Brazilian Literature Worldwide: The Role of the Translator

By Dr. Cimara Valim de Melo

In the course of the first two decades of the 21st century, a number of questions have been raised on how to promote Brazilian literature in a globalized – but still greatly hegemonic – system. So-called world literature still remains a territory for Anglophone societies, mostly accessed by English readership. In this perspective, it is worthwhile recalling Lawrence Venuti’s thoughts on minoritizing translation where he highlights how subversive and participatory it can be when spaces are opened for texts and cultures which occupy a marginal position. The work of the translator can produce “an opposition to the global hegemony of English” and “promote cultural innovation by proliferating the variables within English” (Venuti, 1995, p.13-14).

Seen in these terms, the contemporary Brazilian literary system reveals a territory of differences and variety in which the local and global merge together. Antonio Candido (1997, p.16) once observed that literature as a system was only apparent in Brazil from the 18th century when the supposition is made that to be clearly configurated as a well planned and executed system, there is the necessity for the existence of the established triangle in the dynamic interaction of “author-literary work-readership”. In fact, as the world has already felt the effects of cultural globalization, such as, “the ease of air travel and the boom of the Internet” (Melo, 2017), it seems that Brazilian literature worldwide has had some progress for the past decades thanks to the work of the translator, who has significantly added to its internationalization, together with other figures of the cultural market, e.g. literary agencies, independent editors and publishing houses. This signifies that the role of translators can no longer be underestimated as they have changed the logistics of the Brazilian literary system, which has transformed from a triad to a four-pillar structure (Melo, 2019, p. 209) in which author and translator come together with the literary work for a more comprehensive readership, crossing borders and giving a new outreach to contemporary Brazilian literature.

Despite being the sixth most spoken language in the world, Portuguese is still considered a peripheral language for the translation system. According to the website Three Percent (2014), linked to the University of Rochester, only three percent of all books published in the USA are works in translation, and just one percent is comprised of literary works. Brazilian literature is within this universe of global-hegemonic forces and power relations as it faces obstacles that hinder a better flow of translations while it strives to be part of a world system. Among these obstacles can be highlighted “the difficulties of translating from Brazilian Portuguese, the lack of brokering of Brazilian literature abroad and the fact that the language remains in a peripheral position in the cultural market” (Melo, 2017).  

In this context, it can be assumed that the work of the translator, which includes not only the process of literary re-creation from Portuguese into English but also the generation of links between authors and English speaking readers, literary agents, and editors through multilingual, multicultural and multimedia virtual and physical spaces, has opened a window for Brazilian literature to be known and understood from different perspectives beyond its imagined communities. In this regard, Benedict Anderson (2006, p. 207) states the following: “Nationalism’s undivorcible marriage to internationalism”, which is a relation that can be clearly seen in his studies on transnational diffusion of books, and in the fact that the circulation of literature and its reception has reached a wider dimension nowadays. He says, “A writer loses his/her book at the moment that it is published and enters the public sphere” (Anderson, 2006, p.228), a process that cannot be complete without the role of the translator.

The translator’s role as interpreter, reader, critic and also writer can be illustrated by the image of the transreader, which shows that “texts are not only translated but traveled by, (re)discovered, investigated” (Melo, 2019, p.13), exposing the subjective and creational experience of transreading. The subjectivity in which literary translation is immersed allows for the reader to contact with the perspective of the translator, and, in the light of the new century,  his/her position is permitted through this with visibility.

Transnationalities: Contemporary Brazilian Literature in Translation

Building on the above, the analysis of some data collected by the research project “Transnationalities: Contemporary Brazilian Literature in Translation” (IFRS, Brazil)[1] contributes to a more detailed view of the role of translation for the Brazilian literature system in the 21st century. Having the time period between 2001 and 2020 as a delimitation for the research, our findings indicate a total number of 61 authors who have had their works translated, reaching to over 120 books translated up to 2020 if we consider works of Brazilian literature fully translated into English rather than anthologies, chapters, fragments or selected works. To achieve these numbers, the literary system has counted on the efforts of 42 translators who worked individually, plus 10 partnerships, which include two or more translators with a book published collaboratively.

