It Must Be a Form of Happiness
Elisa Wouk Almino, Patrícia Lino, and Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
on the Love & Labor of Translation
Back in November, Patrícia Lino, Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, and Elisa Wouk Almino held an online conversation about translating Brazilian poetry and prose at a new literary festival called FLI Miami. Flora translates prose, Elisa translates poetry, and Patrícia, a poet, has collaborated with several translators herself.
At the end of their forty-five minute conversation, they would have liked to keep talking—there was so much more they wanted to say to one another. If only they could gather in person, over a drink, as people once did (pre-pandemic) after events. Instead, they decided to continue their conversation over email, reproduced below, which begins with their very first memories of translating and ends with the realities of translating literature during lockdown life.
Patrícia Lino: Can you remember the first lucid exercise of literary translation that you made? How was it?
Elisa Wouk Almino: In a way, I grew up constantly translating my words, speaking Portuguese at home and most of the time English at school. But the first time I chose to translate something literary was after reading a poem in the Brazilian magazine Piauí. The poem, by Ana Martins Marques, was about a person’s relationship to their umbrella—about this symbiotic relationship of walking with an umbrella above your head with its ribs opened, as it follows you around wherever you go. Martins Marques writes that this moment “must be a form of happiness.” The poem ends, tragically, with the familiar act of forgetting the umbrella at a café. I fell in love with “The Umbrella,” and for the first time I had the impulse to want to translate—to get closer to the poem, maybe, by translating it. I could also clearly hear the poem in English. I’d describe this first translation exercise as pure fun and play—I didn’t know if I’d actually end up doing anything with it, so there wasn’t the added pressure that there is now when I sit down to translate something.
Flora Thomson-DeVeaux: The first time I sat down to translate something was on commission. I was in my second semester of college (and second semester of advanced Portuguese), and a writer living in town was working on a new biography of Carmen Miranda and needed someone to translate source material. Somehow the request landed in my lap, and I seized it. I knew next to nothing about Carmen Miranda, and the first piece I translated was a chapter from halfway through Ruy Castro’s biography of her. As a result, I remember feeling more disoriented than usual, floundering not only to situate myself in the language but also in a whole cast of characters and references. Most importantly, though, I found the process utterly addictive. It started as a job and became a guilty pleasure: I’d finish my homework, fill up on coffee and retreat to my dorm room for the twin undertaking of deciphering the Portuguese and bringing it into English. It all seemed like a minor miracle: the fact that this art existed and that I could even get paid for it, sometimes, to boot. I revised that first translation a few years later; the chapter read very well, but upon further examination I’d spackled over a few things I didn’t understand.
Patrícia: Can you tell us more about your relation with the languages you constantly deal with (Portuguese and English)?
Elisa: My first language was technically Portuguese, but it was quickly followed by English. My family is Brazilian, so Portuguese has always been the language that I spoke at home, but because we grew up moving around for my father’s job, English has always been my primary language at school (when we lived in Brazil and Portugal, for example, I studied at international schools). I associate Portuguese with the warmth of home—with, at times, a more private or “secret” part of myself that many people in my life don’t fully know. As a writer, though, English has been my language of expression.
Flora: I grew up in Virginia speaking only English and started studying Spanish in school around age twelve. By the time I entered college I was fairly sure I wanted to pursue some sort of Spanish-language minor; Portuguese was a bit of an accident, a language I decided to pick up at age seventeen and which wound up picking me up. I studied abroad in Rio and Buenos Aires, Rio won the arm-wrestling contest, and I’ve been living here since 2017. While English remains my language of written expression, the fact that I’ve never made a point of cultivating an expat community and my job is at a Brazilian company (not to mention that my wife is Brazilian) have conspired to make my everyday life almost entirely Lusophone. I feel comfortable writing essays in Portuguese, but there’s a little glee, something about the extra elbow room afforded by a mother tongue, that always makes me flee back to English.
Patrícia: Elisa, you translate poetry. Flora, you translate prose. Did either of you try to translate the other genre? Why do you work specifically with poetry or prose?
