Interview: Felipe W.Martinez On Translating Joao Guimarães Rosa

Viator Translation Image

•5 April 2013

 

Dear Felipe,

 

I’ve been struggling to somehow position myself as a mediator around the subject of translation–translating all the translations. It feels imbalanced, uneasy–full of landmines.

 

Further, I’ve been thinking a little about how I can conduct an interview without being the mediator, without forcing a path of conversation where I set step first, without imposing a significance of my choosing.

And further all this thinking about translation has me a little sad-the active undoing of instinctual knowing. Everything feels very porous all of a sudden. I guess I’m nostalgic for easy meaning, before everything could just peel off like a layer of skin.  It’s all very naive, I’m sure, but I’m okay with a little naiveté.   I think this probably makes me a romantic. I think this probably makes you a romantic.

 

I was putting together my list of interview questions last night and the whole thing seemed artificial–making a list, making a form. It occurred to me that the most “honest” way to conduct an interview was to make it as conversational as possible, open up the floor. It’s in no way a “pure” dialogue–obviously we’re dancing around a prescribed subject and of course we are corresponding with the preexisting knowledge that this will be released in a public forum but let’s at least make the gesture towards a kind of honesty in the interviewing process.

 

I propose we conduct this interview as an on-going email exchange and I will transcribe our emails rather than posting a question/answer format. I’m not looking to lead the conversation. I’m looking to untether the conversation. I can start with a question, or a few and you can respond naturally, like a friend, as we are. But let’s also be rigorous about it; correspond regularly and throughout the month. Because here is what I’m inching towards—maybe the most sincere kind of translation is conversation, the ability for the source to respond back.

 

And at least there’s romance in the format–a correspondence.

 

And with that may I open up with my first question? There have been numerous attempts to translate Joao Guimares Rosa but I think you’ve described the previous attempts as unsuccessful. In this context can you describe what would merits success in translation.

 

Sincerely,

Saehee

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•5 April, 2013

 

 

Saehee,

 

That’s a very good question, and one I’ve been asking for three years now. Whenever I get the chance, I ask people who’ve read works by Guimarães Rosa in the original Portuguese: what kind of translation are you looking for? Everyone has different ideas. Some think for a while and then give up and say, “it’s impossible.” Others have laundry lists of criteria. I find the question “what makes a good translation?” akin to  “what makes a good novel?”. People have their ideas, but consensus is generally as impossible as agreeing on a single reading of a given book. Translation is a utopian concept. In truth, all translation is impossible. This is even the case with translations that are generally accepted as “definitive” (for the time). Chapman’s 17th century translation of Homer’s Iliad was once the definitive English translation, but was replaced a hundred years later by Alexander Pope’s translation. Of course, this provisional nature of the product of translation is no reason to throw our hands up and say enough! –Which is what’s seemed to happen with the work of Guimarães Rosa in many cases, it’s been largely absent from the English language for decades now.

 

When I said just now that Translation is impossible, I mean the utopian concept of translation is impossible. Just as determining an ideal reader is impossible, and, essentially, communication, in many ways, is impossible. Walter Benjamin asks: “what does a work of Literature really say? A work of literature tells very little to those who understand it–even they must grapple to “understand” the work. Ultimately it is the work of effort that matters, the willingness of the translator to approach Guimarães Rosa. The process. The toil, the struggle, the attempt to point in the direction of art.

 

 

F

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•6th April 2013

 

Dearest Felipe,

 

Yes of course!  Pure translation is utopian, a pretty idea but impossible in practice. The image of a hamster in its wheel comes to mind.

But I’m encouraged by your optimism, your unwillingness to put your hands up in surrender.  Let’s talk about your practice of translation through the Benjamin lens then because I do think that your work holds a lot of value in the process.  We’ve talked about it at length but for the purposes of the blog can you briefly describe the parameters you’ve set up for yourself in this translation?  What are your motivations behind the highly mediated set of rules you’ve set up for yourself to produce the translated text?  And are the rules in place in order to be loyal to the original text or are the rules in place for another reason altogether?

 

Sincerely,

Saehee

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•7 April 2013

 

Saehee,

 

I set a lot of rules for myself in translating the opening pages of Grande Sertão: Veredas, all in an effort to more closely approach and convey the language, and thereof the mode of signification of the original. This translation is conceptual in that it is the idea that matters most. The idea that an English translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa, one of the most significant modernist writers of the twentieth century, can exist, and does exist, is important. We take one step to take another.

