On The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

Recently, I was able to find this copy of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, which, despite some tears in the dust jacket, is in pristine condition and appears to be a brand new book from 1963.

The question has been raised: Why hasn’t The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, the first and only English translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas, been republished? And to be quite honest, it was with this question that AMB began. As someone who can only read in English, naturally, I asked as I read the novel for the first time: why haven’t more people read this? To me it didn’t make any sense. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was magnificent, and no one cared. Once I looked into the matter, I found that most every English-only reader who reads the book asks the same. Then I learned that the general consensus among a great deal of Portuguese-English readers is that the English translation is, among other things, a joke, blasphemy, a cowboy story.

Here’s an example of what the conversation looks like on the internet: Gnooks.

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New Directions

In Where in the Devil…? I wrote of my correspondence with New Directions regarding a translation they were rumored to have been working on. The representative couldn’t tell me the translator’s name, but stated that “this person pulled out due to the exasperating effort and time it would take to translate this work.”

The following quote is taken from an interview with Gregory Rabassa for the magazine Americas. Volume: 57. Issue: 5, Gregory Rabassa: Words of Instinct: This Veteran Translator of the Most Celebrated Latin American Authors Continues to Open Fresh Perspectives on Contemporary Works:

“I have agreed to do Guimaraes Rosa’s Grande Sertao: Veredas for New Directions. They have the English-language publishing rights. It’s a damn good book. Some have said it’s the best contemporary Latin American novel of them all, but it’s hard. The American version, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a travesty. Can you imagine such a title!”

The even greater travesty is that Rabassa didn’t complete the translation.
I also learned that once New Directions lost Rabassa, Knopf picked up the rights, and that by the time I was corresponding with New Directions regarding the matter, Knopf had in turn lost the rights. I was directed to Mr. Tom Colchie.


We may understand that The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is not Grande Sertão: Veredas, but I’m of the opinion that blurry vision is better than blindness. I first read The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in the form of this xerox copy while I was an undergrad. It was given to me by a good friend. And how did he come to know it? He picked it up off the shelf in the UCSD library while he was looking for a specific book, just out of curiosity.

Now this photo of it has made its way here, to wherever you are.


A couple of days after AMISSINGBOOK came online, I received a comment in the About section of the website. Kevin, a graduate student of Mathematics at Berkeley had spent eight hours spread out over two weeks scanning The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. My first encounter with the book was with a xerox copy of all 494+ pages, and seeing the text presented on Scribd took me right back to the day it was given to me.

Where in the Devil…?

Discussions over the last two weeks with two of the world’s leading Guimarães Rosa scholars have led me to believe, without a doubt, that the necessary next step in this journey is towards a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas; and before that: determining the translator or team of translators willing and capable of the undertaking, as well as a funding source—which is all much easier to type than it will ever be to accomplish.  That being said, we might still ask, just out of curiosity, and because it’s the closest the English reader can get to Grande Sertão: Veredas (for now): where is The Devil to Pay in the Backlands? Continue reading