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.

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