“Seventy-two Years and Counting” (by Donald A. Yates)

On the 29th of this month, EQMM’s special “All Nations” issue, a tribute to the original All Nations issue of August 1948, will go on sale. It opens with a story EQMM has always been proud of having been the first to publish (in August 1948), “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the first work in English translation of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. All of the other stories in the issue—which represents twelve countries and all continents except Antarctica—will be new to English-language readers, and one of them is the result of the collaborative effort of EQMM’s highly valued veteran translator Donald A. Yates. Don is Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University. In recent years he has provided EQMM with translations from Cuba and Italy as well as from Argentina, the country with which his work as a mystery-fiction translator began. His own short story “A Study in Scarlatti” appeared in EQMM in February 2011, and he has also contributed many poems to the magazine over the years.—Janet Hutchings

Looking back now at my collection of correspondence with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I see that my first exchange was with Mildred Falk, then the managing editor, who wrote me on January 12, 1944, to reply to my question about one of the Queen novels that I sent to the magazine, not knowing where else to look for an answer. I had discovered the early nationality-keyed Queen stories in 1943 and had been genuinely disturbed by a footnote that appeared at the foot of page thirty-one of the 1935 first edition of The Spanish Cape Mystery. It referred to a “peculiarly baffling murder case” that Ellery had failed to solve and was considerably “annoyed by his failure.”

In no time at all, Ellery had become a true hero of mine and it distressed me that there had actually been a case that he had not been able to crack. In response to my query, Mildred Falk, taking dictation, do doubt, from editor Ellery Queen wrote:

“Yes, ‘The Case of the Wounded Tyrolean’ is the only case which has baffled the great man. So you will understand, we know, when you learn that the case doesn’t exist.

“Seriously, it was a tongue-in-cheek little game we played while writing The Spanish Cape Mystery. Doyle, you know, did it often in the Sherlock Holmes stories—referring to Holmes cases which thereafter sent Sherlockians screaming into the night hunting for the reference source and finding only a ghostly chuckle.

“Forgive us. There is no such case, and therefore no clues and no facts. Might be a good idea to build one some time at that!”

I was quite flattered that my question had elicited such a friendly response. I was only thirteen years old at the time.

Three years later, with a suitcase filled with my lovingly accumulated first editions of Queen books, I left from my parents’ home in Ayer, Massachusetts, and took a bus to New York City where on one glorious afternoon I got Ellery Queen, in the person of Frederic Dannay, to sign and inscribe every one of them. But that is another story, which I have described in detail elsewhere.

In the years following, Fred Danny and I enjoyed an uninterrupted friendship that lasted until his death in 1982 and that in time took on the character of a father and son relationship. In 1947 I graduated from high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan and in 1951 I finished my B.A. degree with a major in Spanish at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a two-year stint in the U.S. Army. My correspondence with Fred during these years consisted mainly of my offering him books that I thought he would want for his extensive collection of detective short stories—and trying repeatedly to write a story for him that he would accept for EQMM.

With some free time on my hands during the months I spent at Fort Custer, Michigan, I remembered Mildred Falk’s observation that it would be interesting to try to fashion a short story that could carry the title “The Wounded Tyrolean” and be so perplexing that even Ellery himself had not been able to solve it. I decided to take on the challenge and thought that the classic “locked-room murder” problem would serve my purposes and that I would do my best to come up with a new solution that had never been devised before. By the time I had ended my military service and returned to the University of Michigan in 1953—now with the support of the G.I. Bill—for a graduate-school degree in Spanish, I had finished the job. Fred didn’t think it was right for EQMM.

One of the professors I studied with in Ann Arbor was the Argentine critic and author Enrique Anderson Imbert, who I soon found out was as interested in mystery fiction as I was and had himself written and published detective stories in Argentina. Eventually, we determined that the topic of my doctoral dissertation would be the Argentine detective story. While gathering material for the thesis, I found a recent collection of ten Argentine detective stories, edited and published in Buenos Aires by Rodolfo Jorge Walsh. I wrote to Walsh and found him to be very knowledgeable on the subject and eager to help me in documenting my study. I sent him my “Wounded Tyrolean” and he liked it. He translated it and it appeared in the Argentine magazine Leoplán in July of 1955.

