"Too many cooks spoil the broth": mistranslating Grande sertao: veredas into oblivion.
A masterpiece in an obscure language [...] will remain unread. (Armstrong, Third World Literary Fortunes 13)
Over half a century ago, Grande sertao: veredas (1956) appeared in English translation as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1963). Today, however, Joao Guimaraes Rosa's masterpiece remains in the shadows of obscurity in the United States. The work of Guimaraes Rosa came to the attention of publisher Alfred Knopf via Harriet de Onis, the accomplished translator of Hispanic literature. (1) She considered Rosa to be in the same class as William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges (2) while Brazilian critics considered Grande sertao: veredas the local equivalent of Joyce's Ulysses. (3) The cultural elite in Brazil embraced his hyper-aestheticism even if the most erudite reader had trouble deciphering his esoteric style. Critics recognized his brilliance, even though they did not fully understand it. In 1956 Rosa received the Premio Machado de Assis (4) but the greatest expression of the elite's adulation was when he was unanimously elected to the Academia Brasileira de Letras in 1963, an honor he postponed until 1967 (Coutinho, "Guimaraes Rosa" 333). Abroad, writers and critics familiar with Brazilian literature embraced his innovative style. Juan Rulfo, who had a profound interest in Brazilian letters, commented: "Sobresale Guimaraes. Era de una inventiva y una originalidad barbaras [...]" (9). Carlos Fuentes echoed Rulfo: "Grande sertao: veredas [...] is the greatest novel of his country." In the United States, specialists in Brazilian and comparative Latin American literature reacted enthusiastically. As just one example, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, an early champion of his work, observed: "Guimaraes succeeded in completely revolutionizing the style and diction of twentieth-century [Brazilian] narrative" (677). He considered Grande sertao: veredas "one of the most complex works of fiction ever produced in Latin America" and declared that Guimaraes Rosa was "beyond dispute Latin America's greatest novelist" (Borzoi 678-79). (5)
Seeking to capitalize on Rosa's initial critical success at home, Knopf published The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, translated by Harriet de Onis and James L. Taylor. In spite of the strong backing of literary critics, academics, and the concerted efforts of one of the best US publishing houses for Latin American literature of that time, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands underperformed commercially, failed to gain critical footing, and quickly went out of print. Other than scholars and students familiar with Brazilian literature, few people know the work of Guimaraes Rosa in the United States, which has hampered his place in the burgeoning field of Inter-American studies. While a number of factors influenced this lukewarm response, one reason frequently touted but rarely explored in depth is the translation process itself. In regards to Latin American literature in English translation, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is one of the best case studies of unfulfilled expectations and editorial imposition in the translation process.
In this article I will pinpoint the editorial decisions and translation strategies that essentially simplified the text, and as I argue, resulted in its tepid reception in the United States. I wish to organize my comments around three points. First, I provide a brief overview of the editorial strategy in translating and promoting Guimaraes Rosa's work in the United States. I also discuss the early critical reaction to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Second, I examine the unique blend of substance and style in Grande sertao: veredas and, in a comparative translation analysis, show to what extent the translators simplified Rosa's linguistic innovation. Third, a close examination of the unpublished correspondence between de Onis and Rosa reveals that the author, along with his publisher and translators, made deliberate editorial decisions that resulted in an English translation that consistently misinterprets, misconstrues, and thus misrepresents the original. In my concluding remarks I discuss the recent endeavors of the Guimaraes Rosa estate in seeking a new English translation of Grande sertao: veredas.
Knopf pulled out all stops for The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Harriet de Onis began the translation in 1959 but fell ill after six months of dedicated work and was unable to finish. She and Knopf called upon James L. Taylor, a lexicologist of Brazilian Portuguese at Stanford. In July 1961 Taylor submitted his draft to de Onis for her corrections, but due to her delicate health, as well as other translation responsibilities, she was unable to complete her review of the manuscript until early 1962. During that same time, Taylor and William Grossman completed their translation of Jorge Amado's Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon, which became a New York Times bestseller. Building on this momentum, Knopf asked Amado to write the introduction for the 1963 publication of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, in which he writes: "The English-reading public will make the acquaintance of one of the greatest books our literature has produced [...] by a writer with a consummate mastery of his craft" (x). By all accounts, Rosa was in the best professional hands to transfer his masterpiece into the English language.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was the first translation of Grande sertao: veredas into any language, and Rosa was acutely aware of this vital step in promoting his work in the international market. Success in New York usually meant success in Europe and abroad. Guimaraes Rosa arrived on the US literary scene at an opportune moment, according to Irene Rostagno, because he "had broken with traditional regionalism and could compete on an equal footing with American novelists of the sixties" (42). She continues:
Like them, he favored fantasy rather than mimesis in fiction. His work also shared a comparable compulsion for playfulness in exploiting the disjunction between language and reality. And yet with all these marks of modernity and sophistication in his favor, Rosa found little but disappointment in his United States publishing fortunes. (Rostagno 42)
One of the key factors in this critical and commercial disappointment was simply due to the difficulty in translating the peculiar language of the novel. Rostagno comments that his unique linguistic style, perfected in Grande sertao: veredas, "defied all traditional patterns [and] literally revealed new possibilities for the Portuguese language" (43). On numerous occasions Gregory Rabassa has commented on the impossibility of transferring Rosa's eccentric style into English because it was so particular to the Portuguese language. He observes: "Rosa would have to be rewritten, not translated, unless by the likes of James Joyce" (If This Be Treason 71).
In spite of the collective efforts of Knopf and two accomplished translators, backed by a significant promotional campaign, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands received a tepid reception. William Grossman wrote one of the more perceptive reviews in the New York Times Book Review.
