Interview: Heath Wing

How did you come to translate Marcílio França Castro’s writing?

In the summer of 2015, I was in Brazil with the particular intent of finding a new translation project. So I attended the FLIP literary festival (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty), where Marcílio was giving a reading for his new book of short stories, Histórias naturais. To be honest, I missed his presentation, but luckily I came across his book. After reading a few of the stories, I immediately knew I wanted to translate him. Since our paths never crossed at the festival, I admit that I had to resort of stalking him on Facebook. I sent him a message, introduced myself, and told him I wanted to translate for him. Marcílio is from Belo Horizonte, and at the time I was in Rio de Janeiro, about a seven-hour drive away. Luckily, I had already planned a trip to Belo Horizonte with a friend. I was able arrange a quick get-together with Marcílio at his favorite bookstore. We had a great conversation about his work and Brazilian literature in general and, I am grateful to say, he agreed to let me render his wonderful work into English.   

In your preface to the translation, you mention that “Marcílio França Castro transforms his culture’s most unsuspecting spaces into fantastic reading.” Can you expand on these “unsuspecting” cultural spaces and the transformative effect of Marcílio’s writing on them?

Marcílio has a gift for bringing to life the most seemingly insignificant of places. At times his stories take place somewhere so commonly universal that we wouldn’t even assign them a culture. A gas station, for example, is something we are all recognize. It is not unique to any specific culture. But with Marcílio, it’s not the gas station as a whole that matters, but all its parts that place it in a rural town of northeastern Brazil. There are the gas attendants who wave in cars with their greasy rags and fill the tankssomething that is now part of a bygone age in the United States. The antiquated gas pumps with mechanical dials give the reader a sense of a rustic setting that has not yet entered the digital age; then there is the Chevy Veraneio that the protagonist drives, an iconic car specifically manufactured and marketed for Brazilians from 1964 to 1994. Details like these are tidbits of the quotidian that digress into a nonplace. This is what Marcílio does best. This is what gives his writing a taste of the fantastic. For Marcílio, place is something arbitrary to be played with. Inside the same gas station, the protagonist later comes across a type of hardtack biscuit he remembers from his childhood. The place where the biscuit is made, as the character observes, is an invention of the manufacturer, complete fiction. What does this tell us about real and imagined spaces? What about the past and the present? In Marcílio’s fiction, places both real and unreal are often blurred, whether an actual river or the same river on a map, and Marcílio finds ways to exploit our presumptions about the relationship between representation and reality and make us consider fantastic alternatives.

Marcílio’s work runs the gamut from realist fiction of standard length and traditional third-person narration to more experimental flash fiction, with no obvious linearity or clearly established setting, and narratives that unfold according to logic peculiar to the speaker rather than to traditional plot structure. How does this dislocation complicate the translation process, and how do you collaborate with Marcílio to render these shorter pieces into English?

I first must say that working closely with Marcílio on these translations was an absolute delight. Sometimes working closely with a writer can be precarious, but that was definitely not the case with Marcílio. We spent hours on video chat just talking about words and sayings in both languages. Since details matter so much with Marcílio’s writing, and given his occasional usage of Portuguese sayings, you have to go through each text in question with a fine-tooth comb. The dislocation and the way in which Marcílio plays with logic was actually quite liberating for me as a translator. This allowed for some creative license during the translation process. Take, for example, his story “Sobre as letras e as armas,” which I originally translated as “On Words and Weapons.” The story plays with the idea of how words can be weapons in a very humorous way. About halfway through the translation it hit me: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” We have a wonderful saying in English that captures the very spirit of the story. Interestingly, this saying doesn’t exist in Portuguese, even though his story purveyes its meaning. After I got over the fact that I had not originally seen what was so obvious, I changed the title to “On the Pen and the Sword,” and I believe it certainly proved to be a much more impactful title in English. Another one, which Marcílio liked in particular when I explained it to him, was the the more literal title “History of Sacrifice,” which we changed to “Sacrifice 101.” I can think of countless examples like this that strengthened the translations in English while remaining faithful to the original. Cases like these, along with Marcílio’s own insight, are what made the translation process so fun.

You’re also a professor of Spanish. How does literary translation inform your teaching and scholarship? What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing literary translation?

As a Spanish professor, my scholarship is centered on nineteenth-century Brazilian and Argentinian literature, so I would have to say that the most refreshing aspect about translating is that it keeps me current. What I mean by this is that it allows me to step away from the nineteenth century and, since I primarily work with very contemporary writers and poets, it keeps me connected with the current trends in Latin-American literature. This really informs my teaching in the sense that the contemporary Latin-American literature class I teach, for example, tends to have a very current reading list. The last semester I taught the course, I’d say about half of our books had been published within the last two years. I think students really appreciate this. It connects them to the now and offers a selection of texts outside the traditional “canon.” My advice for a student interested in pursuing literary translation—and this may seem typical for a Spanish professor—is to be a student of the language and culture from which you are translating. And I am also not simply implying that a translator must be a student of a language in the institutional sense, though a degree in a foreign language certainly doesn’t hurt. What I really mean, however, is that the more you are in touch with another culture, familiar with its literary tradition and language, whether on your own time, travels, or through schooling, the more possibilities, both intertextually and interculturally, become available to you, thereby rendering a richer translation. The process of translating itself should be used as a tool for learning more about another language and culture. When this is the case, translation enriches the student’s own life as she or he learns to negotiate and appreciate a culture and language different from their own. This is something that I believe our students need more and more of, given the current climate of protectionism and xenophobia we currently have brewing in our country.