Rutgers–Camden Spanish Professor Translates Prize-Winning Latin American Novel

Rutgers–Camden Spanish Professor Translates Prize-Winning Latin American Novel

CAMDEN — A Rutgers–Camden professor has completed his 15-year effort to translate a book widely considered to be a masterpiece of Latin American literature.

J. Tittler
Jonathan Tittler translated a book widely considered a Latin American literary masterpiece.

Jonathan Tittler, a professor of Spanish at the Camden Campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, has translated Changó, the Biggest Badass into English for the first time. The book, by Afro-Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella, is available in hardcover from Texas Tech University Press.

First published in 1983, the novel tells the story of the African Diaspora in the Americas over a period of five centuries from the slave trade in western Africa through the civil rights movement in the United States.

“I want this text to be known by English speaking readers,” Tittler says. “It’s an extraordinary work of literature. There’s a lot of history, culture and human nature in it. I would love to see it included in English department programs. Afro-American studies as a discipline has become quite established in the United States and in Western Europe, but Afro-Hispanic studies are almost non-existent. This book opens a new horizon for those studies.”

Changó, the story’s narrator, is a deity who controls fire, war, and thunder. Tittler says Changó is “sympathetic to his people, the African people, but he condemns them to slavery so they, in liberating themselves, can liberate all human beings.”

“It’s the Don Quixote of Afro-American literature,” the Rutgers–Camden professor says. “It’s not an easy read. It’s a work that has to be studied and it can be found in graduate seminar courses in literature. To be exposed to hundreds of thousands of readers in English is very exciting.”

A Philadelphia resident, Tittler also translated Olivella’s book Chambacú, Black Slum. He started translating Changó in 1995 with the author’s help while a member of the Cornell University faculty.Tittler says he visited Olivella in Bogota, Colombia about once a year in the 1990s to discuss technical vocabulary and Colombian or African cultural references. Olivella died in 2002.

“I was hopeful this would have been published while he was still alive,” Tittler says.

Chango Book
Tittler worked closely with Manuel Zapata Olivella to translate the novel.

The project was also a source of motivation and inspiration for Tittler, who was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 1993 and started translating the book in 1995 while recovering from a bone marrow transplant.

“As I improved, I found that I could get up in the morning and go to my computer and bang out a page of translation,” Tittler says. “The next day, I would get up and do it again. I got a great deal of satisfaction from it, as sick as I was.”

Tittler says he was able to translate more pages of text per day as he recovered and got stronger, and the translation let him stay active, even while recovering from his illness. He returned to work full time in September 1995.

“I found that this project gave me energy and focus,” he says. “It helped me recuperate, getting me back into an active mode. I’m not superstitious, but this text insinuated itself into my life.”

Tittler says he is in strong remission after having two relapses.

The Rutgers–Camden professor, who also translated the Afro-Ecuadorian novel Juyungo, by Adalberto Ortiz, into English, says he is proud of his work on Changó.

“I’ve always wanted to take on projects that have some kind of impact on society,” he says. “I’ve found literary translation integral to my work. After 38 years in higher education, I’ve achieved that goal of reaching a wider audience.”

Tittler is the author of four books, including Language and Power: The Life and Times of Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazébal, and numerous articles in the field of contemporary Latin American literature.

Before joining the Rutgers–Camden foreign languages department in 2001, Tittler served four years as Prince of Asturias chair in Spanish at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He received his undergraduate degree from Hamilton College and his doctoral degree from Cornell University.

Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse