New Publication: The War of Paraguay

Cover of The War of Paraguay. Text: A diplomatic history of South America's deadliest inter-state war

The translation I’ve been working on off and on for three years is finally complete! In celebration of Public Domain Day, I’m ceding the entirety of the publication, with the exception of the cover, to the public domain. If you want to throw some money my way you can set your price for it on Smashwords, or you can download a free copy in the following formats: DocxEpubMobiPDF.

Readers who’ve been following the blog for a while have seen earlier posts about this translation, including posts of each chapter translated. This version of the book is a much revised version of those posts, with the addition of translated footnotes, a translated appendix, expanded introduction, and a map of disputed territory and important locations. Those posts will remain up for posterity’s sake, but the version I am publishing today is vastly superior.

For those of you unfamiliar with this project, below is an excerpt of the Translator’s Foreword to give you an idea of what this book is, and why I’ve stuck with it through all this time:

Following my sophomore year of college, I decided to undertake a translation project. I didn’t have a specific text in mind—that was secondary to my desire to improve my Spanish and get some practice translating, which was a skill I wanted to develop.

So my criteria for choosing the source text were 1. That it be public domain, so I could post my translation online and eventually sell it. 2. That it be a work never before translated into English, so that I could feel I was not just doing a bad job that had already been done better. And 3. That the book be interesting to me.

This last criterion brought my attention the Paraguayan War, which I had only just learned about earlier that year, and which I was eager to know more about. Scanning the bibliography of its Wikipedia page I latched onto La guerra del Paraguay by Joaquim Nabuco, and although it satisfied all my criteria, this was truly a terrible choice for my first foray into translation.

To begin with, there’s the length. Although I did remove some longer works from consideration, such as José Ignacio Garmendia’s 500-page Recuerdos de la guerra del Paraguay, the book is still long, and the first Spanish book I’d ever read in full (longer still when you count the footnotes crammed into its 350 pages in miniscule font, sometimes running longer than the chapters they’re attached to.) So what was meant to be a summer project, finishing up sometime during the fall semester, ended up an enormous labor requiring long periods of work, off and on, throughout three years.

With all that said, the text which La guerra del Paraguay is excerpted from is even longer, and with even more footnotes—which leads into the next reason this was not a good choice for translation: it’s already a translation. La guerra del Paraguay is a translated excerpt from Joaquim Nabuco’s Um estadista do império, a Portuguese-language book published in three massive volumes between 1897 and 1899. Um estadista is a biography of Nabuco’s father, José Tomás Nabuco, a diplomat, politician, and jurist whose life and career coincided almost completely with the life of the empire itself—making the book as much history as biography. La guerra del Paraguay is just the chapters concerning the Paraguayan War, translated into Spanish by Gonzalo de Reparaz Rodríguez, published in 1901. This aspect of the text was at times helpful and at other times a hindrance, and in all added a layer of complexity that would’ve driven me away from the book entirely if I had realized it at the start, and not after already sinking hours into the project.

This isn’t to sell the book short. Many great texts have come to us by indirect translation, and Spanish and Portuguese are close enough that not much is altered in the translation between them. It gave me a lot to think about, but it didn’t overall increase my workload.

The lack of shared context did. Of course, there’s the lack of context due to La guerra being an excerpt, but really I mean the context of 19th-century Río de la Plata politics and history, of which I was wholly clueless at the outset. To properly understand the book, properly translate it, and add clarifying endnotes, I had to do a great deal of research, far beyond the base level you’d expect with any translation project. Many passages were unintelligible to me on first read, and only revealed their meaning months later, after I’d read just the right book to understand them.

Despite it all, I pressed on, and have come out with a translation of a work never before published in English, and which is only the third English translation of Nabuco ever—the first being Abolitionism [O Abolicionismo], translated by Robert E. Conrad in 1977, and the second being My Formative Years [Minha formação], translated by Christopher Peterson in 2012.

Now here’s why I think it was worth all my struggles and headaches:

The War of Paraguay offers a special angle on the war—because it’s excerpted from Um estadista, it views the war mainly through diplomatic and political machinations. As I said, that book is as much a history of the empire as it is a biography of José Tomás Nabuco, so while Nabuco figures heavily in some chapters, he is totally absent from others, and is generally overshadowed by statesmen like Saraiva, Ferraz, Caxias, Paranhos, and so many others. And while Joaquim Nabuco is not exactly a primary source (he was a teenager at the time of the war), he was closely related to many of those protagonists, either personally or through his father, whose correspondences are frequently referenced. The book gives ample space to parliamentary speeches as well as private letters sent between friends, revealing the inner frustrations and passions of statesmen so frequently bound by the courtly etiquette of the Brazilian Empire.

The book is not a blow-by-blow account of the war, as one finds in George Thompson’s The War in Paraguay or Garmendia’s Recuerdos de la guerra del Paraguay. In fact, the first five chapters deal with diplomatic tensions leading up to the war, while the last nine describe the lengthy peace process—an appropriate allocation of page space for a war which emerged from such widespread political turmoil, and whose effects persisted long after López’s death. Throughout the 19th century, the Río de la Plata region was full of overlapping rivalries, lone caudillos of dubious allegiance, grand ambitions for never-realized states, and constant violent conflict. The fact that three nations, who’d made war with one another multiple times before, now allied themselves for the duration of a war that lasted years is startling, and it only came about by a combination of chance and decisive diplomacy. Examining the war without an eye towards diplomacy would be a mistake, and La guerra del Paraguay puts diplomacy and politics front and center. Chapter IV is a perfect microcosm of this—one of the longest chapters in the book, Nabuco spends pages describing Saraiva’s mission in Uruguay, his continual attempts to pursue a peaceful path, the connections he makes which lay the groundwork for the Triple Alliance, until at last he’s left with no choice but to act on Brazil’s ultimatum—after which the events of the entire Uruguayan War are summed up in one paragraph. It’s by no means a complete view of the war, but as a chronicle of the war’s diplomatic history, and especially the wartime political scene in Brazil, it excels. This is what has kept me interested in this project, as difficult as it has been at times, and it is what excites me so much about making it available in English for the first time.

Happy Public Domain Day everyone! I did also make an extensive post about the Internet Archive and the need for copyright/public domain literacy among authors, which you can read here.

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