The translators deserve our sympathy. How can one translate a book in which the substance is closely wed to a unique style? Rosa sometimes employs onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhythm and even rhyme. He uses archaisms, regional expressions and terms of his own fabrication; in some passages even erudite Brazilians find him hard to understand. The translators might have tried to devise an English style with a flavor as close to that of Rosa's Portuguese as possible. The product would probably have been either brilliant or disastrous. They chose, instead, to employ a conventional style, with the result that much of the colour is drained from the book. [...] Also, many passages have been omitted in the translation. What remains, although it does not do Rosa justice, is still an impressive piece of literature. (27)
Grossman's assessment, representative of other book reviews, highlights the key challenges the translators faced. (6) He acknowledges the inseparable link between substance and style, recognizing that the translation waters down much of Rosa's linguistic virtuosity to the detriment of the novel. Simply put, the fundamentally flawed translation misrepresents the original.
Nevertheless, not all the blame lands squarely on the shoulders of the translators. In "Guimaraes Rosa in Translation: scrittore, traduttore, traditore," Piers Armstrong analyzes Rosa's vast correspondence with his translators and argues that the author used his skills as a diplomat to oversee the translation process into English, French, German, and Italian. (7) Armstrong presents convincing evidence that the author pitted the translators against one another, fostering competition, in order to produce better translations: "[Guimaraes Rosa] [d]ava certa licenga aos tradutores, [...] elogiava suas capacidades, e depois denunciava seus erros a outros tradutores para evitar o mesmo tipo de erro e para aproveitar estrategicamente da concorrencia implicita entre os tradutores" ("Traducao" 582). For example, Rosa praises de Onis and Taylor in a letter dating 7 May 1963:
Reli, devagar, conforme lhe prometera, o nosso livro. E--com toda a sinceridade o digo--ainda gostei mais da traducao e admirando ainda mais o formidavel trabalho que a Senhora e o Professor Taylor realizaram, com resultado tao magnifico. O que se perdeu, urn pouco, como era inevitavel, em originalidade agressiva de expressao, foi de sobra compensado por urna muito maior fluidez, fluencia, transparencia e velocidade. Demais, dessa maneira o livro podera ser apreciado por numero maior de leitores, e apreciado em sua essencialidade. (Verlangieri 153)
Rosa accepts that some loss of meaning is inevitable and that these sacrifices will hopefully result in a wider readership. Toward the end of the same letter he reiterates, in escalating hyperbole, his satisfaction with their work:
Assim, repito: estou encantado, delighted, feliz, glad, happy, alegre--e grato, gratissimo, aos meus Tradutores. Se dependesse de mim, a Senhora, com a valiosa ajuda do Professor Taylor, traduziriam todos os meus livros, escritos e por escrever. Many thanks! (Verlangieri 155)
Several weeks later, however, in a letter dated 17 June 1963, Rosa contradicts this sentiment when writing to his German translator, Curt Meyer-Clason: "O livro Americano esta cheio dessas falhas, e ainda mais fundas alterares, enfraquecimentos, omissoes, cortes. Basta compara-lo com o original, em qualquer pagina" (115). Armstrong argues that Rosa relied on his skills of diplomacy in the "negociacao intelectual e sentimental" to foster a sense of friendly rivalry between the translators, which he hoped would incentivize them to produce the best translations possible ("Traducao" 581). Because The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was the first translation to appear in any language, Guimaraes Rosa used it as the yardstick by which he measured the quality of the other translations.
One fundamental problem is that Rosa, Knopf, and the translators purposefully employed a reader-friendly strategy, "recasting the [Brazilian] backlands context in an American analog" (Armstrong, "Translation" 72). De Onis openly embraced this strategy, as she explains in her letter of 22 April 1959:
I wish I had time to go into the reasons why, in a number of instances, I have preferred to use my version rather than your suggestions. Without exaggerating, I have tried to give it a Western flavor, which is the milieu which would roughly correspond to that of the story. (Verlangieri 88)
Armstrong posits that de Onis's strategy to recast the Brazilian sertao in the context of the American West attempted "to minimize foreignness and culturally transpose the material into a context recognizable and familiar to the reader in the target culture" (74). Armstrong continues:
The work fell into the void between two identities, one as Western adventure literature, another as an academically accredited classic, as obligatory reading. It fell to earth between two markets, one more numerous and popular, the other more privileged, this latter drawing on a minuscule contingent of readers representing the Brazilianist intelligentsia and Brazilian elite culture as an export item. (Third World 121)
Nonetheless, this editorial strategy actually backfired by ostracizing both erudite and lay readers.
While Riobaldo's jagungos ride horses and wield Winchester rifles, the socio-cultural context of the sertao and the US West are not analogous. Willfully conflating the two cultures underscores the translators' unfamiliarity with the Brazilian sertao while also underestimating Rosa's market appeal in English. As a result, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands reads like an existential western that neither connects nor resonates with the American reader.
