Category Archives: Spanish texts

‘En el tiempo de las Mariposas’ por Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies

1994, translated into Spanish 2001 and revised 2005, 424 p.

I’m rather proud of reading this in Spanish- just look at the number of pages! Let us not speak too much of the fact that it took me six months and the reality that each page would have between 5-10 words underlined and written out with the English translation. I read it: I understood it, and I would have enjoyed it in English just as much.

“Las Mariposas” was the code-name for the four Mirabel sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria Theresa and Dede who, for different reasons and to differing extents, were involved in clandestine actions against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (El Jefe) in the Dominican Republic. The whole of the family came under official suspicion, and two of the girls and their husbands and father were imprisoned at various times. In 1960 three of the sisters were assassinated in an ambush that was made to look like a car accident, leaving their sister Dede to guard their legacy. They are today recognized as symbols of social justice and feminism, and their images appear on the Dominican 200 peso bill and on a mural painted on the huge 137ft obelisk that Trujillo constructed to commemorate changing the name of the capital city from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (it reverted to its original name in 1961 after Trujillo himself was assassinated). That’ll show you, Trujillo.

The narrative of the book switches between 1994 in the voice of the remaining sister, Dede, and chronological chapters told in the varying voices of Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria. Although clearly Alvarez has researched the topic thoroughly, it is historical fiction with invented conversations and scenarios. The description of Minerva and Maria Teresa’s imprisonment was chilling, and the suffocating presence of male lust dressed up in military costumes is palpable.

I’m particularly pleased that I was able to read a book that was not translated for language learners, but for Spanish-speaking readers. At times I was frustrated by the presence of so many synonyms, but of course any literary text written in English would vary its vocabulary too, avoiding the repetition that language learners hold onto life a life-raft.

So – it may have taken six months, but it was well worth-while!

My rating: if I had read it in English, I would have rated it 8

Sourced from: purchased from Book Depository.

‘El Alquimista’ por Paulo Coelho


1988, 177 p.

Yes, it’s The Alchemist, but it’s in Spanish, translated from the Portuguese by Montserrat Mila. I read this as part of my Spanishland course, so it’s at Intermediate level. For such a small book, it took quite a while to read.

The book is an allegorical tale about a young  Andalusian shepherd called Santiago (but often referred to as ‘the boy’) who sells his sheep after dreaming twice of finding treasure at the Pyramids. It’s a quest tale as he gets robbed repeatedly, meets people who further him on his journey, and finally ends up crossing the desert with the Alchemist, who gives him wise advice. Does he find his treasure?- well, you’ll have to read it yourself, in whatever language.

I must confess that the book was too new-agey and self-affirmational for me. It’s in the same genre as Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and those “wish for it and you’ll get it” type books.

But even in a language with which I am not particularly fluent, I could recognize that this was beautifully written, especially in its descriptions of the desert and in its telling of  falling in love with Fatima, the love of his life. Like most allegorical tales, it is simply told but it is not a children’s book at all.

‘Sisters/Hermanas’ by Gary Paulsen


1993, 64 p. English/Spanish. Translated into Spanish by Gloria de Aragón Adújar

This YA novella is presented in  both Spanish and English, each upside down from the other. I read it in Spanish, (and it was just right for an Intermediate Spanish student) but if you flipped it the other way, you could read it in English. An effective format for a language learner: the other language was there if you wanted it, but it was enough of a hassle to turn the book over and find the corresponding page that I generally persevered it trying to work it out for myself. I could then read the English chapter, just to make sure that I had got the gist.



Rosa is a 14 year old illegal immigrant from Mexico City who works as a prostitute. She dreams of becoming a model, but in the meantime she endures her lifestyle, sending money home to her mother in Mexico.  Traci is a blonde 14 year old from the suburbs, whose mother is preening her to become head cheerleader, which will launch her into a dazzling career as a beauty queen.

