Chapter One: Alternate Originals: Canonizing English Translations of Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios

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Copyright Benjamin Spanbock 2013

Chapter One: Alternate Originals: Canonizing English Translations of Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios

En el qual subçedieron cosas de mucho dolor é triseça, é aun milagros en essos pocos que escaparon ó quedaron con la vida, despues de haber padesçido innumerable naufragios y peligros…”-Gonzalo Fernández de Oveido y Valdés, Historia general y natural de la Indias1
You have to wonder if any of it’s true, his going around healing the Indians, performing miracles. They thought he was- well, no telling what they thought.” -Gladys Swan “Do you Believe in Cabeza de Vaca?”

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios is a unique account of failed Spanish colonialism in what would become the American borderlands. In light of its historical relevance to the contemporary geographies of Florida, Cuba, Texas, Mexico, and the greater American Southwest, the text has had little to no bearing on the field of U.S. cultural studies for most of its printed history.2 The text’s antiquated Castilian Spanish resists easy integration with the English language genealogies of “American” literature, and its borderline heretical scenes of human divination still seem difficult to square with the Puritanical literary tradition, classically viewed as the canon’s origin and stemming from the New England colonies. With the exception of a modest few in the U.S. interested in regional history and ethnography, the text remained an unfamiliar Other to most English speaking American literary scholars for over four hundred years, circulating almost exclusively as part of Spanish colonial and pre-modern Latin American traditions and translated into English in extremely limited (albeit key) capacities. But in a moment historically linked with the so-called “canon wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the text found new life as an essential part of the U.S. literary tradition, equally well represented in academic discourse as in literary anthologies and popular histories. Alongside several other key Spanish language texts, Cabeza de Vaca’s work has since emerged as part of a new foundation for a hemispherically oriented notion of American literature, and a new origin point for virtually any serious attempt to trace the national literary roots of the United States.

Of course, it is not the original versions of these texts that hold this newfound place at the canon’s beginning, but rather texts in translation that have found their way to the American literature anthology, and generally in the abbreviated form of excerpts. Various translations of Naufragios (represented by a variety of names including Castaways, The Relation, The Account, and The Narrative) now serve as the very groundwork of a new national narrative that is bolstered and made more inclusive by the addition, but also promise access to essential truths of early European contact with the Americas through a heavily mediated linguistic experience that is often difficult to address. While the ideological shift towards a new understanding of American literature has been met with a fair share of criticism and questions (notably including the challenges of repositioning the origins of American studies to also include the Spanish borderlands) few studies have addressed the importance of translation as a fundamental and irreducible issue at the heart of the new American literary canon. Slipped under and into an English language dominant national literary tradition, translations of texts such as Naufragios make it possible to think beyond the nationalist parameters that unproductively delineated the scope of U.S. literary studies, but also defy much of the promise of multicultural American literary studies to reconstruct the canon by requiring the text speak English. Further, reading the text in translation exposes the tenuousness with which any claim to an ‘originating’ text might be made, a point that, as discussed below, throws the entire process of identifying the origins of a literary tradition (as well as retooling that tradition by altering its foundational texts) into question. Through a detailed look at both the material history of Naufragios and the contents the narrative itself, this chapter facilitates an inquiry into the stakes of reconstructing a literary tradition at its foundation, and of building a literary canon in translation by destabilizing the promise of finding an “original” text. Examining the plurality of source materials, textual variants, and interested cultural readings that surround Naufragios helps identify the original an increasingly unobtainable concept, and exposing the difficulty of attributing permanence to the ideological center of an epistemological construct such as a literary tradition.

