Happy Birthday Penguin!

 In honour of Penguin’s 75th birthday (beware – audio!), I thought it would be fun to look at their lists and see which Spanish books they’ve included over the last 3/4 of a century – or at least, which Spanish books still appear on their electronic catalogues. Interestingly, the results look a lot like the undergraduate syllabus I followed at a certain large and well-known English university back in the 1990s, a syllabus which – looking at old exam papers – we students were pretty sure hadn’t changed in more than one or two details since the 1940s.

Like that syllabus, Penguin’s list does incorporate the major writers of the Latin-American boom of the 1960s, but then seems to have screeched to a halt. Lots of the books are published through Penguin Classics, which might explain the fairly … ahem … narrow demographic. It’s certainly an interesting reflection on which Spanish works are considered ‘world classics,’ insofar as that category is still very much alive and kicking in the publishing world. As a good feminist literary critic, I’m sceptical about the benefits of just inserting new voices into the existing canon without questioning the criteria of the canon itself; that said, if ‘world classics’ are the books that play a part in inter- or transnational cultural conversations, and so ought to be available to an English-speaking reader, there are plenty of classic and contemporary Spanish books by authors or both genders and writing in any or all of Spain’s co-official languages that fit the bill. I know my old university has begun the monumental and rather contentious task of dragging that famous undergraduate syllabus into the 21st century, so perhaps that will provide a catalyst, and where the undergraduates lead, Penguin will follow. ¡Ojalá!

So … back to what is included in Penguin’s Spanish lists. I’m very familiar with their versions of two major Spanish classics, La Regenta and Don Quixote, because they were translated by my DPhil supervisor John Rutherford. All personal bias aside, they’re both cracking reads in English, partly because in line with John’s philosophy of translation, the translations are so daring and so full of life, wit and energy, which is especially important in a work like Don Quixote. Interestingly, while the UK Penguin Quixote has an introduction by the translator, the US Penguin replaces it with one by a big-name US Hispanist. I was thrilled to see that after letting La Regenta go out of print for years – a minor scandal because it’s FABULOUS and a classic on the level of Madame Bovary or Effie Briest – Penguin have finally re-issued it, although just now it only seems to be available on Penguin US, so UK readers may have to wait a while longer.

Over the years, Penguin have published a number of anthologies: Spanish Short Stories, vol. 1 edited by Jean Franco, and vol. 2 by Gudie Lawaetz, back in the 1960s, provided parallel text versions of seven or eight stories mostly by Latin-American authors, each printed in Spanish and English; Short Stories in Spanish, edited by John King in the late 90s, did the same with a new selection of stories. In the 80s, there was the Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, edited by JM Cohen (who also authored an earlier translation of Don Quijote), now sadly out of print, but with a wonderfully detailed, if not very pretty, e-catalogue page.

Penguin have done a pretty good job with translations of the medieval, early modern and modern Spanish classics that made up my undergraduate syllabus: the Poema del mio Cid / Poem of the Cid, translated by Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry (but now out of stock), and later in a new version by Burton Raffel, as The Song of the Cid; the two picaresque novels El Buscón and Lazarillo de Tormes, published in a single volume as The Swindler and Lazarillo de Tormes, Two Spanish Picaresque Novels, translated by Michael Alpert; six of Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares were translated by CA Jones as Exemplary Stories (1985)The one and only female author on the list (just like on my undergraduate syllabus!) is St Teresa of Avila, whose El castillo interior or Las Moradas is available via Penguin US as The Interior Castle, in a translation by Mirabai Starr. They’ve also brought Lorca to an English-speaking audience, publishing his Poeta en Nueva York as A Poet in New York, edited by Christopher Maurer and translated by Greg Simon and Steven F White; his The House of Bernarda Alba and Other Plays, translated by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata.

Finally, there are some classic books on Spain by English writers, from Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada via Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War, to a whole range of different Rough Guides, a series I followed religiously when I first began travelling to Spain, despite my first visit to Madrid almost beginning with a night in a 1* recommendation that turned out to be a brothel, which we fled in favour of an even cheaper and slightly less … erm … lively hostal, thanks to a good samaritan taxi driver. Ah, happy days.



  1. Stuart Davis · · Reply

    Interesting survey… Garcia Marquez and Borges, with a splash of Neruda, makes for a *very* slim version of Latin American writing. Where’s Fuentes? Vargas Llosa? Cesar Vallejo?
    Interesting also, when compared to Spain’s greater readiness to accept classics translated into Spanish – Catedra’s Clasicos Universales includes 107 English language texts from a total of 394…

    1. I knew you’d bite! The Catedra figures you quote are broadly in line with the figures from the Spanish publishers’ association that say 25% of books published in Spain overall are translations. Do you think that’s the result of greater openness to the outside world, or of an inferiority complex? (to put it in the crudest black and white terms)

  2. Stuart Davis · · Reply

    Bit of both I’d say… and probably more of the latter 😦 Have been reading recently about Cervantes and the reception of DQ, especially the way in which the English novel tradition writes him out of their (pre-)history. The Spanish have a right to feel put out and marginalised in world literature, I’d say.

  3. Def agree with that – am just starting to look at the origins of Anglo writing on Spanish lit and how they try to find a way of selling Spanish lit to English readers, eg James Fitzmaurice-Kelly: ‘French literature is certainly more exquisite, more brilliant; English is loftier and more varied; but in the capital qualities of originality, force, truth, and humour, the Castilian finds no superior.’ (this really begs a ‘discuss’ after it, don’t you think?!)

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