Dr. Paulo Moreira is Assistant Professor of Spanish & Portuguese at Yale University, and the author of Regionalism and Modernism in the Short Stories of William Faulkner, João Guimarães Rosa, and Juan Rulfo. Originally his dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Regionalism and Modernism in the Short Stories of William Faulkner, João Guimarães Rosa, and Juan Rulfo is now available in book form in Brazil. He is also currently translating a collection of William Faulkner’s short stories into Portuguese.
In July I had the opportunity to skype with Dr. Moreira. I was in San Diego while he was in Belo Horizonte preparing to attend the 2011 BRASA Conference. This conversation, while presented here in fragments, lasted two hours, and covered a wide range of topics concerning João Guimarães Rosa. I would like to thank Dr. Moreira for his help & support.
Felipe Martinez: Dr. Moreira, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
Paulo Moreira: It’s my pleasure. I really love A Missing Book. It’s very exciting to see something like it in English. You know that Guimarães Rosa is still mostly unknown in the United States, and it’s difficult to find resources in English to share with other people. I attended a meeting last month at Yale where they discussed the idea of expanding the courses on canonized literature, which they call Directed Studies at Yale. They are thinking of expanding it to include Latin America, Asia, and Africa. At this meeting, I talked to people about Guimarães Rosa, and some there, who had never heard of Rosa, were really interested in learning more about him. Unfortunately, we don’t have a really good translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas, but I was able to send them a couple of short stories, and they loved them. You know it’s really all about having translations that are not only “good,” but meaningful. That’s why I’m so looking forward to having a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas.
FM: Well, you know that my first experience with Guimarães Rosa was with The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, and, while I know it may be a clunky translation, it’s a beautiful book nonetheless. A brilliant story is still conveyed, and at the very least it’s an effective translation—though incomplete.
PM: I have taught a class at Yale based on my book about Rulfo, Guimarães Rosa, and Faulkner, Modernismo Localista nas Américas: os contos de Guimarães Rosa, Faulkner and Rulfo, and I did ask my students to read the English translation. And I had to make photocopies of it, because, as you know, it’s not easily available anymore. I had them read it because I do think it’s effective, but I still strongly believe we need a new translation.
FM: I completely agree. When I began A Missing Book, it was because I read The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, and the first thing I thought was that more people needed to know the book. Later, I also realized that meant we would need a new translation. I entered it with the mind frame of ‘I want people to be able to read this work. How do I do that?’ I was very lucky to have the opportunity to connect with Professor David Treece.
PM: One of the stories I sent to my colleagues at Yale was David Treece’s translation of “The Jaguar”. I really think it’s one of the best translations of Guimarães Rosa.
PM: Lets take Faulkner for example. Faulkner’s been recently retranslated in Brazil. The publisher is very reputable, and they hired really good people to work with the novels of Faulkner. They’re great editions, yet, if you read them in Portuguese, I’m sure you’re not going to see the same Faulkner—of course. There are always issues that can be raised about the translation of someone who works with language on the level of Guimarães Rosa or Faulkner. I think it’s an easy criticism when you take the original, and then you complain about certain features of the original that are not there. All translations work this way. As a translator, you have to negotiate, and you have to write something that is compelling, interesting, and exciting. If you read Guimarães Rosa’s letters to his translators, he was telling them that they didn’t have to follow to the original too closely. He said: ‘write your own way. Find your own solutions. Don’t worry too much about sticking to the original.’ So, when I hear someone criticizing any translation for not being like the original, I stop listening. You know: that’s the obvious thing! It’s not the original. I’ve translated a couple of Faulkner’s short stories for a very interesting website in Rio called Portal Literal (“Wash” and “Celeiro queimando”/“Burning Barn”), and I found, that as a translator, you have to make some very difficult decisions. You have to leave things out, and you have to bring things in. I think David Treece had to make some very tough choices in translating “The Jaguar”. It’s a very difficult story, and it’s one of Guimarães Rosa’s most complex works as far as language is concerned. I think Treece did a really, really good job. It’s a really interesting story.
