A Conversation With Dr. David Treece


Dr. David Treece is Camoens Professor of Portuguese at King’s College London, and is the first translator to publish the work of João Guimarães Rosa in English in forty years. Boulevard published his translation of The Jaguar & Other Stories in 2001, and again in 2008, in celebration of the centenary of Guimarães Rosa’s birth. I would like to thank Professor Treece for agreeing to speak with me via Skype from London.

FM: Professor Treece, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing your own experience with João Guimarães Rosa & Grande Sertão: Veredas.

DT: Well, I have to say that I’ve had more direct contact, as far as study’s concerned, with some of the short stories. As an undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, I studied with Professor John Gledson, who’s known internationally as a specialist on the work of Machado de Assis, as well as Brazilian Literature generally. So my first experience with Guimarães Rosa was studying the stories from Sagarana with John Gledson. After that, I must admit, I didn’t spend a great deal of time with Guimarães Rosa. My own research in the nineteen eighties was on eighteenth and nineteetnth century Brazilian Literature, so I didn’t have too much contact with Guimarães Rosa, and it wasn’t really until only a few years ago that I was talking to a publisher-friend of mine about authors we might think about translating. We decided to look at Guimarães Rosa.

I had read Grande Sertão: Veredas, and, I’m not sure what the experience of my colleagues is elsewhere, but…it’s one thing to read the book and have a relationship with the text, it’s another thing to consider teaching it as a university text, because it’s a very difficult one. The problem we have, and this was our reason for looking at publication, is simply the lack of good and available translations of Guimarães Rosa in English. This is one of the remarkable things: we’re dealing with, certainly, one of the most important prose writers from Brazil of the Twentieth Century, and yet, what do we have available in English? We have a translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas made in the sixties, which is a poor translation, which is a problematic translation, it’s not widely available, it’s not a respected translation, sadly; we have translations from around the same time of Sagarana, and Primeiras Estórias, which are better translations…and that’s all we have essentially!

Around the year 2000, Boulevard Publishing Company, who I’d translated with over some years, we talked about the idea of tackling Guimarães Rosa, and decided that a collection of short stories would be a good idea. I made a selection based on a few of the stories from Primeiras Estórias, some of which had been translated before, but I had the idea of a more ambitious project, which was to include in that collection two longer stories, which are really novellas, from a posthumous collection called Estas Estórias. One of them is less well known about the survivors of a big patriarchal family in the interior of Minas Gerais, and the grand patriarch on his deathbed dictating his will to them, and the other story is much better known, and has been widely translated into other languages, and that story we translated into “The Jaguar,” which is an extraordinary monologue of the story of a man who is a hybrid, half man and half jaguar, half Indian and half white, whose descent into madness brings about his ultimate demise. It’s an amazing, amazing feat, and it struck me that that story, in its contact with the world of the Sertão, and with its experiments with language, probably brings us closest to Grande Sertão: Veredas. I suppose it felt like I was getting close to perhaps the challenge of translating Grande Sertão: Veredas by attacking this story.

In any case, we published the collection in 2000. A small print run. It got a little bit of attention, but without the weight of a big promotional machinery behind it. Then, we were fortunate in 2008, with the centenary of Guimarães Rosa’s birth, to gain the support of the Brazilian Embassy in London to make a second printing of the book, and to distribute it a bit more widely. I hope that translation is going to have a wider circulation and become useful.

So that leaves the question of Grande Sertão: Veredas; and, when this collection of short stories was published, that question came up. In fact, the review in the London Review of Books, which I was very pleased with, which was a very supportive review, posed that question at the end:  well, it’s great to have this collection of short stories, now it’s time to translate Grande Sertão: Veredas.

So there we are. That job still needs to be done. It’s a huge challenge. I would love to do it one day, but it’s not the right time for me to take it on. Maybe somebody’s doing it out there, but I’m still waiting to hear if that’s the case.

I’m familiar with Grande Sertão, and I’ve heard other people talk about it, but I haven’t done any academic research on it. I’ve written a little bit about my work as a translator, and a little bit about the challenges of translation, and I have helped to edit the English edition of what I hope will be a major reference book on Guimarães Rosa that’s worth you knowing about: it’s just been launched in Brazil in the Portuguese edition by Nova Fronteira, and we’re in the process of bringing it to publication in English. It’s chief editors are Ligia Chiappini, who lectures at the Free University of Berlin, and a colleague of hers, Marcel Vejmelka, and I joined them in producing the English edition, which we hope will be ready some time later this year.