Although the commitment of all the translators has been essential for Brazilian literature to be seen in a broader perspective today, there is a need to highlight a few groups who have produced over fifty translated works, when their numbers are examined together: they are Alison Entrekin, Benjamin Moser, Margareth Jull Costa, Zöe Perry, Daniel Hahn, and John Gledson. For instance, reflecting on Entrekin’s contribution to Brazilian literature to cross borders and reach translational territories, it can be observed that the awarded translator has focused on the novel as the main literary genre to be translated, which indicates the power of narrative for the literary system. If we look at the variety of writers who have had their books translated by her, a preference can be seen for contemporary awarded writers with books published in the 21st century, such as Chico Buarque, Mario Sabino, Paulo Lins, Adriana Lisboa, and Cristovão Tezza. Moreover, Entrekin took part in the teamwork for the re-translation of Clarice Lispector’s novels, working on Perto do coração selvagem in collaboration with Benjamin Moser. Her translated works have been published through a variety of publishing houses, such as New Directions, Atlantic Books, Bloomsbury, Grove Atlantic, Picador, and Scribe, located in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, mostly providing the readership with print and digital books.

Entrekin is also heading one of the most challenging projects on Brazilian literature into English: the re-translation of Grande sertão: veredas, by Guimarães Rosa, which is considered one of the most complex and fascinating Brazilian novels written by one of the greatest writers that Brazil has ever produced. The project has received funding from Fundação Itaú Cultural and is forecast to be completed by 2021. There have been a few former attempts to translate this masterpiece and a translated work was published in 1963 by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís entitled The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, even though it has raised some criticism since its publication. As Gregory Rabassa (2005, p.71) points out, “Rosa would have to be rewritten, not translated, unless by the likes of James Joyce”. Regarding her projects on literary translation, Entrekin (2020) suggests that it was her former degree in creative writing in Australia which gave her the key to her entrance into the literary market as a translator. The process of creative construction can be clearly seen through the translation of Guimarães Rosa’s play with orality through syntax and lexicon: “Nothing is commonplace, nothing is cliché, nothing is the way people normally speak. So the point is to produce a translation that covers this other dimension, the linguistic one.” (Entrekin, 2020, p.5)[2] Thus, language re-creation is at the core of Entrekin’s performance in her work of translation of Brazilian literature into English as “a text can be interpreted as an infinite number of ways based on who is reading it and when”, bringing to light “new forms of creation” (Saunders, 2018, p.15) which uncover the translator’s experience of transreading.

Opening Up Opportunities for Minor Literature 

In these changing times, it is of interest to go beyond the dichotomies in-out, here-there, local-global in order to understand the Brazilian literature status quo. This is possible when we look at the cultural scene through transnational glasses. However, as Bhabha (1994, p.2) suggests, contemporary culture involves a process of “displacement and disjunction” as national cultures “are being produced from the perspective of disenfranchised minorities”. By the idea of ‘nation’ as an imagined community (Anderson, 2006) made of flexible borders, crossed by other nations and cultures, we can see the role of language in the internationalization of literature, and in a more particular way, the role of the translator to turn the circle of the literary system and re-define the representation of cultural identities in a world of mobile citizenships. Considering that transnationality is “the condition of cultural interconnectedness and mobility across space” (Ong, 1999, p.7), Brazilian literature has not gone through global flows unmarked. On the contrary, it has absorbed and represented a plurality of geographies, including time-space movements; it has also exploited and networked cultural diversity by connecting author, translator, literary work, and readership.

Peripheral cultures have been reshaped by globalization, producing what Venuti (1996, 92) considers to be a subversive role through translation. As a collective force, minor literature brings to debate important issues as it becomes itself a space of power relations. Due to the consequences of cultural globalization, translation has become a way of including minor literature in a worldwide system that has reshaped the production and reception of books. These new realities reveal how literature has re-written ‘otherness’ both from inside and outside. If, on the one hand, literary works have recurrently presented migration, travel, and displacement through collective and individual perspectives, on the other hand, translation has widened the range of literature, holding a crucial position for opening up opportunities for minor literature by promoting it for different readerships through virtual spaces.

