Why I translate literature from Portuguese to English only
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
I was born and raised in Brazil. My great-grandparents were Portuguese and Italian immigrants, and I grew up speaking Portuguese and learning a few phrases in Italian from my grandmother (Mangia che te fa bene! Piano, piano si va lontano.). I attended public schools, where I received excellent instruction in the Portuguese language and Brazilian literature. We read José de Alencar, Machado de Assis, Aluísio Azevedo, Cecília Meireles, Rachel de Queiroz, Érico Veríssimo, Mário de Andrade, Graciliano Ramos, and others.
Language and languages have always fascinated me. In middle school, I started taking English, the only foreign language offered at the time. I loved it so much I ended up majoring in English Language and Literature in college. We read Chaucer and Shakespeare (terribly challenging for someone whose proficiency in English was still developing), Hardy, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Greene, Frost, Whitman, Thoreau, Wilde, Poe, Dickinson, Woolf, Cummings, and others. After my bachelor's degree, I completed a two-year program in English/Portuguese translation. As much as I loved literary translation, I knew that at that time in my life I wasn't equipped to pursue it as a career. I had been teaching English for a couple of years by then and continued doing so, as I enjoyed the work and the opportunity it gave me to continue improving my language skills.
I came to the U.S. for graduate school and earned a master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and a Ph.D. degree in Speech Communication with a specialization, again, in Teaching English as a Second Language. I became a permanent U.S. resident, then a U.S. citizen. I continued teaching English to speakers of other languages and teacher education courses at colleges and universities in the U.S. I raised my children here. I have now lived in the U.S. longer than I ever lived in Brazil.
A professor in my undergraduate program used to say you can only pray, swear, and count in your first language. That hasn't been my experience. I am not religious and don't pray, so I will substitute "pray" with "dream." I count and swear in English and Portuguese in comparable amounts and frequency, though I dream mostly in English, probably because in my daily life I am immersed in English. I have gone back to Brazil regularly to spend time with relatives and long-time friends. I have kept up my Portuguese, learned new slang and expressions over the years, and remained attuned to the culture and sociopolitical climate of my country of origin. I am fully bilingual and a strong writer in both languages.
So why do I translate literature from Portuguese to English only?
I just looked up the website of a large bookseller in Brazil. Of the almost thirty titles advertised on the homepage, three--three!--were written originally in Portuguese: two reference books and one work of fiction by a Portuguese author. No books by domestic authors appear on the homepage of a Brazilian bookseller! Brazilian literature is so vast and so rich. The absence of domestic titles on a Brazilian bookseller's website is a silence that screams bloody murder to me. It is a very sad state of affairs.
This is precisely the situation I encounter on my visits to brick-and-mortar bookstores every time I go to Brazil. Looking around the store displays, one will promptly notice that books by Brazilian authors are far outnumbered by foreign books, mostly translated from English to Portuguese. One reason for this unfortunate--to me, tragic--situation is that Brazilian publishers struggle to put out and market books by domestic authors. There is very little financial support from Brazilian government agencies. Foreign titles come with big name recognition (George Orwell and Neil Gaiman featured prominently on that homepage) and big budgets for distribution and marketing. It is very hard for Brazilian titles to compete.
And that is why I translate literature from Portuguese to English only. There are plenty of English-to-Portuguese translators. My skills are not needed there. I don't mean to blame or criticize those translators. There is a market for their work, and they have every right to do it. It's just not for me. I want to promote Brazilian literature to an English-speaking audience. I live in an English-speaking country. I have the skills to do the work of translating Brazilian literature into English and trying to publish it. I love doing it. And I know that through English translations, important works by Brazilian authors may gain (ironically?) more visibility in Brazil. (I write about this in my article published in Hopscotch Translation.)
That is also one of the main reasons why I started this blog--to write about Brazilian literature, the art of translation, and translating literary works by Brazilian authors. Please read my previous posts about Brazilian writers I love and others I'm still learning about, especially as they reach an English-language audience through recent translations. I am here also to promote the work of other Portuguese-to-English translators.
Torto Arado (Crooked Plow) by Itamar Vieira Jr. will be published in Johnny Lorenz's translation in 2023. I am working on the English translation of Marilia Arnaud's O Pássaro Secreto (The Secret Bird), which I am pitching to publishers. An excerpt of it in my translation appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Northwest Review (print only). I read another excerpt of The Secret Bird for Translators Aloud (@LoudTranslators on Twitter). You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0uMEusLRqo.
Sevastopol by Emilio Fraia is available in Zoe Perry's translation. The Portuguese in Translation Book Club (@PinT_Book_Club on Twitter) will be hosting an online discussion of Sevastopol with Emilio Fraia and Zoe Perry on November 30. The book, consisting of three short stories, is under 100 pages, so there is time for you to read it before the discussion. To register for the event, visit the PinT website: https://www.pintbookclub.com.
If you want to share your thoughts about any of my posts, please drop me a line in the contact section of my website.