Andrea Abreu’s febrile words in “Dogs of Summer,” translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches

By Elena Schafer

Andrea Abreu’s writing hand is neither soft nor measured. It punches through the film of language and lands, hard, on concrete. Julia Sanches’ translation of Abreu’s novel Dogs of Summer (Panza de burro, in the original Spanish) does not stop or stifle the forcefulness of this punch. It responds to it with equal parts fervor and frenzy, preserving the cuts and bruises that Abreu takes care to point us toward with the book’s narrator, affectionately called Shit. How can one possibly reveal this punch in English, save for getting out of the way?

Sanches works from Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan into English. She is a founding member of Cedilla & Co., a collective of translators committed to making international voices heard in English, and chair of the Translators Group of the Authors Guild. Her other translations include Boulder by Eva Balthasar and Migratory Birds by Mariana Oliver. Her website describes her translations as concise, readable and idiomatic, and the idiomatic certainly proved true with Dogs of Summer.

The jacket copy of the book describes it as My Brilliant Friend meets Blue is the Warmest Color, a lyrical debut novel set in a working-class neighborhood of the Canary Islands—a story about two girls coming of age. Abreu, it says, braids prose poetry with bachata lyrics and the gritty humor of Canary dialect. The narrator, Shit, is pulled through the streets of her hometown under the influence of her best friend and most devious collaborator, Isora. The Ferrante comparison aside, this story of girlhood has the scent of a trick. The English reader does indeed arrive in the Canary Islands, guided by a narrative voice which is distinctly juvenile, and the world is thus filtered by a childlike sense not of wonder but of crudity, desire, and passions without the words to name them. It is impossible to get through even the first chapter without wondering, wait, what was that in the Spanish?

My Spanish copy of the book opens with a note from editor Sabrina Urraca, who writes that editing Panza de Burro felt like adopting a strange new animal from an exotic country, that you are both a little scared of it and completely in love with it. Urraca notes that she and Andrea completed the editing of this book in a two-day frenzy, a process which mirrored the precarity and urgency of Abreu’s writing. Urraca also explains the decision not to include a glossary for the Canarian words and phrases, stating that the book should read as though it were a song, a song in a foreign language, and that one must understand through feeling it out. Dogs of Summer cannot possibly be a canon of Canary speech, she says, there are too many people, too many distinct moments, like an invitation to a ritual in which you don’t know most of the people. It is as though by reading Dogs of Summer one also travels to the Canary islands, and, of course, as Urraca points out, no one wants to travel to a place they already know perfectly well. “Dogs of Summer is a febrile novel, feverish, contaminated, tainted by its own style, soiled – let yourself be poisoned” (my translation), she says.

In the English translation, however, we don’t get so much context. The book begins the first chapter, titled “pure guts and grit,” without any preamble. Julia Sanches uses words with distinctly geographic connotations: “git” and “taters” and “merican” might register as rural, perhaps southern or midwestern. These words are sticky, because they register not only an American slang, but a regionally specific version of American English. “Git” is a word with strong affective association with African American vernacular, Appalachian, and Southern American speech. Similarly, “tater” and “merican” might connote a sort of rural dialect, although online etymologies proved rather unhelpful with further research to this point. It is a strange experience to reconcile this register with the knowledge that this book is taking place not in Ohio or Tennessee, but in Spain, in the Canary Islands. It is a specific challenge of the translator to make these calls. Would replacing these words with “generic” English equivalents neutralize, or worse, erase the linguistic indexicality of the original language?

The language of the characters reflects a relationship to their environment that renders the story undoubtedly Canarian. Indeed, Sanches does not always translate to English. Words like “puta” are left in Spanish, perhaps with the understanding that most American readers have encountered the word at least once, or have the ability to contextualize it. When translated, “Foquin bitch” “kinki” and “girlfren” are clear enough to understand, and it is because of these phonetic misspellings that we are not only reminded of our narrator’s age but forced to see her world through her eyes. Any extrapolation on behalf of the adult reader is stifled by the quick pace of the writing. You cannot spend too much time reflecting on these instances before losing the momentum of the story. As described by the narrator herself, when running down a hill, you have to keep up the pace for fear of falling and skinning your knees.

In the rare moments that the narrative perspective widens, the anxiety which rolls beneath the story starts to surface. In the final third of the novel, a chapter titled “Eyes black like a blackbird’s feathers” opens with the following description of the sky: “It was candelaria day and the calima was thick. Above, the sky was pure cloud and dust. Sometimes I thought all the dust floating in the air was our fault: a dark cloudy blanket stoppered the sky, trapping our breaths down below, and the air grew muggier and muggier until it smothered us” (115). The sense of entrapment, of being smothered, only grows for the narrator as the story races toward the finish.

This passage does clue the reader in to the title of the book, which, in Spanish, is Panza de burro. While “Panza de burro” literally means “donkey belly,” the phrase is actually used both in Peru and in the Canary Islands to describe the gray overcast color of the sky, a meteorological phenomenon that consists of the accumulation of low-altitude clouds that act as a solar screen, causing a thermal sensation, characteristic of soft drink, characteristic of the north of almost all the Canary Islands (especially in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and in the Valley of La Orotava during the months of July and August) and of the central-western coast of South America (Peru’s, and north of Chile).

Why, then, is the book titled Dogs of Summer in English?

Perhaps the English title might refer to the literal dogs which appear in nearly each chapter of the novel, or even to the girls themselves, whose feral behavior certainly mimics that of the dog. It could even represent the feeling of being always outside, a stray, wandering the neighborhood, known and neglected. “My saint with scraped knees” reads one chapter title, “Grinding” and “Grinding on my own” follow, letting the story circle after itself, like a dog.

As the story contracts in its final breath, so too do the streets that Shit frantically runs through, searching for Isora, whose failure to return from a fated trip to the beach with her cousin sends the story to its final tumble. The claustrophobic hours in which Shit is left to wait for Isora are compounded in that dense, horrifyingly unspecific language of adults. As children are left to interpret the world through the words of their elders, so too are readers forced to read beyond the expressions of the final chapter; “Ay miniña what a cryin shame it is” says a local woman to Shit, and there is but a slight waver in the sobering meaning of such a lament.

When I first began reading the book, I referred to it continuously, mistakenly, as the Dog Days of Summer. The title brings on itself a solipsism, a reminder: look at what we felt we saw but was never there. Or, perhaps, what was almost, even for a moment, something different. With this English title Sanches captures what seems like a crack in the concrete and how it is often a mirage, a hallucination of the hottest variety, a childhood delusion left to rot in the bitter sun.

Abreu, Andrea. Dogs of Summer. Translated by Julia Sanchez. Astra House, 2022.

Elena Schafer received her B.A. in English and Spanish from Michigan State University and worked in academic publishing in New York City for two years before returning to the Midwest to complete an M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. While completing her M.A., she wrote a thesis on the role of authorship and translation in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. She is currently a writing advisor at the University of Chicago and a Spanish-English translator.

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