FM: I thought so too. I read Giovanni Ponteiro’s translation before I found Treece’s, and I have to say that while I loved Ponteiro’s version, Treece’s had something…just a bit more. In 1997, Ponteiros’s translation was a step, and in 2001, Treece took another step towards providing the English-speaking world with a work we would have otherwise not known. For me, translation is a privilege. It’s nothing to scoff at when you can’t read the original in the first place. A glimpse of something other than what you see and know in your own language: it’s amazing to me. And that’s why I think The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was so important.
PM: Exactly. You know, I say to my friends who argue against translation: do you read Russian? They say No. And I say: what about Dostoyevsky, or Chekov, or any of the Great Russian writers that you only know from translations? Sure, you have to take the word of people who work with translations to know this is good, or this is bad, but ultimately, the translation is all you have. You are probably not going to learn Russian well enough to read Great Russian literature—and even if you do! Then there’s German, there’s Swedish, there’s Italian, and Japanese and Chinese…you have to rely on translation. The same thing happens with semiotic translation, when someone adapts a book or short story to film. There’s always the easy criticism which is oh, it didn’t have this, or: it didn’t have that, or: it wasn’t the way I imagined this character to be…, and in my own experience, I think the best adaptations, which is a form of translation, are the ones that end up being great movies. Even if they are markedly different from the original version. I think an excellent example of this is the film Mutum. I think it’s the best adaptation of a story by Guimarães Rosa, and it’s an important story which has not been translated into English yet, “Campo Geral,” also known as “Miguilim.” I know there is a recent and beautiful translation of the story in Mexico, but it hasn’t been translated into English. Anyway, it’s a beautiful movie, the adaptation of this story. The film differs greatly from the story, however. The film is filled with silences. You don’t have half of the words that are used in the story. But that doesn’t take away from it. It’s beautiful, and it is a true adaptation of Guimarães Rosa’s work—like I said: the best. So, that being said, the very best translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas will not be perfect. And I think ten, twenty, a hundred years from the moment a new translation comes out, someone will hopefully be able to improve upon it. And that’s the point, you build and improve upon the previous translation. So, the translation of De Onís and Taylor is not wasted work. It’s something translators should build on. There are passages in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands that are good. Have you read Harriet De Onís’s translation of Sagarana?
FM: I’ve read some of the stories.
PM: I think it’s a very good translation. The work she did with Sagarana really captures the spirit of the book as a whole. I’ve read some of the letters exchanged between Guimarães Rosa and De Onís. She wasn’t really fluent in Portuguese. And he wasn’t very fluent in English. There’s a very exciting debate in their correspondence where he is outside of his comfort zone, and he is trying to make suggestions to her, and she doesn’t like the suggestions. There’s a sort of tension there that makes for very interesting reading. With his German and Italian translators, he was much better at smoothing over their relationship. He loved to flatter his translators.
Cordisburgo/Brazil/The World/The Universe
PM: The tiny little town where Guimarães Rosa was born. Now, this is a great trip to make. The town really is small. It used to be on the railway line. The roads followed different paths then, so it’s kind of lost in the middle of somewhere now. The people there really embraced Guimarães Rosa. So much so that they teach his stories to the children and teenagers of the town, who then memorize the stories by heart. These students will take visitors on walks through the surroundings and the students will recite entire short stories by Guimarães Rosa. Also there, you have the house where he was born and spent the first years of his life before he came to Belo Horizonte. Every July, as you know, they have a week of celebrations in honor of Guimarães Rosa. They invite people to give talks, they have music, theater, all kinds of great things during that week. The great thing: there’s only one hotel in the town. So when that week comes, and so many people go to Cordisburgo to celebrate, the residents there turn their homes into bed & breakfasts, and open up their homes to visitors. It is definitely a great experience. I think going there gives one a new appreciation of Guimarães Rosa’s work.