To better understand the changes that precipitated the reexamination of the U.S. literary canon’s originating texts, one need only consider the anthologies that aim to catalog it. According to the 1994 edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, the embrace of Spanish language texts within the U.S. canon first came about “in response to significant changes in critical interest” by scholars who advocated a more complete representation of the diverse structures that supersede the national category in literary studies (Baym xxvii). These “significant changes” resulted in the need for texts to represent the geography of United States as a site of multiple and interactive colonialisms to counterbalance a longstanding national literary history beginning with Anglo Saxon contact with indigenous populations in the North Atlantic colonies. Authorized by countless literary anthologies since the early nineteenth century, this history reinforced a vision of American literature as a “natural” extension of the English language British literary canon, continually reintroducing works by William Bradford, Cotton Mather, Anne Bradstreet, Roger Williams and other Anglo-Americans as the country’s first literary texts.3 In 1987, the appearance of translated excerpts from several Spanish language colonial texts including Naufragios in McQuade et al.’s Harper American Literature marked what would become the beginning of Cabeza de Vaca’s widespread appearance in nearly every anthology of American literature. In the anthology, excerpts of the text are included in the section “Literature of the New World 1492-1620,” which contains a variety of European exploration narratives and a subcategory for Native American stories and songs (whose demarcated inclusion as other rather awkwardly raises the problem of the indigenous voice existing only as mediated by European contact). The section precedes the more traditionally rendered category “Literature of Colonial America 1620-1776,” which is wholly representative of the standard American literary anthology mentioned above. By the middle of the 1990s, a model was established that became the new standard for American literary anthologies that begin with a “pre 1620” section that included a mix of European exploration narratives and native American texts translated into English, and are followed by a more traditional set of English colonial texts. And while changes to the canon occurred across all historic periods in the later parts of the twentieth century, none were so great as the inclusion of this new “New World” set of texts. Periodized and contained as a distinct set of colonial age literature, these texts stand apart from the introduction of other “marginal” literatures into the canon because the their sustained affiliation with other national traditions and linguistic system. The exceptional status of these texts highlights the particular attention to which scholars in the U.S. paid to them, and thus their comparatively high importance to the task of overhauling the canon’s origin texts.

While having a number of Spanish language texts at the foundation of the American literary canon is exciting in many respects and diversifies the canon’s national affiliations, their belated inclusion just prior to a set of traditional English language texts presents a number of issues even before the question of translation is introduced. Specifically, the chronological shift from a widely cast view of the European colonial project in the Western Hemisphere to an otherwise nationally oriented set of classic U.S. texts simply replicates the ideology that English language tradition is the logical inheritor of multiple non-English colonial experiences. This move diminishes the visibility of non-English language traditions existing within a more broadly construed model of American literature, and creates a sense of false access or connectedness to a set of texts and textual interpretations that themselves have spawned an enormous (if linguistically and nationally appropriated) legacy in their own right that is occluded within the context of appropriation for the sake of de-centering the U.S. literary canon. This relationship is further suspended by the editorial processes inherent to anthologizing, which results in a series of textual excerpts removed from their original context. These excerpts are then paired with and read through the context of later texts within the tradition deemed relatable by the editor, but that in reality had very little influence over the English speaking world at the time of their publication.

This issue of reinterpreting Spanish colonial texts through the lens of an extra-linguistic and largely disparate literary tradition raises another question, concerning how exactly to integrate these texts with the rest of an already extant canon. This issue is taken up in the preface to the fourth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (the first edition to include a pre-1620 section) which suggests that “texts such as Columbus’s Letter to Luis de Santangel and Arthur Barlowe’s First Voyage made to the Coast of America bear witness to the natural wonders of the New World, a tradition that has remained strong in American writing ever since” (Baym xxvii).4 In an effort to bridge together disparate colonial traditions, the reader is told that the tradition of “bearing witness” is something that emerged naturally in the U.S. literary tradition from Spanish and English language texts alike, as if a multilingual body of works had always been originating forces within a canon that for years have simply remained silent on the full extent of its influences. The passage also implies that an accurate reading of bearing witness as a systemic theme within the American literary field by relying on retroactive assumptions based what is already known about English language U.S. national literature. To know that the tradition has “remained strong” presumes familiarity with the tradition in its current form and, given the late entry of these colonial texts to conversations on the canon, can’t help but be conditioned by the knowledge of texts and ideas of later generations. At stake here is the degree to which a Spanish colonial text can act as an originating force within an already established English language literary tradition, and the degree to which meaning is molded to fit desired outcomes.

Tellingly, similar questions arise when returning to the fact that these texts are reproduced and read in translation. By reproducing Spanish colonial texts as already negotiated into the existing canon’s most demanding terms, its linguistic system, English translations occlude the authenticity of the origin text, making difference invisible and creating a false relationship between text and tradition. In keeping with the current discussion, it is possible to explore these and other issues through an examination of Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios, where the evolution of bearing witness as a theme underscores a mediated relationship between authenticity and interpretation that carries over to a discussion of the text’s translation history. To begin to expose how the concept of bearing witness challenges the text’s presumed role as an originating force within the field of American literary studies, it is first worthwhile to examine the text and its production history in more detail.

