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This time Isabel Allende got fired for (re)writing feminist characters

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Most famous novelists had other writing and editing gigs before making a living from their own fiction. Toni Morrison has worked in publishing; Rainbow Rowell wrote publicity copy before publishing her first book; and Isabel Allende, the best-selling Chilean novelist, worked as a Spanish translator of English romance novels. While this side hustle might come as no surprise to a bilingual literature lover like Allende, the way the gig ended might shock romance fans. Allende was fired for rewriting the characters and endings of stories she translated without approval. Let’s see why one of Latin America’s most famous writers rewrote novels before writing his own.

A departure later

Here is a fact that should lift the spirits of writers over 30 who are still waiting for their big break: Isabel Allende only published her first novel, the famous House of the Spirits, when she was 40 years old. Despite this later start, Allende would go on to publish, as of 2022, 25 books which have been translated into 42 languages ​​combined. According to his website, his books have sold over 75 million copies, making him one of the best-selling Spanish-language writers in the world. Her GOAT status makes her own artistic choices as a translator more interesting.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru to Chilean parents in 1942 and moved to Chile as a child. Prior to the publication of her first novel, Allende worked as a journalist and television presenter. Because she was a television personality and a relative of the former Chilean president, she was exiled to Venezuela in 1975 for 13 years under the Pinochet regime in Chile. Before her more high-profile jobs and political exile, however, Allende was looking for a way to earn extra money while pregnant with her second child in the mid-1960s. She found work translating Barbara Cartland, an English author best-selling romance novels. Cartland’s romance novels had mostly the same plot, all featuring a beautiful heroine who falls in love with a rich man, gets married, and lives happily ever after. Although stereotypical, the novels were blockbusters that sold over 750 million copies.

Allende, who, according to Pablo Neruda, had too much imagination to be a journalist, was not a fan of the Cartland formula. A vocal feminist, Allende wanted female characters to have more agency and options. In a 1989 interview in the literary magazine female letters she explained her problem with Cartland storylines: “Women meeting these amazing men at airports and going to Polynesian islands, and, oh, amazing stories. I had to translate them. But they were so boring. After the third novel, they were all exactly the same. So I started to change things.

Some minor revisions

So what kind of changes did Allende make? In a 2009 lecture, she explained:

“I had to change the dialogue a bit here and there so that the female lead didn’t seem completely dim-witted, and then I got carried away and changed the ending. Sometimes Prince Charming ended up helping Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and the heroine, a beautiful, tall, busty blonde, ended up smuggling weapons into the Middle East.

Allende altered the plot and characters to suit his own tastes. In another interview, she noted, “I don’t like safe books. I don’t read romance novels because I know the formula. I want the surprise, I want to be hit. When I read fiction, I want something unusual that I’ll never guess is coming. Predictably, the editor wasn’t thrilled when he found out about Allende’s unauthorized changes to Happiness Forever. She was fired from her job.

Allende on translating his own work

Despite her own “improvements” as a translator, Allende is enthusiastic about translating her own works. In the female letters interview, she noted, “I think it’s such a fantastic opportunity to be translated that I don’t mind if it’s not done well. The possibility of being read in another language is something I had never thought of before. I am still very grateful.

While we may never know if Barbara Cartland felt the same way about Allende’s translation, Allende’s stint in reinventing another author’s may have helped refine her own influential portrayal of strong and multidimensional women.

To learn more about Isabel Allende, check out this introduction to Allende’s life and work. And if you’re looking for the guarantee of happily ever after, we’ve got plenty of romance content to do.

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