 

 

I learned Portuguese for a year before I began the translation, not because I thought I could translate Grande Sertão: Veredas, but just because I wanted to be able to read Grande Sertão: Veredas. As I learned the language, I inched closer and closer to being able to read the original. Once I could, I realized I could record what I was reading, and that, with research and the right dictionaries, I could even translate. What are translators after all but readers who write what they read? The renowned translator, Gregory Rabassa, translated One Hundred Years of Solitude as he read the work for the first time. I’m following his lead in this translation. I’m discovering the work and translating it at the same time.

 

 

tag!

F

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•8 April 2013

 

Dear Felipe,

 

I wonder if that approach to translating–learning as you are translating, feels liberating…do you feel less obligated to style? When you say it’s the idea that matters, I wonder where you make room for tone, for mood.  How do you translate that?  I haven’t read the Portuguese original but I’ve read your translation and there is a definitely style.  The density of the passages, the way the text runs almost unrelentingly from margin to margin–it somehow speeds up my reading of it and also makes me incredibly conscious of what I’m reading.  It’s a strange feeling. Is this something that exists in the original?

 

tag !!

Saehee

 

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•9 April 2013

Saehee,

 

It’s invigorating! Nothing is better than reading (learning) and writing (translating). The problem with early translations is the translators believed they KNEW things, which they in fact didn’t. For example, they thought they knew what the English reader could understand and therefore wanted. We know fifty years later, that was a bad bet. Right now, as I work, I’m learning a lot, and I’m sharing my discoveries in the process. When I’m translating Guimarães Rosa, I am simultaneously learning and propagating the work and language–after all, what point in learning if you don’t share.

 

 I don’t know about finesse, but something interesting does happen: the process I’ve adopted for this translation produces a style and tone that echoes the original in some ways. I didn’t intend that. It just happened. Naturally there must be something in Guimarães Rosa’s language that is translatable. The density and thereby the demand that every word be given due consideration is present in the original, and I think too in this translation.

 

F

 

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•10 April 2013

Dear Felipe,

Ah I see. So the style is symptomatic of the process.  That makes sense.

I also wonder about why Guimarães Rosa didn’t translate his own work.  He wrote and read in 14 different languages I think.  Is it possible that he thought the text could only exist in Portuguese?

~s

 

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•10 April 2013

 

Saehee,

 

Guimarães Rosa was a life-long student of language. He commanded the Portuguese language artfully, but the level of his abilities in other languages is unknown to me. He spoke six languages, I think they were: Portuguese, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian, and I think it’s safe to assume he could read, write, and speak fairly well, if not fluently, in every case. Then, he had a working knowledge of an additional fourteen languages. Here we’re talking about a perpetual state of exploring, discovering, learning, and reading with dictionaries nearby. He is reported to have read a book in French at the age of six. As a teen he taught himself to read and write Russian before he’d ever heard a word of it spoken. So it might be said he had an innate understanding of language(s).

 

An interesting thing about Guimarães Rosa is that he was directly involved in the translation of his work into English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. He kept regular correspondence with his translators, offering feedback, explanations, definitions, and, perhaps most importantly, encouragement. He knew his work could be translated. I think Guimarães Rosa would have written a book containing every language if he could.

 

F

 

 

•12 April 2013

 

Dear Felipe,

 

He may not have written a book containing every language but he did in a way modify Portuguese to suit his needs?  I think you mentioned that he made up his own words?  I’m sorry if I’m remembering incorrectly.  But if so, what provoked him to make his own words and what does this accomplish in his work?

 

And with made-up words, how does this complicate your translation process?

 

~s

 

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•14 April 2013

 

Saehee,

 

I think Guimarães Rosa once said something to the effect of You can tell a man by the way he tells his stories, the words he uses. I’m paraphrasing. So, man creates himself through his language, and that language gives shape to his world. The only way to change himself and the world, is to change his language. Essentially: the words make the man. But Guimarães Rosa’s neologisms were not invented merely to complicate the work. True, a single neologism might be made up of three similar words, from three different languages, with two or three possible meanings–but, he knew what he was doing. He was drawing life out of every language he could touch upon, modern and ancient, present and lost, new and, sometimes, invented, all in attempt to more fully translate the world around and inside of him. This does complicate the translation process, but only to the extent that we can’t ever be certain we’ve grasped the author’s complete intention. I consult an array of dictionaries when translating. To translate a fragment of the author’s intention, I think, can be just as amazing as anything we might expect from a perfect/complete translation. The Brazilian poet, Haroldo de Campos, quotes Goethe in an epigram to one of his poem: “Every entelechy is, namely, a fragment of eternity.” I always think about this.

 

F

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FELIPE W.MARTINEZ is the creator of AMISSINGBOOK.COM, and is currently undertaking a conceptual translation of João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas. The first excerpt is forthcoming from Continent.cc. He lives in San Diego, California where he works in public education.


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