You know, in Brazil, there was a tendency for quite a few years to emphasize what people understood as “the universal appeal” of Guimarães Rosa. You have to understand that Guimarães Rosa, Faulkner & Rulfo published some of their most important works precisely in the moment when, in the United States, Mexico, and in Brazil, there was a general rejection to what people identified as “regionalist” or “rural” themes in literature. These three writers faced a lot of criticism. Some people were frankly upset with what Guimarães Rosa was writing about in the fifties. At a time when everyone was saying that the country was modernizing, and that it was the time for the great Brazilian Urban novel…all of a sudden Guimarães Rosa comes along—he writes great literature, and everybody recognizes this—but he’s writing on rural themes that were considered out of fashion and out of tune with the country in its stage of development. So, for many years, the tone of many critics was to say that Guimarães Rosa’s relationship to Minas Gerais was just the surface of his work, something superficial; that to understand the true value of his work, you had to pierce through this, apparently, regional “crust”—the real value being something “universal”. In my book, I argue about this. It’s a huge mistake that made people, for many years, trying to ignore or downplay the importance of region in the work of Guimarães Rosa. If you look at the way he wrote his stories, and the relationship that the stories have with the actual locations he was writing about, it’s really interesting. Because it’s far from a typical regionalist representation of the countryside. It takes liberties, it’s freer, and it’s wilder, and it mixes and shuffles precise cultural elements from different parts of the state.
PM: In the free time I don’t have, I’m writing a paper on “The Jaguar”, because I think there are a lot of things people overlooked when they studied the story. First, Guimarães Rosa had first-hand contact with indigenous people in Brazil, especially in Minas Gerais, because he worked at the service for the protection of the indigenous people; and second, he wrote that story under the impact of the first case of a massacre of indigenous peoples in Brazil that was tried in court. It involved the Kraoh, the tribe around which the protagonist of “The Jaguar” grew up. The Kraohs are interesting in many ways, and Guimarães Rosa was obviously aware of many of their characteristics; and he played with them in the story in a very interesting and exciting way. First, the Kraohs were great jaguar hunters, and so they were hired in the nineteenth century by farmers to hunt jaguars. As the frontier was moving inland, the major farming was cattle farming, and the first concern they had was to get rid of the all the jaguars, which preyed on the cattle. But the Kraohs, after a while, were not only hired to kill jaguars, but also, sometimes, even other Indians. The second important thing about the Kraohs, unlike many other tribes in Brazil, was: they accepted outsiders into the tribe. If you notice in the story of the jaguar, the protagonist is not Kraoh, his mother is not a Kraoh, she’s from another tribe, which is massacred, and so she is accepted into the Kraohs. —which all fits into the description of the behavior of the tribe in “The Jaguar”.
Furthermore the Kraohs became famous in the fifties, shortly after the first indigenous massacre, when a member of the Kraohs had a vision: that in the near future, Indians would become whites and whites would become Indians. But that in order for that to happen, in order for the Kraohs to become white people, they had to forsake all their customs. And so the whole idea of rejecting indigenous identity is also a part of the psychology of the Kraohs. At the time Guimarães Rosa is writing “The Jaguar”, about a man of mixed ethnic heritage—his father is white, his mother is indigenous—who is clearly torn between his allegiance to his totem, the jaguar, and his allegiance to white people who are bent on wiping out the jaguars. There’s a sort of short circuit there, where instead of dejaguarizing the region, he stars to dehumanize the region by killing every human around.
Guimarães Rosa was obviously aware of all this, of the story, and he’s playing with it in a very creative way. It’s not a faithful representation of Kraohs, or the Kraoh culture, or the historical events related to the Kraohs, but a sort of free interpretation of all these things into one fiction. One of the key points in my book is that for Rulfo, Guimarães Rosa and Faulkner, Modernism—and I mean that here in the English sense—was very important, because it freed them from mimetic representation. It allowed them to see literary representation as interpretation, rather than as depiction of things the way they were. And it was the key moment when they were finally free to write about these places and be Modern.
