A Conversation With Dr. Piers Armstrong


Dr. Piers Armstrong is a Brazilianist and a specialist in comparative culture. He studied at Melbourne University in Australia, the University of Perugia, the Sorbonne, and the University of California, Los Angeles, where he completed his Ph.D. in Romance Linguistics and Literature. His dissertation was published in book form as Third World Literary Fortunes, and he is the author of the essay, “Guimarães Rosa in Translation: scrittore, editore, traduttore, traditore.”[1]

When I learned that Dr. Piers Armstrong was currently living in Los Angeles, just a two-hour drive from San Diego, I immediately wrote to introduce myself and to arrange a meeting and the conversation that follows. Dr. Armstrong and I sat out on the patio of the Golden Eagle Building on the CSU Los Angeles campus, with a view of the blue San Bernardino Mountains to the East. I’d like to thank Dr. Armstrong for speaking with me.

Felipe Martinez: Well, to begin, please tell me about your own background, and your experience with the work of João Guimarães Rosa.

Piers Armstrong: Well, I was a grad student in Romance Languages at UCLA, and Portuguese ended up being my major. I was taking routine classes, whatever was prescribed, but along the way I had a great Professor, Claude Hulet—himself a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He had assembled an anthology of Brazilian Literature, with stories presented in the original Portuguese, with English introductions. That book, for a long time, was the only book of its sort.  So I was introduced to Rosa not by my own initiative, but because I was taking a seminar class dedicated to Guimarães Rosa. I thought he was a great writer, and I continued to study him.

I was also very interested in Jorge Amado, who’s kind of at the opposite end of the spectrum—kind of a populist, whereas Guimarães Rosa appealed to the Brazilian literati, especially at that time. I think Rosa’s become more of a household name now, but then, he was more of a writer’s writer, not very widely read, even in Brazil—though, he was fanatically insisted upon by enough people that he was famous nevertheless.

I decided to write my dissertation on both of these writers and their receptions, both domestically and internationally. I was intrigued by the fact that Guimarães Rosa seemed to be so revered in Brazil, a kind of demigod figure, and meanwhile, outside Brazil, he was completely unheard of. Meanwhile, Jorge Amado was very well known abroad, but at home, he received little attention.

So for my dissertation I took those two poles, Jorge Amado and Guimarães Rosa, and I found there was an inverse relationship between the kind of followings they generated. Considering their international reception and their populist status. That is to say: Jorge Amado is perceived as a populist, and so he was written off by the literary establishment in Brazil—because being populist is a negative; whereas in the case of Guimarães Rosa, the opposite was happening, he was super valued by the literary elite in Brazil, meanwhile that correlated to minimal international reception. What I concluded was that this was not without cause, and the logic of it was that international audiences, mostly Brazilianists (here we should note that there is no such thing as purely literary Brazilianists abroad. The literary Brazilianist communes with the Geographic Studies Brazilianist, with the Cultural Studies Brazilianist, and so they are Brazilianists all around: well read in all things Brazilian, from Guimarães Rosa to Political History) were very interested in Jorge Amado and accepted him. They didn’t care that he was a populist. As far as they were concerned, he was providing the world with several profiles of what we might call today, “subaltern” figures, which, along with his themes, were of great interest and concern to many Brazilianists at the time. In other words: people from outside Brazil looking in, tended to be much more interested in the Brazilian subaltern than the Brazilian elite. The Brazilian elite was a problematic entity from the perspective of the Spanish American, left wing, mainstream writers as well. Whereas they championed the popular elements, or what are perceived to be figures representing the people, they eschewed the literary elite (in which case we’re talking about Rosa).

I used this broader reading to develop an idea of how Brazil was interpreted by the outside world, and what I found was that, internationally, people tended to boil Brazil down to a few iconic figures and discourses, and they tended to be the Amazon and all its mysteries as a kind of natural entity, and then the coastal mulatto culture, predominately from Rio & Bahia, which is a kind of hybrid culture where elements from different originary sources blend and produce something which is actually more than just a blend, but is something creative and all together new.

If you look for example at Darcy Ribeiro, the educator and anthropologist, he proposed the idea of Brazilianess as an ethnicity. Now it’s different in the United States: we say in the U.S. that we have Italian Americans, African Americans, Jews, or Anglos, but we wouldn’t really be able to accept the notion of American as an ethnicity per se.

