cela’s seems to be the image of the woman who turns to prostitution to support a feeble or infirm male partner, with or without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, women are portrayed as being uniquely vulnerable to the poverty gripping the city, as the few men who have money use it to encourage, or even coerce, women to sleep with them. These and other, less troublesome sexual relations drive much minor action of the novel; the three most common activities we see Cela’s characters engaged in might be eating, complaining about not having enough to eat, and sneaking around at night. The frivolity of these cavalier episodes sometimes gets a little tiresome, and their juxtaposition with darker incidences of sex trafficking and violence is jarring. At its worst, reading them together can make you wonder if Cela, or his narrator, take threats to women’s agency in sexual situations as seriously he should. But as a whole, what emerges from the novel is a scathing critique of the kinds of relations that organize how people approach love, money and sex in 1940s Madrid. Concern with propriety and familial honor appear alongside desperate poverty as the factors that are most likely to leave women vulnerable to abuse, and this is surely one of the reasons that the novel was banned by the censors in Franco’s Spain, a regime which relied heavily on “traditional family values” in its rhetoric of a unified, proto-fascist, Catholic Spain.

Another reason would be the way The Hive foregrounds Spain’s linguistic and cultural heterogeneity. One of the most studied characteristics of the novel is its characters’ social class and cultural background: how much money they have, how they got it, and what they do with it; where they’re from, who their family is versus who it claims to be, and so on. The greatest tell, besides the characters’ material conditions, is their language: how they speak and to whom. Madrileños of various levels of wealth and background are surrounded by Galicians, Catalans, Romani, and other people for whom Spanish is a second language. All characters in The Hive are gently mocked by its narrator, but none are so thoroughly ridiculed as those who believe in the myths of superiority of certain backgrounds. Madrid is ultimately portrayed in a rich diversity that is not an aberrance from Spanish national identity, but rather constitutes it.

This is also where the process of translating the novel must have been the most challenging. How do you represent, in a different tongue, the languages within the language of the original text? The short answer is that you can’t—not exactly. To take an example from the novel, there is no perfect English translation for the idiom “Es que estoy que no me llega la camisa al cuerpo”; to translate it literally would not make its connotative meaning available for the English-language reader, and this is the meaning that is important: The man who says it is not really having a problem with his shirt. We can say the same for Womack’s decision to translate this idiom as “It’s just that I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.” There is no exact translation for “heebie-jeebies” into Spanish, or any other language for that matter; but it is something that someone might say in the same context, to paraphrase linguist Eugene Nida. This technique becomes absolutely essential when translating a novel as rich with colloquialisms as La colmena. It allows for approximations of those characteristics of language we call tone, style, register or voice, and if it does this sometimes at the cost of more direct translations of the sense of the words chosen, Womack deploys these approximations aptly in most cases. The characters of The Hive sing—or occasionally, in more dire conditions, croak—in distinct, lively voices, with great respect for the emotional valence and diversity of register that makes the Spanish-language original so compelling.

Womack has especially nailed what’s possibly the most important voice of all: the narrator’s. Though he never appears in the action, and only very rarely admits to his own existence by means of a personal pronoun, the text is thick with his irony, his judgments, his caresses, and his humor. He is similar to, but not quite the same as, the voice that writes the many prologues of The Hive, which addresses the world—and the book’s place in it—a little more directly. La colmena has had a long and complex publication history, and for at least six of these editions, Cela wrote a separate preface, which are dutifully compiled and translated in this edition. Of these, the most compelling are probably the first and the last, in which Cela enumerates some of the book’s early troubles getting past the censors of both Spain and Argentina, and considers the problem of translating a book written in and about “Spanish as she was spoken in the city of Madrid between about 1940 and 1942” into Romanian a quarter of a century later. In this last preface, written for the first Romanian edition, Cela is pessimistic about the possibility of translation, going so far as to complain that “if there were such a thing as good sense in the world, we writers would be the first and most stubborn opponents of translation.” But after reading this work of Womack’s, I don’t think we need to be. Despite Cela’s potent criticisms of their lives, his characters keep on plodding along, and despite whatever he thinks about the possibility of translation, his books will keep on being translated. Womack’s work in this new edition not only proves that this is possible but in fact desirable, and his work makes available much of what makes this important novel worth reading. I only wish Cela were still around to write a new preface for it.




Jack Rockwell is a writer and translator from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Words Without Borders, Hopscotch Translation, Latin American Literature Today, and more. He is currently a student in the MFA program in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. More from this author →