PM: By writing about these local places, Rulfo, Guimarães Rosa and Faulkner were able to solve this false paradox—which was prevalent at the time they were writing—which was summed up in this statement: Latin America and the American South are condemned to write old-fashioned, realist literature, because Modernist literature is the expression of the big, urban, industrialized centers. In other words: if you weren’t writing about Modern life, you weren’t a Modernist. For this reason, a lot of people were expecting the great urban novel out of Mexico and Brazil. They expected the big urban novel because they thought it would be the expression of these countries’ development, of the entry of these countries into full Modernity. William Faulkner is especially important for Rulfo, and, as another example, for Gabriel García Márquez, exactly because he shows that one could write about this little place in Mississippi, this marginal place in Mississippi. Mississippi is a marginal place in the south, and the south is a marginal place in the United States—marginal from both the cultural and the economic centers of the United States—and yet, Faulkner was able to write high Modernism based on this little region in northern Mississippi. I believe this was a source of liberation for Rulfo who grew up in the south of Jalisco, which is marginal to the state’s capital, Guadalajara. He was tied to Jalisco, and Faulkner showed Rulfo that he could set his stories in this place and draw on his own knowledge to write fiction, great modern fiction based on that place. And I believe it was the same in the case of Guimarães Rosa too. He had this almost anthropological interest in everything from his region of Minas Gerais. For example, I found published in the literary supplement, Suplemento Literário Minas Gerais, one very interesting, unpretentious work about one short story, and not one of his well-known pieces, called “Mechéu”. It’s from the last book published in his lifetime, Tutaméia, and the story is more of a character sketch of a man called Mechéu. So in the Suplemento Literário, a man found a letter written by Guimarães Rosa to a cousin who lived near Cordisburgo, and in the letter, Guimarães Rosa asks about a guy he’d met on his cousin’s farm, one Mechéu. The letter by Guimarães Rosa is in the form of a myriad of specific questions about Mechéu. Rosa asks things like: what kind of food did he eat? Did he curse? Did he go to church? Did he say blasphemous things? Very detailed questions.
This is a pattern in Guimarães Rosa’s life.
Guimarães Rosa was a doctor, a diplomat, he would come back to the countryside and people would ask him if he wanted to meet the mayor, the poet of the city, the doctor, but he was always looking for the gypsies, the beggars, the prostitutes, the children! These were the people he was interested in, and they were the people he wrote about. A large majority of Guimarães Rosa’s characters are beggars, the insane, travelling salesmen, prostitutes, gypsies. There are people in Itaguara who say “you know, Guimarães Rosa was really odd, because he would spend an amazing amount of time talking to gypsies.” There was a gypsy camp nearby, and he would visit it every day and talk to them for hours. He was trying to learn their language, and people in the city thought it was really weird.
So, his cousin writes back a long letter in which he answers everything Guimarães Rosa had asked about Mechéu. It’s interesting when you take the two letters and put them together with the story in Tutaméia, because you will find the incredible ways in which he used the real material to create stories. In fact, you will find whole paragraphs in the story “Mechéu” that were written by Rosa’s cousin. It’s interesting also to see in which ways he stays true to the real Mechéu, and the moments when he departs from the actual Mechéu to create his fictional character. It’s something I’m very interested in, because it hasn’t been fully explored. And why hasn’t it been fully explored? Because critics in Brazil were always banging out the same message over and over again: Guimarães Rosa is universal, Guimarães Rosa is universal, Guimarães Rosa is worth reading because it holds the great truths of the human heart…and the great western tradition he follows. There are countless works by people tracing neo-platonic philosophy in his work…religious references in his work…things like that. You see the point of view in the fifties and sixties, and even into the seventies, was that you had to prove that Guimarães Rosa was worth being read all over the world, and that he had a great contribution to make to world literature. They really had to emphasize his western credentials, which I think was a mistake. And that’s not to say that I mean he has not been influenced by Neo-Platonism, that he did not read and use it in his literature. What I’m trying to do is repeat the gesture that he made: to break with this dichotomy and work with both sources, to reject this idea that there is a clear-cut division between what is western and non-western. In the Americas, at least. In African American culture in the United States, for instance, we cannot identify precisely what is African and what is non-African. In this case you see a true fusion, and it becomes impossible to pinpoint what is western and what is non-western. Or, for example, Camara Cascudo, a famous scholar who studied folklore in the first half of the twentieth century in Brazil, points to the fact that sometimes people assumed that certain oral narratives were African, only to discover that they had been taken to Africa by the Portuguese (who might’ve gotten it from the Arabs), and then adopted and adapted by Africans, so: it was hard to tell whether the story came from Africans or the Portuguese. It’s pointless to say that whatever comes from Africa is non-western.
