One of the most iconic and complex reads in Brazilian literature, "Grandes Sertões Veredas" by Guimarães Rosa is an undisputable classic. Perhaps for the Brazilian reader its glory lies in its rich and intricate vocabulary, something that would challenge even the most experienced translator. But Alison Entrekin is well up for the challenge. She has taken this herculean project of translating the story of Riobaldo and Diadorim from its original Portuguese into English. The project is sponsored by Itaú Cultural and translation is well under way. Here, Entrekin talks a bit about the process and what comes with it.
OBLIQUE: Alison, I think it is safe to say that your name is now forever associated with Guimarães Rosa’s. Grande Sertões: Veredas is a ‘A metaphysical novel’, according to Antonio Cândido, the equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses. Have you ever lost sleep over the huge task of translating it, or have woken up suddenly, after dreaming of Riobaldo? Basically, what I am trying to ask is why, Alison?
ALISON: Strangely, I haven’t lost any sleep over it yet. But it’s early days. I tend to get really obsessive in the revision phase.
As for ‘why’, that’s a very good question, one I’ve been asking myself lately. I think it has something to do with the difficulty. I like linguistic intricacy, puzzles, Rubik’s cubes, detective work, solving things, that moment when things go ‘click’. I find translating poetry relaxing. It seems the more complex something is, the more I manage to switch off an otherwise hyperactive brain. I go into a kind of meditative trance. I think this might actually be therapy for me!
The other answer to that question goes without saying: Grande Sertão: Veredas, previously published as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is one of Brazil’s greatest classics and deserves a place in the world literary canon. I only hope I can do it justice.
OBLIQUE: Following is an extract from the translation made by James L Taylor and Harriet de Onís in the 50s or 60s, if I am not mistaken:
About the devil? I have nothing to say. Ask the others around here. Like fools, they’re afraid even to mention his name; instead they say the Que-Diga, the What-You-May-Call-Him. Bah! Not me. Over-avoiding a thing is a way of living with it. Take Aristides, who lives in that palm grove there on the right, on the creek called Vereda-da-Vaca-Mansa-de-Santa-Rita. Everybody believes what he says: that there are certain places, three of them, that he can’t go near without hearing a faint crying behind him, and a little voice saying: “I’m coming! I’m coming!” It’s the Whoosis, the What-You-May-Call-Him.
A 1963 hardcover Knopf copy of “The Devil to pay in the Backlands” is for sale here in the UK for 422 pounds, even if the criticism on the transition had been harsh, to say the least. Have you read this version? Would it help the process or, as a matter of fact, make your work more challenging?
ALISON: There are people who love the 1963 translation, which has completely domesticated Rosa’s peculiar prose, for the story alone. It doesn’t read badly at all, on the contrary! But it’s like reading Grande Sertão: Veredas reset in the American West. I’ve read several chapters of it. It doesn’t impact on my work in any significant way, as I am trying to reproduce Rosa’s style, which the first translation doesn’t do. Occasionally I take a peek to see how they interpreted something. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t, but anything that serves as a springboard for other ideas in this initial interpretive process is useful.
OBLIQUE: Teachers usually recommend Rosa's work in secondary school. Do you think Guimarães Rosa could be introduced any earlier than that?
ALISON: Probably not. I think one needs a certain maturity to get a handle on the philosophical and existential aspects of the book. Riobaldo’s constant questioning, together with the novel’s unique language, requires a seasoned reader.
OBLIQUE: What would be a good day at work, a productive one?
ALISON: Right now, in the drafting stage, half to one full page in Word per day. Very messy pages, full of notes to myself, lists of synonyms for a particular word, different versions of the same sentence. Most of my time is spent poring through dictionaries and
thesauruses, on paper and online, consulting the O Léxico de Guimarães Rosa or Dirce Riedel’s marginalia, mulling over word combinations – attempts to marry content with style, without getting too bogged down in the details at this stage.
OBLIQUE: Are you able to list the last 3 books you read? Would you recommend any of them?
ALISON: The unpublished manuscript of Adriana Lisboa’s latest collection of poetry, Pequena música; Jantar Secreto, by Raphael Montes; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and Earthing: The Most Important health Discovery Ever, by Clinton Ober, Stephen Sinatra and Martin Zucker. That’s four. All excellent. I’m currently reading Lucrecia Zappi’s Acre, which is so absorbing.
OBLIQUE: You are from Australia. Have you tried pão de queijo with vegemite? Who is your favourite Australian author?
ALISON: Pão de queijo with vegemite is an excellent idea! Why didn’t I think of that? I think the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan is brilliant, and I just love Helen Garner, whose Monkey Grip is one of my favourite books ever.