Considered by many as his “obra maestra,” Manuel Zapata Olivella’s Changó, el gran putas (1983) is the culmination of more than two decades of work. Originally titled “Viva el putas: novela” by “Mulato,” Changó, el gran putas is Zapata Olivella’s opus. Also titled Changó el Gran Putas and Changó El Gran Putas, Zapata Olivella’s masterpiece was published three times during his lifetime, twice by Bogotá’s Editorial Oveja Negra (1983 and 1985), and again by Rei Andes Ltda. (1992). The 1992 edition, which declares itself as “la edición crítica,” includes an introduction by Dorita Piquero de Nouhaud, who also translated Zapata Olivella’s Chambacú, corral de los negros in 1991.1 Leading Afro-Hispanic scholars including William Luis and Antonio Tillis agree that Changó is a seminal novel that merits scholarly attention. William Luis, in his introduction to Jonathan Tittler’s 2010 translation, calls Changó “one of the most remarkable works of twentieth-century Spanish American literature.” 2 Antonio Tillis concurs with Luis’s assessment, concluding that “it is my belief that should [have been] a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.” 3
Changó can be read as a mythological construction of the African diaspora that spans more than five hundred years of history while simultaneously upending Western worldviews as they apply to space and time. As William Luis explains, the “groundbreaking novel challenges and transcends all existing and imaginable classifications.” 4 Because of its “postmodern, hybrid, subaltern, and post-colonial” nature,Changó was a particularly difficult novel to publish and later to translate and market to a wider audience. 5
Zapata Olivella sought to have his work translated into French and English in order to reach the largest possible literary market. In France, he worked with literary agent Carmen Balcells to generate interest in his work, much to the chagrin of Françoise Cozannet of Editions Payot, who had hoped for the exclusive rights to publish and distribute Changó in French. Eventually, French translations of his biography Lève-toi mulâtre l’esprit parlare a travers ma race(1987) and Changó were supported by Editions Payot, although the terms of the agreement between the publisher and Zapata Olivella were contentious. Nevertheless, Changó’s translator, Dorita Piquero de Nouhaud, was selected by Jean-Luc Pidoux Payot himself. Although Payot terminated its contract with Zapata Olivella in December of 1987, Changó was ultimately published by Miroirs as Changó de sacre dieu (1991) and translated by Dorita Piquero de Nouhaud.
Changó’s translation and publication in English would prove to be even more complicated than its French edition. While other scholars offered to take on the task, including Yvonne Captain Hidalgo, Jonathan Tittler, at the suggestion of Marvin A. Lewis, would eventually translate and publish Zapata Olivella’s Changó. In a letter dated November 12, 1984 , Tittler first mentions the possibility of translating Zapata Olivella’s works, though he expresses his preference to translate “una de las novelas más cortas (porque traducen y se leen más rápidamente y así se publican con mayor facilidad); tal vez Chambacú: Corral de negros o Tierra mojada (prefiero la primera, que es más madura e interesante desde una perspectiva literaria).” [“one of the shorter novels (because they are more easily translated and read and are therefore easier to publish); perhaps Chambacú: Corral de negros or Tierra mojada (I prefer the first one, which is more mature and interesting from a literary perspective)”].
Tittler’s hesitation to begin translating Changó is telling; it would be twenty-five years before he would see his English translation published. Tittler met Zapata Olivella in person in Medellín at the inaugural Association of Colombianists in 1984. He went on to publish Chambacú, Black Slum in 1989, all the while communicating regularly with Zapata Olivella by post. As Tittler worked to understand Zapata Olivella’s universe, he received “a veritable education with regard to African or Afro-descendant culture in connection to Changó.”6 In fact, Zapata Olivella was an active participant in Changó’s ranslation, providing lists of terms and notes for clarification throughout the translation process.
Tittler began his translation of Changó in the summer of 1992, but would not finish a draft of the novel for almost three years. As he began the painstaking process of translation, he had about 75 pages of the more than 500 translated by January of 1993. He was not able to dedicate himself to the task in earnest until 1994, a decade after the work was first published in Spanish, and three years after its publication in French. As Tittler explains in his “Translator’s Note and acknowledgements,” he made significant headway on the project while recovering from a bone marrow transplant. He finished the translation in early 1995, and continued to refine his work through letters to and from Zapata Olivella.
As Tittler began sending his manuscript to publication houses for review, he soon realized that Changó was not going to be easily published. Tittler sent the manuscript to numerous publishers, including Duke University Press, Indiana University Press, Ediciones del Norte, Ediciones Universal, and the University of Texas Press. Undaunted, he continued to send his translation of Zapata Olivella’s opus to any party he thought might be able to help get it published. As he explained in a letter dated March 27, 1996, many boutique publication houses were interested in the manuscript but could not dedicate resources to its publication and the larger houses, though also interested , were reluctant to invest in such a lengthy manuscript. In an undated fax (likely sent in January of 1997, Tittler explained to Zapata Olivella that he has even sent a letter to Colombian Ambassador Pablo Obregón at UNESCO , with the hope that the ambassador would present the manuscript to the UNESCO publications committee for review.
As Zapata Olivella’s health began to fail due to complications after back surgery, Tittler pressed for Changó’s publication in English. He continued his efforts to publish the translation after Zapata Olivella’s death on November 19, 2004. After more than a decade of tireless inquiry, Tittler found a publisher willing to publish the manuscript. Changó, the Biggest Baddass was finally published by Texas Tech University Press in 2010. For Tittler, and for the late Zapata Olivella, this would mark the culmination of a friendship lasting more than twenty-five years and the fruition of a seminal work of this genre.
1 Corral de negros was first published in Havana, Cuba by Casa de las Américas in 1963. The novel was republished as Chambacú, corral de los negros by Bedout (Medellín) in 1967 and later translated as Chambacú, Black Slum by the Latin American Literary Review in 1989.
2 William Luis, “Introduction: Changó, Exile, and the Journey Home,” in Changó, the Biggest Baddass, trans. Jonathan Tittler (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2010), xiii.
3 Antonio D. Tillis, “Introduction,” Manuel Zapata Olivella and the “Darkening” of Latin American Literature (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 8.
4 William Luis, “Introduction: Changó, Exile, and the Journey Home,” in Changó, the Biggest Baddass, trans. Jonathan Tittler (Lubbock, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010), xiii.
5 William Luis, “Introduction: Changó, Exile, and the Journey Home,” in Changó, the Biggest Baddass, trans. Jonathan Tittler (Lubbock, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010), xiv.
6 Jonathan Tittler, “Translator’s Note and acknowledgements,” in Changó, the Biggest Baddass, trans. Jonathan Tittler (Lubbock, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010), x.