Dr. Earl E. Fitz is Professor of Portuguese, Spanish, and Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University, and is coauthor, with Professor Elizabeth Lowe, of Translation and the Rise of Inter-American Literature. His expertise in the fields of Translation Studies and Inter-American Literature are invaluable to the discourse concerning João Guimarães Rosa and his absence from the English-speaking world, and I’d like to thank him for his time and consideration.
Professor Fitz, could you tell me a bit about your own experience with the work of João Guimarães Rosa?
I first came upon Rosa at the City University of New York, where, in the early 1970s, I was a doctoral student studying with Professor Gregory Rabassa. The first Rosa text I encountered was Grande Sertao: Veredas, which we read, in the original Portuguese, as part of Greg’s course on “Modern Brazilian Literature.” At Greg’s urging, I also read, later that same semester, Sagarana and Primeiras Estórias. The following summer, I got around to the other Rosa texts as well.
From the beginning, with Grande Sertao: Veredas, I found the language both strange and daunting. But also alluring. And beguiling. In some ways, GS:V reminded of Finnegans Wake, a text I also admired very much, though there were also clear differences. And sometimes I thought GS:V was like a cross between Finnegans Wake and Absalom, Absalom!. I was dismayed to find that many of the words I needed to look up were not in any of the dictionaries I had. At that point, I thought that I perhaps should have gone to law school instead of graduate school. Later, after talking with Greg and with many of my classmates, many of whom were native speakers, I began to understand what Rosa was doing and how, and why, he was doing it. I had a kind of breakthrough moment one evening when, feeling quite frustrated with trying to “break the code,” so to speak, of GS:V, I decided to try and read the text aloud, as if I were declaiming poetry, and the effect was miraculous. In hearing the language, in letting it come alive for me that way, I discovered I was much better able to decipher its meanings. I guess this is in keeping with the inherently oral nature of the text. After that, the worlds of Guimarães began, slowly but surely, to reveal their secrets to me, though I don’t think anyone ever gets to the point that it’s easy to read Rosa. Just as it’s never easy to read Joyce or Faulkner. But it’s eminently worth the effort to do so. And the same is true of Rosa.
Almost immediately, I felt about Rosa what I’d felt about Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector, that these were not just great Brazilian writers but great world writers, authors who were not nearly well known enough and whom I would want to promote a lot more in my own work, as a Brazilianist, a Latin Americanist, as a comparatist, and as an inter-Americanist. All these years later, I have to say that I still feel the same way, except more strongly than ever. Machado, Clarice, and Guimarães are great twentieth-century narrative masters and they deserve a much greater following than they as yet have. And I must say I’m pleased to see that their fame is growing steadily.
In your own opinion, why has the work of João Guimarães Rosa been translated into English so few times in the last fifty years?
I think the problem here has been Rosa’s always extraordinary language. Perhaps more than any other writer I can think of, Rosa exists in, and is not only circumscribed by, but defined by, his utterly identifiable language and style. I’ve always thought that what people say about Clarice Lispector, that no one writes like she does, could also be said of Guimarães. Even in translation, his style is unmistakable. To attempt a translation of a writer so closely and so tightly bound up in the myriad ways he invents and uses language, splicing different words and different languages together into endless onomatopoeias, evolving and elusive rhythm patterns, and unexpected, and sometimes ironic, neologisms, is to come up against every one of the obstacles a translator can ever face. And the more one comes to realize the genius of Rosa’s style, the more one is chary about risking damage to it by seeking to translate it. At the same time, of course, we’ve got the translator’s eternal motivation — knowing about a wonderful but egregiously under appreciated writer who deserves to be celebrated by readers in other languages. And so, as translators, we’re always tempted by Rosa. And I’m sure we’ll get more and more of him in translation as the years go by.
Is Grande Sertão: Veredas “Impossible” or “Untranslatable”?
I would not say that GS:V is at all “impossible” to translate or that it is “untranslatable.” First of all, of course, because it has been translated, and into a number of languages, but also because if a text can be read, it can be translated. Indeed, as Greg Rabassa, one of the truly great translators of all time, has long contended, every good translation is the result of a good, close reading. True, reading GS:V in its original Portuguese is a challenging task, for anyone, but it can be read and it can be understood, at least to some degree. And, like all truly great literary texts, GS:V richly rewards re-readings. Lots of them! And laced together with copious and painstaking notes. Other than language, though, the real challenge for translators has to do with their skill as writers themselves. As Greg has often said, a translator is very much a creative writer. And Greg, of course, as evidenced in so many of his superb translations, is a great writer, a point Gabo has famously made of him.
