How did you come to translate the work of Murilo Rubião?
I was really taken by the way he masters the very short story, doing so much in three or four pages. The succinctness and tightness of his prose and imagery was what really attracted me. He was a meticulous editor of his work, and the result is a very satisfying precision.
“The Pyrotechnist Zacharias” was previously translated and published. What is the relationship of your translation to the original? Had you read it prior to translating? Generally speaking, what is the importance of retranslating previously translated work?
I didn’t know the story had been translated before, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Each translation is a unique engagement with the original and so valid in its own right (so long as adequately done, of course). I don’t believe in the concept of “definitive” translations, and I wouldn’t use the term “retranslating”, as the newer version in no way diminishes or cancels out the older. You learn a lot about writing by translating other people’s work, so who you choose to translate can often be a matter of who you want to learn from.
What theories or principles guide your translation process? How would you describe your process?
I don’t adhere to any particular school or theory of translation, but the basic principle I try to stick to is that the result should read naturally in the target language while still sounding like the original author. Of course, concessions will usually have to be made on both sides—voice and precision—so the translation process is about trying to strike the best possible balance. Another indispensable factor is research. It’s important to study the vocabularies the text draws from.
Murilo Rubião is known for his magical realist short stories. How does his output compare with that of authors more closely associated with magical realism and the Latin-American boom?
I’m far from an expert in the genre, but in terms of wider Latin-American magical realism, Rubião’s work seems to be a case of convergent evolution: analogous in form and function but sharing no common ancestor. His fiction was inspired by his readings of the Bible and Machado de Assis, without any contact with the Spanish-language magical realists or even European precursors like Kafka (whom he would only read after consolidating his style). In fact, as his first stories were published in 1947, he could be considered a precursor himself, were it not for the fact that his work was so little known, even locally. In terms of the Brazilian literary scene of the day, he was something of a lone cactus in a field of trumpet trees, with no tradition or movement to back him up. So without contact with the genre abroad or at home, Rubião’s “magical realism” turned out to be quite unique, especially in its compactness. The fact that he was a civil servant also favored his bizarrely bureaucratic tone in the face of fantastical predicaments—like being dead or being a magician—and the result is a very Brazilian blend of humor.
Among Brazilian writers you’ve read, whose work has not yet been translated but should be and why? Why do you think it hasn’t been translated yet?
There are probably many, but one I could mention is Carlos Eduardo de Magalhães, for his grittiness and sensitivity. His novels accurately capture and explore life in Brazil”s megacities and satellite towns, where the vast majority of the population lives. He offers an interesting mix that straddles the social spectrum and addresses such thorny issues as crime and social injustice, delivering an often unforgiving portrayal of Brazilian society. I don’t know why his work hasn’t been published in English, but I think it has a lot going for it.
Do you have any other translation projects on the horizon? How are they coming along?
Besides my full-time translation work, I have two pet projects underway. One is a two-part volume of pre and post “concrete” poetry by Décio Pignatari (the concrete setting and the concrete cracking). The other, which I’m only beginning, is a translation of Ferreira Gullar’s “Poema Sujo”.