A New German Translation

A new German translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas is underway. German translator, Berthold Zilly, will translate the Brazilian masterpiece for Munich publisher, Hansel. Currently a visiting professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Berthold Zilly is acclaimed for his translations of great Brazilian works such as Euclides Da Cunha’s Os Sertões.

The interview at Estadão, here, from which the material for this post was taken and translated by my self for the benefit of English readers, reports that Zilly was very hesitant to undertake the project, which will take three years of exclusive dedication.

In the interview for Estadão, journalist, José Geraldo Couto, cites the fact that the first German translator, Curt Meyer-Clason, had the great advantage of corresponding with João Guimarães Rosa to ask questions and exchange ideas about the translation throughout the process, and asks Zilly why the current German translation isn’t enough.

Zilly replies:

It’s a good translation that accounts for plot & character traits, but it flattens a significant portion of the difficulties of Rosean language in an effort to accomplish readability for a German audience. For example the contrasts between, on the one hand, extremely long lines replete with subordinate clauses and affixes, and on the other, lines composed of a single word. Right on the first page of the book there’s the isolated phrase: “Mataram” [third person, plural: To Kill]. It refers to the deformed calf that could be the devil and which Riobaldo’s men kill. Meyer-Clason sheds this “Mataram” for “Sie habens auf der Stelle totgeschlagen” (literally: “They immediately killed it with blows”). The laconic extreme of the original is impossible to achieve in German because we need a subject for a verb, we need an object in the case of a transitive verb, and moreover, in the past tense, in general, we need an auxiliary verb. But instead of limiting the number of words, Meyer-Clason unnecessarily adds an adverb (auf der Stelle/immediately). […] this kind of mistake is common in Meyer-Clason’s translation, which is very good in other aspects. I think it’s natural that the translation of a work of this caliber is made in two stages. Meyer-Clason fulfilled his role as explorer. Now I have to go further.


We know that the first and only English translators of Grande Sertão: Veredas, Harriet De Onís and James L. Taylor, are also accused of making bland the rich language wrought and set out by Rosa. Accused, but we should thank them. Step one: call them TRAILBLAZERS. Now the question: who’s to follow? VEREDAS/PATHS.


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