Professor emeritus Robert Fedorchek translates Juan Valera’s classic 19th century Spanish novel.

Professor emeritus Robert Fedorchek translates Juan Valera’s classic 19th century Spanish novel.

Pictured above: An illustration from a 1925 edition of the novel by the Spanish painter Adolfo Lozano Sidro. Elise Bochinski, archivist at the University’s library was able to obtain authorization to reprint four of the illustrations in Dr. Fedorchek’s translation.

by Alan Bisbort

Dr. Robert Fedorchek may be the youngest-looking professor emeritus at Fairfield University. With his sunny personality, trim physique, and full head of neatly combed hair, Dr. Fedorchek seems perpetually ready to head off with his book bag to a graduate seminar.

And yet, his 39 years on the faculty at Fairfield University speaks for itself, as does his long tenure of chairmanship of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures (1982-1993) and his 17 acclaimed English translations of classics of 19th-century Spanish literature, not to mention the many students he has sent into the world with a deeper appreciation for the lure, lore, and literature of Spain.

Fedorchek is even responsible for the name of his department in Canisius Hall. “When I took over [as chairman] it was the Department of Modern Languages,” he said. “I went to the then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and made the case that one-third to one-half of our work was teaching literatures in the original languages. He agreed; hence, the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.”

Since retiring after the 2004 academic year, Fedorchek has continued apace, publishing four acclaimed translations of novels by Juan Valera y Alcalá-Galiano (1824-1905), one of Spain’s most popular 19th-century authors. Fedorchek has also written and published his own novel, The Translators (2010), whose protagonist — yes — translates 19th-century Spanish literature at a fictional “Northern Connecticut State University” that bears a passing resemblance to Fairfield University but also to the University of Connecticut, where Fedorchek earned both his master’s degree and Ph.D. back when cows outnumbered students in Storrs, Conn.

When discussing his most recently published translation of Juan Valera’s first novel Pepita Jiménez (for Oxford, UK-based Oxbow Books), Fedorchek’s face lit up and his hands worked the air in front of him as he enthused about the story, the project, and 19th-century Spanish literature in general.

“I daresay there isn’t a course of study at any university anywhere on the 19th-century Spanish novel that doesn’t include Pepita Jiménez,” he said. “I’m cautiously happy with my effort . . . until the reviews come out. One never knows.”
He was recently gratified by a note sent to him by Gonzalo Sobejano, a respected literary critic and professor of Spanish literature at Columbia University, calling his Pepita Jiménez “the culminating achievement of your translations of nineteenth-century Spanish literature.”

The novel, written in 1874, and set in an Andalusian village much like the one where Valera was raised, concerns Luis de Vargas, a 22-year-old seminarian about to enter the priesthood, and a 20-year-old widow, Pepita Jiménez. Luis has been away at seminary for the previous decade and returns to his village for a final visit before taking his vows as a priest.

Though Luis insists that “the things of this world hold little appeal for me,” he has never encountered a “thing” like Pepita, whose goodness and beauty are beyond belief. He’d previously only known the world through books and contemplation and now, face to face with the realities and temptations of the flesh, he is helpless. As the lure of Pepita grows stronger — complicated by the fact that his widower father is himself wooing Pepita — he becomes increasingly more eager to leave the village to take his vows. All the while, his exposure to Pepita — who is like a fertility goddess, tending her garden and doing good acts for the community — sparks a craving for sensation and beauty.

Pepita is written in epistolary form, allowing for multiple perspectives, including that of the eponymous Pepita. Modern readers are likely to be taken aback, or amused, by the intensity of Luis’ struggles against temptation. He compares, for example, the touch of a woman’s hand to the bite of a scorpion and writes to his uncle, “The beauty of a woman, such a perfect work of God, is always the cause of perdition… The first enticement is the head of the serpent. If we do not trample it with a firm, brave foot, the poisonous reptile will slither up to hide in our bosom…The ambrosia of worldly delights, no matter how innocent, is usually sweet to the taste, but afterwards it is converted into the gall of dragons and the venom of asps.”

Finally, after the inevitable first kiss, he moans, “I am a vile worm, and not a man.”

Fedorchek explained that the novel explores a man’s discovery of his true vocation, and abandonment of a false one.

“Luis didn’t lose his faith,” said Fedorchek. “It was a false vocation. His agony comes from realizing his true calling or, rather, that his initial calling was a false one. Everyone saw through Luis, but he didn’t see it. They all knew it was a false vocation so that the journey is not one of losing faith and succumbing to the temptations of the world but of realizing who he really was all along. Pepita did things to show Luis she was interested in him. ‘Feminine wiles,’ I guess you’d say.”

Part of the appeal for Fedorchek of translating Valera is the novelist’s uncanny ability to depict the inner lives and motivations of female characters far more astutely than most novelists of his day. Two of Valera’s other novels that Fedorchek has translated take their titles from female protagonists — Dona Luz and Juanita la Larga.

“I’ve now translated five of his novels, including the three eponymous women-titled novels: Pepita Jiménez (his first), Doña Luz, and Juanita la Larga (one of his last),” says Fedorchek. “Why did I translate four others before tackling Pepita Jiménez? I can’t say for certain. Perhaps I saw it as a daunting challenge, even with all the experience I had under my belt. The format engages the reader very quickly, intrigues him or her: the fictitious prologue; the epistolary section, the reader seeing all through Luis’s eyes; the omniscient [3rd person] narrator section to allow Pepita to take center stage, so to speak.”

