The Malleability of Language: Silence and Breakage by Sarah Gerard

Sarah Gerard sits down with Johnny Lorenz to discuss his translation of A Breath of Life, the final novel written by the enigmatic Brazilian author Clarice Lispector.

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Photo courtesy of New Directions Publishing

Never before translated into English, Clarice Lispector’s last novel, A Breath of Life, consists of a dialogue between an Author and his creation, Angela Pralini. The novel, essentially plotless, explores the relationships between God and man, author and character, language and time, writing and death. Written simultaneously with The Hour of the Star in the year before Lispector died, A Breath of Life was composed of scraps organized after her death by her friend and assistant, Olga Borelli. Lispector never saw the final draft of her book.

I met with the book’s translator, Johnny Lorenz, at a taverna in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a few blocks from his apartment. Lorenz is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Montclair State University and a young, expectant father. His enthusiasm for translation was immediately apparent as he told me about his current project, a collaborative translation of Spanish poetry, and spoke excitedly about the nuances of translating Spanish as opposed to Portuguese. Lorenz was eager to talk about the curious challenges Lispector presents to translators, and the intricacies of translating such a unique novel as A Breath of Life.

Sarah Gerard Were you at a disadvantage being the first person to translate A Breath of Life, or was there some freedom in that?

Johnny Lorenz When the book was being edited by Benjamin Moser, we had a kind of back-and-forth about every page of the novel. I suppose some people might find that to be tiresome—to go over, again, everything that you’ve done and make changes here and there—but as far as I was concerned, it was a relief to talk to someone about the nuances of translation. Suddenly, I felt like someone was just as invested as I was in getting it right. Or as right as your aesthetic sensibility thinks it should be.

This was unlike other kinds of [translations]—let’s say, a novel where maybe you can focus on the accuracy of the narrative, the plot, where you want to make sure the details are communicated. A Breath of Life doesn’t allow you that. There’s no moment where I can go on autopilot as a translator. It doesn’t allow you to do that because every sentence is so odd.

I suppose as you’re getting towards the end of the novel, you realize something is about to happen at the very end, but you don’t really have a sense of a story, a climax, a denouement. And you basically (only) have a dialogue, so you don’t have a character coming in and changing the dynamic. You’re left, really, with a kind of intellectual journey. It seems almost like a—I think someone said—like a meditation. I can understand that. And there are certain themes that she keeps coming back to.

SG At some points in this book, the voices sound very distinct, and at other times, they seem to sort of spill into each other. Is that her, or is that you?

JL I don’t think that it mattered too much to her to keep them distinct. I know every page intimately, so I know that there are contradictions. There are things that the Author—the male Author—says that are later contradicted, and there are things Angela says that [leave the reader] unsure if the text confuses the two voices, or if the voices begin to contradict themselves. So, I almost prefer to think of this as a voice within a voice. Because, if the Author created Angela, then she can’t be distinct.

If you’re writing a character, you know that, in a sense, that character is going to share some of your tics, some of your intellectual pursuits, and some of your aesthetic choices. And there’s kind of a triple game happening here. Clarice Lispector has created an Author, who’s a male author—so it’s not supposed to be her, but you know that, in a lot of ways, it is her. And he’s creating a character named Angela. And then Angela says, “I wrote a book, and that book is something that Clarice Lispector wrote.” So now you have a character created by a character created by the Author. But Angela, that character, is a lot like Clarice Lispector, herself. So, what’s the point of trying to keep these voices distinct if she’s not asking you to? She’s actually going out of her way to confuse the voices.

SG Lispector explores the theme of God or Nature, and the relationship of God and mankind, a lot in her work. Do you think that’s what she was trying to do here?

JL I think, definitely, she explores the theme of God a lot and I’m never quite sure—

SG —what she’s trying to say, exactly?

JL Well, because I think it changes a lot. I like to think that Lispector asks a lot of questions in her writing, so if it seems that she contradicts herself, it’s because she doesn’t necessarily make an argument that she sticks to. She’s always wondering if, “Maybe I got it wrong, and maybe this is the way to think about time, or this is the way to think about consciousness, or this is the way to think about writing.” I mean, how many metaphors does she have for writing? And they’re always so different. Which is the best metaphor?

There’s a way in which her exploration of language itself is also her way of thinking about God. Creating a character is a godlike enterprise. So, I think there’s no way around it; she’s always coming back to this question. Even when she’s not explicitly thinking about God, she’s thinking about consciousness, beingness.

Just to give you an idea of one of the problems that keeps coming up in translating [Lispector], there are words in Portuguese that are [difficult to] translate. A good example is nada, which you know probably, right? Because it’s “nothing.” It’s the same in Spanish. What I find often—and there’s a wonderful Brazilian poet named Adelia Prado, who a friend of mine has translated. If you’re ever curious, she has a collection called The Alphabet in the Park. And she says something about language and the connection to God, so I think it’s quite a nice segue here—if you want to understand God, you have to understand words like “of.” The little connecting words. Not the big words. Not the words that are a spectacle, but those little connecting words that everyone else ignores, but that are the magic of syntax. I kind of feel like, as a translator, when you’re wondering where the real mystery of a sentence is, sometimes it’s not in the big words that [make you ask], “Well, how am I going to say that in English?” It’s these little, tiny, connective words—a word like “of,” or an article like “the.”