In the work you published with Professor Elizabeth Lowe, Translation & The Rise of Inter-American Literature, you cite the opinion of Susan Bassnett, who posits that Translation, rather than being a “marginal activity,” is in fact a “major shaping force for change in the history of culture.” If we were to have always have known João Guimarães Rosa the way we know the great writers he’s often compared with (Proust, Mann, Joyce, Melville, Rulfo, Faulkner) (and it’s interesting that we know most of these authors thanks to translation as well) how might we understand Brazilian Literature/Latin American Literature/Literature differently?
In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt about translation’s being a powerful force in cultural and historical change. It has always been thus. Unquestionably, translation plays a crucial role in human understanding. Right now, here in the United States, a culture troubled by issues of parochialism and cultural change, we badly need more translations, not only of literary texts but of social and political issues as well. That is, we need people who can serve as translators not just of complex literary texts but of cultures, too. I do not think translation per se will ever, or should ever, replace foreign language study as the defining characteristic of Comparative Literature as an academic discipline, but it will unquestionably remain a decisive force in inter-cultural understanding. We need more translation, not less.
With respect to literary history, our pantheon of Western literary giants should, without doubt, include Rosa in it. And it would have already done so had he been more accessible in good, reliable English translations. Perhaps he will yet be. If I were re-writing Western narrative history, I would include Rosa in the tradition of Proust, Mann, and Joyce, arguing that, at his best, as in GS:V, Rosa brings together, into a single, marvelously philosophical and deeply poetic text, all of the different breakthroughs concerning artistic, literary, and intellectual invention that these other great writers have wrought.
In the Americas, one of the still unexplained anomalies is why the original English translation of GS:V, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (trans. by de Onis and Taylor) did not strike more fire, with the critical establishment and with the general reading public in the United States, when Knopf brought it out in 1963, just as the now famous “Boom” period was gathering force. Regardless of how one feels about the translation itself, the fact that Rosa and GS:V are all but totally missing from discussions even now in the North American academy about “Latin American” literature is, to my way of thinking, simply astonishing. And unacceptable. To have this great Brazilian masterpiece absent from discussions of literature in the New World is a glaring omission of the most damaging sort, and it needs to be rectified. I am also confident that our younger colleagues will, in the courses they teach and in their research, take care of this problem. Since some of Rosa’s jagunços carry Winchesters, readers in the United States need to know much more about them and their own “Wild West” exploits.
Do you think a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas should be undertaken? What might that process look like? Do you think English readers would/should/could be interested?
This is a particularly interesting question. Just recently, my old graduate school cohort and long time friend, Professor Elizabeth Lowe, the Director of the Translation Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and I have committed to doing a new English translation of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. We’ve collaborated on other translation projects, including Clarice’s Agua Viva (The Stream of Life) and her posthumous novel, Um Sopro de Vida (A Breath of Life), and we feel we could offer a useful new English version of this great novel, one that would help gain for it the recognition it so richly deserves. Just as other great texts, like Don Quixote, need to be periodically re-translated so that they can speak to yet another generation of readers, so, too, we feel does Rosa’s epical masterpiece need to be updated and re-introduced to the English speaking world.
Elizabeth and I also think that, with the advent of inter-American literary study as an exciting new field of comparative scholarship, the moment is quite propitious for a new translation of GS:V. Given the importance of Rosa to not only Brazilian letters but to the status of Latin American literature generally, and given the brilliance of GS:V itself, we are confident that readers in Canada and the United States, to say nothing of those in Europe who are also involved in the inter-American project, are going to welcome the chance to read and get to know a writer who, for them, remains one of those enigmatic masters they’ve long heard of but need to know much better. Readers in the United States, for example, might well read GS:V as a uniquely Brazilian permutation of the Western as a literary genre, while Europeans will see its utilization of the epic and the romance as points of entry. And everyone will appreciate and respond to its deeply human ruminations on the unstable nature of being and on the difficulties we face in seeking to know, about ourselves and our world. We believe that a new and, this time, much more broadly based and enduring reception of Guimarães Rosa and Grande Sertão: Veredas in the Americas and Europe is about to take place. The inter-American stars, especially, seem to be in proper alignment.
I know you recently completed a translation with Elizabeth Lowe of Clarice Lispector’s Um Sopro de Vida. Could you say a little more about that?
Yes, Elizabeth and I have recently completed a new translation of Clarice’s Um Sopro de Vida, an extraordinary narrative written during the Brazilian author’s final days and one that speaks, poignantly, to the heart of the human condition. In this sometimes anguished, lushly hybrid, and still mysterious text, readers will see some of the old Clarice they know and love, but they will also see a different Clarice, one both tougher and gentler than they may have known before, and one fully attuned to both the ecstasy and the terror of life. Although Clarice Lispector, like Guimarães Rosa, occupies a place of special prominence in the field of inter-American literary study, her appeal, like that of Rosa, is both timeless and universal.
(Interview conducted via email by Felipe Martinez for AMISSINGBOOK.COM ©AMB2010)