William Faulkner, João Guimarães Rosa & Juan Rulfo
PM: All three writers, Faulkner, Guimarães Rosa and Rulfo, in a given moment in their careers, played with the self-image of the countryside, simple man, but they were all quite erudite. They were definitely aware of the avant-garde and high modernism. Faulkner read fluently in both English and French. In the case of Rulfo, among his papers, a review has been found of Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!—IN ENGLISH! And I can tell you that Rulfo was one of the very, very few Latin Americans to read William Faulkner in English. The others, like Gabriel García Márquez, probably read Faulkner in French. And Rulfo, as far as reading was concerned, was amazingly erudite. He could sit down and talk to you about Swedish literature, Norwich literature, Russian literature, and he knew a lot about Brazilian literature. There’s a very interesting Mexican writer named Daniel Sada – Sada died last year. If you read anything by Sada, I’m sure you’re going to recognize Guimarães Rosa’s influence. He won the very prestigious prize in 2008, the Herralde, and he writes both novels and short stories. I spoke with Sada myself. He had workshop classes with Juan Rulfo in the seventies, and he told me: ‘Rulfo knew everything about Brazilian literature, and he told me that the best Latin American writer ever, was not Borges, was not García Márquez, was not Rulfo himself, but Guimarães Rosa.’ The reason why Sada read Guimarães Rosa, and Clarice Lispector, along with a host of other writers from Brazil, was because Rulfo told him about these writers. Rulfo had a great amount of admiration for Brazilian literature, and for Guimarães Rosa in particular.
Not in this book, but in another book I’m currently writing, I talk about this fantastic trip that Guimarães Rosa and Juan Rulfo took together by bus from Mexico City to Guadalajara. It was a seventeen-hour bus ride, and it happened because Guimarães Rosa wrote to Rulfo telling him he was going to Mexico for an event full of dinners and talks, and he wanted just the two of them to do something. While doing research I found, among Guimarães Rosa’s papers, a label from a pumpkin preserve Guimarães Rosa bought on that trip. It was a seventeen-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Guadalajara, with all the stops imaginable in between, and along the entire way they ate sweets and cheeses and talked about the Mexican countryside, which Rulfo knew all about, and exchanged stories about big criminals and horrible crimes in Minas Gerais and in Jalisco. They were good friends even though they only met two or three times, and Rulfo always talked about the high regard he held for Guimarães Rosa. José Maria Arguedas, in his diary, wrote about meeting Guimarães Rosa and Rulfo at those meetings of Latin American writers, and he writes about the kinship he felt with them, and the arrogance he felt in Vargas Llosa and Fuentes, for example. And maybe this was just Arguedas perception, but he felt that they were being slighted because they were not big shot, cosmopolitan writers in Europe. Juan Rulfo was a very shy man, and he was not keen on speaking in public, and that was sometimes interpreted as if Rulfo was a man with no culture, a man with no interests. Some people in Mexico would even insinuate that Rulfo would not have published anything if it were not for the help of certain individuals. When the Latin American Boom occurred in the sixties, Rulfo and Guimarães Rosa were there, but they never garnered the acclaim that Borges had. And I mention Borges in particular because Borges was, as Rulfo and Guimarães Rosa, older. They were not up-and-coming like Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, García Márquez, and Cortázar. They were older writers in Latin America who took advantage of the boom, and Borges was especially successful. There are many reasons for this, but I think a major one has to do with translation. And this has nothing to do with any kind of assessment of the quality of the work, but it is clear, at least to me, that Borges’s works were more easily translatable than Rulfo’s or those of Guimarães Rosa. For example, Hemingway was translated very well into Portuguese and Spanish right there and then, whereas Faulkner’s work was horribly translated, because it was really hard for a translator to master English enough to really understand Faulkner, and then translate him to Portuguese or Spanish.
