A Dialogue on Translating Germano Almeida

Editors' Note: This month we present the first in a series of dialogues: two translators produce versions of the same text, then discuss their choices and approaches. Here Daniel Hahn and Clifford E. Landers consider their renderings of Germano Almeida's "The Best Seller." Links to their respective translations appear at the end. In the spirit of the discussion, we have retained the translators' orthography.

Daniel Hahn: Let me start by asking you a question—or rather, two questions, one quite specific and one quite general. The first is effectively about the layout—it's clear even before reading a word of your version, just from looking at it on the page, that you've made a decision different from mine, not to respect the original para breaks, to indent and isolate speech in a way the original doesn't, but in a way more recognisable in English prose. So my specific question is: What was your reasoning behind that change?

And then the more general question that falls out of that is: When you're starting work on something like this, how much do you actually think consciously, deliberately about such things at all, and how much do you simply do it and find only retrospectively that you've made these decisions?

Clifford E. Landers: Whether to honor the typographical conventions of the source text is a decision the translator must always resolve at the outset. In large part it comes down to the overall philosophy or approach of the translator. As I've stated frequently, I'm what Peter Newmark terms a "targeteer"—given a choice, I tend to look more toward the eventual reader than back to the source. Obviously, one would think long and hard before changing anything in the structure of a work by a Nobel laureate. But in Almeida's amusing story, I think, even the author would probably agree that it's a pleasant little jape with no pretensions to passing for deathless prose. So I felt justified in Americanizing the form to make it more user-friendly for my target audience. In so doing, I hope I managed to capture the tone of the story, something I consider extremely important. As for the second part of your query, I guess I come to such formatting decisions more or less consciously, though decisions of other types may sometimes be made on the fly, as it were.

DH: Both parts of your answer are interesting to compare with my experience, I think. I've not heard the word 'targeteer' but now that I have, yes, that's certainly the way I tend too (and I'll start using that word a lot now… very useful…), but while we made different decisions about the structure of the layout, we each took our decision for the same reason—preserving something of the tone. I think I tend to follow the run of the prose quite closely for that reason, relying on the rhythm for consistency; and instead make it 'user-friendly' I think more with the vocabulary. Your 'ceremonious' is certainly closer to the Portuguese 'ceremonioso' than my 'formal', but I felt the former would be somehow conspicuous (in a way that 'ceremonioso' isn't in Portuguese), and so tried to keep the ease of reading that way.

I asked the second question, and was interested to hear your answer, because I know how rarely (and this may be a failing) I actually stop what I'm doing and think and make a deliberate, thought-through decision when I'm translating—I tend to get stuck into it and find as I'm going that decisions have inevitably been made somehow; but I very rarely do it deliberately. I will just read back what I've done and notice that I've somehow changed the form as I went because that seemed the right thing to do.

This failure to examine the process while I'm engaged in it is one of the reasons I thought this conversation would be useful. (Also one of the reasons I'm still slightly nervous that I don't know what I'm talking about…)

CEL: Now a question for you. My translation was obviously done by an American, just as yours shows its creator's English background. Do you feel that "one size fits all" when it comes to translations aimed at Anglophone audiences, or is there a need for versions targeting specific national readers (British, American, Australian, et al.)?

DH: I never think of myself as translating into a particular English, though I suppose it's obvious that I must. (And I've just started seeing a book of mine be Americanised for a publisher over there, fascinated to see what they feel they have to change.) So my Almeida is revealingly English rather than American/Other, somehow, is it? (I'm going to read over mine again in a moment and see if I can tell what are the giveaway moments…)

I don't think there's a need exactly to cater differently to different nationalities—partly because within English the differences are going to be small points of vocab and idiom and tone which may distinguish the specific nationality but which won't ever be in any way a bar to understanding—reading your translation there's nothing that doesn't make sense to me, linguistically or culturally, even though I may be aware of a difference; but if I am it's only in the same way I can tell the difference between a passage of Philip Roth and a passage of Ian McEwan, because the flavour is different, albeit both in my language and both fully appreciable (so I've never felt the need to try Roth in English translation).

Having said that, I suppose that applies linguistically more than culturally; I don't think an American English reader or an Australian English reader or a South African English reader needs a different service, as it were, from the translator in order to make a non-Anglo text accessible from a linguistic point of view. But culturally that may not be so; a novel written in Spanish and set on the US-Mexican border will throw up various cultural obstacles to readers in Glasgow or Cape Town or Auckland that you might be able simply to skip past in the US. Anglophone readers in California don't need Mexican dishes explained to them; Anglophone readers in South Africa do. But linguistically, at least, there will be by and large the same mismatches between Amer-English and Portuguese as there will be between Austr-English and Portuguese. I don't have a good English way of dealing with 'saudades' in my language, and I suspect neither do you in yours!

