A conversation with Dr. Leopoldo Bernucci

Dr. Leopoldo Bernucci is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and The Russell F. and Jean H. Fiddyment Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of California at Davis. His research interests span Colonial and Modern Latin American Literature from Brazil and Spanish America. He is the editor of the annotated edition of Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões in Brazil. Last month we sat to down to discuss his experience teaching the work of João Guimarães Rosa at both Yale University and UC Davis.

Felipe Martinez: Professor, thank you for speaking with me.

Leopoldo Bernucci: It’s my pleasure. I think the A Missing Book project is very interesting and important, and I am happy to contribute in whatever way I can. What is it you would like to discuss?

Felipe Martinez: To begin, I would like to know about your own personal experience with the work of Guimarães Rosa, how you came to be interested in his work, and what your particular areas of research have been.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes, well, as a student of literature I completed my B.A. in Brazil, and that was the first time I was exposed to the work of Guimarães Rosa. The way I was exposed was not by reading his works chronologically—I wish I had in those years—but by going straight to Grande Sertão: Veredas. Because, that was the book everyone was talking about. As you know, Brazilians count Grande Sertão: Veredas as the Irish do Ulysses—the greatest book of the twentieth century. Of course I knew Grande Sertão: Veredas was not a very accessible book, though I did not think I was missing too many things when I read the book. However, today, with a different reading knowledge, after so many years of dealing with literature, and teaching literature, I read it in a different way, obviously, and I notice there is a huge gap between my first reading and my reading now. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think I missed a lot in terms of enjoying the book, grasping the main issues that Guimarães Rosa addresses. The whole of the work he does, on the level of language per se, is what I think I missed in those early years, in my first reading, because obviously I wasn’t doing a very meticulous or very systematic reading of his grammar, of his style, of the way he composes the book. I was mainly focused on the narrative as a story—which is not rare for a young reader—and as a story, I think you can read it, and, true, most people would read it with difficulties, but ultimately end up enjoying it. So that was in the early 70s in Brazil. (I received my B.A. from the University of São Paulo, and there I studied under great people who had written extensively about Guimarães Rosa: Antonio Candido and João Alexandre Barbosa—just to mention two, well known critics and scholars. Candido was one of the first scholars to really produce a first-class critique of Guimarães Rosa’s work.) So the first time I read Grande Sertão: Veredas, I didn’t read with the preoccupation of understanding Guimarães Rosa in his totality. I just read the book, period. I didn’t touch anything else by Guimarães Rosa until I came to the United States in 1978, when I began to pursue my master’s and Ph.D. It was then that I started reading more of Guimarães Rosa’s work. My Ph.D. was not directed to Brazilian Literature, it had more to do with Spanish American Literature. I wrote my dissertation on La Guerra del Fin del Mundo by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was inspired by Os Sertões (The Backlands), by Euclides da Cunha, the sertão, the entire culture of the backlands—which also inspired Guimarães Rosa. So naturally, Guimarães Rosa had to be a point of return for me. I was very pleased when I read Sagarana for the first time, here, in the United States. I read it in Portuguese first, and then in English later. When I left the University of Michigan where I was trained and got my two degrees, I went to teach at Yale, and there I felt that I had to, somehow, teach Guimarães Rosa; I had to expose my students to Guimarães Rosa because, in those years, we’re still talking about the Boom Generation: Rulfo, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Donoso…and Guimarães Rosa was very much revered by his Spanish American counterparts. Critics considered him a major part of the group. But right away I noticed that if I was going to teach Guimarães Rosa at the undergraduate level, I was going to face some problems—even with earlier volumes like Sagarana. Just because there’s so much culture stuff there that needs to be contextualized and Guimarães Rosa is so subtle in the way in which he uses the Brazilian Portuguese language—if you do not contextualize, minimally, what’s happening around the story, there will be students who understand, but that understanding would be left only on the surface—which is not a bad reading, but as a teacher, you sometimes feel frustrated and find the need to deepen the level of understanding for your students. And given that it was Yale, I thought it a level that could do well with Guimarães Rosa. So, I grabbed Harriet De Onís’ translation of Sagarana, I selected three to four stories, and I taught them to my students. Then one year I attempted to teach Grande Sertão: Veredas, but I don’t think it was very successful. In large part due to the difficulty and length of the work. It wasn’t the only novel I was teaching. It wasn’t a seminar on Grande Sertão: Veredas alone. The students thought it was great, but I wasn’t so sure the course had produced as successful results as the previous courses in which I’d taught Sagarana.

Felipe Martinez: Did you teach Sagarana in English or Portuguese, or both?

Leopoldo Bernucci: Both. I had one course for Portuguese majors and another, a general class, for anyone interested in literature.

