Alison Entrekin, translator of a new edition of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, on the difficulties and pleasures of translating this particularly difficult and pleasing writer.
At the tender age of 23, Clarice Lispector shocked the world of Brazilian publishing with her first book, Near to the Wild Heart, and won the 1944 Graça Aranha Prize for best debut novel. This year, Alison Entrekin retranslated it for a New Directions series of Lispector’s work that included three other novels—The Passion According to G.H., A Breath of Life, and Agua Viva—each with a different translator, and edited by Lispector’s biographer and translator of The Hour of the Star, Benjamin Moser. Entrekin answered my questions by email from her home in Brazil.
Sarah Gerard It has often been said that Clarice Lispector’s Portuguese isn’t like the Portuguese anyone was writing in when she published Near to the Wild Heart, and remains unique. What does this mean? How is it different?
Alison Entrekin Clarice was a native speaker of Portuguese, but her writing style definitely isn’t run-of-the-mill. Her turns of phrase are often peculiar, her word choices unconventional, and her syntax can be rather odd at times. Not always, but a lot of the time. There are places in her books where she is entirely idiomatic and makes perfect sense and places where every reader understands something different, because her sentences are open-ended, with words that contain a range of nuances, allowing for several different readings.
SG Different challenges arise translating a work from any one language into another. What are some of the challenges you face translating a work from Portuguese into English?
AE The answer to this question varies with each book and author, but with Clarice the big challenge any translator faces is allowing her to be herself. This is easier said than done. With unconventional writers, there is always a little niggling voice in the back of your mind telling you that readers of the translation are going to attribute any difficulties they have to the translator, not to the original, and I think that this—consciously or unconsciously—leads some translators to over-interpret what the author actually said and serve up a more domesticated version of the writing. I think some past translations of Clarice have tried too hard to “tidy her up” and have her make perfect sense where she was deliberately open-ended. I tried not to do this. There is almost always a more natural way to say the things she says, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a faithful translation.
SG You received several degrees in creative writing before studying translation. Do you consider yourself first of all a writer or a translator, or do you feel the two are inseparable?
AE For me, they are different things, though I believe my background in creative writing makes me a better translator. It certainly enables me to appreciate why a writer did something one way and not another, which in turn helps me decide what to do with it in the translation.
One of the most difficult things with any translation is finding a way to set aside your own voice, syntax, and word preferences in order to allow the writer’s voice to speak through you. In that sense, you are almost like a medium or an actor—you have to be flexible enough in your own use of language that you can “channel” or “impersonate” that writer in the target language. I think studies in creative writing are a wonderful foundation for literary translation, because they give you a lot of perspective and skills that aren’t always taught in translation courses.
SG How does your translation of Near to the Wild Heart differ from Giovanni Pontiero’s? Do you feel you approached it differently? Was his translation useful to you in making decisions about your own?
AE I deliberately avoided reading Pontiero’s translation until after I was done with my own. And even then, I didn’t read it all. I looked at the first few chapters and then just peeked at what he had done in some particularly difficult places to see his take on things, but I think we are completely different translators and tackled things in very different ways. I don’t want to run the man down, as he isn’t here to defend himself, but I feel that he took a few too many liberties with his translation, filling in a lot of Clarice’s little ellipses and making her sound more conventional than she was.
SG Pontiero’s translation ended famously with, “I shall arise as strong and comely as a young colt,” whereas you’ve translated this as, “I shall arise as strong and beautiful as a young horse.” Can you explain this subtle difference?
AE In her original text Clarice used bela, which is “beautiful.” I don’t see any justification for using a synonym for “beautiful” in this case, as it is a direct match for bela. “Comely” is a less likely choice, with subtleties of its own that are not present in bela. Clarice could have used a synonym for bela, but didn’t. Likewise, she used cavalo novo in the original, which is literally “young horse.” She could have used poldro or potro, the Portuguese for “colt,” but didn’t. My translation is simpler and perhaps less elegant, but I feel it is closer to the original.
SG Lispector was heavily influenced by Spinoza and even included passages from his work in Near to the Wild Heart. To what extent do you need to be familiar with Lispector’s influences in order translate any of her work?