That’s what Darcy Ribeiro was proposing, and that’s pretty much the accepted norm in Brazil. A lot of people accept that, I think, without thinking about it critically.  It seems to make sense to them. They’ll say, ‘oh, you know, my grandparents might have been something or other, but I was born in Brazil, and I identify with Brazilian culture, so my ethnicity is Brazilian’. Darcy Ribeiro then took this idea to its logical extreme by arguing that, by the logic of the definition of Brazilian as an ethnicity, the indigenous peoples of Brazil were not themselves Brazilian—meaning a kind of posterior state, the result of hybridization. And Riebeiro was concerned for the Indigenous people. His argument was in no way an attempt to marginalize the indigenous people, but it was more an acceptance of the logic of this category of Brazilian as a unique ethnicity.

It’s that Brazilianness which is of interest to the outsider; but what often goes unrealized is that that Brazilianness is geoculturally specific within Brazil. It’s an iconic culture which is represented best by the carnival of Rio, and which tends to focus on the mulatto culture of Rio and Bahia, downplaying other regions, whether it’s the south, or it’s the sertão. I always found it curious how invisible the sertão was abroad.

Most people, when they imagine Brazil, they want to think it’s tropical, so the notion of an arid zone and austere lives just didn’t and doesn’t make sense to people abroad; and, to some extent, Brazilians don’t celebrate it either. There are certain exceptions, moments when it becomes representative. I must say the career of Forró music in Brazil does actually represent a kind of reverse colonization of the urban areas by music which is ostensibly from the sertão but that the pattern of invisibility remains. And such a tendency is not peculiar to Brazil, it’s a universal condition.

My definition of culture is that it is the destruction of ninety-five percent of reality at any given moment. In other words, culture is the emergence of recognizable icons and discourses which arise out of the chaos of existence. It is done by distinguishing that from the rest, and that means the exclusion of the rest, and it’s the norm in cultural evolution for things to be more often excluded than included. So even when we celebrate hybridity, diversity, difference, it always involves the emergence of certain stereotypes and icons and concentrations of our attention, and thus invisibility for the majority remainder. So, that’s how I was looking at Guimarães Rosa and Jorge Amado. Guimarães Rosa for me is emblematic of something which could be incredibly good and wonderful, and yet totally invisible. And that’s what you expect. That’s the way it usually is.

FM: It’s interesting what you’re saying about the conveyance of culture, because Rosa didn’t really, faithfully represent any whole bit of Brazilian culture—not even the Sertão: it’s his invention even while it’s a real place.

PA: He was very canny. First of all, he could talk about all those local elements that no one else could talk about, because all the people who knew about the local environment weren’t writers like him. The literary elite were in Rio. They didn’t come from where he came from, and they didn’t talk about the things he talked about. So, he was very savvy, very calculating in a way, to lay claim to a sovereign zone where others were unlikely to go.  He knew the local, the concrete, and meanwhile, he was conversant with universal literary currents. In a way he had an ambition like that of T.S. Eliot, to go back to the Sanskrit font, to go all the way through the history of western civilization, and even bring in flirtations and dabbling in things beyond the Indo-European fold, such as Buddhism for example. So, he was very aware that he was making this bridge between the very local and the universal. He was probably more local than most Brazilian writers, and, at the same time, more universal than most other Brazilian writers. Clarice Lispector was a very universal writer, but far less eclectic in the philosophical current that she would come to pick up on. You could tie her much more directly into twentieth century Parisian Existentialist streams of awareness, coupled with her own local color. Guimarães Rosa was compulsively eclectic.

FM: Have you read the English translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas?

PA: Sure. I’m not sure if I’ve read it all, but I know I’ve read most of it, and certainly enough to get the flavor.

FM: And what do you think of it?

PA: Well, I’m a defender of that translation as I’m a defender of most translations. I’m an iconoclast as to the purported “superior translation”, because translation to me is an impossible thing to do perfectly. It’s always a question of imperfection; and everybody would recognize that, but what people don’t recognize is that the imperfection becomes invisible as soon as it’s celebrated as being an excellent translation, which is usually done by a successful PR campaign or by having connections. For example, if I said: ‘here’s a translation by Virginia Wolf of the Illiad’, you’re probably going to think it’s good, right? It just sounds like a good combination. And even if you think it might have some flaws, you’ll think: they’re going to be creative, good flaws, and this is going to be a wonderful thing. It’s not to be assumed. Good translators are as rare as good writers, and given that the task of the translator is an activity, it’s an even more mysterious one in a way.

The writer is an entity. They wrote something, you celebrate them, and you read their works. If I were to say: give me the names of ten of the most famous translators…well, it’s not likely you’d be able to. Not the way you would, say, list ten of the most famous writers.