The book presents their stories in alternating chapters, as each of the girls gets ready, then brings them together in a clothing store at a mall. Rosa is hiding from the police, Traci finds her and with a jolt, recognizes them as being sisters  – not literally, but as holder of the same dreams which they are powerless to fulfill in a very imperfect world.

A compelling novella, and just right for my Spanish level.  The original text was written in English, and it was translated into Spanish by Gloria de Aragón Andújar

‘Learn Spanish with Stories for Beginners’ by Claudia Orea


124 p.

To be honest, I had forgotten that I had ordered this as a Kindle book. I don’t have a Kindle as such (I do have a Kobo) and I only read Kindle books on my tablet. I started reading it, then joined in a group reading of La Distancia Entre Nosotros by Reyna Grande instead.  Once I finished the novel, I remembered that I had this book half-read.

So I find myself in the position of being able to compare a ‘real’ book (albeit a Young Adult book) with a book consciously written for beginners. The ‘real’ book wins hands down. I found myself having to look up about 4-6 words per page in Grande’s book, and it was interesting that the further I went on, the fewer words I had to look up. Most of the words I needed to look up were verbs.  Even if I didn’t recognize the word at first, I was able to work in out in context. In Orea’s short stories, on the other hand, there were many more words that were unfamiliar to me, and they were mostly nouns. Being short stories, and with short sentences, there were far fewer contextual cues. And I suppose that because it is an instructional text, there was a conscious decision to focus on ‘building vocabulary’, hence the long list of new words at the end of each story.

Several of the stories were in the present tense, which is fair enough for a beginners’ book.  However, a number of the stories were either a) boring or b) downright weird. Take for example ‘Las Apariencas Engañan’ (Appearances Deceive). It’s about a man who pimps up his girlfriend to go cruising looking for men, except that the girlfriend is an alligator who eats them.  Hmmm.  However, I’m not a great short story fan in English either – especially when the short story is very short – and so I’m probably not the best judge.

The stories themselves are about 1500 words in length, and after each paragraph there is a vocabulary list. This is good, because you don’t have to go rummaging around at the back of the book or in a dictionary – the words are right there when you need them. There are multiple choice comprehension questions at the end of the story, and I found them useful. There’s then a short summary in Spanish, followed by the same summary translated into English.  There are audio recordings which I didn’t download.  I found the length good, because reading in another language is tiring. I could only read about 2 or 3 pages of Grande’s book in one sitting.

Would I read another book like this? I don’t think so. The words were too disembodied and the stories too banal or too weird. I’d prefer a news article e.g. in BBC Mundo or a book written for its story rather than for its instructional value.

‘La Distance Entre Nosotros’ by Reyna Grande


2012,  354 pages

Yes! 354 pages in Spanish! I read this book as part of my Parceros participation with Spanishland School. Our teacher Andrea held a weekly podcast where she would ask questions and discuss one or two chapters, but I fell behind on the podcasts and just kept reading, two pages per night.

The book is probably aimed at Year 7 and 8 kids in American schools. It was written in English by the author, who was born in Mexico and learned English as a second language, and then translated into Spanish.

The author, Reyna, was born in a small village in Mexico and both her parents left in order to work illegally on the ‘other side’ (i.e. America) when she was a very young child. First her father left, then he called for his wife to join him, so the children were left with their paternal grandmother, who because of her clear dislike for the children’s mother, distrusted that they were indeed even her own grandchildren. Their mother returned alone, when she found that her husband was cheating on her, and the children ended up with their maternal grandmother while their mother went back to America with another man.

In Part 2 of the book, their father returns with his new wife and grudgingly takes the three children over the border. A violent and hard man, their lives are still hard and it is only Reyna who breaks free of the poverty in which they are living. Through it all, she desperately wants her father’s approval.

Reading only 2 pages a night meant that Reyna’s long howl of abandonment wore a little thin by the end, but I came away with a much richer understanding of the ‘Dreamers’ and the desperation with which illegal immigrants try to achieve a better life.