Granted, Knopf had experienced tremendous success with Amado's Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon, and, based on Rosa's critical success at home, it is not difficult to understand why his publisher would expect similar success abroad. Yet Amado and Rosa paint strikingly different pictures of Brazilian identity in their prose, a fact that helps explain the discrepancies in their respective receptions. In Brazilian Narrative Traditions, Fitz presents a compelling explanation as to the former's popularity and the latter's relative obscurity in the United States:
Yet we should acknowledge that Amado has been more popular than Rosa in the United States simply because even in translation his novels, written in nonthreatening, accessible language, beguile readers with what many critics consider a false and misleading image of the sensuousness of Afro-Brazilian society. Rosa's language is both more complex and less entertaining. An aesthetically and intellectually challenging writer, Rosa constructs a fictional world that deals with the vicissitudes of provincial life in the interior of Minas Gerais--a subject that lacks the exoticism of Amado's colorful but often contrived Afro-Brazilian setting. (164-65)
The assumption that Rosa could capitalize on Amado's success by association demonstrates the extent to which the editorial and marketing team misunderstood the two authors' disparate portrayals of Brazilian identity. Moreover, Fitz's observation also sheds light on the translators' reasoning in adopting an editorial strategy that willfully and consciously minimized Rosa's stylistic virtuosity. By translating the novel within the vernacular of the American West, the editors and translators limited the potential exoticism Rosa's work could have presented to the US reader.
One of the defining characteristics of Guimaraes Rosa's approach in Grande sertao: veredas is his exploration and expansion of the syntactic, semantic, and lexical boundaries of the Portuguese language. Fitz argues that the key to unlocking Rosa's prose is understanding its sonorous qualities: "The original comes fully alive, in fact, only when read aloud, a quality that is lost in the translation and that underscores the original's link to the sertao's oral tradition" (Brazilian Narrative Traditions 165). Lowe and Fitz build on his observation:
Riobaldo's probing, self-conscious narrative ebbs and flows and surges like a great river, casting up a welter of radically different speech registers, neologisms, deformed words, ordinary words used in unusual ways, great swaths of poetic prose, and long, sinuous sentences deliberately left uncompleted. (Translation 55)
Within this intricately intertwined and idiosyncratic language, Guimaraes Rosa weaves complex and ambiguous themes. On the surface, Grande sertao: veredas is a meandering monologue between Riobaldo, a retired jagunco (a hired gun of the backlands), and an unnamed interlocutor, o senhor, who represents the reader or perhaps Rosa himself. Rodriguez Monegal summarizes the scope and style of the protagonist's narrative, pointing out the inextricable connection between the novel's substance and style:
[...] Riobaldo constantly deforms words to suit his mood or purpose, leaves sentences unfinished, and throughout makes continual detours, and twists and turns backward and forward. His ceaseless telling and retelling of essentially the same story, without ever quite giving away the key to the mystery he is unraveling, exerts a hypnotic effect on his listener (and reader). (678)
The main themes Riobaldo explores are "the primeval search for the father, diabolical temptation, frustrated eroticism," as well as the great existential search for self and meaning in life (Borzoi 678). In conjunction with the serpentine syntax, neologisms, archaisms, and wordplays, Guimaraes Rosa creates a powerful tension between form and content that he successfully maintains over the course of the entire novel.
Riobaldo frequently evokes images and phrases to express his internal doubt and conflict in regards to a number of traditional binary oppositions. Vincent observes: "The naive comparative conceit that good cannot exist without evil, or hot without cold, is transformed into a more sophisticated and less secure set of rules, in which certainty is replaced by doubt" (77). Riobaldo is trapped in the quagmire of existential doubt, ensnared in the slippery slopes where binary oppositions break down. Recent critics have described this tension as "counterpoint" (Bolle 385) or "bipolar" (Garbuglio 21). Suzi Frankl Sperber, in discussing the underlying tension of the narrative, states: "nao implica ambiguidade, nem urna dialectica [...] porem urna unidade bi-polar" (110). Christopher Lewis observes: "This idea of the bipolar whole manifests itself in the novel's ethics, religious philosophy, and narrative point of view" (66). Riobaldo summarizes the ambiguity, uncertainty, and hesitation he feels in the dichotomous and paradoxical declaration: in the sertao "tudo e e nao e." As an example of this linguistic and conceptual hesitancy, or bipolarity, Riobaldo frequently describes the direction of his life as travessia. Although travessia translates both as "passage" and "crossing," as in a journey over land or sea, it is a polysemous term that Rosa uses to symbolize the travails of life as well as a transition from one stage to another. Martins explains: "[Travessia] e a ultima palavra do romance, que e urna travessia pelos caminhos da imaginando, da reflexao, da arte" (501). Guimaraes Rosa's poetic brilliance shines in his ability to stack up multiple signifieds and pack them into a single signifier, a reality that poses considerable problems for even the most competent translator.
Within the first pages of the novel we find the best image that exemplifies the mutable characteristics of truth and the perception of reality, as well as the malleable nature of language. Riobaldo points out a mandioca plant to the interlocutor:
Melhor, se arrepare: pois, num chao, e com igual formato de ramos e folhas, nao da a mandioca mansa, que se come comum, e a mandioca-brava, que mata? Agora, o senhor ja viu urna estranhez? A mandioca doce pode de repente virar azangade--motivos nao sei; as vezes se diz que e por replantada no terreno sempre, com mudas seguidas, de manaibas--vai em amargando, de tanto em tanto, de si mesma toma peconhas. E, ora veja: a outra, a mandioca-brava, tambem e que as vezes pode ficar mansa, a esmo, de se comer sem nenhum mal. E que isso e? (27)
The dual nature of the manioc root suggests that life is composed of instability and uncertainty. What is definite one moment can change quickly the next, without cause or justification. This image exemplifies the aimless nature of the word travessia as well as the bipolar hesitancy of the phrase "tudo e e nao e."