I started translating some of the stories in his anthology and the first of these began appearing in The Saint Detective Magazine in the mid 1950s. The Argentine author whom Walsh never ceased to praise was Jorge Luis Borges and I considered that a writer of his stature deserved to appear in EQMM. Fred agreed and the short piece titled “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths” appeared in the April 1962 number. Actually, a Borges short story had already appeared in EQMM, in the April 1948, “All Nations” issue, in the translation of Anthony Boucher, for many years the crime-fiction reviewer for the New York Times, and the first person to write about crime fiction in Spanish America. His essay “It’s Murder, Amigos” appeared in the April 19, 1947 issue of Publisher’s Weekly. Borges, little known and less read in Argentina at that time, eventually became a celebrated literary innovator and a long-time candidate for the Nobel Prize in the literature category. The Boucher translation was the first instance of a Borges English translation appearing in a wide-circulation U.S. publication. (I have a copy of that issue, in which Fred has written “So this is the story that has made me famous!” And Borges later signed it for me, too.)

I had become intensely interested in Borges’s fiction while studying with Anderson Imbert and signed a contract with New Directions in 1960 to bring out a selection of his writings in English translation. A fellow graduate student at Michigan, James E. Irby, had also become interested in Borges’s writings and had been translating some of his essays into English for the purpose, he told me, of getting a feel for his literary style. He showed me some of them and I thought they were excellent. I invited him to join me in preparing the anthology, which appeared in 1962 with the title Labyrinths: Selected Writings of Jorge Luis Borges.

Looking back again, since 1962 I have contributed nearly a score of translations to EQMM, accepted first by Fred, then by Eleanor Sullivan who succeeded him as the magazine’s editor, and most recently by Janet Hutchings, who can be credited with having established the monthly feature titled “Passport to Crime,” which introduces new translations into English of crime stories from many foreign countries.

For the May 2016 number, which is soon to appear, I thought it might be interesting to try something different, a first of sorts in the line of translations. During a 2007 visit to Buenos Aires, I had invited my Argentine friend Fernando Sorrentino, whose fiction has been translated into a dozen foreign languages, to write an original crime story for the pages of EQMM. He agreed and said he had something unusual in mind. What he sent me was a story written in collaboration with his friend Cristián Mitelman. The idea, he said, was to honor the collaboration that produced the Ellery Queen novels and also the literary collaboration—not at all common among authors in general—of Borges and his fellow Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, who together in 1942 published a volume of stories titled Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, which satirically featured a detective who was strictly limited in the amount of traveling about that he could do while solving the crimes brought to him: Don Isidro was locked up in cell 273 of the Buenos Aires penitentiary! Their story was titled “The Center of the Web” and it appeared in the June 2008 issue of EQMM under the pseudonym of Christián X. Ferdinandus. When they sent me another story, titled “For Strictly Literary Reasons,” I thought I’d join the party and do the translation in a collaboration with an old friend from U. of M. graduate days, John B. Dalbor, now retired as Professor Emeritus at Penn Sate University. Our first collaborative project had been a second-year, college-level Spanish reading text, Imagination and Fantasy: Stories from Spanish America, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1960. We very much enjoyed working together again.

So there you have it—something new under the sun, featuring a tetralogy of literary collaborations.

A closing note. Persistence paid off. Finally, fifty-seven years after appearing in Spanish in Buenos Aires, my “Wounded Tyrolean” appeared in its original English version in the Fall 2012 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, published in Ann Arbor, the very setting where the action of the baffling locked-room murder had been situated.