Flora: I tend to work with prose because I feel inherently more comfortable with it, and I sense that my “ear” is better for the rhythms of prose than of poetry. I don’t write poetry myself, and am given to organizing my thoughts and expressing myself in a sprawling way. That said, I have made a few forays into poetry—most notably, a sequence by none other than Ana Martins Marques. (Is there something about her that makes her poems translator-bait?) In my work, it’s also not uncommon to stumble across bits of poetry or song lyrics in larger prose works, so I can hardly shy away from them. My first subtitling job was a trial by fire: As canções, by Eduardo Coutinho, which forced me to translate, among other things, lyrics by Roberto Carlos and Vinícius de Moraes. And occasionally, as in the case of Ana Martins Marques, a snatch of poetry will land on my eyes in a way that makes it irresistible to translate.
Elisa: You’re not the first translator I know who has also happened to translate Ana Martins Marques on the side, even when poetry isn’t their typical beat! I do think there is something so captivating and eloquent about her poems that inspires a certain urge to translate.
I came to translating poetry because I was first an avid reader of poetry. Poets have influenced my way of thinking, reading, and writing—even though I don’t really write poetry myself. I especially got into poetry after moving from Brazil to the US when I was a teenager. Some of the first poets I fell in love with were João Cabral de Melo Neto and Paulo Leminski (whom I also translate). I really enjoy translating poetry; I like being able to choose the poems that I connect with or can see happening in English, and I like how they are generally short and how I can pause to play with each word, comma, etc. I haven’t translated too much prose, but a few years ago I had fun translating a short story by Caio Fernando Abreu. His fiction often reads to me like poetry, and even reminds me at times of Ana Cristina Cesar’s prose poetry, which I also translate (the two writers were close friends).
Patrícia: Did you ever try to translate a literary text using other media (illustrations, music, performance, etc.)?
Elisa: I illustrated the collection of poems that I translated by Ana Martins Marques, which I named This House (a short phrase taken from one of her poems, “Cliffs”). Her poems are very visual, especially the ones I chose for this book which mostly revolve around objects and moments in the home. When I told Ana that I was thinking of illustrating her poems, she told me that she had thought about having her poems illustrated one day—so, we were on the same page! Jeremy Spencer, the publisher of Scrambler Books, had a wonderful idea to mirror each illustration across the page, so that the drawing illustrating the translation would be inverted and slightly different from the drawing illustrating the original Portuguese poem. It became a lovely metaphor for the act of translation (as Ana writes, “This poem / in another language / would be another poem”).
Flora: I can’t say that I have, although perhaps future translations will have some sort of audio component. Nobody deserves to be subjected to my illustration skills, or lack thereof (!). The closest thing I can think of is my dialogue with Penguin over the importance of maintaining the layout of Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas as it appeared in the editions published during Machado’s lifetime: it became painfully clear to me how formatting, especially negative space, was an invisible element of the language in the novel, forcing the reader to pause or the eye to rove.
Patrícia: Can you tell us more about your experience on translating Machado de Assis, Ana Martins Marques, and Ana C.? How did it begin? What was the hardest part?
Flora: While I blindly embraced my first translation job when I was perhaps not tremendously qualified for it, I only backed into translating Machado de Assis with a certain reluctance, fully aware of the scope of the challenge. I’d agreed to translate a book about Machado, Machado de Assis: Toward a Poetics of Emulation, by João Cezar de Castro Rocha, and realized belatedly just how much translation and retranslation of the master’s works that was going to entail. Some of the best and most ambitious translation projects are seeded that way, out of necessity: once I’d been forced to translate snippets of multiple novels and short stories, it gave me an itch to do more, and I decided to dedicate my PhD dissertation to the task of retranslating The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. The hardest part was not anything to do with nineteenth-century Portuguese or English, but probably the process of establishing Brás’s voice in my head; this was something that I did only semi-consciously but which, I see in retrospect, drove most of my later revisions of the text.
Elisa: Ana Martins Marques is one of the few living poets I translate, and in that sense it’s been really special to be able to share my translations with her and ask her questions when I have doubts. She has always been very supportive and trusting. She supported the idea of doing a collection of selected poems that I wanted to translate, which was great. Sometimes I do come across poems that I feel aren’t mine to translate, or that I can’t see happening in English just yet, and I liked that she gave me the freedom to pick the poems that I connected with.
Ana Cristina Cesar was sort of an unexpected project. It began a little over two years ago, when my mom shared personal letters with me that Ana Cristina had written to her in the late 1970s and early ’80s (the two of them were friends). I was inspired to translate some of these beautiful letters, which contain snippets of her poetry. I’ve since started translating some of her published work as well, and Ana C. is by far the hardest poet I’ve translated. What Flora says about establishing a “voice” in your head is exactly right, and with Ana C. that took a little longer for me. I found that it really helped to read—and re-read—as much of her writing as possible, including her poetry, letters, and criticism.
