Our Next Translation - Diversifying the Classics
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Our Next Translation

El semejante a sí mismo, by Juan Ruiz de Alarcón

The Comedia in Translation’s next project is El semejante a sí mismo, a comedia written by Novohispanic playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcón and published for the first time in 1628 . Roughly translated, the title means “he who looks like himself.” As odd as it sounds, the title belies the common notion that a person might, at any given time and for a number of reasons, come to look unlike themselves. A disguise, for instance, serves to occlude a person’s identity. Plots featuring characters in disguise were very common in early modern Spanish comedias. In the group’s latest translation, Ana Caro’s The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrong, a woman disguises herself as a man to even the score with a former lover. Like Courage, Semejante also suggests that identity is a social performance of which looks are an integral part. Semejante, however, stands alone in that it presents us with a rather extreme situation: what if the only disguise is a name?

The play, set in Seville, begins with a suspicion: to test the loyalty of his beloved Ana, Juan decides to court her while impersonating his cousin, Diego, who lives abroad. To this end Juan, pretending to be Diego, sends his father a letter announcing Diego’s visit to Seville, with the intention of witnessing with his own eyes what he has only heard in rumors: that he and his cousin, Juan, look uncannily similar. Along with his feigned letter, Juan includes a portrait of himself, but the likeness is identified as Diego’s. To support the charade, he promotes the fiction that Juan is leaving for Perú at the same time that Diego is coming to visit Seville. Once the pieces are in place, all Juan needs to do is change his name to “Diego,” and present himself to his family and friends as if he were a completely different man. Against all odds, the plan works. No one in his immediate circle—not Ana, not his long-time servant, not even his father—ever doubts that this man is Diego, even though a few days earlier he was living among them as Juan, and he still looks exactly like his old self. 

Fittingly, the backdrop for a play like Semejante, written by a dramatist like Alarcón, is the city of Seville, the port of entry for royal ships coming from the colonies. The Castilian Empire was vast, stretching from modern-day Taiwan to Puerto Rico, and from southern Canada to Patagonia. Precious metals and gems, exotic goods, and slaves captured all around the world arrived in Seville and were quickly integrated into its households and economies. Indigenous Mayas and native Filipinos, to name two examples, comingled in the streets of Seville with Christian servants, including the descendants of Muslims converted, often forcibly, to Catholicism. Spain was a world-wide empire, and so its subjects were as diverse as the world was wide. However, Spanish society prided itself on the perceived purity of its Catholic and European lineage, a belief reinforced by the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and of the Moriscos throughout the first two decades of the 1600s. Faith and blood were the two pillars upon which Spanish society had organized itself hierarchically. The proliferation of diverse identities in a city like Seville thus threatened this social model, as it became increasingly difficult to detect who was a true Spaniard and who was not.

Alarcón himself was a Creole—a Spaniard born in the American continent—at a time when theories of climatic determination regarded Creoles as inferior to European-born Spaniards. In fact, merely spending time in the Americas was believed to put a European at risk of becoming psychologically damaged. Semejante challenges this belief by introducing characters hailing from the colonies, but without marking them in any negative way. Diego, for example, grew up in Flanders, the European colony that revolted against Spain in defense of religious freedom. In a long monologue, Leonardo narrates his first-hand experience of the transformation of the Aztec capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, into the capital of New Spain. Then there is Inés, Ana’s servant, whose uncertain ethnicity makes Sancho vacillate between describing her as either an India (Native American) or a Morisca. In this play, Seville is truly a multi-cultural, global city, afflicted by the troubles of an increasingly connected world.

As it is the case with many Spanish Golden Age comedias, Semejante advances the idea that identity is a social fiction: Juan may pretend to be Diego, but for the transformation to be successful the fiction must be authorized by the group. Indeed, the world is a stage. Despite the excesses of its plot, Semejante wants us to consider a rather simple problem: what keeps the “other” from becoming “one of us” is not an essential, legible difference—it is simply us.

Our translation will be ready by the fall of 2020. We hope that you’ll read it and enjoy it. And we certainly hope that you’ll produce it. 

Cheché Silveyra

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