I am working on my first book-length translation, from Portuguese, the only language I have attempted with any real seriousness to translate. I had been away from Brazil for years, and wanted a way to keep up my language skills. What better method than to retreat into the way I primarily learned my first language: by reading?
My husband, a very accomplished translator, suggested the best course might be to find a lost classic, something that had once been translated but needed an update. I chose Graciliano Ramos. In 1941, a national literary poll in Brazil named Graciliano one of that country’s ten greatest novelists, one of only four living authors on the list. He lived in and wrote about Alagoas, a state in Brazil’s northeast, an area known for being poor, dry, maybe even backward, but also known for its idioms, dry humor, sexual playfulness. It’s a place and time he represents with an astonishingly subtle humor and lyricism. He worked as a government functionary, and, in a story now very well known, attracted the attention of someone at the state level by writing such colorful and compelling accounts of business, development, roads, whatever he was supposed to report, that this person introduced him to someone in publishing.
Graciliano’s books are still very actively read in Brazil; indeed, his reputation seems only to have increased in the sixty years since his death, with all of his books still in print, special issues on anniversaries, and beautiful boxed-sets. Despite this, there is only one extant English translation of each of his four novels. The novels were published in the thirties, the translations date to the seventies, and are not terrible but are in need of updating in various ways and for various reasons. Graciliano’s last novel, Vidas Secas, is his best known. I translated the first chapter, but on publishing it in a journal, I learned that UT Press has the rights to it in English and has no interest in anyone translating it again.
I think that terribly unfair to the book, to any book—all books worth rereading are worth retranslating, and this one is more than worth both. So I spent quite a bit of time unsuccessfully fighting that before I turned to his penultimate novel, São Bernardo, the story of a Thomas-Sutpen-like figure, a man of obscure origins who decides to buy the ranch, São Bernardo, where he once worked as a laborer. I have done a ‘trot’—a quick-and-dirty translation—of the whole thing, and am now in Brazil going through it slowly, rethinking, revising, and identifying questions that I need to ask a Brazilian.
Since it’s my first long work, I’m also giving myself a quick-and-dirty course in the art of translation, reading a memoir by Gregory Rabassa, possibly the best and certainly the best-known of all American translators of Latin-American and Luso-American fiction: If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. I would have thought it would be intimidating to read him, but in fact every chapter has been both instructive and reassuring. Rabassa’s knowledge of the languages and literature he was translating were far better than mine when he began, but I am largely seeking to get closer to Brazil and to its literature.
Rabassa is particularly reassuring for me as an exacting writer translating an exacting writer. He says, “It is a common notion to say that if a work has 10,000 readers it becomes 10,000 books. The translator is only one of these readers and yet… his reading, then, becomes the one reading that is going to spawn 10,000 varieties of the book in the unlikely case that it will sell that many copies… Our translator must know that this is the best he can do in this place and at this time and must still recognize that the work is in a sense unfinished.”
He further advises that translators must follow their hunches. Even while I am laboring to unearth the multiple possible layers in Graciliano’s muscular, deceptively straightforward (and yet often obscurely idiomatic) prose, I eventually must trust my ear and write the thing the way I think his character would say it.
Because this is the other thing about this book: it’s in first-person. This has been absolutely the oddest and perhaps most rewarding aspect of this whole process: living for months inside the head of a character I didn’t create, and who could not be less like me, hearing his voice, intuiting his reactions. Paulo Honório is a type of thug, but one with honor, as his self-chosen pseudonym implies. It’s only one of the multiple layers of irony that thicken this book, and that I am seeking, by means direct and indirect, in fact, to honor. Is this, perhaps, what actors feel like? I imagine it must be. My husband, when I was feeling insecure, said what Rabassa did, but using the metaphor of a Beethoven sonata: we wouldn’t expect two different musicians to play it the same way. Don’t think of your translation as definitive, he said, think of it as one interpretation, one rendering.
As I go through this very detailed, slow phase of the work, I’m almost too aware of the multiple possible implications of many passages. In the next draft, I’m going to have to let many of them go, though I hope that for whatever is lost, much might be gained—above all, I hope, a new readership for one fresh reading of this deserving novel.