Another problem with getting Guimarães Rosa out there is that there is very little in English published about his work. I don’t know if that’s your impression, but compared to other major writers in Latin America who have very large academic bibliographies about their work, there’s relatively little in English on Guimarães Rosa. It’s one thing to have the translations themselves, but I think the work of important writers also gets promoted as a result of strong academic work. For those of us who work on Brazilian studies, we’re used to working with Portuguese Language texts, but if there is going to be a wider interest in an author in the English-speaking world for example, I don’t think that usually happens without people having access to credible studies of that work. The volume that we’re publishing, I think, could be very important. It’s a very wide-ranging anthology of essays, which came out of some conferences that we were organizing in 2008. The essays range from overviews of the impact of Guimarães Rosa on Brazilian Culture as a whole, surveys of the impact his works have had in the other arts and elsewhere in literature, Essays on adaptations of his work for the cinema, very in-depth literary analysis of work including Grande Sertão, his short stories and other texts, there is a biographical essay by Guimarães Rosa’s daughter—a whole range. So I think this book could be something of a companion to Guimarães Rosa. That’s where we are in the Anglophone world with Guimarães Rosa: we have a limited number of translations to work with, we’ll have, very soon, a kind of companion study, the anthology we published, but we still have his most important work awaiting a decent translation.

FM: I’ve heard the same opinion, from other scholars, of the English translation, and I don’t disbelieve them, I can’t since I don’t speak or read Portuguese myself, but I’m interested to know why, or more importantly how, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is considered by so many to be an inadequate translation.

DT: I must say I haven’t read [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands] from cover to cover, because, I guess, I didn’t feel motivated enough, having read some of it, to really want to persevere and read the whole thing. Because I got a sense of what it was doing, and I think the translator is also the translator of some of the short stories, and I felt the same problem applied to those. You know, there’s an issue with Guimarães Rosa, which is, of course, that a translation [of his work] can convey the narrative thrust, the plot—and I guess that’s what is communicated to readers, and that’s what carries readers forward in their enthusiasm, is the sort of epic, narrative thrust of the book—but there’s a particular quality, of course, to Guimarães Rosa, which is the quality of the language itself; and it’s not simply a matter of ornament, or a matter of style, it’s central really to his view of the world. In translating some of the short stories, you become acutely aware of those sorts of challenges, and I was aware, and I did refer briefly to some of those translations I was familiar with, but then I just abandoned them because there’s a kind of flatness, an ordinariness about them; and if they still function, if they still produce an effect in the reader, it’s largely because of the extraordinariness of their events. And usually, Guimarães Rosa’s stories have an extraordinary quality to them as narratives, but they are also extraordinary in the way they are narrated. I think what happens is that the translators who have translated Guimarães Rosa so far, somehow felt compelled to consciously or unconsciously tame the wildness of his writing, which is very unorthodox, which is very poetic in the end, it’s a prose that’s very close to the volatility of poetry, poetic language, and that’s what makes it extraordinarily unique. It’s pushing at the boundaries of what you can say in prose. What happens in the translations of the short stories, and probably what happens in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is that the poetry is transformed into prose, so that the sense of a world in transformation as a kind of magical, transformative experience, is lost and we’re left with the events, which sometimes are powerful enough to have some effect, but which, linguistically, at the level of the narration itself, the guts are taken out of it. I think the central problem is that, for whatever reason, the chief translator of Grande Sertão: Veredas, Harriet de Onís, was not chiefly a translator of Portuguese; she was a translator of Spanish. Although I think it’s less common, it’s not the first or the last time I’ve been aware of deficient translations being carried out by people who are not equipped, who are not close enough to, or who are not intimately acquainted with the language sufficiently to understand it, and I think this is one of the problems.

I was talking to Sandra Vasconcelos, who is one of the people researching Guimarães Rosa’s correspondence at the University of São Paulo, at the Institute of Brazilian Studies, which holds much of his personal correspondence, and there are some very interesting exchanges between Guimarães Rosa and his translators. The interesting thing about Guimarães Rosa is that he was not the kind of author who was defensive or protective and proprietorial of his texts. He actually encouraged his translators to be adventurous and experimental in their efforts to translate his work. So he didn’t chain them to some sort of notion of literal faithfulness. He did really encourage them to be as adventurous as he is. And it seems that there exists some correspondence between himself and Harriet de Onís, and, according to Sandra Vasconcelos, it’s clear [in the letters] that he was aware of her limitations and the difficulty she was having in getting to grips with the work. So much so that he was actively making suggestions, encouraging her, trying to give her the confidence to be more adventurous, and it’s clear that there was some degree of frustration. These are the very basic issues, I think, if you like the ethics of translation. And as I say, it’s not the only time I’ve come across this.  And it seems that when you’re dealing with what seems to be perceived and regarded in the world of the literary market place as a minority language, as a marginal, fringe language, it seems to be the case that publishers and translators are more likely to take liberties that they wouldn’t take with a language that has a greater degree of, if you’d like, political muscle in the publishing world, such as English, French, Russian, or Spanish. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a great deal of time for a publishing project from French or from German or from English into another language that was being tackled by someone who’s not really equipped for the task; and yet, I still come across that. And that’s sad. We need to insist on translations being undertaken and supported by people who are up to the task.

