Book Review: The Norton Critical Lazarillo de Tormes
translated and edited by Ilan Stavans
Norton Critical Editions, 2016
One of the latest in the line of sterling Norton Critical Editions is a new translation of the anonymous mid-16th century picaresque classic Lazarillo de Tormes, which is very encouraging, since it guarantees that this sparkling, subversive hand grenade of a book will finds its way into the hands of many college undergraduates. By the time Cervantes wrote the First Part of his Don Quixote in 1605, he could have a character mention Lazarillo de Tormes in complete certainty that readers would nod in recognition of the reference, but unlike Don Quixote, Lazarillo de Tormes has always needed re-introduction to new generations. This slim Norton Critical Edition will do much-needed service for those re-introductions.
Translator Ilan Stavans characterizes the work as “a notoriously raw, unfinished, difficult text” and, like most of the best translators before him, he proudly admits to keeping earlier English-language translations of the Lazarillo within easy reach while he was making his own. “Translating a classic is about making it freshly accessible to new audiences,” he writes, “it is also about acknowledging and even depending on one’s precursors”:
I have acquired this philosophy after years of translating works, historical and contemporary. Classics need to be rendered anew, in part because language ages. Today, for example, it is easier to understand Lazarillo de Tormes in English than in the original sixteenth-century Spanish. And every generation is eager to give its own reading to a classic. Translation, thus, is synonymous with interpretation.
And his process works: this translation of Lazarillo de Tormes is smoother, more idiomatic, and immensely more approachable than any previous English-language version of the book. Readers familiar with the book or any of those earlier translations will be thrilled to read it again in Stevens’ hands, and just as importantly, newcomers will grasp immediately both why the book was banned by the Catholic Church for so long and also why it’s been so popular with readers for so long. Here we get the familiar roller-coaster ride of Lazaro’s misadventures in all their rapid-fire succession; here we get our highly questionable hero almost accidentally working his way up through the ranks of a comically corrupt Church bureaucracy; and here we get the off-key ending that leaves all the right questions hanging in the air.
Unfortunately – and uncharacteristically, for Norton Critical Editions, the fun stops the moment the reader leaves the text and ventures into the “Context” section in the rear where readers of this series always find a selection of key supporting documents and critical essays. Ordinarily, this section of any Norton Critical is exhilarating good fun, not just helpful for students but thrilling for old hands who love reading about their favorite texts. But in this case, most of the eight critical pieces are rather drab and unlovable academic treatises that might be helpful to students looking for quotes supporting term papers but won’t do anything to convey the fascinations of the work in question.
Edward Friedman, for instance, in his “From the Inside Out,” needs hardly any space to reach the treasured academic nonsense-buzzword “discourse”:
Lazarillo de Tormes is not so much about parallel lives as about parallel modes of discourse. At every state, one can discover intersections with prior texts and institutions. Idealism is deflated and deconstructed.
And Louis Perez scores perhaps the highest incomprehensibility score with the concluding paragraph to his “On Laughter in the Lazarillo de Tormes”:
The impression we get is that the writing of this book has not served as an escape valve for the author, as it has for all of his characters with one exception, Lazaro himself. Lazaro, who to us seems to be living a life parallel to Spain’s, is left in a state of arrested emotion. Unable to laugh and thereby experience emotional release from his tensions, he succumbs to abulia. It appears now that Lazaro’s lack of laughter is a reflection of the author’s own sad meditation on the fate of Spain. The fact is that the protagonist cannot detach himself emotionally from his role because the author, his creator, is too intensely aware of Spain’s ills. This is the story of laughter in the Lazarillo. In a way it is the very negation of laughter.
… this about a book that’s been making readers laugh uproariously for six hundred years.
Students, luckily, can simply skip all these essays and concentrate instead on the superb footnotes Stavans himself provides. And the Lazarillo itself has survived the Church, the Codex, and the bonfire of vanities – it can withstand a clutch of boring academics without breaking a sweat.