This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Few things are as intense as a nightmare, and few things as tedious as hearing a description of one. Feelings are not easily converted into words: the abstract, oceanic universe of memories which have such emotional resonance for the dreamer, can only be communicated through one instrument – language – which is, inevitably, more restricted. When we wake up, all we have to evoke our anguish and fear are generic words like ‘anguish’ and ‘fear’.

The same can happen when dealing with a historical nightmare. A recent article by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker showed that, twenty years after the war in Rwanda – when the Hutus murdered 800,000 Tutsis in the space of a hundred days, in a spiral of hatred fermented by colonialism and by the UN looking the other way – it is still difficult to reach a consensus on what name to use to describe what happened. In Rwanda itself they discuss whether it would be best to choose a word from the local language or from the language of the colonisers, whether verbal precision is enough or if a neologism is called for in order to describe the tragedy.

Similar debates arise out of any collective trauma. There are Jewish groups who reject the established term ‘holocaust’, with its suggestion of sacrifice and the expiation of sins, in favour of the less ambiguous ‘shoah’ (‘calamity’ or ‘annihilation’). In Turkey, it is still taboo to use the word ‘genocide’ to describe the Armenian massacre begun in 1915. In Brazil, something similar is happening in the struggle for recognition of what was and is being perpetrated against indigenous communities.

These are small battles within a long and difficult war, that of passing on memories so that the horror is not repeated. Words are the first and sometimes only weapon available to the victims of any attempt at extermination, and it’s important to find some way of ensuring that they do not become mere slogans deploying a vocabulary approved by militants, and do not betray the nature of what happened.

It is, therefore, also a matter of aesthetics. That’s where the parallel between historical narrative and literary fiction comes in. In both cases, the repeated use of words, even if these are morally correct, can produce entirely the wrong effect, by making those words banal, solemn or overly sentimental. A book that merely describes what happened in Rwanda or during the Holocaust as the terrible massacres that they were, will simply be repeating what the newspapers said and what more informed readers already know. To touch the sensibilities of the more demanding reader, to arouse their empathy and provoke their discomfort and to encourage some practical action (if non-violent activism is the objective) requires more than the mere repetition of the truth of the facts.

A careful eye must be kept on the truth of the language used as well. The most distressing writings about Rwanda, like those of Gourevitch himself, somehow find a balance between their extreme, incandescent subject and the informative distance needed to describe it. A film like Schindler’s List, which depends on empathy, shocks and tears, makes use of a certain narrative amorality in order to have a moral impact on its audience.

As a novelist, and especially in a book like Diary of the Fall, which deals with a subject that has been written about time and again – the effects of the Second World War on three generations of Jews – I was faced by just such a challenge. From the start, I knew that I would have to balance language and invention, using changes of narrative pace and other techniques in order to bring the characters and their dramas to life, to achieve the paradox that characterises the most successful literary examples: lying as a way of telling the truth.

Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for nearly thirty years and has translated novels and short stories by such writers as Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga. She has won various prizes for her work, most recently the Calouste Gulbenkian Translation Prize for The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão, for which she was also runner-up with her translation of António Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World. In 2013 she was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2014 was awarded the OBE for services to literature.