Interview: Rahul Bery

How did you come to translate José J. Veiga’s short story “When the Earth Was Round”?

I occasionally receive books from Brazil’s biggest literary publishing house, Companhia das Letras, who have recently re-edited several of Veiga’s most prominent works. When I saw the collection from which this story is taken (De jogos e festas) on the list of new releases, I was intrigued by the description, by the cover, and by his association with Guimarães Rosa, so I asked to read it for those fairly shallow reasons, having never actually heard of the author. I was so impressed by this story, by its brevity, its wit, by its clear but not overstated relevance to contemporary life, that it seemed an obvious choice for the Brazilian issue of Mānoa. It also reminded me in a way of Borges’ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, which is the first piece of Latin-American literature that totally blew me away as an undergraduate. While I wouldn’t claim that Veiga’s story is quite the masterpiece Borges’ story is—and while, on the other hand, Veiga was certainly more politically engaged than his Argentine counterpart—the humor and especially the ironic, bathetic endings, in which both narrators choose to turn away from their profound discoveries, definitely struck me. Like much of Veiga’s work, it is also profoundly relevant, both to the time it was written and to our current world. When Veiga published this story in 1980, nearly two decades into the dictatorship of 1964–1985, he may have been expressing his disbelief that the Brazil of Juscelino Kubitschek, of Brasília and bossa nova, of “fifty years progress in five” could have descended so far into the regressive brutal government of the 1970s and 80s. Likewise, we might wonder today why so many people, from Brazil to the United States, from Hungary and Poland to my own troubled island, are so ready to embrace ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and denial.

The piece you translated is widely considered a satirical allegory about intellectual freedom and artistic expression during the Brazilian dictatorship. How did you go about translating the core narrative of the piece while maintaining the tongue-in-cheek nature of the work?

I’d like to say I thought about this in detail, but I didn’t really. I just went over it again and again until I felt I’d got the tone. After umpteen revisions, parts of the text were still making me laugh, and I felt that was a fairly reliable indicator that I had in some way been successful. That said, there are clearly some references that might be lost on an anglophone audience, from the mention of figures from the early days of the Brazilian Republic (which warranted footnotes) to the echoes in the last paragraphs of the opening lines to Camoes’s Lusiadas, possibly the most famous poem in the Portuguese language (which I ultimately left as it is); there are also some jokes I don’t quite get myself!

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

It’s been a highly circuitous path, to say the least. I studied Spanish and English literature at university, and briefly considered staying on to do an Mphil in Literary Translation,  but didn’t really learn any Portuguese until I did a Master’s in Latin American studies in London when I was 25. I did a sort of Spanish-Portuguese conversion course designed for people already familiar with Spanish grammar and, building upon a knowledge of vernacular Brazilian Portuguese learned from repeat watches of City of God and a friend and housemate at college who had spent several periods in Salvador, quickly gained an affinity with the language. Plans to travel to Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America were put to rest by the birth of my son that same year, and so I focused on getting a stable job in the form of training to be a secondary Spanish teacher. It was only when my wife’s work took us to Cardiff from London, and I found myself without a job and looking after my now two year-old son full time, that I began to translate, more as a way of keeping my brain active than anything else. I began doing Spanish and then, as a challenge to myself as much as anything, translated a long essay by Daniel Galera for The White Review, which a friend of mine edited at the time. That same year (2014, world cup year), I managed to be selected to spend two weeks in Paraty as part of a winter translation school organized by the British Council and the Biblioteca Nacional, and since then I’ve just gradually done more and more bits of translation, sometimes, but not always, for money. I’ve been reading Spanish and Spanish-American literature since I was a teenager, but my discovery of Brazilian literature, which is far less well-known in the U.K. and U.S., has been a great revelation for me. I’m currently the British Library’s Translator in Residence, a position which does not actually involve much literal translation but is a great opportunity to explore certain themes and meet people, and also a way of increasing my profile. Having said all this, I’m certainly not yet in a position to call myself a professional or full-time translator, and am yet to figure out how to get a full-length translation commissioned/published.

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

I don’t want to sound facetious but I am not really aware of many theories or principles behind what I do. Having said that, I have just read Mark Polizzotti’s excellent Sympathy for the Traitor, and was fascinated to read about some of the more out-there theories. Basically, I’m a bit of a frustrated writer. I love writing and composing sentences, and writing things that sound good, but I’m also not very imaginative and also quite lazy. For me, then, translation is a challenge to write as well and as accurately as one can, but without having to come up with plots, characters, etc. If I have a process, it’s to bash out an often semi-incomprehensible draft as quickly as possible, and then to revise it as many times as possible, with a few emergency emails either to the writer, native speakers, or other translators to smooth out the really difficult bits. For me, the most important things are capturing voice and tone convincingly, and I’m aware that my obsession with how things sound may occasionally cause me to stray into the classic translator’s trap of sacrificing the idiosyncrasy and strangeness of the original (or occasionally just bad writing) to a somewhat conservative desire to have elegant English prose, and I do try to stay aware of this danger. For this same reason, I really enjoy translating art criticism for example, where it’s much easier to justify more convoluted sentence structures or overly Latinate words. I feel less precious, and can have more fun as a result.

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

Apart from a few small jobs that keep me going, and my residency at the library, the bigger projects I have are mostly big pitches, which have so far been unsuccessful, but I still have hope! I want to get someone to let me translate Veiga’s 1971 novel Sombras de Reis Barbudos, which is also something of a political parable as well as a piece of magical realism, a bildungsroman, and like much of Veiga’s work, very funny in places. The other Brazilian writer I want people to read is Campos de Carvalho (1916–1998), whose four novels owe more to the European surrealist tradition than to the main trends of twentieth-century Brazilian fiction, and whose final novel, O Púcaro Búlgaro, is truly sui generis. Other translations I’m working on privately include stories by the Portuguese writer Patrícia Portela, and Tryno Maldonado, from Mexico.