Interview: Steven Byrd

João Guimarães Rosa is widely considered the most important Brazilian writer of the twentieth century. He’s originally from the state of Minas Gerais, which you have an academic specialization in. For those unfamiliar, how would you describe the significance of his work to the cultural imagination of both Minas Gerais and Brazil generally?

When people think of Brazil, Minas Gerais isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—if it comes to mind at all. People who are familiar with Brazil generally associate it with beaches, bossa nova, samba, soccer, and supermodels.

Minas Gerais is a large, landlocked state that neighbors the coastal states of Bahia, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. It has a unique, fascinating history dating back to trailblazing adventurers seeking gold and precious stones, by whom important colonial cities were founded, such as Ouro Preto, Diamantina, and São João del Rei. The name, Minas Gerais means “general mines” and is linked to this history.

Later came scores of ranchers, who founded large agricultural estates and ranches throughout the state, whereby milk and cheese production, sugarcane, and later coffee, became agricultural staples. From this history a unique regional cuisine was born, regarded as some of the best food in Brazil. Its classic manioc cheese bread, pão de queijo, and bean dishes like feijão tropeiro are linked to this past. And artisanal cachaças, dotted throughout the state, are also regarded as some of the best in the country. As writer Roberto Drummond noted: If you want to visit Minas Gerais, sit down and enjoy a meal with a mineiro.

Minas Gerais has also been a big player in Brazilian political history. The first independence movement from Portugal was launched in Minas Gerais in the 1780s, known as the inconfidência mineira. And President Juscelino Kubitschek (known as JK in Brazil), a mineiro from Diamantina, moved the capital city of Rio de Janeiro to the then newly constructed modernist, futuristic city of Brasília in the 1950s. JK moreover created a system of industries and a network of roads that linked the interior areas to the coasts. The modern tourism industry in Brazil grew out of these “modernization” projects.

João Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) was born in Cordisburgo, Minas Gerais—a rural town in the sertão, or backlands. He was a doctor by training but had an astute literary eye for his native region. He writes of the land, the people, the language, the customs and wisdom, and the conflicts therein. In my opinion, his literature is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s literary descriptions of Mississippi.

In the course of translating “Infamous,” did you discover anything interesting about the work or author?

Guimarães Rosa has an incredible eye for detail of the everyday, rural people of Minas Gerais, and brings to the page their lives and stories. In “Infamous” the author captures a humorous tale (possibly true, as Guimarães Rosa was a trained doctor) of an “infamous” gunslinger from the region. The narrator’s interaction with this character is both fun and memorable. I also enjoy the unstated social and political conflict between the rise of a modern governmental system in Minas Gerais in the twentieth century vs. the “old school” cowboy-esque customs that reigned in the region at the time. This is something, I feel, the modern-day reader will appreciate and relate to.  

JGR’s language—which frequently employs neologisms, regionalisms, and challenging syntax—is often described as idiosyncratic. To what extent is this true of the story you translated, and how did you respond as a translator?

Guimarães Rosa uses the rural language of the sertão (backlands) of Minas Gerais. Capturing the rural language of the gunslinger was a definite challenge, especially his vocabulary and syllabic articulations, which are of utmost importance in this story. As the translator, my aim is to capture, as faithfully as possible, the unique language and prose of JGR, though trying not to bog down the reader with it.

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

For me, it’s a process of marrying the story to the language. I want a readable, enjoyable story, but also want to capture the original language as best as possible in the translation. There will always be shortcomings—untranslatable words and phrases, etc.—but I keep in mind what Guimarães Rosa asked of the translators of his works: be creative and innovative.

You also teach Portuguese and about Brazilian culture. What learning objectives do you have for students, and how do you go about selecting material to serve those objectives?

When I teach about Brazil, my main objective is to teach students that, culturally speaking, there is no one, monolithic “Brasil,” but many “Brasis.” But, before delving into areas like literature, I show my students a lot of photographs of different regions of Brazil, listen to a variety of regional music styles (samba, bossa nova, sertaneja, forró, rock, etc.), and then move on to films and film clips: Walter Salles’ Central Station, for example, is a gem of a film that shows different landscapes, peoples, and cultures of Brazil, and has been a class favorite over the years.

And, of course, you can’t talk about Brazil without mentioning the great Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, who wrote “The Girl from Ipanema.” That was one hit song, and is an excellent teaching tool to introduce Portuguese language and Brazilian history and culture—not to mention its innovative collaboration with the English language and jazz traditions of the U.S.

When teaching Brazilian literature, I like to stick to the classic works and writers, such as Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, and, of course, Guimarães Rosa. “Infamous” has been a go-to story in my classes for some time.

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

My goal is to translate and publish an academic edition of Guimarães Rosa’s short stories, which has never been done, to my knowledge. I am working with the author’s heirs to see if they are interested in such a project, and will hopefully get started immediately. If not, I plan to continue my research on the food and food culture of Minas Gerais.