An interview with Gustavo Pellón, translator of Martín Luis Guzmán’s ‘The Shadow of the Strongman’

Gustavo Pellon's author photo

Gustavo Pellón is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His major fields of teaching and research are the contemporary novel in Latin America, literary theory, and translation. In addition to his work on the Cuban poet and novelist José Lezama Lima, he’s also published many articles on such leading Latin American writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Manuel Puig, Severo Sarduy, José Martí, and Julio Cortázar. Professor Pellón’s latest book with Hackett is the first English translation of Martín Luis Guzmán’s The Shadow of the Strongman, released in September 2017, and an English translation of The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s seminal novel of the Mexican Revolution.

Interview with Gustavo Pellón

Hackett Publishing Company: Who is Martín Luis Guzmán and why is his writing important?

Gustavo Pellón: Guzmán is one of the most important Mexican intellectuals of the twentieth century. He played a significant role in Mexican politics during the fighting stage of the Revolution and afterward during the evolution of the ruling revolutionary party. Author of the memoir-novel, The Eagle and the Serpent, The Memoirs of Pancho Villa, and the political thriller The Shadow of the Strongman, he is a classic of twentieth-century Mexican and Latin American Literature, whose standing as a novelist is equivalent to that of his contemporaries Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Faulkner in U.S. literature. His great contribution is the manner in which he infuses his sophisticated fictional works with his knowledge of Mexico’s politics and history.

Photograph of Martín Luis Guzmán, 1922.
Photograph of Martín Luis Guzmán, 1922. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

HPC: Being the first-ever English translation of this novel, did you approach the task of translation any differently? What is your approach? How do you maintain the tone and personalities of Guzman’s characters?

GP: Translating The Shadow of the Strongman was a radically different experience than my first work for Hackett, Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs. In both cases the responsibility of translating a foundational novelist of Mexican literature weighed heavily on my shoulders. But since several translations of The Underdogs already existed, I had more freedom to attempt a fresh interpretation that would complement previous translations. This is the first translation of The Shadow of the Strongman into English, and I therefore felt that it was imperative to represent Guzmán’s style in all its variety: poetic descriptions, dialogues charged with psychological tension, and passages that recall hard-boiled detective fiction. His cast of characters represents a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of education, from highly articulate intellectuals to illiterates. It is always a challenge to preserve this in the dialogue. It requires a close study of the Spanish socio-linguistic traits of each character and my recreation of their linguistic profile with English equivalents. But I always need to ensure that my use of English idiomatic expressions and regionalisms does not distract the reader or erase their Mexicanness.

HPC: Were there any surprises or difficulties you encountered during the translation?

GP: From my first reading of the novel, I knew that creating an English equivalent of Guzmán’s audaciously poetic third-person narrator would be the greatest challenge. Writing in 1929 at the height of modernist experimentation, Guzmán—a master of Spanish prose, with a prodigious vocabulary—flouts the boundary between narrative prose and poetry. This occurs principally in his descriptions of the physical setting, but also in the representation of the characters’ thoughts and bodily sensations. The description of the headlights of a car in a dark street, for example, can be reminiscent of a cubist painting. My task was to render Guzmán’s aesthetic sensibility in a manner that would sufficiently challenge the conventions of what is acceptable in English prose and yet allow the English reader to approach and enjoy this unfamiliar territory.

HPC: What is your favorite passage in The Shadow of the Strongman and why?

GP: There are many, but a special favorite is Aguirre’s interview with the president—the Caudillo, a title meaning “strongman” or “leader.” This is the passage I have chosen below, but I equally admire two descriptions toward the end of that chapter:

“And when he asked this, the Caudillo’s smile, his expression, and his gestures were so glacial that Aguirre answered as if he were speaking, not from where he stood, but from a great distance, from the depths of the forest whose foliage, under the sun, seemed like watered silk, from the remote zone of the bluish
hills  . . .”

“Minutes later, Aguirre’s car ran wildly down the ramp, sank into the mass of green, and was, for a moment, a submarine of the forest. Likewise, still stunned by the unexpected consequences of the interview, Aguirre sank to the very bottom of his reflections. He tried to understand how it was possible that the Caudillo, his friend and chief of more than ten years, could not bring himself to believe a single word he had said.”

A Passage from The Shadow of the Strongman, by Martín Luis Guzmán

This passage describes a turning point in the relations between the novel’s protagonist, Aguirre, and the Caudillo—the strongman of the novel’s title.

Mindful only of political problems, he said to the Caudillo:

“I wanted to say two words about the electoral situation.”

The Caudillo had the imperious eyes of a tiger, eyes whose golden glints matched the somewhat fiery disorder of his gray mustache. But when they looked at Aguirre, they never lacked (not even during critical moments in combat) the soft expression of affection. Aguirre was well used to having the Caudillo look at him in that manner, and it moved him so deeply that perhaps it was the root, more than anything else, of the feelings of unswerving devotion that bound him to his chief. However, this time he noticed that just as soon as he mentioned the topic of the election, his words arrested the Caudillo’s customary look. Now, when the Caudillo answered, only spurious, ironic glimmers remained in his eyes; he became opaque, impenetrable.

“I’m listening,” he said.

But even these seemingly neutral words did not leave the president’s lips without being accompanied by the nervous gesture—a trace of old wounds—that revealed he was more than merely willing to listen; he was ready to defend and attack.
“I just want to make one or two things clear,” continued the young minister, “to make sure both you and I are on guard against insidious gossip.”

“All right, all right, let’s see.”

As he spoke Aguirre felt that for the first time in ten years an invisible curtain was being drawn between his voice and the Caudillo. With each passing second, the Caudillo seemed to become more severe, more hermetic, more distant.


Gustavo Pellón is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His books with Hackett include the first English translation of Martín Luis Guzmán’s The Shadow of the Strongman, released in September 2017, and an English translation of The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s seminal novel of the Mexican Revolution.