CEL: Portuguese falha isn't in itself a difficult term, but I did some head-scratching over the phrase "falha cultural," an allusion to the would-be writer's lack of knowledge of the Portuguese language. After considering "gap" and "shortcoming," I finally settled on "cultural lacuna," but I think I prefer what you did with it: "cultural failing."

DH: Yes, I had some back-and-forth over that one. I had 'gap' to begin with, and kept rereading it and it kept not being right. I'm not quite happy with 'failing' either — it will do, and I had to go with it, but I feel there's something better out there that I'm going to wake up thinking of at 4 o'clock one of these mornings . . .

That's how it usually works. I usually tear through a first draft very quickly, and then it's only reading over it that these inadequacies ('cultural gap', as was) strike me, and that's when most of the work gets done. Very little time is spend on the first pass, and far more time is spent reading the translation over and over and resolving queries, ironing out the creases. This with (usually) very little reference back to the original. (This is where in any other conversation I could say cleverly 'As Peter Newmark would have it, I'm a "targeteer"'.)

CEL: Interesting the way our manner of working converges. Like you, I do the first draft rather quickly, knowing full well that there will be choices to be undone subsequently. The goal is to get the ideas down and later iron out the rough spots. In my particular (peculiar?) way of going about it, any word or phrase about which I'm uncertain—whether as to its exact denotation or my choice of tentative translation—is followed by the original text, in square brackets [like this]. In the final stage I read the target language text as if it were an English-language original. Some would say that by this point the process borders on co-authorship, but I make no such claim. If there is indeed creativity in literary translation, it is secondary creativity; we must never forget that without the primary creativity of the source language author there would be nothing for us to translate.

DH: How odd—mine is just the same, in fact. Square brackets and everything!

Another thing I had disproportionate trouble with (and am still not quite satisfied with) is the closing few words—what does he do exactly with the crumpled bag after throwing away his manuscript? I took 'guardar' to be 'put it away'—in my mind's eye he stuffs it in a pocket and moves on; but somehow 'put it away' suggests something not quite right—it suggests something rather domestic as though the bag has its own particular correct place where it lives, and he puts it there (put it away in a drawer, on a shelf, in a cupboard, rather than stuffing it in a pocket while walking down the street). I still don't know how to correct that one, though. Your reading was quite different, though—your translation of 'guardar is 'keep'—why that choice? And did you find this bit tricky, as I did?

CEL: Tricky is a good description. In this case, I felt "keep" adequately, albeit somewhat ambiguously, conveyed the concept and obviated the need to decide among several less than satisfactory alternatives, any of which, I believed, would entail "reading into" the source text.

DH: That sounds like a sensible solution; when we're done I'm going to have to go back and look over my version again and see which of these I'd now like to change . . .

From those last words, can we talk a bit about the very first? With this story it seemed the particular little difficulties started unfairly early, with the title itself, which in the original is 'O best-seller', and so in one sense (because it's already in English) couldn't be easier—'The Bestseller' (or 'The Best Seller', as you have it).

But what that loses, of course, is the experience for one of Almeida's original readers, a Portuguese-language reader, the sense of foreignness to the title, which is useful in this case given that it's a story about an English-language book in a Portuguese-language world. Should you—do you think—make allowances for this sort of (for want of a better word) exoticism in the language?

(Should we, for example, have changed it so that the novel had been written in French? After all, English doesn't seem such an outlandish thing to be writing/reading in to English readers…)

CEL: Your point is well taken. Some of the thorniest problems a translator faces stem from "translating" English to English. By that I mean, a putatively English word or phrase appears in the source text but makes no sense. For example, in my translation of António Lobo Antunes's Knowledge of Hell I came across "back-stick," infuriatingly in a non-explanatory context, an isolate. Dictionaries, native informants, and even the Internet were of no help, and to this day I don't know what this supposedly English phrase is supposed to mean . . . In Brazil, "box" refers not to a container but to a shower stall! As for retaining in translation the foreign flavor of the title, French would be the obvious recourse, but short of "Succès d'estime," which in this context would have been a nicely ironic touch, I can't think of anything relevant that an American reader would be at all likely to recognize.

CEL: Translating monetary values is always a problem. Where possible, I usually leave the figures as they are and allow them to be self-leveling, but in this story I felt the reader wouldn't relate to "37 500$00." You took a different approach, and I'd be interested in your reasons.

