Interview: David Brookshaw

What led you to becoming a translator, especially of Brazilian literature?

I taught Portuguese for many years at university. My original specialization was in Brazilian literature, although I also taught Portuguese literature and developed specialist interests in aspects of African and Asian literatures in Portuguese. I was supremely conscious of the fact that I was teaching a widely used but little studied language, and translated literary texts when asked in order to play my part in heightening the profile of the literatures and cultures expressed in Portuguese in the English-speaking world. I remember, for example, translating a short piece by Plínio Marcos, and some of Chico Buarque’s iconic lyrics for an issue of Index on Censorship published in 1979, at the height of the military dictatorship in Brazil. However, it was only over the last twenty years of my career in teaching, from about 1990, that I began to translate literature more regularly.

What advice do you have for aspiring translators?

Translating effectively involves walking a tightrope between the need for precision and fidelity to the original, and creativity when, on occasion, it is more important to translate the spirit of the text, even if that means straying from literalness in order to do so. This is particularly the case with neologisms or wordplay. Primarily, my advice to aspiring translators would be to gain the deepest possible knowledge of the language you are translating from by reading widely in it and, if you can, spending time in the country where that language is spoken. Equally important is to read as widely as possible in your own language, whether original works or those in translation. Translating is a continuous learning process, in which our knowledge of both the original language and our own (the target language) are enriched. It is no coincidence, I think, that my best English teachers have been the authors whose works I have translated!

What theories or principles guide your translation process? How would you describe your process?

I read the whole text first, and then work on a first draft through to completion. I then go through this draft without referring to the original, and make alterations that I think will make the translated text flow better (there is nothing worse than a clunky “wooden” translation). I go through it another couple of times, and on the last occasion, I check against the original to ensure that the translation still reflects its spirit. I consult the author whenever I can.

You also translate the work of Portuguese-language writers in Lusophone Africa. How do the literatures of Brazil and these African countries compare?

Many African writers working in Portuguese have sought to make the language reflect more closely the way it is used in a local environment. Some of them have been profoundly influenced by the example of Brazilian literature, in which writers, especially since the 1920s modernist revolution, have tried to “nationalize” the language inherited from the Portuguese colonizer.

Conceição Evaristo recently nominated herself to the Brazilian Academy of Letters. What is the importance of her work to contemporary Brazilian literature?

The nomination of Conceição Evaristo to the Brazilian Academy of Letters is an important step in recognizing the contribution made by Brazilian writers of African descent, and in particular Afro-Brazilian women writers, to Brazilian literature. Machado de Assis, the first president of the Academy at the beginning of the twentieth century was, of course, a man of Afro-Brazilian ancestry, but Conceição’s arrival denotes acceptance of the notion of Black Literature, which evolved out of the renascent Black civil rights movement in the 1970s, and its inclusion in the national literary pantheon as the legitimate expression of the human concerns and experiences of many millions of Brazilians of African ancestry.

Alan Minas’s novel is based on a film he directed. Have you seen the film? How does it compare to the novel?

I have not seen the film. The novel was recommended to me by a Portuguese associate who works in film.

Do you have any other translation projects on the horizon? How are they coming along?

I have recently completed a draft of a translation of Raul Brandão’s As Ilhas Desconhecidas for an American university publisher. It is a travelogue written by an important Portuguese writer of the early twentieth century about a journey he made to the Azores in the 1920s, and represents interesting challenges in terms of ethnographic, botanic, and zoological detail, as well as linguistic regionalisms. I have just begun a translation of the Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s historical novel, A Espada e a Azagaia. This is the second volume of his trilogy about the final days of the emperor Ngungunyane, who conquered large areas of southern and central Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century before eventually being captured by the Portuguese and exiled (coincidentally!) in the Azores. The first volume in the trilogy, Woman of the Ashes, was published earlier this year. More or less in tandem with this, I shall be translating more of Couto’s shorter narratives as a contribution to a volume of selected short stories to be published by his Canadian publisher. In the slightly longer term, I would love to translate Alan Minas’s novel, which is a beautifully poetic, coming-of-age story that would appeal to both younger and older age groups.