WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
For May's installment, Julia Powers passed the baton to Adam Morris, who translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I do not have any natural or intrinsic connections to Spanish or Portuguese or the places they’re spoken. I have only studied those languages, and I have been reading Peninsular and Latin American literature for more than two decades.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
I’m not someone who subscribes to this thesis—i.e., the one that holds certain words or expressions to be untranslatable. A translation is a rendering, like a painting. Painters don’t worry about whether scents or shades of color or glints of light are untranslatable to a canvas. If one of those specific things were their only subject, then that would be a problem. But rendering such specificities is never the objective of a representational painting. And the same goes for a novel, and perhaps even for a poem. The translator’s job is to convey meaning, and words do not exist in isolation. There’s always a way—multiple ways, of course—to render what is found on the page. Sure, there are words that resist literal translations: the famous example in Portuguese is saudade. Many Portuguese speakers have said that this word is untranslatable not only for its linguistic subtleties but also for its cultural specificity. I have never been convinced by those arguments.
Do you have any translating rituals?
No. For each novel I’ve translated, I’ve worked in a different context, and with very distinct constraints in terms of the space, time, and resources I could allot to the project. I translated two novels at a sleepy coffee shop in Berkeley during the hour-long lunch breaks I got from an editing job I had there. Those breaks, strung together across weeks, gave me the time I needed to work. Another novel I translated while completing a two-week residency at the author’s former estate in Brazil. I was immersed in the project for days on end. For “professional” translators who lack institutional affiliations that subsidize their work, translation is something you have to fit in wherever and however you can.
“For me, the translation process starts with being struck by an indelible voice.”
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
I would liken translation to spirit mediumship: for me, the translation process starts with being struck by an indelible voice. Once I’ve decided to translate that author’s work, I try to commune with their voice as much as possible. This means reading as much of their writing as I can and, if possible, listening to interviews. I do this all throughout the process of producing a first draft, and often reorient myself with these bearings during my revisions. I want to be as clear a conduit for the writer’s voice as I can be. So when someone tells me they can hear my voice in a translation, I feel the disappointment of failure. I want to be such a convincing ventriloquist that the reader forgets I’m there. I think this was something at which nineteenth-century mediums excelled.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
Most recently I’ve been working with two writers who are both still producing work, and to whom I feel a strong loyalty. So I’m excited about continuing to work with them, and to deepen my relationships with them as writers and as thinkers. I think this is one of the ways great translators are made: through devotion.
Julia’s question for you: You’ve translated fiction by the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst and the Argentine Pola Oloixarac. “Irreverence” is a word that comes to mind when I think of what these two have in common. Both have skewered the idea of the international literacy success of writers from the “margins,” while perhaps courting it at the same time. Meanwhile, your work brings theirs further into that fold.
American translators, in a country that can be hostile to the whole undertaking of literary translation, might feel powerless or overlooked. Yet, more or less by accident, we sometimes wield a good deal of power over the careers of writers from parts of the world like Latin America. Do you have this responsibility in mind (or maybe you have a better word for it) when you’re deciding what to translate and how to go about it? And is there some irony in these dynamics that Hilst and Oloixarac would render deliciously obscene?
I agree that the translator is able to exercise a certain amount of power over writers’ careers: a bad translation can sink an author’s foreign reception, and a good translation can cement a reputation. But the real influence, in my view, is subtler than that: it’s those decisions about whether or not to attempt a translation in the first place. In the US, the Big Five publishers have become more constrained in the types of fiction they’ll publish: the market for literary fiction has become very prescriptive and predictable. Literature translated into English has increasingly depended on independent presses that cultivate niche readerships, and which often rely on funding from endowments and foundations. They are not immune from market forces, but they are insulated from the homogenizing effects of industry consolidation. Their lists are highly idiosyncratic. Editors for these presses often field pitches directly from translators who propose their own projects. In this schema, the editorial selections made by a translator are often the first degree of filtering for literary work entering the Anglophone context. I suppose you could say this is a responsibility, but for me it’s simply a matter of taste. I am just one person with my own personal tastes. I do not feel responsible for representing an entire culture or its literature. Who could presume that kind of knowledge? My fidelity is to the author and his or her work. That’s where my loyalties and responsibilities lie. I only propose to translate authors whose work I ardently admire. My job is to render their styles as best I can. More often than not, a proposal is refused by a publisher. So I do not consider myself some kind of cultural arbiter: that is the editor’s function.
I can’t speak for Hilda Hilst’s views on this subject. I suspect she would find the monastic and devotional elements of the translator’s task to be highly suited to her work. She was something of a literary hermit, and always understood that it was unlikely that her work would be widely appreciated, let alone translated, during her lifetime. Pola Oloixarac and I have had many conversations about translation. While we both have immense respect for literary translations and literary translators, we also agree that there’s recently been an aggrandizement of the office into something it’s not. Translation is not, as Kate Briggs would have it, equivalent to writing: “original” and “translation” are not coequal categories of “writing.” And I don’t think Hilst or Oloixarac would ever want a translator who believes that they are.
Hilst developed the category of the obscene as an aesthetic meant to dismantle the clichés and ridicule the bourgeois pieties that she thought characterized Brazilian literary culture. She associated the obscene with writers like Bataille, Louÿs, Genet, and, of course, herself. So she would not call it obscene for a translator to believe himself to be a power broker in the literary market rather than something along the lines of a scholar and servant to an author’s work. Obscenity was meant to oppose that kind of commercialization and professionalization. She would only find it ridiculous.
Adam Morris has translated novels by Beatriz Bracher, Pola Oloixarac, João Gilberto Noll, and Hilda Hilst. He is the author of American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (Liveright, 2019).
“Remembering João Gilberto Noll” by Adam Morris
“Four Poems” by Cristiane Sobral, translated from Portuguese by John Keene