In a new translation, “Mr. President” by Miguel Angel Asturias reintroduced to the world


If you’ve used one of these online translation tools, you’ve probably quickly found that simply generating the literal meaning of a phrase can create an incomprehensible pile of mush.

Language resists such a two-plus-two-equals-four formula. Instead, it requires a more complex equation, a merging of literal meanings with an understanding of what the original author was trying to say.

This is one of the many challenges David Unger addresses in his masterful translation of “Mr. President”, a classic but often overlooked novel by Miguel Ángel Asturias. In making this work accessible, Unger not only exchanged Spanish for English. He also navigated through a work that draws on the vernacular of a country where half the population does not speak Spanish, but communicates primarily in one of the more than 20 indigenous Mayan languages.

A self-proclaimed “Guategringo” (born in Guatemala, raised and educated in the United States), Unger describes his job in a fascinating “Note on Translation” that gives readers a glimpse of his art. Even two Guatemalan Asturias fans were perplexed by some of the 250 questions he had to answer with them.

Unger’s note is one of three – three! — introductory sections to this translation by Penguin Classics, which is an obvious indication that some context and structure was needed to prepare the reader for this seminal work in the Latin American dictator genre. In a foreword, the famous Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa – author of one of Latin America’s best dictator books, The Feast of the Goat, based on the Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo – calls “Mr. President” “higher quality than any previous Spanish language novel.”

Then Gerald Martin, a professor emeritus of modern languages ​​at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in an introduction that it was Asturias – not Gabriel García Márquez, as is commonly believed – who invented magical realism. Martin tells the gripping story of how “Mr. President”, a novel that Asturias wrote partly in Guatemala in 1922 and finished a decade later in Paris in 1932, after fleeing political persecution in his native country. Another 14 years would elapse before the book was finally published in Mexico in 1946—the delay necessitated by the threat of further political persecution as Asturias, unable to afford life abroad, was forced to return to Guatemala. The book was a flop.

Only when “Mr. President, set in the early 20th century, was re-released in Argentina two years later, becoming “an overnight sensation,” writes Martin. In later years, Asturias, who died in Madrid in 1974, became a Guatemalan diplomat but went into exile after a coup secretly backed by the United States. In 1967 he again achieved great literary recognition and cemented his reputation as one of the greats of the region by becoming the first Latin American novelist to receive the Nobel Prize.

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The award renewed interest in “Mr. President”, dating back to the autocratic rule of Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera from 1898 to 1920. The book, which even its translator credits with having a prose that is “often overly poetic and sometimes repetitive and redundant,” revolves around the murder of a colonel known as “the man with the tiny mule.”

The search for his killer is manipulated by an uncaring president, whose name is never given, and his confidante, a slippery and ultimately tragic figure named Miguel Angel Face, who was “both good and evil, like Satan”. Face warns a suspect “not to ask if you’re innocent or guilty. … An innocent person is worse off than a guilty person without the President’s support.”

Asturias fills the novel with beggars, lazy rich men, silly aristocrats and political toadyats. There are dungeons, vicious beatings, a capricious execution – all in the service of a President flatteringly known as “Godfather General”, “People’s Benefactor” and “Defender of the Industrious Youth”.

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In the president’s unpredictable regime, even his closest allies are at risk. Betrayal is the norm. In the household of a military honcho, the maid spies on the general and the cook, while the cook spies on the general and the maid.

In the face of such oppression and distrust, it only follows that the characters in the novel are plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, each a manifestation of the traumas they face in real life. At times, the graphic cruelty and desperation in the novel can be hard to stomach. But Asturias knew how to soften those horrors, happily releasing the tension with absurd or scathingly mocking scenes. At such a moment, a beggar’s hallucination contains what must be one of the longer compound words ever printed: “curve of a curve of a curve of a curve of a curve of a curve”. (The beggar was in agony, but when I came across that crazy word I couldn’t help but giggle.)

Reading “Mr. President,” it is impossible not to think of the current, sad situation in Guatemala, where endemic corruption, lawlessness, brutal drug dealers, heartless people smugglers, and staggering economic inequality — combined with agricultural problems caused by climate change — have driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans attempt risky illegal entry into the United States. (Guatemala is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries by international advocates of good government.)

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As “Mr. President” descends deeper into an abyss of injustice, violence and despair, a prisoner begins a long lament that reads almost like foreshadowing: “We are a cursed country. Heavenly voices call when it thunders: Disgusting, filthy creatures! Accomplices of Malice!

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post contributor who served as the newspaper’s Mexico City and Miami bureau chief.

By Miguel Ángel Asturias. Translated by David Unger

Penguin Classic. 282 pages. Paperback, $17.99

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Chris Estrada

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