Academic journal article Chasqui

"Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth": Mistranslating Grande Sertao: Veredas into Oblivion

Academic journal article Chasqui

"Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth": Mistranslating Grande Sertao: Veredas into Oblivion

Article excerpt

Nao procuro uma linguagem transparente. Ao contrario, o leitor tem de ser chocado, despertado de sua inercia mental, da preguica e dos habitos. Tem de tomar consciencia viva do escrito, a todo momento. Tem quase de aprender novas maneiras de sentir e de pensar. Nao o disciplinado--mas a forca elementar, selvagem. Nao a clareza--mas a poesia, a obscuridade do misterio, que e o mundo. (Guimaraes Rosa, 4 Nov. 1964)

A masterpiece in an obscure language [...] will remain unread. (Armstrong, Third World Literary Fortunes 13)

Over half a century ago, Grande sertao: veredas (1956) appeared in English translation as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1963). Today, however, Joao Guimaraes Rosa's masterpiece remains in the shadows of obscurity in the United States. The work of Guimaraes Rosa came to the attention of publisher Alfred Knopf via Harriet de Onis, the accomplished translator of Hispanic literature. (1) She considered Rosa to be in the same class as William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges (2) while Brazilian critics considered Grande sertao: veredas the local equivalent of Joyce's Ulysses. (3) The cultural elite in Brazil embraced his hyper-aestheticism even if the most erudite reader had trouble deciphering his esoteric style. Critics recognized his brilliance, even though they did not fully understand it. In 1956 Rosa received the Premio Machado de Assis (4) but the greatest expression of the elite's adulation was when he was unanimously elected to the Academia Brasileira de Letras in 1963, an honor he postponed until 1967 (Coutinho, "Guimaraes Rosa" 333). Abroad, writers and critics familiar with Brazilian literature embraced his innovative style. Juan Rulfo, who had a profound interest in Brazilian letters, commented: "Sobresale Guimaraes. Era de una inventiva y una originalidad barbaras [...]" (9). Carlos Fuentes echoed Rulfo: "Grande sertao: veredas [...] is the greatest novel of his country." In the United States, specialists in Brazilian and comparative Latin American literature reacted enthusiastically. As just one example, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, an early champion of his work, observed: "Guimaraes succeeded in completely revolutionizing the style and diction of twentieth-century [Brazilian] narrative" (677). He considered Grande sertao: veredas "one of the most complex works of fiction ever produced in Latin America" and declared that Guimaraes Rosa was "beyond dispute Latin America's greatest novelist" (Borzoi 678-79). (5)

Seeking to capitalize on Rosa's initial critical success at home, Knopf published The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, translated by Harriet de Onis and James L. Taylor. In spite of the strong backing of literary critics, academics, and the concerted efforts of one of the best US publishing houses for Latin American literature of that time, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands underperformed commercially, failed to gain critical footing, and quickly went out of print. Other than scholars and students familiar with Brazilian literature, few people know the work of Guimaraes Rosa in the United States, which has hampered his place in the burgeoning field of Inter-American studies. While a number of factors influenced this lukewarm response, one reason frequently touted but rarely explored in depth is the translation process itself. In regards to Latin American literature in English translation, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is one of the best case studies of unfulfilled expectations and editorial imposition in the translation process.

In this article I will pinpoint the editorial decisions and translation strategies that essentially simplified the text, and as I argue, resulted in its tepid reception in the United States. I wish to organize my comments around three points. First, I provide a brief overview of the editorial strategy in translating and promoting Guimaraes Rosa's work in the United States. I also discuss the early critical reaction to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.