Cabeza de Vaca’s New World Account:

In light of all the unknowns, there are certain facts about the account of Cabeza de Vaca that are fairly well-established. In 1527, a crew of approximately six hundred men left Spain for Cuba under the direction of Captain Pánfilo Narváez. They carried royal orders to explore, chart, and build fortresses across the Río de las Palmas and La Florida regions of “Tierra-Firme,” the long coastline of the Gulf of Mexico’s interior from the tip of the Florida peninsula to the Spanish settlement at the mouth of the Pánuco River near present day Tampico. After enduring a hurricane in a Cuban harbor, the surviving and still willing members of the ill-fated expedition left the final outpost of colonial control. The group made preliminary landfall near Tampa Bay in 1528, where (in what Cabeza de Vaca would later describe as a moment of disagreement and poor judgment) they separated from their boats. Searching in vain for Spanish settlements west, the conquistadors began to die in the unfamiliar environment, killed off by hurricanes, disease, starvation, and attack by native populations, until only four members remained to give an account of the expedition; The expedition’s treasurer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, two military captains, Alonzo de Castillo Maldonado and Andres Dorantes, and an North African slave named Estevanico. Lost and left wandering, the four became the first non-indigenous peoples to cross much of what today would be the U.S. southwest, giving their account a particular significance in the context of the region’s colonial history. The group travelled from Galveston Bay across the Sierra Madres and through much of the Rio Grande basin, enduring hardships that included starvation and enslavement, and surviving much of the ordeal by acting as traders between native tribes and miracle workers. The four were eventually found near the Pacific Ocean north of Culicán in 1536, where they were outfitted by the governor of Nueva Galicia for return to Spain via Tenochtitlan and Veracruz.

Beyond this basic outline of factual events, remain a vast number of details, questions, unknowns, and seemingly inexplicable events raised by the testaments of the survivors. Of the men who endured this tremendous overland journey, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is today the best remembered and most readily associated with the expedition by name, as his Relación has become the primary source for information related to the Narváez expedition and its aftermath. As such, the narrative has framed history’s reception of the events for hundreds of years in a particular voice and perspective. While Cabeza de Vaca’s account was initially compulsory, in the preface to this text, Cabeza de Vaca describes how a particular need to give account motivated his decision to do so, writing:

De mi puedo decir que en la journada que por mandado de Vuestra Magistad hice de tierra firme, bien pensé que mis obras y servicios fueran tan claros y manifiestos como fueron los de mis antepassados… [pero] por nuestros peccados permittiesse Dios que quantas armadas a aquellas tierras han ido ninguna se viese en tan grandes peligros ni tuviese tan miserable y desastrado fin, no me quedó lugar para hacer más servicio de éste, que es traer a Vuestra Magestad relación de lo que en diez años que por muchas y muy estrañas tierras que anduve perdidio y en cueros pudiese saber y ver” (Naufragios, 76).5

In this well cited passage, Cabeza de Vaca explains the purpose of his account to be the recording of what he “was able to learn and see” of the Americas. In doing so, he establishes the importance of bearing witness as a primary theme of the text. Yet from the outset, the idea of bearing witness is also contextualized by the fact that the ten year soujourn about to be recounted took place while wandering “lost and naked” through the wilderness. This significant caveat amounts to Cabeza de Vaca’s admission that the expedition was a failure both in terms of his desire to replicate the “illustrious and self-evident deeds” of conquest performed by his ancestors, as well as in terms of the expeditions inability to locate the precious metals and establish the colonial outposts which would have made the journey a success in the eyes of the King.6

The admission to ‘wandering naked’ also hints at the group’s other, more taboo failure, which was its inability to maintain a level of civilized behavior that could reproduce a “culture of conquest” or an ideology of European cultural superiority to Native Americans within the context of their passage through the new world (Rabasa 46). According to the account, as the group wandered lost and further separated from one another, they not only became reliant of native populations for their very existence, but even enslaved by them at times. The dependency and enslavement of the colonist by the local represents a full inversion of the culture of conquest that allowed the ideological perpetuation of Spanish colonialism in the new world. Yet it was the acceptance of indigenous cultural practices and beliefs that perhaps presented the greatest threat to imperial logic, suggesting that the Americas had the potential to strip Europeans of what he believed to be his inherent superiority. Given the importance of this characterization, Cabeza de Vaca’s preoccupation with the stigmatizing acknowledgement of “going native” is highly visible in the language of the proem. Ilan Stavans suggests for example that the concept of “nakedness…was used to indicate an uncontaminated, natural disposition towards the environment by the natives” that highlighted the self-conscious tenuousness of Cabeza de Vaca’s own status as civilized while living amongst natives (xviii). Aware of his status as one who has moved outside of the perceived limits of European civilized culture, Cabeza de Vaca’s careful choice of the word “desnudo,” which carries a demoralizing resonance, also suggests an apologetic appeal to his audience. Admitting to nakedness here suggests an attempt to regain dignity, and frames the narrative as an attempt to return to colonial discourse, by calling out the foreignness of the Other.

