What Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Famous Novel Reveals About Linguistic Censorship

The nuances that get lost in translation

6 min readAug 1, 2022


Marquez signing a book at a book signing event. Black and white photo.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Photo from the Harry Ransom Center.

II first stumbled upon Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s La mala hora [The Evil Hour] on a sunbathed afternoon at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. The Marquez exhibition chronicled the life of a young boy from a sleepy town in Colombia who claimed his writing inspiration stemmed from his nightmares. A young boy who would soon become an internationally acclaimed novelist and informal diplomat.

I was drawn to Marquez’s 1962 edition of one of his earliest novels, La mala hora, because of a placard nestled under the bright lights and glass display case. The placard for this particular text recounted a tale in which Marquez’s copyeditor translated his novel from his native Colombian Spanish to Castilian Spanish, a phenomenon that Latin American writers at the time deemed “linguistic censorship” (Harry Ransom Center).

Works of literature are often translated to disseminate ideas to a larger audience. However, certain words in one language do not have a counterpart in other languages, and the meaning of these phrases gets lost in translation. It is up to the translator to make stylistic decisions about which translation is kept, and this is often either the version most authentic to the writer’s original draft or most similar to the target audience’s idiosyncrasies (Vogt 11). These selections introduce a power play in translation because publishers and editors will, in some cases, prioritize a more mainstream dialect over the writers’ original dialect.

La mala hora is a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that epitomizes this interplay with a focus on minority dialects and what meaning is lost in translation. Specifically, the translated differences in the 1962 and 1966 edition of La mala hora by Marquez reflects the suppression of minority languages because of the subtext that can not be translated.

Is translation beneficial because it increases a text’s exposure? Or did degrade a text from its original intention? What trends did Marquez’s decision with La mala hora set for Latin American literature in the late 1900s?

These were the themes that guided my archival research as I foraged through the digital archives of Marquez’s life, trying to piece together his legacy linguistically and politically. I got married to SpanishDict (I only have limited proficiency in the Castilian Spanish dialect), and carried this project with me through my undergraduate studies.

book cover of La mala hora in Spanish featuring splattered hues of pink and green
1962 edition of La mala hora. Image of novel from Harry Ransom Center.

The story behind La mala hora

First published in 1962, La mala hora is Marquez’s second novel and the first to win an award to be published overseas in Spain. The bright green title is boldly scrawled out onto a piece of parchment that has been torn and placed on top of a muted palette of pink, orange, and green hues. The plot centers around a Colombian village where satirical pasquinades exposed the villagers’ secrets in the aftermath of a failed coup.

When the book was set to be published in Spain, Marquez’s copyeditor translated Marquez’s Colombian Spanish to Castilian Spanish. Because he no longer recognized his writing in the novel, Marquez disowned the 1962 version of La mala hora and instead recognized the 1966 edition, which maintained his Latin American Spanish, as his true version of the novel.

What Marquez represented for Latin America

Knowing the context of the Latin American Boom accentuates why Gabriel Garcia Marquez was so impassioned about his Colombian dialect and the sociopolitical implications of its suppression. After facing a technological and economic revolution in the mid twentieth century, many Latin American states faced a surge in nationalism and a desire to eradicate any lingering effects of colonialism.

Juan Poblete, Professor of Literature at University of California Santa Cruz, argues that these themes are reflected in the Latin American Boom: a literary movement in the 1960s and 1970s during which the works of Latin American writers (including Marquez) became internationally circulated and acclaimed (196). Marquez was a key proponent in this movement to encourage Latin American writers to focus on writing authentically for their nations instead of prioritizing a translated and diluted version of their works for overseas audiences in Europe.

Speech audio from Youtube. Original audio contained at Harry Ransom Center.

Here is Marquez’s Nobel Prize Speech from 1982 where he espouses the centrality of literature to Latin America’s future. This particular passage, in particular, details his hopes for the countries after their centuries of suffering at the hands of more politically powerful colonizers.

Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home.

In spite of this, to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death. (translated from Spanish to English from Nobel Prize website)

This ardent belief carried over into Marquez’s reception of his own novel’s translation because the Castilian Spanish translation reinforced the effects of Spanish colonization in Latin America through its implication that Castilian Spanish is more important and relevant than Colombian Spanish.

Considering this background, Marquez attempted to reject the postcolonial influences on La mala hora (the 1962 Castillian Spanish translation) by embracing the original milieu during which the novel was written (the 1966 Colombian Spanish edition). This decision not only maintained Marquez’s authenticity and autonomy as a writer, but it also forged a new path forward for other Latin American writers who were inspired to embrace their native dialects.

A Postcolonial Lense: what literature reveals about power and influence

The medium that works are translated into can be viewed through a postcolonial lens, but La mala hora also reflects how minority dialects are suppressed in favor of the dominant language. Here the idea that translation is tied to power returns. The edits made to Marquez’s 1962 edition of the novel accentuated the prevalence of Castilian Spanish over Latin American Spanish and reinforced the supposed inferiority of Latin American writers.

Minority language dialects “transfer attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices” — facilitating an understanding of cultural diversity through the language that is spoken (Aktener & Yekiner 171). This subtext is not conveyed when works have been translated.

Writer and professor Mario Llosa astutely observes that many texts that are considered “classics” in the literary community are either written in or have been translated into Western languages like English and French (8). The countries that speak these languages (the United States, Britain, and France), are historically seen as the most powerful nations or colonizers in the world, and this establishes a dominance relationship rooted in linguistics.

However, this interplay of politics in language can restrict diversity. Without understanding the dialect, one tends to impose their own cultural knowledge (or lack thereof) upon the characters or authors whose works they consume (Demetska 287). Suppressing these minority languages or dialects leads to a decrease in diversity, further discouraging those who are not a part of powerful societal groups from expressing themselves.

Marquez’s decision to disown the Castilian Spanish 1962 edition of his novel reflects the lingering effects of colonialism and the obstacles minority language communities face in creating an identity and gaining power, accessibility, and trust in a larger context.

I thought I had to know my argument ahead of time and then find the specific resources that tied to exactly what I wanted to say. Not only was this process usually futile and difficult, but it can also lead to confirmation bias and argument misconstruction. I learned instead that the argument was developed alongside the research process, and this allowed for both components to seamlessly weave together to create a strong paper.

Storytelling is universal, but the method of transmission is often dependent on the cultural context that archival research provides. My experience with Marquez’s La mala hora specifically reminded me that we are navigating different barriers (socioeconomic, linguistic, cultural, geographical, etc) when attempting to connect with one another. These dynamics need to be addressed to embrace the most authentic versions of ourselves.