The level was JUST right for someone who has Intermediate level Spanish. I generally had to look up about 4 or 5 words per page, which was not enough to slow me down, and I found that I could easily guess many unfamiliar words.  It is well written and poignant- I really enjoyed it.


‘El León, La Bruja y El Ropero’ por C. S. Lewis

el leon

202 P. Translated into Spanish by Margarita Valdez E.

Yes! I’ve finished it!  I haven’t read this book for a long time, and believe me, it took me a long time to read it for the second time, in Spanish! However, the language was easier than Harry Potter and at times the writing was so beautiful that I almost forgot that I was reading it in Spanish. I found the Christian overtones rather heavy-handed, but perhaps I’m becoming more intolerant in my old age. I enjoyed it, but I won’t rush to read the rest in the series – in either language.

And don’t you reckon that “Bruja Blanca” sounds more threatening than “White Witch”?

‘Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal’ by J.K.Rowling


1997, 259 pages, translated into Spanish by Alicia Dellepiane Rawson

Si! He terminado de leer mi primero Harry Potter!

Yes- all in Spanish, all 259 pages of it! It only took about six months. I hadn’t read the books or seen the films, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s very reminiscent of those British children’s books of the 1950s or 1960s (Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton) etc. with the perennial unhappy child’s wish of having parents other than the ones they do. I’ve gathered lots of new words about wands, brooms and spells. Now I just have to find the opportunity to use them.

‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1975, 240p.

I cannot tell a lie: I don’t think that I’ve ever been as glad to finish a book as this one.  It was a difficult book anyway, and my choice of reading platform was disastrous.  I was reading it on an e-reader and then had to swap to a tablet when the e-reader kept crashing (I suspect that the size of the file is too big for it).

Why so difficult- apart from the technology? Because it is the same story told six times, with variations between each telling, and because there are very, very few full stops.  You could go pages and pages without a pause.  In this regard, it is similar to the short story ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ that I read earlier this year. But a technique that was quirky and interesting in a short story became suffocating in a full-length novel.  I found myself thrashing through the text, as if I were drowning, waiting for somewhere to take another gasp of air. Because I was reading it electronically and the table of contents in such a large omnibus edition did not go down to chapter level, it was not easy to flip through to find where the chapter ended, for fear of losing my place – I’d never find it again.  In fact, I didn’t know where the book itself ended, and as the next chapter started up with the same story again, I began to despair lest I never reach the end of this book.

But I think that that’s how Garcia Marquez wanted you to feel. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die.  In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again.

His country is submerging into debt and decay, and he is kept in power by his debtors, after they have pillaged the nation, causing him to even sell them the sea. He is uneducated and he forces the church and the people to deify his mother after she dies. Although impotent against his international debtors, he has absolute power within his own country, ordering mass deaths at will.  But he is fearful of losing his power, which is why this lonely figure wanders the house at night.

I read this story as part of a course that I am doing through Coursera called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, delivered in Spanish. Of course, I read the book in English: my mind just boggles at the thought of translating such complex sentences! After hours of translating, I worked out what the lecturers were saying, and their comments certainly added to my enjoyment of the story, but also highlighted to me how much is lost when reading an author who makes so many references to other (Spanish) texts.  I would never have picked it up, but the book pays homage to and subverts at least two other texts: Christopher Columbus’ account of the discovery of the Americas, and a poem ‘The Triumphal March’ by twentieth-century Nicaraguan poet Rubio Dario.  Well- both of those would have just slipped right past me!

The other point made by the lecturers was that this book, one of three ‘historical’ novels by Garcia Marquez, was published during the 1970s. The Patriarch is not named, but he could be any one of the dictators who have emerged from Latin America, and continued to do so when the book was published ( Pinochet in Chile, the Dirty War in Argentina etc).  It is part of a genre of Latin American ‘dictator novels’, but Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch is none of them and all of them.