DH: Looking at it again you may be right, I think mine is awkward. When I read over my first draft I did contemplate simplifying it (to '500', and '37,500', and losing the extra zeroes), and possibly making it read more clearly by naming the currency; 'So, selling the book at 500 escudos a copy you might make…' Which on reflection I think might have been the best answer. At least that looks less odd than my solution; and even if (as I expect) no one knows what a Cape Verde Escudo corresponds to, the context would make it clear quickly that this is supposed to be a small amount.

I wondered about actually translating (as it were) the currency itself as you did, but it would have to be U.S. dollars, which people around the world do plausibly use as a second currency; running this dialogue in terms of pounds sterling or Euros would have been surreal, I think. Is this something you're happy doing in general, actually translating (rather than just transposing, as I did this time) little bits of culturally specific detail? I don't mean just converting kilometres to miles, kilos to pounds, but, say cultural referents like Pessoa and Rushdie—if Almeida had referred instead of these two to other writers American readers wouldn't have heard of, would you have considered replacing his examples in the interests of clarity?

CEL: When it comes to cultural referents, the translator faces poorly defined but all too real limitations. In practice, what I've done is replace certain cultural objects, secondary to the story, with recognizable target language substitutes. For instance, I might say "soft drink" for guaraná, or "sugar cane rum" for cachaça. But I never do this with human beings. You don't change Nara Leão to Liza Minnelli; in such cases you might say "the bossa nova singer Nara Leão." There are times when a discreet interpolation can save the day.

DH: And a related question applies too to places—while you wouldn't say 'The next day he took the shuttle from Saint Paul to River of January, and from there to Fine Airs in Argentina and on to Saint Jacob of Chile', might you change, say, a street or local place name (High Street, Central Station, Republic Square for Praça da Republica) just to make it easier to read, and easier to remember? Did you consider translating Cabo Verde to Cape Verde?

(I've also just noticed, incidentally, that I translated the name of the Monastery and you chose not to—why?

CEL: Hard to say when it comes to place names. Actually, we do it all the time. No English speaker says, "I'm flying to Roma and Warszava next week." Call it a gut feeling, but I like keeping the original names as much as possible. If we can say "Via Benedetto" or "Rue de la Paix" and expect our readers to understand, why not "Rua São Luiz" and "Praça da República"? I just felt that leaving the monastery's name in the original added a soupçon of exoticism that subconsciously reinforced the sense of a glimpse into another culture.

CEL: Given the fact that translating, like all forms of writing, is a solitary activity, it's refreshing and encouraging to see that on occasion we coincided word-for-word in our renditions—among others, "most of what I write is still in English!" and "Except that some time later he's assassinated ..." as well as "Ilhéus Publishing exists more on paper than in reality."

DH: Yes, encouraging indeed. I think too there would have been more in common too, given more time and thought, actually; reading yours there are certainly things I wish I'd thought of. So though of course we would never end up with a single version that suits us both—we have different idioms we favour, different tastes—there are always going to be things too that we'd agree are more adequate or less adequate solutions (I wish I'd thought of the way you did that, you quite like the way I handled this); there is I think likely to be some convergence as we begin to hit on more and more of the former… Not convergence to an ideal, but towards, perhaps—if it's getting better it is at least getting better towards a notional ideal, even if of course it's only a notional one. And yet even that is flawed because there could be a notional English ideal and a notional American ideal and even the notional ideal is very anchored not just in location but time—so even if one of us had been able to produce such a thing as a Perfect Translation of this story, equally perfect for UK and US readers, ten years from now it would have dated. I've been reading Edith Grossman's èdefinitive' Quixote and indeed can't imagine it being done better, and yet suspect that in twenty-five years time we're going to be needing a new èdefinitive' one, aren't we?

CEL: For me, this exercise reaffirms the dictum that there is no such thing as a single, definitive translation of a literary work. The differences between the versions of this modest little tale begin with the title itself ("Bestseller" or "Best Seller"?) and continue down to that ironic last sentence. Each version provides additional insight into the original, a fact reinforcing what Rainer Schulte has said about poetry in translation: the best way to comprehend a poem from another language is to read several translations of it; from the various renderings of a given phrase, the target language reader can come away with a deeper appreciation of the nuance informing the original. To a somewhat lesser extent, the same can be said of prose. Even in this brief story we see literally scores, if not hundreds, of decision points where the respective translators chose different alternatives, only rarely coinciding word-for-word in their rendering of the source text.

For Daniel Hahn's translation, click here. For Clifford E. Landers's translation, click here