Prior to Fedorchek’s translation of Pepita Jiménez, two other English translations of the novel were published — one in the late 19th century and the other in the 1950s.

“I resisted reading the translations until I was far into my own,” says Fedorchek. “Then I was curious to see how they handled dialogue and expository prose. In parts, it was almost as if reading two different books.

Valera, like Fedorchek, was a late bloomer. Valera did not publish his first novel until he was 50. Prior to that, he was a diplomat, living in Washington, D.C., Brazil, and elsewhere.

“He was moving around a lot, so it’s no wonder he was a late bloomer as a writer,” says Fedorchek. “He was cultured, urbane, cosmopolitan, and debonair, knew all the Spanish literati of his day. He had specific rules about novels. He wanted to create beauty — what might be called ‘art for art’s sake’.”

Indeed, in the preface to his Pepita Jiménez translation, Fedorchek quotes Valera’s literary dictum: “A nice novel should be poetry and not history; that is, it should depict things not as they are but more attractive than what they are, infusing them with light that has a certain enchantment.”

Valera did not consider novels by naturalists like Zola, Flaubert, and Dreiser to be “nice.”

“He saw theirs as a type of writing that emphasized the disagreeable, morbid, and lesser appealing aspects of life,” says Fedorchek. “Zola would probably be seen as his bête noire.”

Valera, who also wrote short stories, poetry, essays, and historical studies, is now regarded as one of the giants of 19th-century Spanish literature and Pepita Jiménez is, Fedorchek says, “among the half dozen best Spanish novels of the second half of the 19th century.”

Left: Dr. Robert Fedorchek. Top right: Dr. Fedorchek with Elise Bochinski. Bottom right: Adolfo Lozano Sidro illustrations from the 1925 Spanish version of the novel. From left to right, Pepita, Luis de Vargas, and at right, according to one description: “Left alone with the Vicar, Pepita, who is at once agitated, contrite and proud, reveals that, after rejecting many suitors, she has fallen in love with the young seminarian.”

Fedorchek’s translation of Pepita Jiménez was prepared with the assistance of Elise Bochinski, access services librarian and University archivist at the DiMenna-Nyselius Library. It is the second collaboration between the two; earlier, Fedorchek and Bochinski worked together on a translation of Valera’s 1877 novel, Commander Mendoza, published in 2010 by Oxbow Books, as part of the same Aris & Phillips Hispanic Classics series.

When the idea to translate Pepita came to Fedorchek, he contacted Dr. Jonathan Thacker, editor of the Aris & Phillips series. Thacker agreed to the project if Fedorchek and Bochinski could supply a bilingual-facing-page translation. The icing on the cake was Fedorchek’s securing an introduction by the esteemed James Whiston, head of the Department of Spanish at Trinity College, Dublin. Many of his earlier translations also featured introductions by renowned critics and professors.

“It’s charming of Bob to include me in his credits, which is often not the case for us librarians,” said Bochinski, who was able to secure a copy of an illustrated 1925 edition of Pepita Jiménez through interlibrary loan. The text from that borrowed volume was scanned over a summer by student aide Katrina Williams ’13, a Fairfield University nursing student.

“For Oxbow Press, the text had to be reformatted to fit the page in the same blocks as the English text on the opposite page,” explains Bochinski. “When it came to the illustrations, more detective work was required. This copy contained beautiful watercolor illustrations by an artist who was not credited on the title page or anywhere in the volume.”

Of the 20 illustrations, Bochinski scanned four, working carefully with the fragile and beautiful octavo volume. Each illustration required high-resolution files to be sent back and forth to the publisher. More detective work by Bochinski determined that the artist was a renowned Spanish painter named Adolfo Lozano Sidro, whose work was still not free of copyright. A feverish exchange of e-mails to Spain tracked down Sidro’s heirs. Their representative contacted Bochinski and Fedorchek and said that they authorized the use of the four images contained in Fedorchek’s translation. The only stipulation they made was that a copy of the book be sent to the museum in Spain devoted to Sidro’s work and another copy sent to his heirs.

“Sidro was the perfect artist to be illustrating this volume because of his attention to details of class and interior surroundings and settings,” said Bochinski. “This project was fun because the novel has been so popular and has endured.”
Indeed, a popular comic opera by Isaac Albeniz, adapted from Pepita Jiménez, premiered in 1896 and has since been frequently staged.

“I even found a YouTube clip of Ricardo Montalban portraying Luis in a film version of Pepita,” said Bochinski.

In her spare time, Bochinski, who was a drama major at NYU, also collaborates with Fairfield drama students. Last fall, she assisted with and acted in a student production of Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam, a dark comedy about a drama teacher who preys on misfit teenagers.

Fedorchek is currently working on more translations, one of a group of short stories by Valera and the other of The Memoirs of the Marquis of Bradomín by Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, which he describes as “a long fiction about perhaps the last great and aging Don Juan figure in Spanish literature.”

Closer to his heart is The Oldest Son, a novel in progress based on the wartime experiences of his brother, who witnessed the carnage on Iwo Jima and never quite recovered from the experience. The novel opens in February 1945 on Iwo Jima and then shifts to San Francisco, where a wounded U.S. Marine heals and has to live with what happened.

“It’s an important book for me because it’s dedicated to my two brothers, one a Marine who was at Iwo Jima, and the other who was in the Navy,” said Fedorchek. “The brother who was at Iwo Jima wrote poetry when he was in high school, and my sister recently found a cache of his work. I’m including some of the poems as an afterword to my novel.”