A closer examination of the physical properties of mandioca further supports these conceptualizations. The mandioca (manihot esculenta), produces a starchy tuberous root that is a staple in many tropical and subtropical regions. The plant also contains a rhizome, the stalk of the plant, which is capable of sprouting shoots upward and downward from its nodes. Farmers use the rhizome to propagate the plant in a process known as vegetative reproduction. Not only is the plant capable of changing from sweet to toxic, or vice versa, its root system has the potential of creating new, independent systems. Deleuze and Guatari, in A Thousand Plateaus, offer the following definition: "A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo" (25). In many ways, the rhizome of the mandioca serves as the perfect image to convey the complexity of the linguistic and narrative structure of Grande sertao veredas. The neologisms, portmanteaus, deformed words, and unusual usages of different registers, exhibit a rhizomatic language without a discemable beginning, end or center. The language ebbs and flows, pulling the reader into a whirlpool of textual doubt. Digressions in the narration sprout spontaneously, connecting to nothing, or to everything. Guimaraes Rosa's rhizomatic language and polysemous terms undermine traditional binary oppositions, and for that reason, destabilize the reliability of language itself. Rosa's inventive Portuguese, however, is more than a collection of turns-of-phrase, neologisms, and neo-baroque syntax. For good reason critics continuously explore the innovative connection of form and content at the deepest linguistic, semantic, and philosophical levels. The linguistic virtuosity of Grande sertao: veredas that solidified his reputation as one of the greatest novelists in the Portuguese language, however, proved to be an insurmountable challenge when translating the novel into English.
An exhaustive side-by-side comparison of the translation and the original would be nitpicky, pedantic, and ultimately unnecessary. Perhaps this is why few critics actually compare the two. (8) Notwithstanding, an examination of the previously cited mandioca passage will clearly show the extent to which de Onis and Taylor watered down the brilliance of the original:
[S]e arrepare: pois, num chao, e com igual formato de ramos e folhas, nao da a mandioca mansa, que se come comum, e a mandioca-brava, que mata? Agora, o senhor ja viu urna estranhez? A mandioca doce pode de repente virar azangada--motivos nao sei; as vezes e diz que e por replantada no terreno sempre, com mudas seguidas, de manaibas--vai em amargando, de tanto em tanto, de si mesma toma peconhas. E ora veja: a outra, a mandioca-brava, tambem e que as vezes pode ficar mansa, a esmo, de se comer sem nenhum mal. (27) Look here: in the same ground, and with branches and leaves of the same shape, doesn't the sweet cassava, which we eat, grow and the bitter cassava, which kills? Now the strange thing is that the sweet cassava can turn poisonous--why, I don't know. Some say it is from being replanted over and over in the same soil, from cuttings--it grows more and more bitter and then poisonous. But the other, the bitter cassava, sometimes changes too, and for no reason turns sweet and edible. (6)
The most immediately striking and noticeable difference between the original and the translation is the simplified lexicon the translators employ. The first phrase, from the verb "arreparar-se," is an archaism of "reparar," which means "to take notice." Apparently, this form is still used in mirandes, a Romance language belonging to the Astur-Leonese linguistic group, spoken in a small area of northeastern Portugal. Throughout this passage, Guimaraes Rosa refers to the nature of the cassava, differentiating between "mansa" and "brava," which corresponds to "tame" and "wild." In this case, however, the translation is correct since manioc is classified as "sweet" or "bitter" in English. Nevertheless, the binary opposition of "tame" and "wild" is lost. One considerable challenge throughout the novel is translating "o senhor," the formal address of the second person that takes on the third person singular conjugation. The title "sir" is the closest approximation, but, in mid-twentieth-century American English, one could not use "sir" interchangeably with "you." Nevertheless, the translators completely omit the phrase, "Agora, o senhor ja viu uma estranhez?," by combining the last part of this phrase with the beginning of the following: "Now the strange thing is [...]." The word "azangada," rendered as "poisonous," is a neologism of "zangada," which means angry or upset. A better option for the phrase could be "The sweet cassava can suddenly turn on you," thus retaining both the sense of getting mad or upset and converting from one state to another. This kind of word play does not always translate directly, but by choosing "turn poisonous" the translators reduce the double meaning found in the original. One challenging line, even in Portuguese, is "e por replantada no terreno sempre, com mudas seguidas, de manaibas," which is translated as "Some say it is from being replanted over and over in the same soil, from cuttings." The word "mudas" presents a challenge. "Mudas" are seedlings, small starter plants, usually grown in a nursery, that are later planted in a permanent location. However, "com mudas seguidas" could also refer to frequently moving the plant. The complexity of the phrase continues with "manaibas," a word derived from the Tupi mani'iwa in the early 1600s that means "pedaco do caule da mandioca ou aipim, cortado para servir de muda no novo platio" (Martins 316). Even if Guimaraes Rosa means "with frequent moves," by using "manaibas" he subtly refers to the second, underlying meaning of "mudas." This pairing of two seemingly unimportant botanical terms exemplifies the constant wordplay, neologisms, and subversive syntax found throughout the novel. Finally, other phrases in this passage that reflect Rosa's singular style are "vai em amargando," "pegonhas," and "a esmo." The first is simply a colloquial form of "vai se amargando," a gerund of the reflexive verb. "Pegonhas," means venom, a key lexical detail also lost in the English. Finally, "a esmo" is an equivalent of "a toa," which means off course or aimless, a drifting motion not conveyed in the English translation.
