Image: From the cover of the Brazilian edition of The Dragons Haven’t Been to Paradise, published by Companhia das Letras.
Caio Fernando Abreu’s “Beauty, a Terrible Story” was first published in 1989 in The Dragons Haven’t Been to Paradise, a moving collection of queer fiction set during the height of the AIDS epidemic in Brazil. “Beauty” centers on an unnamed man who is looking for the right words to tell his mother that he’s terminally ill. It’s a story about silence, unspoken agreements, and family evasions. As such, the piece is so tightly wound that most of the tension remains underneath the surface, the meaning hidden in pockets of subtext.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure and challenge in translating this story was the author’s striking economy of language. Abreu’s prose is controlled, brimming with alliteration, idioms, colloquialisms, and sentence fragments. While working on my English translation, I committed some of the original language to memory, recited the author’s words, and took note of the rise and fall of my own voice, of how the words managed to be both layered and light. The more time I spent with his deceptively simple sentences, the more nuance I found.
In one of his seemingly straightforward paragraphs, Abreu uses a string of alliteration: “Afundou tonto, rápido, naquele cheiro conhecido—cigarro, cebola, cachorro, sabonete, creme de beleza e carne velha, sozinha há anos.” The Portuguese words “cachorro,” “creme,” and “carne” begin with the same hard sound. And “cigarro,” “cebola,” “sabonete,” and “sozinha” all begin with the same soft consonants. I attempted to preserve the alliteration: “He dove dizzily, quickly, into that familiar smell—cigarettes, sweet onion, scabby dog, soap, beauty cream, and old beef, alone for years.” At first, I took the liberty of adding the word “sweet” before “onion” and “scabby” before “dog” because of their sound. But then the additions felt just right. While I have two words in places where he has only one, they added another layer to the picture of decay Abreu so deftly describes. The smell of the scabies was added to the smell of the onion, that now is not just any onion but a sweet onion—with a thinner, more papery skin.
Issues of social class are only openly discussed in a couple of brief moments, and the treatment of the theme is so subtle that if I missed a word, I could have erased it altogether. In the first instance, the mother says, “Fui toda chique, parecia uma granfa. De avião e tudo, uma madame. Frasqueira, raiban. Contando, ninguém acredita.” “Chique,” from the French “chic,” implies that she looked sophisticated, elegant. The word “granfa,” short for “grã-fino,” is an informal and regional term for the extremely wealthy. She looked like a “madame,” a posh lady. The text shows her desire to be a social climber, but the sentence also sounds smooth, not at all loaded with political messages. I attempted to keep the political undertones as well as her excitement about the experience: “I was all dolled up, looked like high society. On a plane and all, a lady. Train case, Ray-Bans. Nobody believes it when I say it.”
Later in the story, the mother says that the character of Beto has “berço,” a common Brazilian figure of speech meaning that he is “wealthy from the cradle.” I replaced the common saying with the English equivalent: “being born with a silver spoon.”
In the introduction to Abreu’s collection, Brazilian author José Castello writes that “Caio Fernando’s work is more of an outpouring than an elaborate formulation. It’s made of gulps of feelings, mixed impressions.” Indeed, Abreu’s “Beauty” is moved by feeling rather than plot. Nostalgia and impending death seep through every word. I was very aware of the idiomatic expressions of the original, of the embedded traditions and meanings they brought with them. And yet translating this piece was more an intuitive exercise than an intellectual one. I was busy with the texture of the words and what kind of reaction they provoked.
In a few instances, I was tempted to fill in the gaps and explain more than the author had in the original, to add a subject to a subjectless sentence or a linking word between fragments of sentences. But I resisted the impulse. The language of the piece is fragmented, interrupted, mysterious. Castello continues in his essay: “[Abreu] is not a pretentious writer full of easy solutions. His stories are more like real life. They end abruptly, without the neat outcomes of TV scripts. The reader, stunned, feels only discomfort.” A delightful discomfort, I believe.
I remember translating the last scene of the story, when the protagonist “ran his fingertips along his neck, […] groping for a seed in the dark.” Afterward, I realized that I’d placed my own hand on the right side of my neck like the protagonist. The experience wasn’t romantic or magical, but it served as a reminder that I was inhabiting someone else’s world, and that I could trust the reader to feel the story as intensely as I’d felt it, no further explanation needed.