Felipe Martinez: You wrote a paper for Hispania in which you discuss pedagogical approaches to teaching Guimarães Rosa, and you recommend students learn Guimarães Rosa’s work chronologically, his early work being less linguistically arduous, the plot lines more easily traceable.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes, I think once students acquire a taste for the stories of Sagarana, and they know the culture of the Sertões, it’s much easier for them to take the next step, which is to deal with Grande Sertão: Veredas.

Felipe Martinez: And when you taught The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, did you experience any difficulties in reconciling the English text with the text you’d come know in Portuguese? I imagine you couldn’t resist referring back to the original.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes, you’re right, it was very difficult, I had to compare the two versions all the time, correcting some things —I didn’t think the English translation was particularly felicitous. I think my biggest frustration was that I only had one semester. I had to speed things up and I couldn’t deal with that bulk in the way I would have if I had more time. Regarding the Portuguese, the kind of difficulties that the book presents, in my opinion, is, first: the dialogues. At first, it’s difficult to understand the dialogues that go on, they are very complex. The next thing I think students find a little bit puzzling and difficult is understanding what Guimarães Rosa is doing on the level of language. The language is obviously not straightforward. It’s poetic, a language you don’t find in any other kind of fiction in Brazil. The countless neologisms. Even when you find words that you think are words taken from the dictionary, you will find that they are not. Or, that they are real words, but words with meanings so archaic they are no longer registered in the dictionary, and may not have been for centuries. Also, they might be indigenous words. This is all part of Guimarães Rosa’s wonderful work with language. He wanted to resuscitate the meanings of words that were lost or are maybe still used, but only in a very few (maybe only one) remote regions in Brazil—ossified, frozen in time. And this is just the beginning. Since there’s so much you have to explain, the pace of a class is very much affected. Just to give one excerpt from the book, sure, you could do this for a particularly smart group of students who have experience with this kind of wordplay and complexity in language…I’m thinking about grad students who are very well versed in James Joyce’s works. Students you can sit down and bring up to speed, saying: ‘this is more-or-less what you’re going to find’—sure, you can give them a sample, but giving them a sample is not giving them the novel.

Felipe Martinez: And in this you’re referring to teaching the Portuguese text. I think with the English text, you could teach it in its entirety in a graduate seminar, yet you might still find yourself having to establish context and especially attempt to describe some of Guimarães Rosa’s language.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes, but in either language, if you raise the bar too high, expect too much of students first encountering the work, you can get frustrated; but, if you let students read the book, and simply enjoy it, the way I did many years ago as a young student in Brazil, the course will be much more rewarding. I think to give justice to the tremendous effort and Guimarães Rosa’s brilliant mastery of the language, you really have to have a system in your classroom that will allow you to analyze the book with enough time and with enough depth, so that when student’s leave the course they think: ‘Wow! This was really something’. No reading will cover everything, but you can try to cover a great range of aspects that have to do with orality, popular culture, philosophy, politics, religion…there are so many layers there.

Felipe Martinez: What’s your opinion concerning the dearth of work by Guimarães Rosa in English translation over the last fifty years and the subsequent lack of awareness of Guimarães Rosa among readers in the U.S.?

Leopoldo Bernucci: That’s a difficult question for me to respond to because it has more to do with the sociology of Literature…marketing factors, external forces affecting the sales of his book. In those days we were not very concerned with the canon. Canonical works become canonical for some reason. It’s a criterion selection that is adopted, and as everything in life, when you select things, you’re going to leave some things out, and by doing that you’re going to make some people unhappy. The people who select what should be included in the so-called canon, I think, are normally responsible, educated, authoritative…at least, that used to be the case…and, I don’t particularly have a problem with that. In the case of Grande Sertão: Veredas, in those years, was not that it was not a part of the canon, it was…in Brazil. It was consecrated, reviewed and praised as being of the very highest importance. And because it was accepted by a major publisher who, in those years, may have been the main publisher of Latin American titles, Alfred Knopf…because of that, I would think there was no question in the minds of scholars here in the United States that this was a canonical, major piece of Literature. However, if we go back…and this is only a hypothesis of mine after I read Guimarães Rosa’s letters with his translators…I think it may have been a problem with distribution. Alfred Knopf was such a great publisher, he had such a passion and he was a personal friend with many, many writers, but I think his distribution was lousy. He was not a particularly good businessman to put it simply. He was passionate and intellectual, but not a businessman. And, unfortunately, some people inside his publishing house, one editor in particular, as you can read in his letters, thought Guimarães Rosa’s stories were irrelevant…so, I guess you can imagine what that means. One individual who was very closely involved in dealing with Guimarães Rosa says in his letters to Knopf that he won’t be giving preference or priority to Guimarães Rosa when he has other titles to deal with as well. So the book was published, and yes Guimarães Rosa was a personal friend of Alfred Knopf, yet how much he received in terms of royalties was probably nothing. In those years, these books didn’t sell. In 1976, Clarice Lispector’s great collection of short stories, Family Ties (Laços de família), published by Texas University Press, generated only forty-two dollars and twenty cents in royalties. This was nothing, and we’re talking about a major book. So I can only infer from Clarice’s experience that it was the same, or maybe even worse for Guimarães Rosa. But there were other cases. I mention the Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier. Carpentier is a tremendous writer, tremendous. If it wasn’t for the Uruguayan critic, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, I don’t think Carpentier would have been translated either. But who read Carpentier in those years? A very small group. Today, I think if you walked around any department of Spanish & Portuguese, and ask about Alejo Carpentier, I would not be surprised if you found no more than one or two people who have read something he wrote. He is an exquisite writer, and yet he’s unknown. Unknown today even in Latin America to most students, and in the United States…much less.