When it comes to the translations, I believe first, Guimarães Rosa must be understood as a diplomat. He was in command of his translations, of the entire operation in each case; he was in constant correspondence with translators and publishers, constantly managing his contractual relations scrupulously, and he successfully coaxed, or charmed, seduced his translators, convincing most of them that they were the most important translator.

The English translation preceded the other translations, because it seemed to Rosa at the time, the appropriate thing to do: to break into the world through the most widely read language first. He thought very pragmatically that English was more important than German. So, he was a diplomat.

Now, was the English translation an abomination? No. I don’t think so. The English version was done by Harriet de Onís who had successfully executed very important translations, including works by Gilberto Freyre, which was a very influential book, her translation of Freyre into English. While she worked on the English translation of Guimarães Rosa, she received assistance from Professor James Taylor at Stanford, who was the author of a very important dictionary, which is the only dictionary that I admire, and which is still an invaluable dictionary of Brazilian Portuguese into English. The dictionary has a good feel for the lexicon of Rosa, including popular expressions, as well as the names of animals and flora and fauna. I would say it’s a very Sertão-aware type of dictionary.

There may be omissions, fragments missing from the English translation of Grande Sertão, there may be mistranslations, or the misguided rendering of speech into a hillbilly English which automatically smacks to the Anglophone ear of vulgarity, but we must remember that translation is the result of a community of production consisting of the writer, the translator, the editor, the target language, the audience that will read it…and they’re all involved both creatively and subjectively in the process.

Whether or not the English translation is a successful transposition…it has a certain legitimacy, it was a reasonable strategy and approach. I don’t believe the reason the book failed was because of the translation. I think it  had more to do with the inherent interest of that book.  You might ask: isn’t it a great story of universal appeal? Apparently, no, it’s not. The book hasn’t been particularly successful in other languages either. Take for example the Spanish translation, it’s not very widely read in Spanish America. It somehow, surprisingly, despite its universal themes, the mythemes of the story, it somehow exists best when it is like mud thrown on a stucco wall…and the stucco wall is in Brazil.

Going back to the translations, there are two I have a particular opinion about: the German, and I think you can prove—as I have in an article which was much informed by the Dutch translator, a polyglot, who had noticed certain things in the German translation—that the German translator used the English translation. We know this because there exist certain instances in which there are errors, or mistranslations from the Portuguese to the English, which are then preserved in German. This is particularly significant because the German translation is celebrated as a great translation. Now I have great respect for the translator, he did his best and he carried out a very difficult task, but I believe the reason why the German translation is celebrated is not because it really was, necessarily, a great translation of the Portuguese—and I’m not saying it was great or it was bad—but because people take à la lettre, literally, the combination of the translation and Guimarães Rosa’s words of praise for the German translation, which were directed to the German translator via private correspondence—which, like I mentioned, was actually a part Guimarães Rosa’s diplomatic efforts.

The only other translation I would comment on is the Italian. You would have to speak to a native speaker of Italian to get a detailed account of it, but as far as I can tell, it’s a good translation. I’ve read patches of the Italian translation and found it vibrant and quite beautiful. We don’t have so many words of exceptional praise from Guimarães Rosa for the Italian translation, as we have for the German translation, but, as it happens, there is a published correspondence between Guimarães Rosa and the Italian translator—and perhaps because Guimarães Rosa didn’t feel there was a diplomatic imperative (that is: he already had the Italian translator on his side), the correspondence between Guimarães Rosa and his Italian translator has the real advantage of being a substantive dialogue, reflecting closer, genuine, more objective interest in the work, in the material of the work. Anyway, I read the Italian translation, and it sounds good. And to the best of my knowledge, it’s the Italian translation that is most felicitous.

So. The massive imperfections in the English translation? I say, so what! We don’t live in this perfect place where the perfect work gets the perfect translation. Everything is butchered and massacred; it’s just a question of how much. Take for example certain film versions of famous books: it’s a respectable undertaking, and you might be glad that they did it for the sake of the book, but as a film, inherently, it doesn’t have its own soul. It’s a lost soul just floating out there.

FM: I wonder why they never republished The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Was it a matter of sales?

PA: You know, the irony of it is that when they published Grande Sertão: Veredas in English, the great publishing house, Alfred Knopf—Rosa couldn’t have had a better one—had this sense that the book was the next big thing. They thought Guimarães Rosa should duly be what Spanish American writers would prove themselves to be in the Boom. In the early sixties, you had Bossa Nova music, which was very popular at the time, you had Jorge Amado, Gabriela had been a blockbuster and Amado wrote the introduction for the English translation of Grande Sertão, and Knopf really felt it all fit together, that it would be another blockbuster—they even put out an ad stating: “Note well this name: João Guimarães Rosa, for he is a literary figure of the first importance”—and, the book didn’t sell. It was a failed commercial experiment.

