No matter how many people I met and how many sights I saw while travelling around England, my strongest memory, the defining image, is still a terrifyingly bright, white wall. Like a knife, the wall reflected the light of an English summer. It was already four o’clock and I was squinting out the window of my room on the University of East Anglia campus. I’d just got up after half-an-hour’s rest and was fumbling for my glasses, my eyes screwed shut by the brightness. I took several long gulps of tepid water and the light, combined with my myopia, transformed the wall into something mobile and blurred – a double of the actual building.
A few minutes later, I was on my way, observing the friendly wild rabbits that can be seen over the university campus. Another of the BCLT’s panel discussions on translation was about to begin. A short text by Giorgio Agamben that I’d read on the flight to England came to mind, in which the Italian philosopher asked the following: when I enter a dark room, I feel a certain experience. When I turn on the light, does the room continue to be the same space that I first experienced? This question seemed to me somehow related to a debate about translation; the image came to me several times during the week at UEA.
It was a fertile learning process to watch, day after day, as the translators in the workshop sculpted my short story Emanuel in a new language, one that gave me feelings of intimacy and alienation. The story begins with a simple sentence. To my mind, it didn’t contain any great difficulties of translation, and yet the group came up with five or six subtly different versions. The original sentence was almost there, and, yet, on its way from one language to the other something occurred. It wasn’t necessarily a matter of ‘loss’ or ‘gain’, but a lateral shift.
Since my fiction and essays haven’t been translated (nor, for that matter, published widely), I assumed that most of the translators in our workshop would only have come across my short story Teresa, published in Granta’s selection of Brazilian novelists. In this story there is a sense of place – the Northeast of Brazil – and a baroque sentence structure that can easily be linked to a notion of ‘Brazilian-ness’. Everything that I’ve been writing since this story’s publication became a way of attacking and questioning it. I know, I know. I’m being unfair to Teresa. But sometimes that’s how things work. Emanuel is made up of a series of ‘testimonies’ about a professor from Europe, living in Berkeley, who kills himself after building some kind of Kafkaesque contraption. There are a lot of references to the United States, where I lived for a year, as well as to the imagery of crime fiction – the story is a kind of parody of the genre. Therefore, when I presented the story to the group for translation, I very much wanted to break down any possible preconceptions about typically ‘Brazilian’ forms and style. Not that any of this is a new invention. Brazilian fiction has a long tradition of concise prose, by Graciliano Ramos for example, and Rubem Fonseca, one of the most interesting Brazilian narrative writers of the twentieth century, was strongly influenced by noir fiction.
So while it’s written in Portuguese, all of the action and dialogue takes place in the US. In the world of Emanuel, my characters’ voices were all initially spoken in English. Translating the story was, in a way, returning it to its original language. However, while the characters all live in California, they have differing origins. Emanuel’s English, for example, has an unidentifiable European accent, perhaps Germanic. Lucas (the narrator) is a Brazilian who has learnt American English. To complicate matters further, most of the translators in the group spoke British English. So many of the discussions revolved around finding the most appropriate form of English for each situation and character, while trying always to ensure that the translation didn’t sound too ‘British’. Examples of two particular challenges: at one point Lucas uses a common English expression transplanted into Portuguese: the devil is in the details. As with any expression translated literally, this could sound odd in Portuguese, or nonsensical, or poetic. That’s what I’d intended. However, when the expression reverted to its original language, it was curious to see how much it bothered all the English speakers – it was just too much of a cliché to work. There were similar problems with the word suco. Should we translate it as ‘juice’? Not quite the right fit, they explained. ‘Smoothie’? Perhaps, but why not use the Spanish agua fresca that appeared on the menu in quite a few of the places I’d visited in Berkeley and San Francisco?
One of the perils of translating is that you end up correcting, explaining or summarising the original text. In a way, this is a natural process. When we go to the effort of understanding a text written in a foreign language, we attempt somehow to re-organise it in our minds. Merely reading a text and understanding its contents doesn’t immediately mean that we’re ready to translate it. The difficulties of reading are one thing; those of translation, while not exactly the opposite, lead us towards other challenges. In the workshop, I could see that the group were well aware of the risk. Not that it stopped them having doubts or even questioning some of the choices I had made in my writing. As it was, I welcomed their queries, because they challenged me to think about my own creative process. On a couple of occasions, following on from the discussion with the translators, I began to rethink some sections of the story.
The distance imposed by a foreign language can be very useful to a writer. During the residency, I was given the privilege of grappling with this distance. In Borges’ short story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator comments that ‘there’s something grotesque about mirrors’. I agree. Translations aren’t mirrors of an original text; they are windows into other worlds. So thank you Daniel, Ada, Robin, Andy, Frances, Zoë, Jamille, Oscar, Charlotte and Patricia, for opening new windows.
 Cristhiano: we’ve added the window to avoid various syntactical problems in English
 still can’t think of anything more natural than this! Same here. Let’s go with it. Now that I think about it, the “apprenticeship/workshop” metaphor was almost certainly unintended and so probably best avoided anyway.
 I tend to agree with your single quotation marks, but I reckon we have to use them throughout, rather than distinguishing true quotations from “fingers in the air” quotations. Hart’s Rules doesn’t distinguish (says it’s just a UK/US thang) – did you see somewhere that did?
 this might help clarify and add to the sense that both are equally valid. I like “shift” a lot, but I find the sentence structure a wee bit awkward (“a matter of… a lateral shift”). How about “It wasn’t necessarily a matter of “loss” or “gain”, but rather that something had shifted.” (the “rather” substitutes for “sim”).
 I’m deeply attached to the italics. I will happily run through them all with whoever’s uploading this on the website if the need be. Good for you. Be strong! (and yes, I agree it looks better)
 I’ll give you your capital “N”, but I think it’s always “of Brazil” (the South of France, the North of England etc – using the adjective to me implies that it’s a transfrontier region, e.g. the Brazilian Amazon, the French Riviera)
 Cristhiano: the “reinventing the wheel” expression doesn’t quite work here in English (cf “devil is in the details”!)
 Commas are such a personal thing…
 Conjunction fatigue..
 Cristhiano: we have added “American” here (and “learnt” to avoid repetition of speak/spoken)
 Cristhiano: another addition of “windows”
Translated by Oscar O’Sullivan and Robin Patterson.
[Note from the editors: We subsequently discovered that the footnotes weren’t actually meant for publication. When we first read the text, we thought that Cristhiano and his translators were deliberately reproducing the Summer School experience in a meta way. This was unintentional, but we decided to keep them anyway.]
[…] a text with my group of fellow Portuguese translators, alongside the story’s author, Cristhiano Aguiar. One of the characters in that story is a student from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, […]