Felipe Martinez: What do you think English readers need in a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas?

Leopoldo Bernucci: What I think American readers need is a good edition. You know, it’s not a bad idea to produce a fine annotated edition. Of course you don’t want to make it a scholarly edition either. For example, an author I’ve been studying for a number of years is Euclides da Cunha, whose works have the longest critical bibliography of all Brazilian writers. Even Machado de Assis doesn’t have as many titles by people who have studied him. His main book, Os sertões (The Backlands. Putnam: 1944), is read by young Brazilians and not understood. I always thought about that, and I thought, gee, I should do something about that, and I did. In 1999, in Brazil, I produced an annotated edition of Os sertões, which has been very successful, is now in its fourth edition, and we’re thinking about the fifth. Because students in Brazil read Os sertões and they have the same reaction most have to Guimarães Rosa: they don’t quite understand everything, but they understand some things. In the case of Euclides da Cunha, since there is so much there about the sciences, his discussions about late 19th century theories on race, on psychology, on the environment and a lot of history and so on…there is so much there…to be perfectly aware of what he is trying to do, you need the help of notes. I think American readers could have much better access to Guimarães Rosa, if there were nice editions available. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I am about to finish a book on a Colombian writer, José Eustasio Rivera, he’s the author of La vorágine, which has been translated into English as The Vortex, and the translation is not too bad, but it is kind of old, it needs a little makeup to make it more appealing—but it’s the kind of book that, with notes, would be a tremendous success because it’s a terrific novel. It’s one of the most widely read novels in the history of the modern novel in Latin America. Even Spanish-speaking readers could benefit from such an edition in Spanish. There is one already, published in Spain, which has already advanced the understanding of the author’s efforts to write this book and its historical contextualization. The editor inserts notes throughout the novel, some of which are good, and some of which are not very useful, but overall, I think the editor does a pretty decent job of making the book a little more palatable—but still, there’s so much that has to do with the history behind the book, which Rivera tries to address, for example, the rubber boom in the Amazonia during the turn of the twentieth century. A lot of my students read La vorágine, and they have no clue. They think it’s part of the author’s imagination, when it is very much fact-based, containing specific episodes in the history of that region. In the case of Os sertões, for instance, I can only imagine how North American readers would react. There was another attempt, about three years ago [by Elizabeth Lowe], a new, more modernized translation of Os sertões into English—which is good. Personally I like the old Putnam translation because I think Putnam is a tremendous translator. I mean he translated Don Quixote and many other significant works. He was a man who had a tremendous knowledge of romance languages. Yes, it looks archaic, sounds archaic, but so does Euclides da Cunha’s language. If you modernize that, you change the tone, something which is very important to the language.

Felipe Martinez: I understand what you mean when you speak of the importance of annotated editions in facilitating understanding. I think of Ulysses, and how important Don Gifford’s annotations were when I first read Ulysses. I don’t know many people who have read the novel in its entirety without referring to Gifford’s annotations. And even then, with the annotations, you can only refer to it so much. You’re not going to grasp everything; all of the historical, cultural, political references…but it’s helpful to have them there, in one place. Still, that’s the beauty of literature: you’re not going to get it all the first or second or even third time through. The reader will never grasp everything. And then, there’s the beauty of Translation. You must read again and again. Just like yourself, the first time you read Grande Sertão: Veredas: you read it the best you could read it, you grasped what you could, then read again and again. And you’re not actually ever expected to apprehend it in its entirety at any point.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Right! Exactly. Tell me, how did you become interested in Guimarães Rosa or Brazilian Literature?