They believed Guimarães Rosa’s commercial success would mirror that of his literary brilliance. They were wrong. And, if you think about it, it makes sense: even in Brazil, who was most likely to read Grande Sertão: Veredas? It wasn’t the general reader. Sure, later; but early on, it was only the literary elite who were interested in Guimarães Rosa and who extolled his work.

FM: Why do you think there have been so few translators to take on Guimarães Rosa’s work over the last forty or so years?

PA: Well, I think it goes back to that question of culture, and what I said about culture being the elimination of ninety five percent of reality in any given moment—like a crushing wave of destruction. Or, not so much destruction, but: non-recognition. Things can go on for a long time not happening. Not Happening is much more normal than happening. Right?

FM: Yes.

PA: For example, see that building over there?

FM: Yes.

PA: How many buildings are not there? There’s only one there, but there are millions of buildings that are not there. Nonada, right?

FM: Nonada.

PA: Take “nonada” translated as “it is nothing.” Funnily enough, there is probably more that a philosophy class could discuss in the utterance “it is nothing,” than in “nonada.” If you say: it IS nothing, that’s an inherently fascinating paradox. It, Nothing, copular is in the middle, it seems quite a contradiction. Nonada is different, it’s more: bagatelle, trifle.

FM: I’ve read people slam that opening line. Comments online, from readers who I assume know Portuguese, write: what an awful way to translate nonada, etc.

PA: Now see, that’s what matters. We’re talking about the first word, and the difficulty of just the translation of the first word.  And we could think of it not only in the degree of difficulty, but in openness, possibility, and the multitude of possible renderings. You could go this way or that way; and it’s like this sentence by sentence by sentence. Even if we restrict ourselves to the “good” translations, there are an infinite number of alternate translations.  If you read Borges, and his story of the translators of Arabian Nights, of the translations of that collection of stories into English and French and so on, it’s fascinating the way he characterizes the translations, and we find that every one of them is fraught with some sort of gross act of destruction. Whether it’s excisions from the text, or a particular deceptive rendering to support the translator’s own motives or personal flavor—what we’re talking about are mistranslations, essentially, straight up mistranslations: acts of love, acts of hate, acts of ignorance. Either way: something is being done, and someone is the decider. But what you also see is that each audience is a cultural chapter to itself. In other words, eighteenth century France is one cultural chapter, with its own translation; then, nineteenth century, Victorian England goes in another direction with its translation; and later, Edwardian England goes in yet another direction. They’re all different. And what’s even more interesting is you find that some of them are actually translations of translations, and still came through and were hugely successful sometimes. So something worked. Maybe the bastard child is just as good as the pure blooded, noble parent. What happens is what’s important. It’s like an axis, a political alliance. A certain number of people believe it, a number of people manipulate it, use it, profess it; you have a party, you have a leader, you have a situation where it’s relevant, people coalesce around it, and it happens. And then, it will pass.  In other words, the life a literary work can be compared to that of the life of a political party: it prospers most in a certain moment, a certain time and space, a certain environment.

FM: Do you still read Guimarães Rosa?

PA: That’s a good question, and I have to be quite honest, I don’t much these days, because, I suppose, my own life has moved on. I’m working on different things right now, more nuts and bolts issues of legal interpreting; however I still do commune over the internet with Brazilian friends, and we make allusions to things Rosean. I will go to the national park before I die, I promise.  And when I’m there, I will think: what a strange accident of history that the tree I’m looking at is somehow imbued with human culture by virtue of being inside this park associated with Guimarães Rosa. Because he’s here, even when he’s not, in the ether. He pops up as a blip on the map every now and then, and he always will.

By Felipe Martinez for AMISSINGBOOK
Los Angeles, California
February 5, 2011


[1] “Guimarães Rosa in Translation: scrittore, editore, traduttore, traditore.” Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 8.1 (Summer 2001): 63-7

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One thought on “A Conversation With Dr. Piers Armstrong

  1. What a wonderful conversation. Provocative. I’m glad Mr. Armstrong sticks up for the Onis/Taylor translation. I read Portuguese — I sense that they get the tone right much of the time; the family resemblance is there; maybe not the resemblance of identical twins but the resemblance of cousins….

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