Image: Passages of Grande Sertão: Veredas hanging in the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo. (Wikimedia Commons.)
When I was approached about translating a certain Brazilian literary classic renowned for its made-up language and asked if I’d be willing to produce a short sample, my first thought was, “Is it even possible?” So I said yes, as one does when mired in deadlines and faced with an irresistible challenge.
I took three weeks out of the novel I was working on and translated three pages. Yes, that’s correct: pages, not chapters. In a profession in which some consider 2,000 words to be a reasonable daily output, what kind of lunatic willingly takes on a text in which they produce 860 words over the course of three weeks? (Sure, I was coming to it cold; perhaps after a while I’d get on a roll and manage to double that figure . . . but probably not. Tricky texts tend to stay tricky.) So, just to be clear, that’s one page a week, fifty-seven words a day, or seven words an hour if you work an eight-hour day, but when you’re this cooked, why quibble over numbers? When in hell, embrace the devil, as they say in Brazil.
In Brazil Grande Sertão: Veredas is a canonical work, and its author—novelist and diplomat João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967)—is heralded as one of the country’s greatest writers, alongside Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector. Outside Brazil, however, excepting a few European and Spanish-speaking countries, Grande Sertão: Veredas is barely known. It enjoys cult status among a handful of scholars and students of Brazilian literature, but few others have even heard of it. This is despite that fact that it was translated into English once before and published by the prestigious New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf in 1963, but that edition has fallen into obscurity. GS:V is no stranger to the odd list, however. In 2002 it made it onto Norway’s Bokklubben World Library list of the 100 best books of all time—reprinted in The Guardian—based on nominations by writers from all over the world. And in 2015 João Guimarães Rosa was featured in a Lit Hub post entitled “Ten Great Writers Nobody Reads.”
So, why does nobody read him if his work is so good? To be fair, the 494-page tome is out of print in English, but that then begs the question: If it’s so good, why is it out of print? There are many theories, some of which hinge on the fact that the first translator, although highly esteemed for her work from Spanish, wasn’t fluent enough in Portuguese to contend with the unusual language, or that the translator who took over when she resigned, an excellent lexicographer whose name glares at me in gold from the spine of my favorite dictionary, is rumored to have had a tin ear when it came to literature. (I’m on the fence here, because we translators cop the flack, often unjustly, for absolutely everything, and it’s hard to unpick the whys and wherefores of decisions made half a century earlier under very different working conditions. I’d also like to remain on good terms with the dictionary.) Then there’s the matter of the translators’ domesticating approach, somewhat more commonplace back then, and in many instances endorsed by the author himself in his correspondence with the first translator. Entire passages were omitted and a novel every bit as linguistically inventive as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake—brimming with wordplay, alliteration, archaisms, regionalisms, weird syntax, and terms of the author’s own fabrication—was rendered in more conventional prose with echoes of the American Wild West, earning it the epithet “banana Western” from one disgruntled critic. In other words, without any attempt to reproduce Rosa’s enigmatic fictional idiolect, we are left with the bare bones of the story. And yet, as many have observed, it is still a good read.
Perhaps the novel’s current obscurity is due to the above, perhaps the timing was wrong, or perhaps the book didn’t live up to readers’ expectations of Latin American fiction at the time. Maybe a handful of unfavorable reviews quelled interest in the novel and it didn’t get the traction necessary to really take off. Or all of the above.
To read GS:V for the first time in Portuguese is like setting foot in a foreign country where the people speak a dialect similar to your own language, but with such a different accent and turns of phrase that you struggle to make sense of it; if you persist, however, fifty or sixty pages along, a trapdoor springs open and you’re in.
To translate it is infinitely more difficult, as the hapless translator is not allowed to cheat—she cannot skip over a bit she doesn’t fully understand, as readers do, just because she can. She must pull it apart word by word, examine it from every angle, consult dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses, ask five different experts what they understand by something and get five different answers—and that’s just to make sure she’s understood it! Then there’s the business of rendering it in English.
Some claim it is untranslatable, and they are right in the sense that there is no dictionary equivalent for a made-up word, no way to render a phrase 100% accurately and keep exactly the same rhyme or alliteration. In any translation, sacrifices large and small are made on the altar of legibility and other less noble causes, but here infidelities must be committed every other word in order to attend to a higher calling: the magic of Rosa’s language. But language is subjective, thus treacherous. As one pessimistic Facebook commentator put it, “It’s a Sisyphean task. No matter what the result, given the nature of the work, it will always be possible to raise numerous objections to the choices made.” He has a point. Fifty years from now I will probably be the one with the tin ear.
I believe GS:V to be translatable in that it is “reproducible,” and there are a few successful renderings in European languages to prove it. The carte blanche to reinvent in the target language given by Rosa to some of his original translators (and contradicting his approval of the domesticating approach used by his English translators) is its saving grace. If I am to do him justice, I will have to recreate his idiolect in my native tongue in a kind of poetic workshop, seeking compensatory rhythms, archaisms, exotic words, and syntax for all that is inevitably lost in the crossing; I will have to conjure the language of a literary outback that does not exist, but feels like it could, somewhere.
“But how do you live on an output of fifty-seven words a day?” you ask. Well, there’s the sticking point. You don’t. No one does. In order for me to be able to devote myself fully to a project such as this, I need a fairy godmother, an endowment, or a patron of the arts who can keep a translator in rice and beans for a few years or four. So if you are fay or philanthropic in nature, please come forward now, lest the tin ear to go to someone else.