Another Kind of Emergence
by Ilze Duarte
But this felt like work I had always done—beautiful, exhilarating, work that I should be doing. It awakened the literary translator in me that had remained dormant for many years.
As an emerging translator, I related to the essay “‘…all the words that are running through my head.’ On emerging together and the intimacy of translation” by Michelle Mirabella, published in Hopscotch Translation on February 22, 2022. I too feel I am emerging with the author whose work I translate—in a way. I have been translating the work of Brazilian author Marília Arnaud from Portuguese to English for seven years, but she had established herself as one of the strongest voices in contemporary Brazilian literature long before. Early in her career, Arnaud won several literary prizes for her short story collections in her native northeastern state of Paraíba. She was later featured in anthologies such as 30 More Women Who Are Making the New Brazilian Literature (2007), edited by Luiz Rufatto.
The late great Rachel de Queiroz, also a writer from the northeast of Brazil and the first woman to be selected to join the Brazilian Academy of Letters, sang the praises of Arnaud’s talent in her preface to the short story collection Os Campos Noturnos do Coração (The Nocturnal Fields of the Heart, 1997): “This young woman, Marília Arnaud, has an innate gift for writing. It is so spontaneous that even when she presents us with a fancy expression, what is fancy comes across as natural, it belonged right there all along. She draws characters, scenes, and moments in time like a pro. (…) And she never squanders a poetic moment, works diligently at it, recreates reality with the ease of one who picks a flower. It is with great pleasure that I introduce the work of this new writer. Come to think of it, this is risky of me, as I see I am ushering in a competitor. A strong one!” Arnaud’s renown, however, remained local, as often happens in Brazil when the writer lives away from the Rio/São Paulo “axis,” as Brazilians call it.
In 2012, Arnaud debuted as a novelist with Suíte de Silêncios (Suite of Silence), narrated by the protagonist, Duína, in a letter of sorts to her former lover. In 2014, I was in a bookstore in São Paulo, looking for titles written by Brazilian authors through the displays where they compete with an inordinate number of foreign titles, usually translated from English, in all categories, including literary fiction. Suíte de Silêncios caught my eye. I had not heard of Marília Arnaud, but I was drawn to the beautiful cover, read the synopsis and blurbs on the back, bought the book, and devoured it on my flight back to the United States, where I live. I was captivated by the lyrical prose, the dynamic pace of the narrative, and the compassion with which the characters were written. But the truth is, Arnaud had me at hello. The first two paragraphs in Suíte read:
Não contaria esta história se soubesse o que fazer com as minhas lembranças, se fosse capaz de me livrar delas. Mas, na verdade, não é isso que desejo. Como nos versos cantados por Braguinha e tauteados por vó Quela, a saudade é dor pungente, a saudade mata a gente. Sim, eu me lembro. E como é doce morrer de lembrar…
Não nasci para o esquecimento. Se me faltassem as lembranças, estaria disposta a mendigá-las, de esquina em esquina, prato na mão.
I started wondering how I would render this beautiful writing in English and translating every sentence in my head. When I got home, I translated the first ten pages quite quickly, even naturally, I dare say. I had not done any literary translation since my time as a student in the graduate-level translation program at the Universidade de São Paulo decades before. But this felt like work I had always done—beautiful, exhilarating, work that I should be doing. It awakened the literary translator in me that had remained dormant for many years. I translated those first paragraphs thus:
I wouldn’t be telling you this story if I knew what to do with my memories, if I were able to get rid of them. But in reality, that is not my wish. As in the lines written by Braguinha and crooned by Grandma Quela, longing is a piercing pain, by longing we all are slain. Yes, I remember. And how sweet it is to die of remembering…
I was not born to forget. If I didn’t have memories, I would be willing to beg for them, from corner to corner, plate in hand.
Although the translation process felt natural to me, it of course presented challenges. Like many translators, I had to translate terms referring to unique elements of the local culture or flora that have no equivalent in the target language. In translating Suíte, I would come upon these difficulties often in the same sentence.
In a passage where Duína reminisces about childhood sounds, she mentions the triangle a door-to-door vendor would hit as he advertised “cavaco chinês,” literally “Chinese shaving,” a crispy, thin cookie curled into a roll. I researched and found the product, but the English terms for it were neither consistent nor short. One of the options I considered, “sweet Chinese-style egg rolls,” sounded accurate but awkward and would compromise the sentence rhythm. I decided on “sweet crispy egg rolls.”
In the same sentence, Duína remembers the sound of the cicadas under a tree named “canafistula.” I found the terms cassia fistula, golden shower tree, and cassia tree, among others. I chose cassia tree because a too-long or formal-sounding phrase would again interfere with the rhythm and tone of the passage in English. My translation of the one-sentence paragraph reads:
Every time I leave [my violin teacher], I feel a contentment that takes my breath away, as if the world with all its exorbitant things existed only outside her door and were meant just for me, and the most perfect music was the buzzing of people and cars in the streets, the singsong of cotton candy vendors, the clinking of a triangle announcing sweet crispy egg rolls, the coo-coo of pigeons in the squares, the expansive laughter of children in the parks, the song of cicadas hidden under the canopy of cassia trees, the croaking of egrets in the mantel-of-Mary-blue of the sky.
To me, however, the greatest challenge in translating Arnaud’s work is conveying its lyricism. Arnaud’s exquisite diction occasionally verges on the erudite, and yet her prose is intimate, inviting, and full of stamina. To preserve these qualities in my translation, I strived for precision without pedanticism, refinement without remoteness, and emotion without sentimentality—a formidable but enjoyable and rewarding effort.