PM: Translating Rulfo and Guimarães Rosa, there is a real level of difficulty. It is really tough. You have to make choices. It’s complicated. You have all of these cultural references and obviously you’re going to have to come up with multiple solutions for translation. They’re harder to translate. Anyone who wants to criticize the English translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas…you have to admit: it is a difficult work to translate. You’re working with oral culture, playing with syntax, word formation, and if you’re translating Grande Sertão: Veredas, you have to get out of your comfort zone. It can’t be straight, plain English. You have to do something like Treece did in “The Jaguar”. He made a decision and stuck with it, and it’s good! Think about Faulkner, and his southern accents. Now try to translate that into Portuguese. What do you do with that accent? Do you pick a place in Brazil that sounds something like “southern” to Brazilians? What do you do with that? You have to do something with it; it’s a good part of what Faulkner is! If you turn him into some sort of standard English, you’re spoiling half the fun of reading Faulkner.
FM: How have translators in Brazil dealt with that?
PM: That’s a tough question to answer. I think different books of Faulkner present their own challenges. Like if you take The Sound & The Fury, for example. If you compare it to Absalom! Absalom!, or Light in August, or even As I Lay Dying, it is less marked. It is less Southern. I mean, it’s very Southern, but it’s less Southern when you compare it to Absalom! Absalom!—for the translator to work with. In the sense that there is a kind of written language in the South that belongs to the educated class, and it has a certain mark. But it’s different from the mark of illiterate people in the South. Then you have another kind of Southern English, that of the former slave. Faulkner works with all these variations of English. I can tell you it would be very easy for me, someone who has read The Sound & The Fury in English, to take The Sound & The Fury, as it’s been translated by Paulo Henriques Britto, who is a great poet and a great translator, and to break into pieces and criticize it…well, could I do better? [laugh] I don’t think so.
When I originally wrote my book, William Faulkner, João Guimarães Rosa, and Juan Rulfo, it was in the form of my dissertation, and I wrote it in English. When I got the chance to publish it in Brazil, in book form, I had to translate it into Portuguese. I did it myself. And one of the reasons I translated it myself was because…in English, I don’t have to tell you where Mississippi is; I don’t need to explain that the Mississippi River is different from Mississippi, the state. And in America, even if you’re not very knowledgeable about Southern culture in the U.S., you probably know enough to get started. When I translated it into Portuguese, I had to slow down and explain certain things that might be considered obvious in English. It’s the same thing on the side of Guimarães Rosa and the region. In English it’s great to read about Minas Gerais, but in Portuguese it’s kind of obvious. Nobody here needs to be told where Minas Gerais is. Everybody knows where Minas Gerais is, and everybody knows that there was a gold rush in Minas Gerais in the eighteenth century. These are things I can assume my Portuguese-reader knows. I think the translator of Guimarães Rosa or Faulkner, has to deal with this too. Moments where you have to be a bit explanatory, and other moments where you just have to let it go. These are tough choices. I think that if you were to get ten, top-notch translators, and ask them to work on Guimarães Rosa independently, on the first fifty pages of Grande Sertão: Veredas, you would get ten very, very different solutions. And it would be extremely hard for me to say which is the best or which is the second- or third-best. It’s easy to tell a terrible translation from a good translation. It’s extremely hard to tell, between two good translations, which one is best. Maybe one will handle some things better, and the other, other things better, but both can be good. Can there be one translation that combines what each does well? Maybe not.
FM: Right, because perhaps one sacrifices something that is key to the success of the other, and vice versa.
PM: Exactly. Can you not sacrifice anything? I don’t think so.
FM: Translation denotes change.
PM: Right. If you didn’t sacrifice anything at all, I don’t know that what you would end up with could be better. And that’s the problem I think we encounter when someone translates Guimarães Rosa into English. They need to be fluent in English, know it inside and out, and at the same time, have an intimate knowledge of Portuguese and Brazil, or work with someone from Brazil.
