Thoughts on Translation with Margaret Jull Costa
I read Margaret Jull Costa’s translations of two books forthcoming from Other Press this fall, and I was struck by the coincidence of how similar their titles are: Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall and Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall.
Laub’s novel asks what Jewishness means in Brazil today, and how the past can shape us in times to come. His narrator meditates on his relationship to his father and grandfather, and also on the cruelty that any majority feels it can visit on a minority. On the other hand, Mainardi’s memoir weaves together history, art, science, personal reminiscences, and images to chart his relationship to his son and to his son’s disability.
Both books have a strong first-person voice leading us through their stories, as well, and I became curious about what drew Costa to these stories of fathers and sons, especially since, until recently, she has almost exclusively translated European Lusophone and Spanish books. I interviewed her about this and other subjects over email earlier this summer.
Marthine Satris, Two Lines: I noticed that Mainardi’s memoir and Laub’s novel both poke at their unsettled relationship to their origins. Laub rejects his father’s story of his grandfather’s trauma, yet the effect of The Fall is to make the narrator aware of his minority status and difference from those around him. Mainardi hilariously claims that his particular talent is leaving Brazil, yet he almost blames his adoration of Venice for his son’s disability, appreciates Ipanema Beach for providing a safe space for his son to develop mobility, and stays in Brazil for almost a decade. Was this sense of mobility (and seemingly resultant distance from a feeling of belonging in Brazil) something that was attractive to you about these texts?
MJC: Since I am not really a Brazilianist, that sense of a European past and (in Mainardi’s case) that sense of preferring Europe to Brazil, made it easier for me as a translator with strongly European roots. I would be more cautious about translating Brazilian authors such as Guimarães Rosa or Graciliano Ramos, whose work is deeply rooted in rural Brazil, a world I know nothing about. As for the sense of identity expressed by other writers I’ve translated, I would say perhaps a sense of alienation from their own country and culture was almost necessary. I’m thinking of Javier Marías, Eça de Queiroz, and José Saramago in particular, all of whom have been accused of being un-Spanish or un-Portuguese. Javier is often accused of being an anglicised Spaniard; Eça lived much of his adult life abroad and wrote biting satires about life in Portugal; Saramago moved to Lanzarote when the government vetoed his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ as Portugal’s candidate for a European prize. And yet all three are intensely Spanish or intensely Portuguese, just as Laub and Mainardi are intensely Brazilian. Distance (whether geographical or emotional) lends not enchantment perhaps but a particular sharpness of vision so essential to a writer.
Marthine Satris: The structures of the books seemed to echo this dislocation, as the reader is abruptly moved through time and space in both of them. How do you think the stringing together of pieces drawn from history, science, and personal experience (in Mainardi’s book) or scenes from childhood, adulthood, and the grandfather’s falsified memories affect the reader’s experience of the stories each author is telling? Was it at all a new challenge for you?
MJC: This was not really a problem in Mainardi’s book, where the narrator’s voice is consistent throughout, and in Laub’s book, I really enjoyed translating the perversely optimistic entries in the grandfather’s “diary,” with its gloriously stilted bureaucratic language.
Marthine Satris: As someone who has been so known for translations of European authors, what has now drawn you to begin translating Brazilian authors?
MJC: There was no real decision involved, one of my publishers asked me if I would like to translate the two novels—Diary of the Fall and The Fall—and I said, “Yes.” There is a lot of interest in Brazilian literature at the moment, which has to do with Brazil being in the news—up-and-coming economy, World Cup, Olympics—but also with the fact that the Brazilian government is offering translation grants.
Marthine Satris: With regard to your comment that the authors you’ve translated have had a common sense of alienation from their countries and cultures, you said that alienation was “almost necessary.” Can you explain that intriguing insight a bit more? In order for them to be successful in translation, must their work look critically at their origins and context?
MJC: I think a lot of writers do write from outside their own culture, even if they remain living in the country or region. Think of those great writers from the Deep South—Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner—they were both outsiders intellectually, even though they lived in the South most of their lives, and Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic living in the Bible Belt. Perhaps it has to do with what Graham Greene called the splinter of ice in the heart of every writer. Perhaps, too, that is what makes great writers universal. Don Quixote is possibly the most universal of books and it was written in seventeenth-century Spain! And Cervantes was another outsider, dismissed by his contemporaries and despite the success of Don Quixote, he died in relative poverty. It’s a theory anyway!
Marthine Satris: Like many of the authors you have translated, Laub and Mainardi are men. In their two books, both particularly address their life experiences as men—becoming a father, or a visit to a brothel as a sign of entrance into manhood. When you have translated male authors, have you noticed any particular gendered nature to the language choices they make?
MJC: Since most of the authors I translate are male, this isn’t really something I worry about, except, as you say, in speech, where, for example, a man might not say “lovely” or “how sweet,” but otherwise, the original is usually telling you what kind of language to use.
Marthine Satris: Has translating Brazilian writers changed or broadened your understanding of Portuguese as a language?
MJC: Every book I translate teaches me new things about the languages I work from. Learning a language, one’s own included, is a never-ending adventure. The Brazilian authors I’ve translated tend to use a very standard Portuguese. It would be quite different were I to attempt, say, Grande Sertão: Veredas by Guimarães Rosa, who is often referred to as the Brazilian Joyce, and, like Joyce, used a mixture of very colloquial language and a vocabulary of his own invention. The book is also set in the Northeast of Brazil, among country people (farmers and bandits); now that really would be a stretch for my largely urban, European Portuguese.
Marthine Satris: You mentioned having fun translating the sanitized, official grandfather’s voice in Laub’s book. Has part of your dedication to translation been a pursuit of writing in many different voices? For instance, in contrast to the almost dashed off, note-style of Mainardi’s sentences, another writer you translate, Marías, is known for his exceedingly long sentences. Can you talk a bit about the pleasure for you of getting to slip into these varied voices?
MJC: The main pleasure of translating does lie in (a) writing in one’s own language, and (b) writing in many different styles and voices. My principal authors have been Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago and Javier Marías, all of whom are very different. Eça is a brilliant stylist and also very funny, in a dry, absurdist, strangely English way. Saramago has those long, serpentine sentences full of tangents, as does Marías, although he is perhaps more cerebral. All can be very funny, and I do enjoy translating humor. Translating is often compared with acting, and there is that same pleasure, I suspect, of being simultaneously another person and oneself. Just as every Hamlet will be different—and some may convince more than others—every translation of Don Quixote or War and Peace will be different too—and, again, some may convince more than others, although quite why can be very hard to pin down.