Patrícia: How would you describe your process of translating a literary text?
Elisa: The first step of translating anything involves reading it—for me, I need to connect with the work. I’ll often annotate the poetry I’m interested in translating, much as I would in a close reading exercise, so that I feel like I’m gaining a deeper grasp of the writing. My first translation draft is usually very rough and messy; I’ll skip over words I’m unsure about and play with placeholders. The next round usually involves looking at dictionaries, keeping the original Portuguese version close, and making sure that I’m getting the meaning right. After I feel like I have a good handle on the language, I’ll play with the translation on its own and put the Portuguese version away. Then, when I feel like I’m happy with how it sounds in English, I’ll go back to the Portuguese version to make sure I didn’t stray too far away. I know I’m not alone in doing this as a translator—Susan Bernofsky, for instance, has also written about a similar kind of process and describes the act of translation as one of constant revision. She’s totally right—you can probably revise a translation forever. (In fact, I also feel similarly about creative writing as well.)
Flora: I agree with Elisa that the first step of translating is reading—and there are some books that start calling out to be translated before you get to the last page, but I don’t tend to annotate the text on first read-through. I think that our processes probably differ most in terms of scale; so as not to go crazy or tire myself out too soon, I try to set a quota of words (500 usually seems reasonable) to agonize over per day. While I do cover the first draft with comments, I try not to move forward until I’m reasonably satisfied with a solution. The comments will guide my parallel research, which is easily half the work—yesterday, for example, I found myself scouring the internet for photographs of the interior of the Copacabana Palace at the time it opened, reading Civil War letters and then surveying the coverage of a prison break in the ’70s. The journey from Portuguese to English, then back to checking against the Portuguese seems like a solid method, and is one I’ve come to adopt as well. I’ll close out by disagreeing with Elisa, however: while I can futz with my translations infinitely, I have almost no patience for revising my own creative writing.
Patrícia: We often hear solitude is essential for a translator’s work. How was it—and is it—for you to translate during the pandemic?
Flora: Solitude and quiet are crucial for me, and the pandemic initially shattered that. Not only did my wife start working from home as well (we both work at Rádio Novelo, a podcast production company here in Rio), but all the meetings and events that I’d been able to dodge for one reason or another invaded our home as the usual polite excuses were stripped away by circumstances. I’ve only been able to recover a semblance of my former concentration in the past few months. As soon as I was able to carve out a space for translation again, though, I felt how much I’d missed it. There’s a meditative joy to playing with words, and the lack of it was throwing me off balance.
Elisa: When I moved to Los Angeles almost three years ago from New York, I made a point of buying myself a large desk. It’s nothing fancy—just a big IKEA desk. But this, to me, has made a world of a difference in my writing and translating life. When it’s just me and my desk, I can reset, focus, and connect with my projects. Ana Martins Marques has a great poem about tables and how they are the most important things we can own, “because a table is a type of floor that supports / those who haven’t fallen for good.” I feel this way about my table. During the pandemic, it’s been a life savior—it’s supported me and helped me to keep writing and translating. That said, having my partner around has actually been a healthy distraction for me, as it forces me to step away and eat, talk, and think about things other than my own work or worries.
Elisa Wouk Almino is a writer, editor, and literary translator based in Los Angeles. She is the translator of This House by Ana Martins Marques (Scrambler Books), editor of Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction (Rizzoli), and a senior editor at the online art magazine Hyperallergic. Her translations and essays have appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Lit Hub, NYR Daily, Asymptote Journal, Words Without Borders, and other places. She teaches literary translation and art writing at Catapult and UCLA Extension.
Patrícia Lino (Portugal, 1990) is a poet and Assistant Professor of Luso-Brazilian Literatures and cinema at UCLA and the author of O Kit de Sobrevivência do Descobridor Português no Mundo Anticolonial (2020), Não é isto um livro (2020), and Manoel de Barros e A Poesia Cínica (2019). She recently directed Anticorpo. A Parody of the Laughable Empire (US 2019; Brazil 2020) and Vibrant Hands (2019).
Flora Thomson-DeVeaux is a writer and translator, most recently of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, and director of research at Rádio Novelo. She lives in Rio de Janeiro.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 23, 2021