In May of this year, Oliver Farry published an article (via The Millions) concerning the contemporary and highly lauded Portuguese author, António Lobo Antunes, and his works’ prevailing obscurity in the English-speaking world despite its reputable English translators, Gregory Rabassa and Richard Zenith. Until now, I’ve refrained from posting “just anything” that might only remotely pertain to the discussion of João Guimarães Rosa and the obscurity of his work in English translation; however, I believe the following excerpts, taken directly from Farry’s article in The Millions (in large, bold print) warrant our attention in consideration of Guimarães Rosa’s similar troubled-when-present history in the Anglophone world. This, not only, but interestingly, because the Portuguese author, António Lobo Antunes, a Lusophone from the other side of the Atlantic, is one that American critic Harold Bloom has hailed to be “one of the living writers who will matter most.” A similar claim was made about Guimarães Rosa at the time Grande Sertão: Veredas was translated into English in 1963.
“MENTION HIM TO MOST ENGLISH SPEAKERS, EVEN LITERARY TYPES, AND YOU WILL BE MET WITH TERRIBLY BLANK LOOKS.”
“I received a letter from an American agent — a big name at the time; I wasn’t going to reply — I thought it was a joke. But I wrote back, thinking, why not, it’d be cool to have an agent in New York. […]In the U.S., if you have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, you have America, and if you have America, you have Europe. [Lobo Antunes]”
This was reportedly Guimarães Rosa’s precise attitude when he received a letter from the English translator, Harriet de Onís, who had read one of his short stories in Spanish translation, and who subsequently approached Knopf about translating Guimarães Rosa. He believed an English translation would open the way to translations in other major European languages, a belief which proved indeed to be very true: within five years of its English translation Grande Sertão: Veredas was translated into Spanish, German, French, and Italian.
“That agent [who contacted Lobo Antunes] was Thomas Colchie.”
Thomas Colchie is an elusive character in the translation history of Guimarães Rosa in America. In 1981 he won a Guggenheim to translate Grand Sertão: Veredas, but since then, only one chapter of his translation has been published, in the anthology which he edited alongside the literary critic, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature. He is still very much active in the publishing world, brokering high-end contracts for some of Latin America’s most successful crossovers. I have made several attempts to contact Mr. Colchie over the past two years, to ask him the BIG questions about Grande Sertão: Veredas, but neither he nor his agency have responded to my inquiries. If you can help, please let me know at AMISSINGBOOK@gmail.
“Lobo Antunes is much the greater stylist, with his luxuriant imagery beautifully rendered into English by his various translators, among them Gregory Rabassa and Richard Zenith.”
Gregory Rabassa, a key player in Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 70s, translated What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? right around the time (2007) he withdrew from the New Directions project of retranslating Grande Sertão: Veredas anew. It’s been rumored that Richard Zenith has also tried to obtain the rights to translate Grande Sertão: Veredas to no avail. Zenith has translated the short story by Guimarães Rosa, “Those Lopes,” which is published in the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (2006).
“[Lobo Antunes] is similarly unforthcoming about his books; he says it is ‘not my place to talk about them.’ He is however expansive on other subjects, particularly the process of writing.”
I have never read an interview in which Guimarães Rosa speaks directly about his work, and in the few interviews he gave in his lifetime, he was more prone to talk about his personal philosophy, his own history, and his thoughts on other writers, subjects all of which bathe our understanding of his work in a wide ray of light.
“The critic Peter Conrad has said that in Lobo Antunes’ novels, the ‘world [inside the narrators’ head] is the size of a country.’ His work is almost like psycho-geography in reverse, Portugal conjured up from nothing in the study at the back of his apartment.”
This commentary by the critic, Peter Conrad, rings true of Guimarães Rosa’s Sertão as well, and runs parallel with the fact that Guimarães Rosa wrote Grande Sertão: Veredas while stationed abroad in Europe as a Brazilian diplomat [also without access to cell phones or google maps].
“Lobo Antunes is taking the long view on literary fame — at one point, he says, ‘after your death, your books are all that remain.'”
This is true in the case of Guimarães Rosa too. His literary works are his continued life in Brazil, that is certain; but in translation, the resuscitation efforts continue.