A Conversation With Dr. Luiz F. Valente

Dr. Luiz Valente is Chair of the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, and is one of the preeminent Guimarães Rosa scholars in America. I contacted Dr. Valente because his CV is a mile long, and has João Guimarães Rosa written all over it. He’s been studying and writing about Guimarães Rosa since the mid-nineteen eighties when the Luso-Brazilian Review published a portion of his doctoral dissertation in the form of an article on Grande Sertão: Veredas and Affective Response.  I figured if anyone could help me frame the situation surrounding Guimarães Rosa’s absence, it would be Dr. Valente. I was right. Dr. Valente graciously offered to speak with me over the phone, to answer a few questions from his home in Providence, Rhode Island.

One point Dr. Valente was sure to be clear of from the very start: the work he’s studied and knows is Grande Sertão: Veredas, not The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Of the Taylor & De Onís translation—which he read only so he could use English quotes in his doctoral dissertation since his advisor didn’t know Portuguese—he could only tell me: “it’s not a very good one.” The English translation, Dr. Valente assured me, eliminates a few elements. And while he couldn’t list just what those key elements are without the English text in front of him, he explained to me that Grande Sertão: Veredas is a “very rhythmic text in Portuguese, very beautiful.” He added: “It’s like Absolom, Absolom translated into Portuguese. It gets lost, and then it’s not the same book.”

He was just as quick, however, to affirm, “I believe in Translation, and I believe we need a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas.” As examples of great translations, Dr. Valente cited Gregory Rabassa’s translations of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitutide and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. “That’s what we need.” Naturally this led me to ask who now can take on such a task? Dr. Valente suggested it might be a job for a team, one consisting of “native speakers of Portuguese who share a knowledge of Portuguese literary language, but who know English equally well. And they should have different strengths; that would be ideal.”

After sharing his own history with the novel, Dr. Valente took the opportunity to relate a rumor which has circulated for years among Guimarães Rosa scholars, the origins or authenticity of which no one is certain: it’s said a Guggenhiem Fellowship was once awarded to a translator specifically so that he could translate Grande Sertão: Veredas, but that the project was never completed. They say Tom Colchie[1] was that translator. “I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not.”

Dr. Valente also shared with me stories of his experience teaching Grande Sertão: Veredas in graduate classes, of how his students tend to become fascinated with Guimarães Rosa, and how once a woman, well-read and already holding a Master’s Degree, began to cry as she read a passage out loud to her classmates.

Grande Sertão: Veredas is truly one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and João Guimarães Rosa is right up there with Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and William Faulkner, one of the most important Modernist writers.”

April 22, 2010

[1] Translator and Literary Agent.


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