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6 Responses to “Seventy-two Years and Counting” (by Donald A. Yates)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    Absolutely fascinating, Don! Thanks so much for this behind-the-scenes look. (PS: I’ve got a translation of a story that was written collaboratively in the upcoming “All Nations” issue, too, and I’m looking forward to seeing yours almost as much as I’m looking forward to seeing my own!) (PPS: Do you ever see Larry Goldstein, former long-time editor of the MQR? Larry’s a dear old friend of mine — in fact, I house-sat for him and Nancy about 40 years ago, when he was in Pittsburgh on a sabbatical and I was a grad student at UM. I’ll have to see if I can get hold of a copy of the Fall 2012 issue: I would love to read your “Wounded Tyrollean” story!)

    • Donald A. Yates says:

      Josh: It’s so good to hear from a long-time friend, and to be reminded of another one. Yes, I have stayed in touch with Larry Goldstein. We were brought together back in the 1970’s by Ann Arbor and Sherlock Holmes. He attended our wedding festivities in 1977 when Joanne Mueller and I were married in a church right across the street from my fondly remembered Ann Arbor High School, Also, while he was editing the MAQR he published two of my translations of Argentine authors (Marco Denevi and Luisa Mercedes Levinson).
      I see from your second reply that you will be reading my “Wounded Tyrolean.” I recall that I spent a lot of time putting it together and trying to come up with a new solution to the classical locked room puzzle. For all these years I thought solution was original, however–alas–locked room specialist John Pugmire has pointed out that a French writer had hit on the same solution back in 1934. Well, at least I was the first to pull it off in English.

  2. Todd Mason says:

    I would like to know what the earlier Borges translations in English might’ve been, if that information is readily at hand anywhere. I’ve been under the impression that the Boucher/EQMM “The Garden of the Forking Paths” was the absolute first. (I’ve had a copy of IMAGINACION Y FANTASIA for decades; in my senior year of high school, I read from it “Los dos reyes y los dos laberintos” to my AP Spanish class for a presentation, and I think most of the students were delighted to be able to follow the narrative.)

  3. Josh Pachter says:

    Following up: I just ordered a copy of the Fall 2012 issue of the MQR directly from the review’s website — for a grand total of $4, no additional charge for tax or shipping! You can get your own copy by going to http://www.michiganquarterlyreview.com/2012/12/fall-2012/

  4. Todd Mason says:

    And, I should add, I’ve had at least one copy of LABYRINTHS nearly as long, and have given copies to friends over the years…aside from the range of Borges’s own collaborative translations, and with a nod to DREAMTIGERS, the only single volume which arguably matches it is BORGES: A READER, which if I recall correctly draws on your book (sorry, don’t have it to hand to check). The Penguin volumes aren’t a patch on your work, and are rather a shame.

    • Donald A. Yates says:

      Todd: Labyrinths was first published in 1962. Jim Irby, now retired from Princeton,and I have been greatly pleased by the success our collection of translations of Borges’s has enjoyed over the past half-century. It. Thanks for being such a dedicated promotor of the book.
      It eventually made its way into the Modern Library and the Folio Society of London brought out a handsome edition in 2007.James Laughlin at New Directions deserves credit for believing in Borges’s importance even before he shared the International Editors award with Samuel Beckett in 1961. In a gesture of generosity (and with great foresight) he allowed Jim and me to participate in the distribution of royalties–a reflection of his appreciation for the role of the translator and something almost unheard of 50 years ago.
      The two translations of Borges’s prose fiction that preceded Anthony Boucher’s translation of “The Garden of Forking Paths” in the August 1948 issue of EQMM were:
      Paul Bowles, “The Circular Ruins,” in Views 5, No. 6 (January, 1946 and H.R.Hayes. “The Babylon LiBrary” in Tiger’s Eye !, No. 4 (June, 1948). A number of Borges’s poems had also been published in English translation before any of his “fictions” appeared.
      The French. by the way, were far ahead us in bringing Borges’s writing to the attention of readers of French.
      You might be interested in having look at Lies Wijnterp’s recently-published study, Making Borges: The Early Reception of Jorge Luis Borges’s Work in France and the United States.
      It was published in 2015 in the Netherlands under the auspices of Radboud University Nijmegen. In 466 pages she documents the different ways in which Borges was presented to the reading publics in those two countries.

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