Spanish Translations of On the Road

Alberto Escobar de la Garma (March 2011)

To the Spanish reader of Jack Kerouac’s work there is no other option but the editions published by Anagrama, a well-known press house from Barcelona. I have known several people who were introduced to Kerouac’s novels by these editions, myself included. Nonetheless, they suffer from a common feature of translations made in Spain: they are full of vernacular terms that are only significant within the country of Cervantes. Spanish speakers in America feel somehow alienated when they read these texts. When I started studying the work of Kerouac in his original language, I became aware of the treason to the Spanish translations; the anecdote is there, but how it is done and constructed is missing. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to think that the reception of these iconic novels in Latin America is transformed. Being the perfectionist and detailed writer that he was, as his letters to his editors demonstrate, I am certain that Kerouac would have disapproved of these Spanish versions.

Martín Lendínez 1980s Spanish translation of On the Road needs revising. Despite the brief forward at the start of the book, his decisions seem arbitrary, careless and inconsistent.

Translations made in Spain are highly recognizable in Latin American countries mainly because these texts overtranslate the original. Take, for instance, Landínez’s translation of ‘Close Your Eyes’, a jazz standard which is described in chapter four of part three of On the Road.  Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise are completely fascinated by the way a tenor man sings this standard, and Kerouac quotes the lyrics and the way they are performed. To have the lyrics translated is anticlimactic because there is not a Spanish version of ‘Close Your Eyes’. Although the words of the song are important in terms of the content of the passage, the translation of a text inserted in the novel, which cannot be separated from the music, from a sonic realm, is poorly done here. Meter is not respected and meaning is not exactly the same: “Ma-a-a-ake it dream-y for dan-cing” is converted into “Suu-ee-ña en la danza”, which literally means “Dream in the dance”. The potential intertextuality of this fragment is broken by reproducing a song which does not exist in a Spanish version.

There is another kind of problem in Anagrama’s edition of En el camino. One of Kerouac’s formal characteristics is the way he tried to materialize vocal expressions that are extremely relevant to his style. Although these words have no literal meaning at all, they embody emotive responses made by the characters. Phonetically, they are universal and go beyond any specific word. In Martín Landínez’s translation, some of these emotive expressions are transformed into non-phonetic expressions. When Remi Boncoeur howls in English “Wagh! Whoo!” after going to the racetracks, he says in Spanish “¡Cojonudo! ¡Hay que ver!” (“Fucking great! Let’s see!”). The sonic properties of the original text are lost in its Spanish version and this feature, certainly, mutilates one of the highlights of Kerouac’s literary style.

So far, we have touched upon some unfortunate decisions made by Landínez in relation to the content of the text. There are a few problems with the novel’s form. For instance, Anagrama’s edition shows a different graphic disposition of certain paragraphs which makes the reader develop an erroneous idea of how On the Road was written (we should keep in mind that the novel in the beginning was conceived as one single and long paragraph). The original goes like this:

“You must write a story about the Banana King”, he warned me. “Don’t pull any tricks on the old maestro and write about something else. The Banana King is your meat. There stands the Banana King.” The Banana King was an old man selling bananas on the corner. I was completely bored.

The translation reads:

−Tienes que escribir un relato sobre el Rey de las Bananas –me advirtió−. No engañes al viejo profesor poniéndote a escribir sobre otras cosas. El Rey de las Bananas es el tema obligatorio. Ahí tenemos al Rey de las Bananas.

El Rey de las Bananas era un viejo que vendía plátanos en la esquina. Yo me aburría.

As we can see, we have here at least three problems that change the original text and, thus, our reading of it. Most noticeable is the creation of another paragraph, which interrupts the flow of the original. Second, is the use of hyphens in the Spanish version, a typographic device that indicates the beginning and end of a dialogue, which is not present in the original. Finally, Lendínez uses the word “Banana” when it is mentioned in the name of a character, but decides to use “plátano” (which is exactly the same fruit) one time, presumably in his attempt to correct what he, maybe, perceives as a case of Kerouac’s lack of vocabulary, ignoring the author’s deliberate use of repetition and alliteration. We do not recognize a clear sonority of Kerouac’s prose because of these details in the Spanish translation.

One final example of Landinez’s mistakes: when Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty arrive in Mexico, they are welcomed by a Mexican official who says to them: “Eat good. Don’t worry. Everything fine. Is not hard enjoin yourself in Mehico”. Kerouac writes Mehico, not Mexico, because he tries to imitate the sound of the word in Spanish, not in English. This is because the “x” letter has four different sounds in Mexican Spanish as an heritage from nahuatl, the language used by the ancient Aztecs; it can sound as an “s” (as in Xochimilco), as “sh” (as in Xola), as “ks” (as in nixtamal), and as an “h”, which is the sound produced by the “j” in Spanish (as Mexico, precisely). When Kerouac writes “Mehico”, it is because he wants us to hear the word in Spanish, not in English. His emphasis, however, goes unnoticed in the Spanish translation. There is not a single note to explain this peculiar fact, although arbitrarily there are notes that indicate the words that are in Spanish in the original text.

We have seen here how readers of the Spanish translation of On the Road have to deal with a text that ignores some of the most important features of Kerouac’s literature. When translators only focus on the semantic meaning of words, the anecdote survives but the aesthetic experience is not complete. In Mexico Kerouac is still famous because of the way he is believed to have lived, because of the excesses, the “never-ending travelling”, etc., and not because of the way he wrote. Anagrama’s edition of his most famous novel has been reinforcing this idea for decades in the Latin American context. Very few people are aware of how unique Kerouac’s use of language really is.

In spite of all these issues, Landínez’s translation sells extremely well. I believe a new translation is needed, one that does justice to Kerouac’s style. He loved (and sometimes hated, let us face it) Mexico and a translation made here without the vernacular vocabulary of Spaniards could be more intimate and understandable to readers in Latin America. A carefully-done translation of Kerouac’s prose, considering his style and context, is necessary nowadays so Spanish speakers in Latin America can become conscious of his literary power.


KEROUAC, Jack, On the Road, New York: Penguin, (1957) 2003.

____________, En el camino, trans. by Martín Lendínez, Barcelona: Anagrama, (1986) 2002.

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