So what I think you get in Grande Sertão: Veredas is a kind of style which neutralizes the exuberance and the poetry of Guimarães Rosa, and which, at the same time, reduces that style to an almost parody—some people have referred to it as transforming it into a cowboy, wild west novel, so that it becomes more difficult to perceive what Guimarães Rosa is doing. It’s a massive challenge: how to deal with a linguistic style that is a combination of innovation and literary experimentation, with a Portuguese that draws on the archaic roots of the language in its history, and at the same time draws on the local, regional, and indigenous vocabulary and forms of expression that are part of the landscape. It’s an extraordinary mix, and it’s a very difficult one to know how to render into another language. What do you do with that? I think the problem with the translation is precisely that we lose so much of that kind of richness, and it’s transformed into maybe something that is too familiar: the language of the wild west. Which, of course, has certain parallels with the world that Guimarães Rosa is writing in, but it’s not equivalent. And like some people who work with translations, I take the view that is expressed in Walter Benjamin’s essay on the task of the translator, which is that translations should not sit comfortably in the target language, they shouldn’t slip easily into our repertoire, they shouldn’t, as it were, imperceptibly integrate into our literature; on the contrary: they should shake it up, they should transform it, they should disturb it, they should radically reinvent our literary world, and I think the problem that we have is with a translation that is too timid in trying to get to grips with Guimarães Rosa. I think it requires a very radical kind of approach, one that’s going to be quite challenging to readers in English. In that sense the English translation is not challenging enough. It just panders to a certain kind of expectation about what the Sertão should sound like.

FM: Well, recently, putting the pieces together, Professor, I realized that Jorge Amado’s Gabriela was published in English translation one year before The Devil to Pay in the Backlands…and Amado wrote the introduction for The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, which leads me to think that perhaps the publisher was working off some kind of momentum.

DT: Yes, that’s an interesting observation. Of course Amado’s work and his extraordinary success internationally must have set up a kind of set of expectations, and, as you say, a kind of impetus, which perhaps meant that things were undertaken too hastily and without enough care. I think Guimarães Rosa’s work requires a lot of time. I couldn’t imagine undertaking Grande Sertão: Veredas without being prepared to spend years on it. I mean, just to translate a few short stories, and I wasn’t working on it full time, was over a year’s work, and those were a few relatively short, limited texts. You have to spend the time, you have to be very patient, you have to live with the text, you have to inhabit it, I think, before you even begin to think about translating. In the end it’s an investment that has to be made, and there are no shortcuts.

FM: And how did your awareness of past English translations impact you as you began your own undertaking of The Jaguar & Other Stories?

DT: I felt determined that I wanted to do something different. And you know you risk setting yourself up to be shot down, you risk being arrogant about it, but I was determined to try to do justice to what I felt were the challenges of these stories. I have a strong interest in poetry, I translate poetry as well, and I felt it was important to bring that kind of attitude into the work. Something I’ve written about a little bit, in commenting on the experience of translating, is that what struck me about these short stories is that each of them has a very unique voice, and if there’s one thing you have to get right in order to tackle translation, especially with Guimarães Rosa, it’s to find the voice, and if you can find that certain voice, then you’re half way there. And I think then it’s not to be afraid of being adventurous, of being inventive, because that’s what his work is about, that’s what he wanted his translators to do. So it was daunting. I did feel as though I had to do some research. I didn’t do a huge amount of academic reading about the work, but I did spend a lot of time with certain texts, really trying to decipher the lexicon, the use of language. I suppose I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to wanting to be absolutely sure of what I think is meant by a given a phase or by a given use of apiece of language, rather than relying on guesswork; so I was prepared to spend a certain amount of time conducting detective work. So there’s the story The Jaguar, which was fairly challenging on those grounds, and I was very lucky in that instance that I was in touch with a colleague of mine who has done some specific work on that story and is very familiar with the references to indigenous culture and the anthropology it connects with, and I got some advice from her, which I think is worth doing, making that investment of research.∞

April 29, 2010

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