May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

What follows is the inaugural essay for Rear View Mirror, a new column that aims to reintroduce neglected and undervalued authors to a new audience. Under the aegis of HOW magazine, the editors encourage you to explore these works, to find them in your libraries, to pass them to friends, to add your voice to the comments section, and, most importantly, to keep these precious books alive. . . .

Rear View Mirror #1

João Guimarães Rosa was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In a language of puns and invention, with winding narratives of love and adventure, and characters larger than life, he created an entire cosmology out of the primitive Brazilian hinterlands. His masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas—or as it is seen in the USA, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—is an epic love story as gritty as a Sergio Leone flick, but as vertiginously modernist as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The publishing house Knopf has held onto the rights of this novel since 1962: long out of print, copies go on the marketplace for hundreds of dollars. The  World Library agrees with the marketplace’s valuation, placing the book on its top 100 novels of all time, putting it on a shelf with like-minded relatives such as Ulysses, Moby-Dick, and Absalom, Absalom!  Here, the writer Felipe W.Martinez discusses Rosa’s work, laments the state of translation in the United States and shines the light on this almost forgotten, great author. . . .

The Higher The Level Of A Work, The More Does It Remain Translatable Even If Its Meaning Is Touched Upon Only Fleetingly, Or: João Guimarães Rosa, The Whole Wild Word

There must be innumerable authors we’ve never heard of before. Whose work is long out of print, or was written in another language and never translated, or never happened to fall into our line of sight. Writers who didn’t succeed, or never had much to offer, or who had brilliant ideas and stories to tell, but who failed to be noticed. There are countless reasons why we readers may be ignorant of any given writer. In the United States, when it comes to foreign literature, I’m certain this is largely due to the fact that only a tiny fraction of our literature is translated from other languages. I won’t go into statistics. But what I wish to assert here is that we must acknowledge that our knowledge of foreign literatures has, in large part, depended upon the decisions made by publishers who are, especially in the case of large publishing houses, businesses with bottom lines.

Now, whether a lack of monetary gain or secret conspiracy (as many have joked) is to blame for the dearth of material available by the Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa, no one can be sure. What is certain however is that, in the United States, Guimarães Rosa continues to be one of the most unduly neglected Latin American writers of the twentieth century.

João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) is renowned in his native Brazil as the preeminent literary figure of post-world war II modernity, and yet, he’s virtually unknown in America. You can’t buy his books unless you’re willing to search diligently, and, on top of this, they are egregiously expensive. Further, three of the four extant translations are of debatable quality.1

Between 1963 and 1968, English translations of three of Guimarães Rosa’s works were published in the United States by the prominent publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Not a single volume was reprinted after its initial run, resulting in the works’ virtual disappearance from the book market.

1963 saw the translation and publication of Guimarães Rosa’s magnum opus, Grande Sertão: Veredas, translated: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Initial sales are reported to have been made primarily to scholars, writers, translators, and university libraries; after which, demand, and therefore sales, declined rapidly, until, presumably, the publisher recognized no further motivation to warrant a second printing. This English translation, of what had been deemed a seminal novel in the history of both Brazilian and world literature, was, in the opinion of lusophone scholars, a travesty. What in Portuguese was a mercurial treasure trove of language and thought, had been reduced in English to a simple “spaghetti western.” Translation is a very dangerous business.

The plot of Grande Sertão: Veredas is both simple and complex: a 600-page monologue, in the original Portuguese, pared down to 500 pages in English, relates the single history of a single man, the narrator and protagonist, Riobaldo, to a silent and unidentified interlocutor, a doctor and visitor to Riobaldo’s ranch. Riobaldo is a retired Jagunço, a hired gunman of the Brazilian Northeast, and his history is one ripe with undertones of Zen and Faust. Peopled with characters on the margins of society, Riobaldo’s story is one filled with interrogation, engaging the reader via its proxy, the doctor, in an experiential cacophony of stories and narrative lines weaving poetically through the Northeastern Brazilian backlands, otherwise known as the Sertão: a region historically regarded as primitive, backwards, and isolated from modernity. The Sertão was rejected by early explorers, missionaries, governments and commerce as a vast and fruitless expanse of semi-arid desert wasteland. Guimarães Rosa, like his predecessor, Euclides Da Cunha, envisions and labors to approximate the mythopoetic character of this long-neglected and rejected landscape, with its vibrant and volatile history and geography.

Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s Macondo, the Sertão in Guimarães Rosa’s work is both a physical and psychological reality riddled with mysteries and inconsistencies–just like the history of Brazil and its memories. Grande Sertão: Veredas mirrors and reinvents the struggle of the Sertão to survive and thrive in the face of an absolutely morphological existence. Just as the fictional landscapes of Faulkner and Garcia Márquez are a microcosm of the world, the Sertão in Guimarães Rosa’s fiction is as much about the backlands of Brazil as it is the whole of the world. And like all great literature he uses the Sertão and its inhabitants to explore the themes of life and death, the capaciousness of language, the meaning of names and social mores; the good that is inseparable from evil; and the lies found deep in certain truths.

Along with the winding ways of the novel’s multivalent narratives is the intricate and singular nature of Guimarães Rosa’s language. From a very early age, Guimarães Rosa exhibited a strong interest in the languages of the world, and by the time he was an adult, he was fluent or semi-fluent in seven of them, and read in several more with the aid of a dictionary. So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Portuguese of Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas is a Portuguese, in many ways, all its own, and that at times it is less Portuguese than a fusion of two or more languages. Guimarães Rosa wished to create, what he called, a pre-Babel language – one that was primordial and intuitive, even if strange at superficial glance. He is famous for his invention and employment of the carefully placed yet surprising portmanteau, which might entail anything from the archaic to the colloquial to the all together invented. So singular and calculated is Guimarães Rosa’s prose that it is, still today, a challenge even to the practiced Brazilian reader–much in the same way James Joyce’s work is to the English speaker.

The North American translator of 1963, Harriet De Onís, was a tried and proven translator of Spanish and Portuguese, however, her approach to translating the work was by most definitions insufficient.2 Rather than grappling with the unique stylizations of Guimarães Rosa’s prose and enduring to bring them into the English language in new form, De Onís opted to take a safe, approach: to translate the novel so that English readers could read and comprehend with little trouble. This decision would prove detrimental to the reception of the work. Where Guimarães Rosa, in Portuguese, had created a work filled with twists and turns (in language, plot, character, and environment), De Onís’s translation flattened out practically all the linguistic wrinkles: at times all together eliminating prose she was not confident the English reader would be able or willing to digest. Harriet De Onís’s translation, by many accounts, resulted in a translation of action without motivation. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was never reprinted.

In the face of such seemingly insurmountable challenges posed by Grande Sertão: Veredas, it should appall no one that English’s first foray into the translation of Guimarães Rosa’s masterwork was not a perfect hole-in-one. Yet, since 1963, the dominating discourse in English concerning the translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas has taken refuge in one word: impossible. In an effort to agitate this stagnate attitude, I defer here to the twentieth century literary critic and translator, Walter Benjamin, and his ever-important essay, “The Task of the Translator”, when he writes: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. [ . . . ] The important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.”

We can argue that an English translation is possible, only the decision to take up the task has not yet been made. And it is in the light of this brilliant idea that I revisit the history, life and afterlife of Joao Guimarães Rosa’s work, with the hope that new generations of readers will expand their reading, thoughts and work beyond the political, geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders set by the narrow belief that we can learn only from that which falls within the scope of our own language.

I submit to the English reader that we should read João Guimarães Rosa now, especially now, when we live during a time in which we tout such words as globalization, hybridization, hyperconnectivity, and experimentalism . . . our goal: to ensure these terms are deeply reflected, through translation, in our new culture, which is, just as was Rosa’s world, constantly changing.

1 In reference to the three North American translations published in the 1960s. In 2001, the British translator, David Treece, published The Jaguar & Other Stories, which is laudable!

2 With later assistance by James L. Taylor

Felipe W.Martinez, 2012

FELIPE W.MARTINEZ studied Literature & Writing at UC San Diego. He is the creator of AMISSINGBOOK.COM, an online literary project that aims to investigate the absence of Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa from English literary discourse. He lives in San Diego, California, where he works in public education.

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