The Trickster and the Thief, Failures of Translation

The word trickster draws people in English with its ideas of play and even joy. It seems relatively innocuous to most people who might even enjoy stories of tricksters as mischief makers or rogues. The trickster is also connected with clowns, which are important figures in much Amerindian ritual, and with animals such as the fox or coyote who are important in folklore.

The other day I was thinking about how to translate the term and found myself in one of those disconnects between languages that fascinates, at the same time it makes the life of a translator difficult.

While the words in Spanish connected with trickster include the idea of comedy and joking, including practical joking (i.e. bromista), they center on a very strong word, embaucador and its synonyms estafador, timador. 



A trickster making a speech
A trickster making a speech

These latter are the people who call your phone to tell you your son or daughter has been kidnapped and they have them in a room. You hear blows and moans and then a voice, ostensibly of your child, comes on and calling you “mami” or “papá” begs for help. The other voice gets back on to say you must deposit a large sum of money in a certain account by a certain time or your child will be harmed.

They are the people who send you email insisting they have lots of money and want to leave it to you, if you will deposit a check in your account or send them some money first.

These are the scam artist, the liar, the confidence man, the person who can look you in the eye, promise true love while fleecing you of everything you own.

Cusco fills with tales of timadores who try one way or another to take people’s money by tricking them, often in emotionally painful ways.

But this term also relates to astucia, smarts of the grifter sort, a kind of savoir faire that can also blend into wisdom of the admirable sort.

In Peru people warn you about astucia criolla, that is the Creole savvy that knows how to play tricks or falsehoods to obtain success and status. The current presidential campaign includes examples of this kind of astucia, such as the candidate who plagiarized a whole book and founded universities, even though many people gossip he may be functionally illiterate.

Stamping out the Fire (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Stamping out the Fire (Walter Coraza Morveli)

A version of this is found in the classic stories of the pícaro, the young man who through cleverness, charm, and tricks makes his way in a difficult world. Picaresque literature is a classic form of Latin American writing.

The semantic field of trickster also includes the many traditional Andean clowns who are disciplinarians, such as the ukuku or pablucha who will be dancing throughout the streets of Cusco soon as Holy week comes. They will speak in falsetto and threaten with whips, while clowning.

Similar clowns are the maqta and even the huaylaca. For a while, maqtas with quirts were found on Cusco’s streets to discipline pedestrians and autos, making them follow traffic rules and respect cross walks through teasing and light use of the quirt.

The idea of trickery claims importance in Andean life and past. One example: the classic Huarochiri Tales include stories of trickery such as to obtain sex or, as in an important story, to hide your status to fool your hosts into thinking you are poor.

The word used in the original Quechua of these tales is llullay, that is to lie. In a capitalist or modern world that values the sincerity that developed in Protestantism, such that people have one identity and such that you can know the relationship between a person’s inside and their words and actions, this notion of trickery and falsehood as productive and even sacred is almost impossible to grasp.

Contemporary English, even in its attempts to understand other societies by using words like trickster, clown, or carnivalesque, finds itself facing a difficult task, comprehending a world where falsity, painful or even life threatening tricks, and massive changes of fortune can be seen as useful and maybe even good. 

The dictionary may remind the English speakers that trickery can include fraud and the trickster can be someone who scams you, but the normal use of language seems to carefully separate this more negative side from a relatively harmless and playful, even quaint, trickster. Spanish and Quechua emphasize the negative and see it as potentially productive such that even a god can perform trickery.. 

This difficulty lies right at the heart of any attempt to translate the English word trickster into Spanish, or much less into Quechua, even though Cusco with its millions of English speaking visitors contains lots of tricksters.

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