Felipe Martinez: Well, when my friend gave me The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, it was a xerox copy, the oddest thing to me. Why a xerox copy, I wondered. It turned out, I found, that the book itself was a very rare thing, hard to find, expensive to acquire. I read it and I loved it. I know a lot of people have their complaints about the 1963 English translation, and now that I can more or less read Grande Sertão: Veredas on my own (I studied Portuguese for a year so I could), I would have to agree that the ‘63 translation is grossly deficient—however, at the time, what I had, this xerox copy of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, really blew me away. I was also reading other important modernist writers in translation at that time—like Juan Rulfo, for example, and Julio Cortázar. I also happened to read Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy right before reading The Devil to Pay in the Backlands for the first time, and so the languages, that kind of staccato or oral language, just piled up onto itself, was completely natural and exhilarating to me. So, I wanted others to read Guimarães Rosa, only, first, no one knew about him, and second, I didn’t want to give my book away, even on loan, because it was the only book of his I had. If you go online, I checked today as a matter of fact because a young man from Brazil just wrote to me and asked about obtaining a copy of the ‘63 translation, the cheapest copy I found was going for $275, and the most expensive copy I could find was asking $800.

Leopoldo Bernucci: My goodness.

Felipe Martinez: I’ve also seen that edition for sale for $1,600. When I purchased my copy back in 2010, I bought it for $200, and it remains, to this day, the least expensive copy I’ve seen for sale online.

Leopoldo Bernucci: You know, I don’t own an edition in English. What I have is also a photocopy.

Felipe Martinez: I’ve found that’s all most people have. A copy.

Leopoldo Bernucci: In those years I didn’t buy this kind of book thinking the edition would be rare, that today it would be a different thing. I have bought many old books, rare books, but I never thought it was going to disappear the way it has. It’s very interesting to learn this.

Felipe Martinez: As far as I can tell, the edition was only sold for a year in the U.S.

Leopoldo Bernucci: One edition I do own, that is very rare now, is a first edition of Sagarana. In perfect condition. I bought it about fifteen years ago in an antique furniture store in Brazil. The owner had a little bookshelf, with only a few books, and I think I paid something like fifteen dollars. It’s more rare to find a first edition of Sagarana from 1946 than it is to find a first edition of Grande Sertão: Veredas from 1956. …You know, I wonder how many copies Knopf sold of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.

Felipe Martinez: I can tell you that somewhat. Let me see if I can find Piers Armstrong’s book[1] here. Yes, here. This concerns the royalty statements Guimarães Rosa received from the Knopf sales in 1963. Six monthly royalty statements, the first of which list sales in a run of 5,000-10,000 copies, 2,640 copies sold domestically. 122 international. Then sales go down each subsequent month. For the next period it went down.

Leopoldo Bernucci: That was a lot of money in those days.

Felipe Martinez: Actually, it says here, these are records of sales made to retail sellers, with no actual account of copies sold to consumers. Retailers could return copies, which it seems they did. 410 returns, no new sales for the next month. 69 returns the next period.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Wow.

Felipe Martinez: My personal copy of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is in pristine condition. It looks like went back to 1963 and picked up a copy myself.

Leopoldo Bernucci: That’s amazing.

Felipe Martinez: Well, Professor Bernucci, I just have one last question for you.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Sure, of course.

Felipe Martinez: I wonder if you think a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas should be undertaken—we touched on this a little bit when we discussed the possible benefits of an annotated edition—and if so, what do you think English-speaking readers stand to gain from a new attempt at an English translation?

Leopoldo Bernucci: Well, you got me there. I don’t have that translation very fresh in my mind, although I mentioned to you that in the course of those weeks when I was teaching the book in English translation, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, I had to compare the translation to the original, and I found there were some inaccuracies—though not terrible things. The translator worked directly with Guimarães Rosa, as you know, and I think most of the problems were corrected by the extensive explanations that Guimarães Rosa would give to the translator via correspondence. Definitely, there are still areas for improvement, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you today precisely what they are.

Felipe Martinez: Of course. But now, in the twenty-first century, do you think that maybe we could take another step in the direction of the original work, something that would do even more service and justice than the 1963 translation was able to accomplish? We know that the edition omitted a good deal, rearranged sections, paraphrased, etcetera.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes. Absolutely. And those are the areas I think need to be reexamined. Those omissions and blatant summaries water down the original. Those must certainly be revisited. And there are many instances. It’s no small amount. I think the translator was getting a little tired, you sense this towards the end of the book. At least that’s my recollection now. The first part of the book, you don’t find as many gaps or flaws as you do later in the text. So definitely, it remains to be seen who will accept this very important project.

Felipe Martinez: Thank you very much, again.

Leopoldo Bernucci: It’s been a pleasure, Felipe.

[1] “Third World Literary Fortunes: Brazilian Culture and Its International Reception.” Piers Armstrong. Bucknell University Press (May 1999).


One thought on “A conversation with Dr. Leopoldo Bernucci

  1. Dear Felipe,
    Thank you so much for sharing this delightful and very interesting exchange with L. Bernucci.

    Dalit Lahav-Durst

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