To compensate for his proclaimed failures and further the threat of his nakedness, Cabeza de Vaca offers his Relación as a kind of proto-ethnographic documentation of the lands and peoples he encountered. While a seemingly humble substitute for the riches and colonial acquisition originally promised by the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca probably had good reason to think that his ability to bear witness in a written account was valuable to the crown, as well as to his re-affirmation of the culture of conquest. According to Ángel Rama, recording the conquest in America helped replicate and reinforce imperial logic, and the production of an official written record of new world exploration became a way for imperial Spain to control through reason (32). By submitting his accounts to the King, Cabeza de Vaca summoned the power of letters over the new world empire as a kind of substitute or supplement for the failed physical possession of La Florida, or the extraction of any potentially lucrative resources or plunder. The geographic and ethnographic information contained in the text not only provided valuable information that could be used for subsequent expeditions and colonial endeavors, but along with other maps and historical documents of the period participated in the creation of an kind of archive, produced for and circulated among the European educated elite in the early sixteenth century.7 Cabeza de Vaca’s ability to bear witness thus had a highly specific purpose and value related to his attempt at compensating for his failures within the logic of the Spanish imperial project. However, the question of bearing witness, and indeed how to read and interpret the idea of bearing witness in the text, becomes more complex when positioned within the larger editorial history of Naufragios, as Cabeza de Vaca’s account became known.
The textual history of Naufragios:

Published in 1555, the text most widely available to the general public is actually the last of four known versions of the narrative attributed or partially attributed to Cabeza de Vaca. It is also only the second of the four versions to even include the prologue from which the citation concerning bearing witness is taken. As each version of the narrative promises an authentic claim to truth that negates the possibility in the others, the discrepancies that exist between the four versions expose the disconnect between what Gérard Genette refers to as “histoire,” or events as they occur, and “récit,” the narrative retelling of those events (33-35).8 This disconnect highlights the instability of the very notion of bearing witness, and at the same exposes a fundamental difficulty with attaching permanence or authenticity to Naufragios as an originating text by dispersing meaning across multiple iterations. In other words, the variation between each narrative expresses the nature of historical truth as always imperfectly represented, and reminds us that every attempt to narrate history is a socially, historically, and politically contingent act emerging from a particular subject position.

Based on what is known of the four versions of the narrative, each presents its own highly mediated perspective of the historical events of the expedition that relates specifically to the moment of its production. The first two major summaries of the events surrounding the Narvaez expedition are the “Joint Report” of 1536 and the “Cabeza de Vaca-Dorantes Report,” probably written in 1537. The two are related in that they both are the product of multiple authors, and no record of either text exists outside of citation in secondary sources. The “Joint Report” was a collaborative effort between Castillo Maldonado, Dorantes, and Cabeza de Vaca, probably penned while sojourning and recovering in Mexico City to provide sworn testimony of the expedition for Don Antonio Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, and the audienca of Santo Domingo, one of New Spain’s primary governing bodies. What is known of the contents of the Joint Report today is based exclusively on seven chapters of Oviedo y Valdés’ extensive Historia General y Natural de las Indias, for which the Joint Report served as the primary source.9 Mired in its own complex editorial history (the portion of the Historia General pertaining to the Narvaez expedition itself remained unpublished until the mid-nineteenth century) the Historia General nevertheless serves as an essential source of information concerning the Narvaez expedition and Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative renderings of its outcomes, told originally in the “Joint Report” and recounted by Oviedo. Significantly, Oviedo makes no mention of the proem, or any reference to the discussion of nakedness or bearing witness contained within, a point which suggests that particular configuration to be uniquely Cabeza de Vaca’s.10 Even less is known about the next version of the narrative, which was probably co-authored by Cabeza de Vaca and Andres Dorantes, who “desired to present this and further information to the emperor so that they could advance their plan to obtain a royal patent for the conquest of Florida” (Adorno and Pautz 3: 5). Also lost, this testimony is known only through record of its presentation to the court. While this version of the narrative was likely the first to include a proem which would identify the King as its addressee, the text’s co-authorship would have culminated in a proem that looked much different than the first-person statement that we see above. The text, for example, would likely not have included a direct comparison of Cabeza de Vaca’s failures to the deeds of his ancestors.

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