So, to get back to the point about nada. Lispector says something like, “I am going to think of, literally, the nothing.” Now, as an English speaker, I have to think, “Do I say, literally, ‘the nothing’? Do I say ‘nothingness’? Do I say just ‘nothing’?” But I can’t say just “nothing,” because if I say, “I’m thinking of nothing,” that’s not what she’s saying. She’s thinking of something, but she’s thinking of the nothing. But I have to say that when I think of “the nothing,” I think of The Neverending Story. Do you remember this film? There’s a sinister force in the universe and it’s “The Nothing” and it destroys the realm of the imagination so that people don’t have fantasies or dreams anymore. But that’s a weird peculiar thing to me because maybe I was really moved by that movie as a child and so when I say “the nothing,” I’m thinking, “Oh, The Neverending Story, I wonder if my reader’s going to think The Neverending Story. Maybe I should go with ‘nothingness’.” But then “nothingness” is a little bit too abstract, “the nothing” sounds a little bit more forceful.

SG You have to be familiar with the author’s intentions then, pretty intimately.

JL Well, “intentions” I don’t know so much, because I only have the words on the page. You at least have to be confident about how a word is used in context, and then you have to be confident in your own ability to use English to reimagine that context in your language. So, something always gets lost.

SG Is that true with Lispector especially? She’s such a figurative writer.

JL There are times when she’ll use a figure of speech that you just don’t have a good metaphor for in English, so you might then just try to say it more literally because you don’t want to be veering too far away from the point of the metaphor. But you also don’t have a good English version of that metaphor.

SG I’ve actually heard that she’s harder to read in Portuguese than in English.

JL Well, I know that when I would consult with a Brazilian colleague and say, “Hey, there’s a sentence here that I’m just not confident about. I don’t know if it’s weird to you too, or if it’s weird because I’m not understanding something,” sometimes they’d say, “No, it’s weird. It’s just weird. It doesn’t make clear sense.” Or, “She’s taking something that’s a figure of speech and she’s playing with it, so it’s okay that you didn’t really know what to do with it.” [But] this is the problem with translating: you don’t want the reader to think that the translator fucked up, and say, “Oh, this must be a typo.” I wish I could say, “No, I went over this sentence a hundred times, and it’s just going to look like a broken sentence.”

SG Do you wonder what she was trying to communicate with that? Because this and Agua Viva were both written in scraps that were organized posthumously.

JL I mean, sometimes you’re thinking, maybe it just didn’t have a chance to get edited, and that’s the problem. But then sometimes you realize, no, she’s just manipulating the language, and she’s doing something … she’s breaking the language on purpose. And I have to respect that. I think that’s one of the things that’s good about having an editor who’s going to check the impulse to make something sound prettier than it is. Maybe it’s supposed to sound a little ugly here, and [you have to] try to be faithful to that. She’ll write in sentence fragments, she’ll write in terribly long, run-on sentences. And that’s not that much of a challenge because you realize, well, that’s clearly not grammatically correct. She did that on purpose.

SG She has a very troubled relationship with language. A lot of what she does is try to explore the separation between a word and its meaning. Is that maybe what she’s trying to remind us of?

JL In The Passion According to G.H.—one of the things that I really love about that book is the way she’s thinking about language as a limitation. You would think that it’s a tool that gives you access to certain ideas, and she reminds you that at the same time it limits the possibilities, and in that way, language can be an obstacle. Which is why I think in so much of her language, and in A Breath of Life, you feel like on every page silence is this presence that’s just under her language or just next to her language, as though she’s trying to get closer to silence, this impossible wish that you could write silence.

This is where you get into Post-structuralist linguistic theory, right? It’s more or less the argument that Derrida was making—when you’re using syntax, where is the meaning of the sentence? It’s a mystery because you’re always deferring the meaning. You’re never quite sure when and where the meaning happens. Because meaning is about context. And language is already a strange experience of time. If you’re trying to be in the moment, then language is always going to be an obstacle, because it takes a certain amount of time to be in a sentence and then the meaning doesn’t really happen until after the sentence can be reflected upon. So it’s almost as though you’re always too late for meaning.

In a lot of ways, Lispector will exclaim things. She’ll say things like, “Yes!” or “Hallelujah!” or there will be an ellipsis—an ellipsis of silence. Or there will be a kind of broken thought. Or, interestingly, in the one I translated, there’s a blank page. So she’s constantly, I think, showing you the fissures in her language to try to bring silence more visibly into [it].

I wouldn’t say this is an explanation of her aesthetics, but in a passage at the very beginning of A Breath of Life, she says (paraphrasing), “I’m trying to write a book that’s bad on purpose.” And then she amends that and says, “Actually, I’m trying to write a book that’s neither good nor bad. I’m trying to write a book that people won’t ‘like’,” and then she puts “like” in quotation marks, right? And she’ll say that for some people, they’ll see that “liking” a book is superficial.

SG Because what does it even mean to like it? Or is that even the purpose of reading a book?

JL Exactly. They want the comfortable pleasure, the enjoyment of a novel, instead of something that disturbs you, undoes you, forces you to think differently about concepts that you thought you understood. Here’s the passage: “I am making a really bad book on purpose in order to drive off the profane who want to ‘like,’ but a small group will see that this liking is superficial, and will enter inside what I am truly writing, which is neither bad nor good.”

I like that passage.

Sarah Gerard’s fiction and criticism have appeared in BOMBThe Brooklyn RailNew SouthSlice, 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. Her debut novel, Binary Star, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in 2015. She is a graduate of The New School with an MFA in Fiction, and the director of circulation at BOMB.

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