FM: Have you ever met Dr. Treece?
PM: No, I haven’t yet.
FM: Well, he’s from the U.K., but he has strong ties to Brazil. I believe he speaks Portuguese almost as well, if not just as well, as he speaks English; and not only that, he has connections with special resources like the Arquivo Guimarães Rosa at the University of São Paulo.
PM: Yes, exactly. This is the kind of experience and teamwork I’m talking about. Because if there’s one thing I hear from Brazilians it’s: “oh, you know, you’re going to mess this up”, or “that up”; or: “you’re never going to be able to translate THIS little feature or detail of Grande Sertão: Veredas”…—I have to go back to the example of adaptations. Say you’re going to adapt Shakespeare, and you have three forms of building a relationship with the Shakespeare you’re going to adapt. One) you think of yourself as very, very small, and you think of Shakespeare as this humongous idol, and you become too respectful. Maybe you’re very neat, and tight, and faithful in your adaptation, and you end up with a film that is really not all that interesting, or a film that is just OK. Which is fine, but if you make an OK film adaptation of Hamlet, which is an absolutely fantastic play, your adaptation cannot be called a success. Two) you think of yourself as BIGGER, and you feel you can have any freedom to do anything you want to do, and you run a lot of risks. Unless you’re a kind of genius, you’re going to mess up and produce something really bad. The ideal form is the third one: 3) is to prepare yourself to look at the work you’re adapting or translating, in this case Shakespeare, with respect, but not too much respect. You have to look him in the eye. If there’s too much respect, you start being too careful with things, wanting to ensure you don’t “mess” with things, that you don’t leave anything out, and the final product is not as good as it should be.
FM: The approach is especially important when the work you’re translating is so wild to begin with. Looking back, it probably definitely would have been a huge mistake for Harriet de Onís and Taylor to attempt a 1-for-1 translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas. Just a mess. Like professor Piers Armstrong has been sure to point out: Harriet de Onís was a very accomplished translator, and The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was not indicative of inability, but rather the result of an adopted strategy.
PM: The issue here is you have to end up with a great book in the end. A book you read in English and say ”wow, what a great book,” just as someone who reads it in Portuguese would read it and say ”wow, what a great book.” If you look at the history of Grande Sertão: Veredas in Portuguese, you will find that the reception of the work has been less neat than many people think. In the beginning a lot of people disliked Grande Sertão: Veredas…a lot. A lot of people thought Grande Sertão: Veredas was too complicated, too hermetic, was just…crazy. Too crazy. Too difficult. People thought it was an elitist book, because they thought it to be a book that could only be understood by a reader with a certain level of erudition. And this is something we face. We have to face the fact that if you give The Sound and the Fury to a native English-speaker, but one who doesn’t really read a lot, it’s going to be very tough! But if you’re someone who has been reading, maybe you read a lot in high school and went to college and trained yourself as a reader…well, it’s still not going to be easy, but your chances of enjoying it will be much greater. It’s the same with Grande Sertão: Veredas. It’s not a book just anyone, especially someone who isn’t a strong reader, can enjoy—in any language. I think if you look at the history of the translators in other language versions of Grande Sertão: Veredas, you will find they don’t agree with each other. Like in the case of the Spanish, for example, which was recently retranslated and published in Argentina: the new translators criticized the first Spanish translator, Ángel Crespo, quite a bit. But I don’t know. I read parts of both translations, and I think they’re both good. They really thought Crespo’s version was bad, but I think this is an exaggeration. As far as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, look: I used The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in my class. I asked my students to read it. I said to myself: ‘Ok, it’s not the ideal translation, ok, there are problems there, BUT the book is there—actually it wasn’t easy to get. I had to contact the publishers to let me use it—and I think my students would be better off reading it in that translation than never reading it at all. Am I going to re-imagine and retell them what Grande Sertão: Veredas is? Am I going to just give them the story in a nutshell? Of course not! The experience would be much, much worse than reading The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a valuable book in that it is the closest English-readers can come to reading Grande Sertão: Veredas. That is…until we get a new translation.