By simplifying the robust lexicon and rhizomatic syntax, the translators impede the reader's ability to access the deeper messages imbedded in the ambiguous, meandering text. Throughout, the translators massage "the quirky elliptical Rosean syntax [...] into a more mundane normality," breaking up paragraphs and simply omitting passages ("Translation" Armstrong 72). (9) The translation, as a result, suppresses the technical and linguistic experimentation while stripping away much of the intertwined and interrelated motifs. In not so many words The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is not a good translation. We can attribute its failure, from both an aesthetic and critical point of view, to a multiplicity of literary and extraliterary factors. Andre Lefevere highlights key extraliterary factors that exert the greatest influence on the reception of literature in translation: "It is my contention that the process resulting in the acceptance or rejection, canonization or noncanonization of literary works is dominated [by] issues such as power, ideology, institution, and manipulation" (Translation, Rewriting 2). The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is one of the best case studies of how editorial imposition can manipulate and ultimately damage the reception and influence of a given author. Knopf, de Onis, Taylor, and Guimaraes Rosa wanted the translation to appeal to a wider audience in the United States and therefore adopted an editorial strategy that streamlined and simplified the more challenging aspects of language and structure of the original.
Perhaps the best source that reveals the length and breadth of editorial imposition in translating Grande sertao: veredas is the unpublished correspondence between Harriet de Onis and Guimaraes Rosa. (10) In spite of the complications in accessing this material, my analysis of the correspondence between Guimaraes Rosa and Harriet de Onis reveals one factor of the translation process that has gone overlooked. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a case of the expression, "too many cooks spoil the broth." According to the letters, four individuals aided in the translation: Harriet de Onis, Guimaraes Rosa, James L. Taylor, and Mrs. Nina Oliver.
Harriet de Onis mainly translated works written in Spanish. She did not have a strong command of Portuguese and much less of what Guimaraes Rosa called "portugues-brasileiromineiro-guimaraesroseano." (11) In several letters, she expresses a sense of inadequacy in translating Guimaraes Rosa, even when she accepted the job. In a letter dated 18 April 1959 we read:
I have signed a contract with Knopf for the translation of Grande Sertao [sic]. At first I was extremely reluctant to take it on, for I did not feel myself adequately prepared [...]. Now, on the strength of your opinion of the translation of "Duelo", and counting on your excellent help, I feel easier in my mind. And I did not want anybody else to do it, for I felt that it was my discovery. (Verlangieri 84)
As previously mentioned, she worked on the translation for nearly a year, making little progress, until her failing health required her to pass the job to Taylor. Again, she cites an overwhelming sense of inadequacy in a letter dated 3 April 1960:
[...] I decided that the wisest and best thing for all of us was for me to turn the translation of Grande Sertao over to Professor Taylor. I was making slow and difficult progress on it, and getting more and more nervous as I looked over my shoulder at all the other translations I had agreed to do piling up, but most of all, at the feeling of my own inadequacy. I am sure you now are in, if not more devoted, more competent hands than mine. (Verlangieri 128)
We know Guimaraes Rosa expressed a deep appreciation for English. While he possessed an admirable understanding of the language, he did not write in English. In several instances he provides suggestions for translating tricky phrases and passages, but his recommendations seem imprecise and somewhat ridiculous to a native speaker. He recognized his own limitations with the language, which he noted in a letter dated 30 November 1964: "Trabalho sozinho, e meus conhecimentos do ingles, como ve, sao demasiado insuficientes, superficiais, estou cru na sintaxe e falho no vocabulario" (1). In spite of his vast knowledge of various languages, his skills as a writer of Portuguese simply did not transfer directly to English.
Before de Onis handed the project off to Taylor a third individual entered the stage. Guimaraes reveals that he had collaborated with Mrs. Nina F. Oliver to work on de Onis's manuscript of "Duelo." Oliver, originally from England, taught English in Rio de Janeiro. The correspondence reveals little about this woman--who she was or how she knew the author. It appears he did not completely trust his own abilities with English and thus sought her input. The correspondence reveals that de Onis would send lists of questions to Oliver that she would review with Guimaraes Rosa and then return to de Onis, as he explains in a letter dated 25 November 1959:
Tenho trabalhado junto com Mrs. Oliver, que se esta dedicando com fervor a resolver as dificuldades do texto. Sao sessoes demoradas, nas quais todos os pontos sao examinados e estudados com viva meticulosidade. Assim, a Senhora pode confiar cem por cento nas respostas que ela lhe estara remetendo. (Verlangieri 125)
Unfortunately, the Archive does not possess this correspondence, which complicates our ability to reconstruct the translation process. (In contrast, the Archive holds similar documents detailing the collaboration between de Onis and Guimaraes Rosa in translating Sagarana.) Although the existing correspondence does not detail the extent to which Oliver collaborated in the translation process, we know it did not produce the desired results. Guimaraes Rosa states, in a letter dated 15 March 1963: "Por sugestao minha, Knopf fez urna experiencia com Mrs. Oliver. Mas, infelizmente, nao deu certo. Traduzir e urna arte, bem o vejo" (Verlangieri 145).
When Taylor took the reigns in 1960 and accepted the challenge to finish the incomplete translation, he was obliged to follow the trail already blazed by three others--de Onis, Guimaraes Rosa, and Oliver. Taylor exchanged few letters with Guimaraes Rosa and did not seek his input regarding content. De Onis's role was restricted to reviewing the final manuscript. Certainly Taylor would have produced a much different translation if he had started from scratch. Although de Onis and Taylor are the principle translators we should not minimize the roles played by Guimaraes Rosa and Mrs. Oliver--although difficult to ascertain--in the process of translating The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.