In the following passage, Duína is sharing with her former lover her impressions of his hometown, which she is visiting without hope of finding him. I struggled particularly with “quando o céu se abre em fendas iluminadas” towards the end of the description. At first, I translated it as “when the sky opens up in illuminated slits” but reconsidered it. Too common and informal, the word “slits” did not maintain the register of the original. And “illuminated,” despite conveying register and tone, did not suit the rhythm and fluidity of the sentence. These I found instead in “crevices of light”:
So, this is where you belong, where you have been since forever, the place you returned to without ever having left. You gave me this town, which is strangely familiar, although I visit it for the first and probably last time, its mornings delirious with heat, dusty afternoons tinged with a bruise-purple hue, days that perish always so soon, the sun setting behind the hills like a giant orange gobbled up by God, and nights of rain pour, when the sky opens up in crevices of light, birthing apocalyptic thunder that paralyzes me in a fright as archaic as the world.
The choice of sentence length in translation merits a comment. Authors writing in Portuguese favor longer sentences than authors writing in English normally use. A Portuguese-to-English translator may choose to split long sentences to make the text easier to follow. I decided against it because I understood Arnaud varies sentence length throughout Suíte to fulfill her purposes. In writing this paragraph about Duína’s grandmother, Arnaud chose short sentences:
There were two other things Grandma Quela did every day, come rain, shine, or thunder, which she never stopped doing until the day she was hospitalized and could no longer come back home. One was to kneel on the red felt pad and say the rosary before her saints. The other was to go to the street market, wherever there was one.
Duína sees in her grandmother’s life patterns and habits she recognizes and understands. Arnaud conveys this clarity of thought in simple, straightforward sentences. In contrast, breathless secrets, satisfying rants, dreamlike memories, and intense reactions to physical and psychological surroundings lend themselves to free associations and streams of consciousness, which Arnaud strings together in longer sentences, as in the paragraph about the former lover’s hometown. I chose to replicate Arnaud’s use of sentence length to produce in the translated text the narrative and aesthetic effects I perceived in the original.
Thrilled with the translation process and pleased with the product, I wanted to translate the entire book and submit it for publication in the U.S. I wanted to share with others the beauty I had discovered. I found Marília Arnaud on social media, introduced myself, and sent her my translation of those first pages of Suíte. To my delight, she too was pleased with the translated pages and gave me permission to submit my translation of the book to publishers. She also sent me one of her short story collections, I translated a few stories from it, and had two of them published in U.S. literary magazines in 2018.
In 2016, Arnaud published her second novel, Liturgia do Fim (Liturgy of the End), which was very well received by the critics but, like Suíte, did not reach a large readership. In 2021, her third novel, O Pássaro Secreto (The Secret Bird), was selected among 2,400 entries as the winner of the Kindle Prize in Literature in Brazil. The award has brought considerable visibility to Arnaud nationwide. O Pássaro Secreto has sold 33,000 copies, a rarity in the Brazilian market, where sales figures in the hundreds are considered successful for domestic literary fiction.
Brazilian literature has a vast and rich tradition, and excellent writers have emerged in recent decades, as they always do. A bookstore of any size in Brazil could fill all its shelves with Brazilian literature to meet every taste and sensibility, from classics like José de Alencar and Machado de Assis to twentieth-century giants like Rachel de Queiroz, Clarice Lispector, and Jorge Amado to contemporary talents like Itamar Vieira Jr. and Marília Arnaud. Yet, Brazilian writers and publishers must contend with lack of local, state, and federal support to publish new works and the competition of abundant and relatively inexpensive bestsellers from abroad, which come with name recognition and big budgets to distribute them. Though not a solution to these problems, literary prizes like the Jabuti, the most prestigious in Brazil, and in recent years the Kindle Prize in Literature can add visibility to writers and their works and lead to more books by Brazilian authors in the hands of Brazilian readers, as was the case with O Pássaro Secreto.
Recognition abroad may also help. Several Brazilian newspapers, including the largest in São Paulo and Rio, have published articles on Paulo Scott’s nomination for the International Booker Prize with his Marrom e Amarelo, titled Phenotypes in the brilliant English translation by Daniel Hahn. Because of the translation and the prize nomination, now more Brazilians know about Paulo Scott’s work, and a larger English-reading audience is likely to gain access to such an important, accomplished piece of literature. I believe all translators of great but fairly unknown writers wish to help shed light on the work they love and make it possible for more readers to know it.
Translating Arnaud’s short stories and novels has required that I hone my writing skills considerably to re/create language that is refined yet inviting, complex yet conducive to the engaging rhythm of the narrative, a balance that Arnaud strikes masterfully. I am a better writer and translator because I have engaged in the demanding and gratifying work of translating Arnaud’s writing into English, and I look forward to continued growth. I am honored to have introduced her work to an international audience through the publication of my translations of her short stories and continue to seek a publisher for my translations of her novels.
I want to give an English-reading audience greater access to the work of Marília Arnaud. I want her to emerge internationally, occupy a space commensurate with her talent and the great literary tradition to which she belongs, and in the process gain more visibility in her own home country. In that sense, Marília Arnaud and I are emerging together.
Ilze Duarte writes short prose and translates literary works by contemporary Brazilian writers. Her original work appears in New Plains Review, Please See Me, and Dear Damsels, and her translations in Your Impossible Voice, The Massachusetts Review, Columbia Journal Online, and Ambit. She lives in Milpitas, California.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 12, 2022