It is worth adding that through the translator’s hands, Brazilian literature has crossed borders and reached new horizons in transnational territories, representing a significant increase in the number of translated works over the past decades. Helped by the online market, cultural events, and literary prizes, which contribute to the promotion of Brazilian literature, a translation creates a new world in which writers travel through different geographies, reaching translocal and translingual contexts in a fluid system. In addition, the 21st century has brought a common transnational reality to the book market: the traditional geographical distribution has given way to worldwide dissemination of digital books through e-readers and online bookstores, such as Amazon, Google Books, Kobo and Fnac. Translation has become not only important for the internationalization of Brazilian literature but mainly for the reinforcement of its particularities as “an act of interpretation, subjectivity, and (re)creation between source and target texts” (Melo, 2019, p. 12). Therefore, the translator’s role has never been greater for the Brazilian literary system as translation has also become a way to problematize hegemonic social, political and cultural systems in contemporary Latin America and beyond through the re-invention of unique literary works which question standard English and reveal Venuti’s appeal for foreignizing translation.

References

Anderson, Benedict (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. 3.ed. London: Verso, 2006.

Bhabha, Homi (1994).  The Location of Culture. London; New York: Routledge.

Candido, Antonio (1997). Formação da Literatura Brasileira. 8. ed. Belo Horizonte-Rio de Janeiro: Itatiaia.

Entrekin, Alison (2020). Entrevista com Alison Entrekin. [Interview with] Eclair Antonio Almeida Filho and Pedro Henrique Reis. Cadernos de Tradução, v.40, n.1, 2020. Available at: https://periodicos.ufsc.br/index.php/traducao/article/view/2175-7968.2020v40n1p323. Accessed: 10 Apr.2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5007/2175-7968.2020v40n1p323

IFRS (2006). Plataforma Richard Burton. Available at: <http://richardburton.canoas.ifrs.edu.br/&gt;. Acessed: 10 abril.2020.

Melo, Cimara Valim de. (2017). Mapping Brazilian Literature Translated into English. Modern Languages Open, None. DOI: http://doi.org/10.3828/mlo.v0i0.124

Melo, Cimara Valim de. (2019). Introducion: Contemporary Brazilian Literature through the Translation Looking Glass. In: Geisler, Luisa. Tall tales of untruth. Translated by the Collaborative Translation Team of IFRS. Porto Alegre: IFRS; Metamorfose, 2019.

ONG, Aihwa (1999). Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Duke University.

Rabassa, Gregory (2005). If This Be Treason: Translation and its Discontents. New York: New Directions. Print.

Saunders, R. (2018). Translating Contos de mentira by Luisa Geisler: A Subjective Approach to Literary Translation. Master’s degree Dissertation.  Sheffield: University of Sheffield.

Venuti, L. (1995). The Translator’s Invisibility: a History of Translation. London & New York: Routdegle.

Venuti, L. (1996). Translation, Heterogeneity, Linguistics. TTR: traduction, terminologie, rédaction, v.9, n.1, p.92-93. doi:10.7202/037240ar

Three Percent (2014). About Three Percent. In: Rochester: University of Rochester. Available at: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/about/. Accessed: 30 March 2020.


[1] Data published on Richard Burton platform (IFRS, 2016).

[2] In the original: “Nada é lugar comum, nada é clichê, nada é do jeito que as pessoas falam normalmente. Então, o problema é uma questão mesmo de fazer uma tradução que dê conta dessa outra dimensão, a dimensão linguística.”

About the Writer:

Cimara Valim de Melo, PhD in Literature Studies, is a professor of Language and Literature at the Federal Institute of Science, Education and Technology of Rio Grande do Sul (IFRS), in Southern Brazil. She coordinates the research Project ‘Translationalities: Contemporary Brazilian Literature in Translation.” Her recent publication includes the organization of Literatura brasileira & contemporaneidade: uma perspectiva transnacional (2019), and the article Mapping Brazilian Literature Translated into English (2017). She also coordinated the translation of Luisa Geisler’s Contos de mentira into English by the Collaborative Translation Team of IFRS, published in 2019 as Tall tales of untruth.  Contact: cimara.valim@gmail.com.

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