1. You were recently locked in a room with seven translators at the BCLT/BC/UFF/FBN Winter School in Paraty. Had you been translated before? How did this experience compare?
The question itself holds the best part of the answer: “locked in a room with seven translators”. That was the big difference. A chapter from each of my books, as well as short stories and essays, have been been translated into English. But to be in the company of seven people poring over the text word by word, in slow-motion, striving for consensus – that experience was unique and radically different to any previous translation. And it’s similar, in part, to how people work in theatre, where the singularity of the performance comes from a gradual collaboration between separate tastes and personalities. In this case, the translated text doesn’t belong to any one person. Needless to say that the collaborative process – intimidating and painful as it is – changed my perception of the original, in Portuguese, which now sounds strangely pale, stripped of the strength it had of the company of those others with whom I was seeking a choral voice for each phrase.
2. We worked on an extract from Um álbum para Lady Laet, translating one chapter written in the first person and another written in the third person. Could you say a bit about the different voices that you bring together in the book?
Um álbum para Lady Laet is the story of an aspiring yet unsuccessful model and actress, who lives in Los Angeles and is persuaded to write the biography of her mother, Neide Laet, by her mother’s ex-agent. Neide was a singer who achieved certain success and was killed in São Paulo in the mid-1980s. In trying to write her biography, the daughter reveals the false starts of a generation in transition from vinyl to CD, from the old Brazilian cultural nationalism to today’s globalised marketplace, from dreams of collective redemption to the scant consolation of pop consumption. In the novel, the voice of the young narrator, in the first person, alternates with the biography she’s trying to write of her mother, in the third person. John Freeman suggested the idea to me, around the time that Granta’s ‘Best of Young Brazilian Novelists’ issue came out. He invited me to write a short story about the relationship between Los Angeles and São Paulo for the magazine’s website, but because I was busy launching my second novel, O sonâmbulo amador (2012), and working on Romance com pessoas (2014), I didn’t finish the story in time. And John left Granta. But after I’d thought so much about the idea, it became the project for a novel.
3. Given that Um álbum para Lady Laet is a work in progress, did the Winter School translation make you change anything in your Portuguese original?
That was the beauty of the experience. I revised various parts of my original, in various ways. I moved commas; I changed words and added others to clarify relationships that I had thought were obvious, but which only existed in my head. I cut and added words. I changed the order of sentences to make the development of certain scenes more logical. The original became more consistent. In some cases, I modified my text to bring it closer to the translated version… It’s a little embarrassing to admit that.
4. You explained during the Winter School that you admire the style and tone of English-language authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and John Banville, and that you aim to create a similar tone in Portuguese. Does that mean that translating your work into English is a kind of back-translation?
It’s true that since my second novel I’ve been aiming more and more for a tone that’s akin to the understatement I find in British fiction. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was important to me when I was trying to find a tone for Jurandir, the narrator of O sonâmbulo amador. I admire the irony and the inventiveness of John Banville’s writing and I think the apparent sobriety on the surface of his tone conceals a deep plunge into life’s moral and political circumvolutions. Nothing is directly offered, and subterfuge dominates the rhythm of the action. I’m aiming for a similar effect in Portuguese. I hope, with this, to honour the reader’s intelligence, and to produce narratives that always have something more to say, even – above all, perhaps – when reread.
5. You teach Brazilian literature at UCLA, and have previously taught at Berkeley. How did it feel to have your own writing dissected by a group of translators rather than helping students dissect someone else’s text?
The feeling is one of flattery and fear, no joke. We don’t always write with a reason in mind for every little thing. The search for explanations or intentions behind a text can result in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning or the origin of images, vocabulary etc. At the same time, my conversations with the translators made the structure and consistency of the narrative more explicit. The great benefit for me was to be able to revisit and consider, in great detail, the project I’m working on. I arrived at the Winter School feeling a bit blocked. I left with more confidence. The translation undid some of the knots that were present in the original. This happened, in my opinion, because the practice of translation works as a cognitive highlighter: through it we come to see what was previously opaque or too precious.
6. As well as teaching and writing, you also translate from English into Portuguese. Is there anything you’ve taken away from the winter school that you’ll be using in future translations?
To ask colleagues. To share my attempts and questions. To show the text to other translators. To seek more aural, organic relationships within each paragraph, instead of pursuing a word by word or sentence by sentence translation. Not to be afraid to change or abandon supposedly finished versions. To take risks with distant synonyms so as to generate meaning more functionally and beautifully in the new language. And, above all, to ask the author. To bother him or her. I now know that authors deserve to be respectfully pestered.
7. The fabulous Neide Laet is a gospel and soul singer; is there a soundtrack for this piece?
Strangely, not yet. In writing the character of Lady Laet, I’ve looked for photos and biographies of singers and actresses from the 1930s to the 1970s. I’ve avoided giving Lady Laet a defined sound or style as a singer or songwriter, however. Part of the novel has to do with the fact that she changes throughout her career. I use the photos to compose scenes and a certain atmosphere linked to her character. And just now I’m writing the lyrics for some of her songs. But if I made her too like a real singer, in terms of a repertory, voice and gestures, that might limit the free expansion of my character in this period of delicate gestation, so to speak. For the time being, her songs are muted, composed of written words and images, free from any particular musical reference. My characters are, in large part, collages of aspects, features and tics borrowed from real and fictional people. Lady Laet is no exception. Her autonomy will depend on my capacity to copy a bit of everything, from everyone, in the most consistent way possible. And that’s the joy and the challenge of anyone venturing to imagine the life of someone who never in fact existed.
Interview and translation from the Portuguese by Lucy Greaves.
You can read the translated excerpts from An Album for Lady Laet here.