In spite of his frustration with the complex process of bringing Grande sertao: veredas to the English language, Guimaraes Rosa asked de Onis to translate Sagarana. At this point, they had formed a strong personal and professional relationship and had developed a system of collaborative translation. Guimaraes Rosa, however, found the process exhausting, as he explained to Edoardo Bizzarri, in a letter dated 7 March 1965:
E, pois bem, ao chegar aqui fui "engolido" por urna montanha de tarefas. Entre elas, as incessantes consultas (quase palavra por palavra) da minha amiga e tradutora do Sagarana para o ingles. Ela e admiravel pessoa, adorando meus livros; mas, ohime, noa e Bizzarri ... (172)
Nevertheless, it seems these "incessantes consultas" produced favorable results. Guimaraes Rosa, in a letter dated 21 March 1964, expresses great satisfaction with the English version of "O Burrinho Pedres" ("The Piebald Donkey), saying: "Acho que a Senhora superou a tradujo do The
Devil to Pay in the Backlands" (246). (12) The following month, in a letter dated 2 April 1964, de Onis responded:
If, as you say, the translation is better than that of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, it may be because I did it myself. It is often true that "too many cooks spoil the broth". Nevertheless, I think The Devil came out very well, considering the inherent difficulties it presented. (Verlangieri 259)
The translation of Grande sertao: veredas was the proving ground in which de Onis and Guimaraes Rosa developed a strong collaborative relationship that produced good fruits with Sagarana, for which de Onis won the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 1967 (PEN). Unfortunately, the lukewarm reception of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands had already hindered, if not damaged, Rosa's reputation in the United States. Harriet de Onis's limited Portuguese hobbled her ability to unweave the elliptical eccentricities of Guimaraes Rosa's syntax and lexicon. Likewise, Guimaraes Rosa did not possess a native-like fluency of English and thus could not fully convey his linguistic virtuosity in that language. Although Mrs. Oliver played a small part, we will not know the extent to which she aided in the translation until the missing correspondence surfaces. (13) James L. Taylor was handed the unenviable task of fixing and completing a translation already mired by problems. Finally, we cannot underestimate the impact of the editorial strategy of Knopf, de Onis, and even Guimaraes Rosa to modify and simplify the complexity of the original so that the translation appealed to a wider readership. The English translation, in contrast to the German, French, and Italian, received a tepid and disappointing reaction. Consequently, Guimaraes Rosa, one of the best novelists of the Americas, is virtually unknown in the United States outside of Luso-Brazilian studies.
Half a decade later, Grande sertao: veredas remains "a landmark text in the history of the novel [...] crying out for a new translation" (Lowe and Fitz 56). At the time of this writing, the Guimaraes Rosa estate is actively pursuing a new translation; however, this is not the first time the estate has looked into commissioning a retranslation. (14) Although details are sketchy, and at times apocryphal, we know of a number of attempts to retranslate the novel over the past thirty years. First, Thomas Colchie received a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1981 for this purpose but never finished. (15) Second, Gregory Rabassa expressed interest in retranslating Grande sertao: veredas for New Directions in 2005 (Guzman 223) and then again in 2006 after receiving the National Medal of the Arts ("An Interview with Gregory Rabassa"). When speaking to a group of students at Vanderbilt in 2008, however, he joked about the impossibility of even translating the novel's epigraph. (16) That same year, in an interview with Veja, he commented "nao da para traduzir." During the summer of 2013 Rabassa admits he has discontinued any attempt at retranslating the novel:
I always wanted to translate it, but every time I tried, only thinking about the possibilities, I saw it would be impossible for me. [...] Perhaps another person that is not so concerned with the translation is needed. [...] The novel itself is a kind of translation, since [Guimaraes Rosa] invents a new language. (Brock)
In the fall of 2010 conflicting reports surfaced as to whom the Rosa estate had selected. That October, in an interview with Felipe Martinez, (17) Earl Fitz indicated that he and Elizabeth Lowe had "committed to doing a new English translation of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands." The following month Martinez reported that David Treece had accepted an invitation to undertake a new translation ("News Flash"). It turns out that the Rosa estate, via the London-based Wylie Agency, had requested sample translations from both parties. Ultimately, Treece and Fitz were not selected. As of this writing, Rosa's estate is negotiating with Elizabeth Lowe and an as-yet-unnamed US fiction writer to take on the retranslation. Eduardo Carvalho Tess Filho, son of Rosa's second wife, Aracy, confirmed these negotiations are taking place. While the estate hoped to have a translation ready for the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, it appears it may take longer. Commenting on the early stages, Tess explains: "It's going slower than we expected, especially because of the care being taken not to repeat what happened in the first translation" (Brock). The estate has a long, tumultuous history in taking extreme measures in preserving Guimaraes Rosa's and in disseminating his work, sometimes to the detriment of the author's presence on the world stage and in academic circles beyond Brazilian studies. (19) With the recent passing of Aracy, however, Tess now has greater influence in deciding the fate of Guimaraes Rosa's literary legacy. The fact that he has publically confirmed that negotiations for a new translation are underway is an optimistic sign.
In spite of myriad extraliterary factors, whoever retranslates the novel will undoubtedly confront formidable challenges and will need to grapple with the historical, cultural, linguistic, lexical, stylistic, and syntactic eccentricities present in Grande sertao: veredas that de Onis and Taylor suppressed in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. While we cannot completely disregard the influence of editorial, critical, and commercial forces in the translation process, hopefully the text itself will ultimately guide the translator in bringing us the best possible English version of Grande sertao: veredas.
James Remington Krause
Brigham Young University
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Viotti, Femando Baiao. "As cartas de Guimaraes Rosa: Traduyao e projeto literario." Literatura traduzida e literatura nacional. Eds. Andreia Guerini, Marie-Helene C. Torres, and Walter Carlos Costa. Rio de Janeiro: 7Letras, 2008.
