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Many times during my long lifetime of reading imaginative literature, I wondered why Tolkien spawned so many imitators in English, but not in other languages into which The Lord Of The Rings had been translated. Now, anybody even cursorily familiar with The Lord of The Rings can see that would be a difficult work to translate, but that didn’t keep people from trying. The first Dutch translation came out only a year after the final volume was published in the UK. It is considered to be an adequate translation, and has been retained despite a revision by Tolkien’s publisher. Since then, The Lord Of The Rings has been translated into more than thirty languages, and the difficulties were such that Tolkien himself before his death published a guide for prospective translators.
Indeed, the conceit behind The Lord Of The Rings is that it is supposed to be a translation itself, from the invented Westron, to modern English. Tolkien excelled in finding, or creating, place-names that were redolent of an older world, such as ‘Rivendell’ for the Sindarin Imladris, “Valley of the Cleft”, and, of course, his wonderfully evocative Hobbit family names; Baggins [Bolsón in the Spanish], or Brandybuck, or Took [Berkova in Slovak]. Tolkien the linguists made certain that his place-names and his family names had an etymological depth to them which is not matched in the works of his imitators and followers, although I think George R R Martin’s “Winterfell” ( along with the felicitous Spanish translation Invernalia ) and Joe Abercrombie’s “Adua” come very close indeed.
Now, it may be that there are a multitude of derivative works in other languages, just that I am not familiar with popular literature in all the other languages of the world. Usually, genre literature does not attract much attention, and the only works that are likely to become well-known outside their own speech communities are the works of major writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marques, or Nakagami Kenji. When I googled for obras literarias de fantasia en español [literary works of fantasy in Spanish], I was surprised that so little material turned up. Of course, even mainstream Latin-American literature has a strong undercurrent of the fantastic, as anyone familiar with Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or Jorge Amado would know. However, the only reason that Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s little volume La Kalpa Imperial seemed to come up was not because of its own considerable merits, but because it had been recently translated into English by a great fantasist who writes in English, Ursula LeGuin.
I was delighted to find that La Kalpa Imperial was available to me in its original Spanish through interlibrary loan. Having worked my way halfway through, I find this little gem equal to anything produced since Tolkien in English, and better than most. Most of all, I wanted to see how a non-English speaker would handle the issue of “fantasy names”. There is a lot of faux-Elvish out there. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but you can get seriously tired of Elves named Eldemar , Dwarves named Darmûk, and Orcs named Yog-Ar-Ghazh. There are no non-human races (yet) in Sra. Gorodischer’s La Kalpa Imperial,but the names of her humans are delightful – the trickster Loo Löo, the tragic Hehrehvontes dynasty. Indeed, the silent Spanish ‘h’ does yeoman’s work for fantastic names in this story. In this, she learned well from her great predecessor and, I suspect, ascended spiritual master Jorge Luis Borges, whose imaginary lands Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius have tantalized me ever since I first heard of them.
Borges’ fingerprints are all over this slender volume. I would have been more surprised it they weren’t. Gorodischer isn’t as coy as Borges, nor is she as metaphysically deft. Knowing something of the recent history of Argentina, I expected La Kalpa Imperial to be more political than it is. That is not surprising. Tolkien abhorred allegory, and it doesn’t actually play well in fantasy literature unless the readers are far enough removed from the situation being allegorized to disregard it. Sra. Gorodischer’s poetic parables, for that is how the story of the fabulous Empire of Kalba, the “greatest empire that never existed” is narrated, is more mythopoetic, and say as much about the power wielded by the storyteller as about that wielded by an Emperor. The history of Kalba is recognizably the history of our own world, but ever so much more so. I haven’t seen LeGuin’s translation, so I don’t know how the story of Kalpa plays out in English, but if the Spanish is any indication, it is worthy of wide acceptation.