AE Clarice only quotes Spinoza verbatim once in Near to the Wild Heart, and then repeats the phrase slightly differently further on, though she explores some of his themes throughout the novel. Of course, it is useful to know these things, as it can influence the vocabulary you use, but at the end of the day you have to translate what’s on the page, not what’s behind it. In this case, I had to translate Clarice paraphrasing Spinoza, which is different than translating Spinoza himself.
SG Even more than most writers, themes stretch across and seem to morph through Lispector’s books. In translating her first novel, was it difficult not to let your familiarity with her later works inform your choices too much, or was it actually an advantage to have access to those later works?
AE I’m not a specialist in Clarice Lispector, nor have I read all of her books. But I do believe that a work of literature has to be approached as is; that is, as I said before, you have to translate the book that is in front of you. Of course, the better you know a writer, the better equipped you will be to identify their quirks, favorite words, themes, etc. but it probably won’t change the way you translate them.
Ultimately, I think one’s knowledge of the language and culture is still more important than expertise in a particular author (though obviously knowing the author’s oeuvre is better than not knowing it). For example, Clarice often said that so-and-so “dilated” their eyes in Portuguese, meaning “opened them wide.” I came across it a few times in Near to the Wild Heart, and have seen it in other stories of hers, too. As far as I have been able to ascertain, it is a quirk of Clarice’s. It’s nice to know, but it didn’t change my approach to it. It is just as odd a word choice in Portuguese as it is in English—pupils dilate, but we don’t usually say that eyes dilate—which is why I rendered it literally in my translation. On the other hand, I discovered quite by accident—while talking to a woman of Clarice’s generation in a doctor’s waiting room—that her use of another word, which I had found quite peculiar on first reading, was actually the current usage back when she was writing, though it isn’t so usual today. Needless to say, I rushed home and changed my translation of that word to something more conventional.
SG Is there anything that you feel didn’t translate well from the Portuguese into the English in Near to the Wild Heart, and if so, what were the obstacles?
AE I don’t really remember anything specific that I was terribly distraught about, but I do feel that, despite my best efforts to preserve her idiosyncrasies, the translation suffered certain losses. To some extent, this is all in a translator’s day’s work, as no language is a mirror copy of another, but with Clarice it is exacerbated by the fact that she frequently used words that could be interpreted in a number of ways. That’s fine when you’re reading her—a discerning reader will register several of those nuances and move on. When you have to translate her, it’s a different story. Often there isn’t a corresponding word or phrase that offers all of the possibilities contained in the original. So you have to choose—which is a very subjective process in itself—and, in so doing, you automatically narrow her down, pin her to what you think is most important.
SG What is the editing process like for translation? Did you and Benjamin Moser work together closely on this, and was there anything about which you strongly disagreed?
AE Editors, in my experience, are very different animals. Some are hands-off, some are hands-on, but most of them don’t have access to the original, so anything they say or suggest is speculative. It was completely different with Ben, as he knows Clarice’s work back to front in the original. I found the process a lot simpler, because I didn’t have to explain the things that I would have had to if he didn’t speak Portuguese. He was a thorough reader and asked pertinent questions, but I didn’t feel that he was overly intrusive as an editor. I think we’re pretty much on the same page in terms of approach. I liked his translation of The Hour of the Star, incidentally, which I think is telling.
I did consult another colleague—Daniela Travaglini—heavily and feel badly because I forgot to include a translator’s note thanking her for her invaluable input. I have worked with Dani for years, and she is my go-to person whenever I am not sure about something in Portuguese. I have lived in Brazil for 16 years, but the very nature of my work means that I am forever stumbling across aspects of the language with which I am not familiar—new words or turns of phrase—and I always take my questions to Dani first. She is Brazilian and I am Australian, but we both know the other’s language very well, which sets up a nice tension between the two languages as we hash things out. With this translation, I found myself asking her over and over, “Is this word/phrase/sentence as jarring to you as it is to me?” Whenever she was unsure about something, I would write off to another four people simultaneously, to get a range of opinions. On several occasions I got four completely different answers, which just goes to show how difficult Clarice is to pin down. In the end, the decision was mine, but I felt better knowing that I’d exhausted numerous possibilities and that my choices were well-informed.
Sarah Gerard’s fiction and criticism have appeared in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, New South, Slice, and Word Riot, among others. She has written journalism for The St. Petersburg Times and Creative Loafing, and edited a number of journals and street papers. She is a bookseller at McNally Jackson and a graduate of The New School with an MFA in Fiction.