--. "Encenacao do sujeito e indeterminanao do mundo: Um estudo das cartas de Guimaraes Rosa e seus tradutores." MA thesis Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, 2007. (1) I express gratitude to the Tinker Foundation, the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University, and the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University for supporting archival research at the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, Universidade de Sao Paulo in 2009 and 2011. I first developed the underlying ideas of this article in a brief section of my dissertation as well as "Aspiracoes irrealizadas: Influencias literarias e extraliterarias na traducao 'falhada' de Grande sertao: veredas." In 1958 Harriet de Onis read "La oportunidad de Augusto Matraga," a Spanish version of "A hora e vez de Augusto Matraga," translated by Juan Carlos Ghiano and Nestor Kraly, first published in Ficcion revista-libro and then as a separate novelette (18) Based on her initial impression she purchased Sagarana and Grande sertao: veredas. Enchanted with Sagarana, de Onis urged Knopf to negotiate a contract with Guimaraes Rosa. During this same time de Onis sought the author's permission to translate "Duelo," which eventually appeared in Noonday in 1960 (Verlangieri, Correspondencia inedita 18-19). Thus began a long, productive-- and at times, exhaustive--working relationship between the two.
(2) See de Onis's "Translator's Note" for the 1966 English version of Sagarana (xv). In an interview with Leo Gilson Ribeiro, which appeared in Correio da manha on 19 Jan. 1963, de Onis also compares the author to Faulkner: "Guimaraes Rosa e um extraordinario escritor, um escritor de dimensoes universais, que criou um universo complexo e magnifico com o estilo que se adapta perfeitamente ao cosmos que descreve, um cosmos interior de tal qualidade que nao hesito em comprarar o seu talento ao de Faulkner" (qtd. in Verlangieri, Correspondencia 24).
(3) Early critics who observed similarities between the linguistic and structural innovations of GS:V and Joyce's Ulysses include: Oswaldino Marques in 1956 ("Canto e plumagem das palavras"), Jose Geraldo Vieira in 1957 ("Os Guimaraes Rosa estrangeiros"), Augusto de Campos in 1959, ("Um lance de 'Des' do Grande sertao) and Haroldo de Campos in 1962 ("A linguagem do iauarete"). [See Jackson's Certo Sertao for a review of criticism of the works of JGR from 1945 to 2005.] Nevertheless, in a letter to Mary Daniel, Rosa reveals Joyce was not a significant influence, at least, not directly: "De Joyce, so li parte do 'Dubliners.' O 'Ulysses,' fiz varias tentativas, que nunca foram alem de pedacos de paginas" (250).
(4) The Premio Machado de Assis, created in 1941 and awarded by the Academia Brasileira de Letras, is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Brazil.
(5) Critics frequently include Grande sertao: veredas in the Boom a posteriori because the text parallels many of the literary innovations of other Boom writers, such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Charles Perrone, however, points out that Rosa's "place in the 'boom' of contemporary Latin American narrative has not received full recognition. The fervor Rosa stirs and the respect he commands in Brazil have not had truly PanAmerican repercussions" ("Endless" 132).
(6) In early 1975 Frederick C. H. Garcia, professor of Portuguese at West Point (1959-1984), published four weekly articles in the Suplemento Literario de Minas Gerais under the title "Guimaraes Rosa nos Estados Unidos." Garcia provides an exhaustive compilation of most, if not all, of the US book reviews on Rosa's three books in English translation at that time: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1963), Sagarana (1966), and The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories (1968).
(7) Curiously, Armstrong does not provide a clear reason as to why he omits from his study the correspondence between Rosa and Spanish poet Angel Crespo, the translator of Gran serton: veredas (1967).
(8) In addition to comparing the translation to the original, Jon Vincent provides his own version, in an attempt "to render into English something like the diction a Brazilian would 'hear' in reading the passage in Portuguese" (Joao Guimaraes Rosa 72-74). Perrone deems it more literal yet "paradoxically more faithful" (135). Perrone, likewise, includes a "stylistic rendering" of a brief passage to highlight how much of the original is stripped away in the translation ("Endless" 124).
(9) Critics frequently claim that Taylor and de Onis simply omit long passages. While their minimalist style reduces and truncates sections, there is at least one accusation of editorial deletion that should be rectified, of which Perrone also makes brief mention ("A terceira margem ..." 91). Rodriguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie included "The Slaughter of the Ponies" in the Borzoi Anthology, a passage they claimed was eliminated from the English translation (683-86). Rabasa perpetuates this assertion in If This Be Treason: "They went to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and found their sought-after selection had been one of the many parts left out. Tom Colchie had to do his own translation, which stands out when held against the purported version" (71-72). This claim, however, turns out to be false. The episode in which the ponies are slaughtered appears on pages 280-84 in the translation. Nevertheless, in a letter dated 7 June 1963, Rosa expresses dissatisfaction with the translation of this episode: "Talvez, tambem, ja que a Sra. Estara com a "mao na massa", fosse interessante reexaminar o trecho da Matunca dos Cavalos (Pgs. 280 e 281). Creio que, ali, omitiram-se partes de frases, das mais crespas e carregadas de dinamica poetica" (Verlangieri, Correspondencia inedita 163).
