Interview: Diane Grosklaus Whitty

You have a well established working relationship with Eliane Brum, having translated much of her writing. How did you first come to work with her?

My first translation for Eliane was a sample chapter for the forthcoming Graywolf book, which I did in November 2015. I believe Alison Entrekin was busy and gave Eliane my name (thank you, Alison!). About a month later, I translated a piece for PEN America’s issue of Glossalalia: Women Writing Brazil, and that solidified our working relationship. But we really sealed our writer-translator bond the night former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. The Guardian had asked Eliane for an opinion piece. I enjoyed watching history unfold as voting proceeded late into the night—and so did we, Eliane drafting and redrafting, and me translating “in real time.”

The piece you translated for this volume, “Burial of the Poor,” comes from a forthcoming collection of Brum’s translated non-fiction to be published by Graywolf Press. To what extent is this piece representative of the entire collection? What other subjects does the collection touch on?

“Burial of the Poor” is quintessential Eliane Brum: a story of invisible or overlooked lives, a point of view that illuminates dark corners, language that shuns the cliché, plus a sock or two in the stomach along the way. The collection is drawn from two books. “Burial” comes from A vida que ninguém vê (The life no one sees), a collection of short feature articles profiling people who are usually ignored by the press; they were originally written for the newspaper Zero Hora. The other book, O Olho da Ruauma reporter em busca da literature da vida real (literally: The Eye of the Street: a reporter in search of the literature of real life), consists of much longer feature articles, including how midwives “catch babies” in the Amazon; life in an old folks’ home in Rio de Janeiro; the unnerving sound made by the sickened lung of an asbestos plant worker; and a portrait of Ailce, a woman with terminal cancer who lets Eliane share in her last three months of life.

Translators often state that their work is to render a work written in one language into another such that the meaning or effect of the original is recreated by the translation. What did you identify as the meaning or effect of “Burial of the Poor,” and how did you reproduce it in English?

I don’t have any conscious notion of achieving a specific effect in mind when I tackle a translation. I hope that is achieved by my being as faithful as possible to the author’s voice, in every translation choice I make. This means paying attention to patterns, repetitions, tone, word choices. In “Burial,” for example, I mimicked Eliane’s echoing of certain phrases: She begins retelling the story in the fifth paragraph; later on, she starts two consecutive paragraphs with similar phrases. I think these repetitions serve to remind us that this story is repeated over and over in the lives of the poor. It also seemed especially important to reflect her simple sentences and the starkness of structure that drives the story forward. And as always, I did my best to match her unusual twists on old language. For example, she plays with the expression “viver dos outros”—to live off others—by changing it to “morrer dos outros”—“to die off others.”  Since “dying off” was understood by some test readers to mean “a significant proportion of some population dies,” I had to make an addition to the English so that it reads, “There is nothing sadder than the burial of the poor because there is nothing worse than living and dying off others.”

You’re an interpreter as well as a translator. What similarities and differences are there in the skillsets required for these activities? What advice do you have for aspiring translators?

I work primarily with non-fiction, particularly academic. In both fiction and non-fiction, I want to remain faithful to author and audience. In non-fiction, that often means striving for a text that meets the criterion “sounds like it was written in English”—in other words, something more domesticated. With my academic clients, I also find myself doing minor (or even major) editing along the way. As a result, I interfere much more in the original text. Frankly, I love this chance to stick my nose in, but I also love communicating about the real world and about social issues. Eliane is my dream client: the real world, real and pressing social issues, all wrapped in exquisite prose.

As I see it, fiction requires much greater fidelity to the author’s voice. A very simplistic example: while I might replace an often-repeated adjective in an academic text (where everything tends to be “importante”), I will think twice when an author repeats a word in fiction, recognizing that a good writer uses words purposefully.

As to translation versus interpreting: the main difference might be the perfectionism factor. With translation, I have many chances to tackle the same challenge, correct my own mistakes, and try to find the best word. With interpreting, I’ve got just one shot at it.

My advice to aspiring translators of non-fiction is to specialize, and learn to love CAT tools. Aspiring fiction translators: read as much literature as possible in both your target and source languages. And, since I only know of two people who make a living doing nothing but translating fiction, be ready to enter the market gradually, while earning money in other ways.