Worth reading?  Yes – but be prepared for a really difficult read. And buy or borrow it as a real book. It’s just too hard to read electronically.

‘Innocent Erendira and Other Stories’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1972, 192 p.

Last year I did an online course about Macondo, the setting for many of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories and novels (see course details here).  Of course, I read all the stories in English, but I found the videos and transcripts in Spanish challenging and rewarding, and could revert to the English translations when it all became too hard. So, when I saw that Coursera were running a second course, I signed up.  It’s called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, and it looks at his work after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Once again, I’m reading the books in English but here’s an added degree of difficulty: there are no English subtitles or translation of the transcript.  I’m on my own!

The first week looks at the short story collection Innocent Erendira and other stories. As the lecturers explain, these short stories were written after the critical acclaim of Hundred Years and before the publication of The Autumn of the Patriarch, which marked a departure from his earlier work. The stories therefore have wisps of his earlier work, but apparently prefigure the books that he was to go on to write.

The volume starts with ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ about an angel arriving in a small village, where he is locked in the chicken-coop and becomes a sensation among the villagers.  It reminded me a little of Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, where the angel Xas bursts into a real-life setting.  ‘The Sea of Lost Time’ is also set in a village, where the smell of roses permeates a village which is indebted to an unscrupulous gringo. The smell of roses reminded me of the butterflies in One Hundred Years of Solitude.  In ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ a body washes ashore and the women of the village fall in love with it.  ‘Death Constant Beyond Love’ is about a dying senator who comes to a poverty-striken village and falls in love with a 19 year old. in ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ a ghostly ship, seen only in glimpses, sails into a village. Again, I was reminded of One Hundred Years, although it was a train that arrived in a village there.  ‘Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles’ is a gruesome story about torture, where a trickster takes on a young boy as his sidekick.

The final story, which gives the collection its name, is ‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother’. Heartless indeed, this obese, manipulative grandmother prostitutes her granddaughter, chaining her to the bed to service lines of men.  It’s the longest story in the collection – more novella than short story, but it was too violent and distressing for me, I’m afraid.

Prostitution of children by parents arises in other stories here too, as in ‘Death Constant Before Love’ where a father gets his daughter to seduce the senator in order to gain a favor from him.  There are other themes that run across the stories too. Many of them make reference to the sea (‘The Handsomest Drowned Man’, ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghostly Ship’ and ‘The Sea of Lost Time’) and tricksters and shysters abound.  It’s a violent world.  There’s plenty of power being exercised here, by people who should be showing love.

Stylistically, the most striking story is ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ which has only one full stop: the one that finishes the story.  Marquez manages to progress the story well, using only commas.

So, all in all, a good collection of short stories, and the Coursera lectures are worth listening/watching too. Just don’t ask me to translate them!

‘La Mujer sin Lagrimas’ by Mayra A. Diaz


88 pages, alternating Spanish and English

Well, I’d been frustrated by Easy Spanish retellings of longer, classic stories that moved too quickly in a stripped-down fashion (for example, the Easy Spanish versions of  Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote) but this book went to the other extreme with an excruciatingly slow story in much detail.

Sixty-five year old Ana, who has three adult sons and grandchildren, has been going from doctor to doctor, trying to find relief for her dry eyes that cannot shed tears.  Her son Paco finally takes her to see Dr Rodriguez, who quickly realizes that Ana’s inability to cry is more psychological than physiological. Eventually Ana divulges a secret that she has kept from her husband and family.

Actually, the level of this was just right. The chapters were long enough – about twenty lines in length – and they were followed immediately by the English translation. On the Kindle app on my tablet I was able to make the text large enough that the Spanish took up the whole page so there was no surreptitious cheating. The English version made you realize how choppy the tenses were (I hadn’t noticed in Spanish) or perhaps it’s a clunky translation.

And it was, at least, an adult story that actually captured my interest somewhat. It’s a rather low bar on these Easy Spanish books, I must admit. Anyway, this was quite good, considering.