(10) The 128 letters, exchanged between 1958 and 1966, are housed in the Arquivo Guimaraes Rosa, at the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, Universidade de Sao Paulo. Over the years several Brazilian scholars and students have investigated and analyzed the correspondence between Rosa and de Onis (see Nascimento, Rodrigues Verlangieri, Hoisel , Viotti, Gracia-Rodrigues, Andrade, and Cardoso). Ina Valeria Rodrigues Verlangieri's 1993 MA thesis includes a transcription of the first 64 letters, as well as a rigorous introduction and critical commentary. The estate, however, has yet to approve the publication of this correspondence. Consequently, the remaining letters have not received the same level of meticulous transcription and commentary. It should be noted that Rosa's correspondence with his French translator, Jean-Jacques Villard, and Spanish translators, Angel Crespo and Pilar Gomes Bedata, also remains unpublished. Nevertheless, correspondence with his Italian translator, Edoardo Bizzarri, was published in 1972 and then again in 1981. In 2003, Nova Editora published a revised edition of the Bizzarri letters, as well as correspondence with the German translator, Curt Meyer-Clason.
(11) Levine notes the following regarding de Onis: "she was not terribly accurate and tended to normalize (with flowery language) both the regionalisms of some novels, and the original experimental language of others" ("Latin American Novel" 301).
(12) In a letter dated 15 March 1965, Guimaraes Rosa expresses great confidence in their ability to produce a high quality version of Sagarana in English: "[...] o Sagarana em ingles ficara como tradujo padrSo, para orientar todos os demais tradutores, dos outros todos idiomas [...] Tenho certeza que o conseguiremos" (1).
(13) I have been unable to ascertain the current location of Harriet de Onis's papers. Some personal correspondence with her husband is housed in the Archivo de Don Federico de Onis at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Rio Piedras. A number of internal memos to and from de Onis are found in the manuscript collection of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. However, Juan de Onis, only child of Federico and Harriet, indicated in a recent communication that he does not know what happened to his mother's documents after her passing on 14 March 1969 ("Mrs. Harriet de Onis" 2,4).
(14) Recently the estate has commissioned new translations of GS: V in Spanish and German. The Spanish retranslation appeared in 2009 (trans. Florencia Garramuflo and Gonzalo Aguilar). Berthold Zilly, a visiting professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, is currently producing a new German translation (Couto, Saad Rossi). Although contract details are unavailable, recent efforts to retranslate GS:V are most likely related to the creation of a new translation grant. In 2010 the prestigious Frankfurter Buchmesse announced that Brazil would be its guest of honor in 2013. The following year the Fundacao Biblioteca Nacional announced the allocation of US$7.6 million to support the translation and publication of Brazilian writers abroad from 2011-20. Grants range from US$2,000 to US$8,000 for previously untranslated works and from US$1,000 to US$4,000 for previously translated works (1-8).
(15) Colchie edited the anthology A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin America (1992). The "About the Editor" information states: "[Colchie] has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to retranslate The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimar3es Rosa" (434). Gregory Rabassa, in his seminal essay "No Two Snowflakes are Alike," remarks, "Thomas Colchie has received a Guggenheim grant to produce a new and proper version of this great novel and 1 do not envy him as he faces this particular problem" (10).
(16) Although Rabassa first made this observation in "No Two Snowflakes are Alike" (10), he includes one possible solution here: "The first problem: what are you going to do with that strange title? It's so Brazilian that you just can't do anything with it. And then, I think of the epigraph at the beginning. It's a version of the Faust legend from the backlands of Brazil, and it says, "o diabo na rua no meio do redemoinho," the devil in the street in the middle of the whirlwind. Fine. Take the word for "whirlwind," redemoinho, and you find out the devil is not only in the middle of the whirlwind, but that the devil is in the middle of the word for whirlwind! Demo! Re-demo-inho! Impossible. I made an attempt, which I rather like, but it doesn't really translate into English. It was "the devil in the street leading the wild demonstration." It was quite a ways off, but I do get "demon" in "demonstration." An attempt. These attempts that you make in difficult translations, 1 can only take pride in saying that they are rather noble. It is noble when you get that close to the impossible" ("If This Be Treason: A Conversation with Gregory Rabassa" 4).
(17) Martinez is the creator of A Missing Book, an online literary project dedicated to investigating the absence of Joao Guimaraes Rosa in the English-speaking world. An independent scholar, Martinez has interviewed a number of preeminent Rosean scholars based in the United States and England, including: Luiz Valente, David Treece, Earl Fitz, Piers Armstrong, Paulo Moreira, and Leopoldo Bernucci.
(18) Due to the ongoing nature of the negotiations, Lowe states: "I cannot yet confirm my involvement in the new translation other than to say I am under consideration" ("GS:V").
(19) Some of the strongest oppositional forces in strengthening and propagating Rosa's presence abroad are the heirs to his estate. Walnice Nogueira Galvao, in "Reading Guimaraes Rosa Today," expresses concern and frustration over this situation, enumerating several factors that could expand Rosean studies. Vilma Guimaraes Rosa, for example, has gone to great lengths to prevent the publication of any biography other than her own, Relembramentos. (See Belem about the recent lawsuit, appeal, and reversal regarding Alaor Barbosa's 2008 biography, Sinfonia de Minas Gerais.) In 2006 UFMG had received authorization to publish the mysterious Hamburg Diary. At the last minute, however, Rosa's youngest daughter, Agnes, withdrew her permission. (See Machado's "Diario arquivado" for the full story.) Again, we should mention that the correspondence between Rosa and his Spanish, French, and English translators remains unpublished, in spite of significant scholarly effort to prepare these documents for publication. Galvao points out that twenty Rosean scholars recently prepared a critical edition of Grande sertao: veredas for the UNESCO Archives Collection but that, "[progress has reached a standstill with the publishers for reasons unknown but through no fault of the authors" (10).
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|Title Annotation:||texto en ingles|
|Author:||Remington Krause, James|
|Article Type:||Ensayo critico|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2015|
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