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on 8 December 2007
Jorge Isaacs's "María" (1867) is the most important nineteenth-century Spanish American novel, widely recognised as the most achieved expression of Romanticism in the region. The English version offered here seems to be a reprint of the 1890 translation by Rollo Ogden. (I did a search on the internet and it figures on other websites as such, and printed by Wildside Press, but Amazon has none of that information). In any case, the problem with this translation is not that it is old. In fact, Ogden did a great job at translating the local Spanish and in that sense it is more than adequate. The problem lies in the ways in which Ogden "corrects" the original text by suppressing entire sections. The translator erases the chapter in which we learn that the beloved María is Jewish as well as an embedded story of the origins of her nanny, a woman enslaved in Africa who gained her freedom in Colombia. This embedded story is of central significance in the novel. For this narration, Isaacs adopted all the lyric imposture of Romantic imaginings of exotic worlds, and here he followed Chateaubriand very closely. Yet, Isaacs's account remains unique: unlike most nineteenth century narratives, the account of tribal wars, colonial intervention and enslavement is not told from the perspective of white men but from that of an African woman.
One has to wonder which sensibilities Ogden was protecting by eliminating both the Jewish element and Isaacs's visible inclination to denounce the horrors of enslavement and confer Colombian Afro-descendants a place in history.
Having said all this, this is the only English translation of María and thus the only way to familiarise the English-speaking world with a novel that was for over a century the most read novel in Spanish America.
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