On The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

Recently, I was able to find this copy of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, which, despite some tears in the dust jacket, is in pristine condition and appears to be a brand new book from 1963.

The question has been raised: Why hasn’t The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, the first and only English translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas, been republished? And to be quite honest, it was with this question that AMB began. As someone who can only read in English, naturally, I asked as I read the novel for the first time: why haven’t more people read this? To me it didn’t make any sense. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was magnificent, and no one cared. Once I looked into the matter, I found that most every English-only reader who reads the book asks the same. Then I learned that the general consensus among a great deal of Portuguese-English readers is that the English translation is, among other things, a joke, blasphemy, a cowboy story.

Here’s an example of what the conversation looks like on the internet: Gnooks.

As we learn from Piers Armstrong in his essay, “Guimarães Rosa in Translation: scrittore, editore, traduttore, traditore,”[1] Guimarães Rosa maintained a close, working relationship with his English Translator, Harriet de Onís, as was the case with all of his translators (English, German, Spanish, French & Italian), and acted as literary edifier to each, instigating a spirit of rivalry amongst them when necessary to meet deadlines, or to ensure maximum effort be given to the endeavor of translation. We learn that Guimarães Rosa was less an idealist and more a pragmatist “willing to make aesthetic compromises” to see that the translation was completed in his lifetime; and, more importantly, we learn how Guimarães Rosa believed there to be a higher metaphysical meaning to Grande Sertão: Veredas, which could be conveyed with other words (from other languages) without necessarily translating the original Portuguese word for word.

Armstrong quotes the following from one of Guimarães Rosa’s letters to his German translator, Curt Meyer-Clason, which I’ve translated (very roughly) for the general comprehension of the English Reader:

“Of course, even I recognize that much of the ‘daring’ expression stands to be lost in any translation. Most importantly, in the book, is the indeed essential, the content. To attempt to reproduce everything, everything, tone for tone, spark for spark, blow by blow, the sertanejo monologue exacerbated, would be a massive undertaking, a work of arduous recreation, costly, reckless & random. I know neither the publisher, nor the translator, nor the author, [we,] can take such a risk (69-70).”

Understanding that Guimarães Rosa is, to a certain extent, as responsible for the final product in English as Onís, the argument could be made (pale though the English translation may to the original): The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is the author-approved translation—subpar, comparatively, but nothing to scoff at when you can’t read Portuguese.

Of the negative criticism The Devil to Pay in the Backlands receives even till this day, Armstrong says the following under the section of his essay “The Strategies of the Translators”:

“Critics hostile to the North American version, which was executed by highly qualified professionals, should understand that its nature was due to a strategy and not simply to incompetence. The strategy was to minimize foreignness and culturally transpose the material into a context recognizable and familiar to the reader in the target culture. Such a strategy may betray the dignity of high art, which effectively presupposes a pre-requiste familiarity with certain currents within alien cultures through the privilege of education. It is still a legitimate strategy and an arduous stylistic exercise (74).”

I note these passages because I believe they shed a great deal of light on our subject; I don’t intend to suggest we settle for the 1963 translation (because even Guimarães Rosa had his opinion:

“The American book is filled with flaws & still deeper alterations, impairments, omissions and cuts. Just compare it with the original on any page.”[2]).

I only aim to clarify that perhaps the best people, willing & able for the job at the time, carried out Knopf’s translation, and if anything, I wish to remind the reader that David Treece’s translations of The Jaguar & Other Stories, along with the stylistic rendering demonstrated by Charles Perrone, stand as two fine examples of what brilliant potential still exists for Grande Sertão: Veredas—some future, yet unforseen translation, which will undoubtedly exceed far beyond what Guimarães Rosa was willing to settle for back in the sixties, as well as beyond what he could have ever imagined possible from the English language, especially when we consider what Piers Armstrong mentions in his essay about how “within the Rosean repertoire, Grande Sertão: Veredas is comparatively translatable (65).”

I’ve just begun to delve into the work of  Piers Armstrong, Professor of the Department of Modern Languages at CalState Los Angeles. He’s written a great deal regarding Guimarães Rosa in recent years, and I’m sure anyone who wishes to form an opinion of the 1963 English translation should undoubtedly read him first.

“Guimarães Rosa in Translation: scrittore, editore, traduttore, traditore,” is the essay which has served as my primary source for this post, and which is divided into the following sections:

The Character of Rosean Fiction in Relation to Translation
Which, When and How Translations Came to be Undertaken
The Role of the Author in the Translation Process
The Strategies of the Translators
Critiques of the Translators’ Work
The International Perception of the Quality of the Translations

[1] Armstrong, Piers. “Guimarães Rosa in Translation: scrittore, editore, traduttore, traditore.” Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Summer, 2001), pp. 63-87. University of Wisconsin Press. JSTOR: http://www.jstor/stable/3513678

[2] Again, the correspondence as cited by Armstrong is presented in Portuguese (p.69). I have translated it here for the English reader.

6 thoughts on “On The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

  1. As Riobald would put it: “In real life, things end less neatly, or don’t end at all. To strive for exactitude makes one blunder. One shouldn’t seek it” (p. 70).

  2. It’s a pleasure discover a blog about Grande Sertão: Veredas. (I’m a brazilian guy.) For many times I thought why recognition of Guimarães Rosa is so lowermost in other countries, except from Brazil. What Joyce did for Dublin, speaking a new urban language, Rosa did for the “mineiro blacklands”, in a new rural way of telling stories. I wondered about the quality of translations in English (and in other languages) and if it is a poor translation, and began to speculate translate Grande Sertão: Veredas in French and English – the only languages that, for now, I know; Besides, offcourse, Portuguese, my native language. However, for this I would have to have a command of English far more than I have now. So, I did leave procrastinated such plans. But it is still a good and strong plan in my mind. I’d like to be in touch with you, a Rosa’s admirer, and talk more about this great piece of art.

  3. The NY Times once carried an article about a new translation of this novel that was supposed to be forthcoming. So far as I know, it never appeared. What happened?

  4. What about the Miniseries of Grande Sertao: Veredas, on Brazilian TV. Was it a screen play based closely on Rosa’s book or only loosely?If it is close, then maybe an English version of the miniseries wouldl spark some interest in a new sorely needed translation of this apparently great book.
    P. L. Antonelli June 11, 2011 at 5 A.M.

  5. Just want to add my voice to the frustration that Devil to Pay has not been reissued. Perhaps it is not an ideal translation, but such as it is it has been one of the best things I ever read. Used to have a copy. Don’t know what happened to it. Meanwhile of course, it’s almost impossible to believe someone with the right language skills has not taken the opportunity to do a new translation!

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