The second in our series with Granta on writers and their translators, José Eduardo Agualusa and Daniel Hahn share an embrace.
I – LIGANDO MUNDOS, INVENTANDO MUNDOS
José Eduardo Agualusa
O narrador de um dos meus romances, “A Rainha Ginga”, é um tradutor – um padre brasileiro, com sangue indígena, africano e português, enviado para Angola, no final do século XVI, para trabalhar como intérprete para a Rainha Ginga, ou N’Zinga M’Bandi.
Levei a vida inteira para escrever este livro. Passei anos lendo velhos textos sobre a história de Angola, conversando com especialistas, colecionando documentos que mencionassem aspetos menos conhecidos da extraordinária vida da grande rainha. Queria escrever partindo de um olhar africano, de alguém que se movesse na corte de N’Zinga, mas não sabia como fazer a ponte para o mundo que estava invadindo aquele, e, sobretudo, para o nosso tempo. Uma tarde, sem aviso, emergiu dentro de mim a figura do padre, o tradutor, Francisco José, e então comecei a escrever e só parei nove meses depois. Francisco José não é apenas um tradutor (um língua, como se dizia então) – ele é um mediador entre mundos. Cabe-lhe a ele o esforço de traduzir universos.
Eis, afinal, o difícil ofício de todos os tradutores. A parte mais fácil é a de encontrar na língua de chegada a palavra que melhor espelha a da língua de partida. Difícil mesmo é traduzir conceitos. Se um escritor enfrenta o desafio de ser outros, sempre que entra na sua ficção, ao tradutor cabe o desafio duplo de ser esses outros num idioma remoto, e conseguir que, ainda assim, todos os personagens soem coerentes e convincentes, como se aquela língua fosse a deles desde o leite materno.
Um escritor raramente escolhe os seus tradutores. Com sorte, é escolhido por eles. Se tiver mesmo muita sorte, encontra um companheiro para a vida, alguém capaz de partilhar com ele a aventura de inventar e reinventar mundos. Eu tive essa sorte na língua inglesa. Fui o primeiro autor de ficção que o Daniel Hahn traduziu, e ele foi a primeira pessoa a ocupar-se da tradução de um romance meu. Assim, começámos juntos. Daniel é o meu língua no idioma inglês. Devo-lhe, em larga medida, o sucesso internacional dos nossos livros.
Um escritor que tenha a desventura de ver os seus livros recriados para um determinado idioma por múltiplos tradutores há-de parecer, nessa língua, um tanto incoerente e despersonalizado – por muito bons que sejam todos esses profissionais. Em contrapartida, um autor medíocre, beneficiando de um único tradutor extraordinário, pode até transformar-se, nessa segunda língua, num escritor sólido e interessante. Há casos assim, de tradutores que aperfeiçoam de tal forma as obras originais que o melhor a fazer em benefício destas seria retraduzi-las de volta.
A Rainha Ginga teve, na vida real, secretários e tradutores, portugueses e brasileiros, homens da igreja, como o meu personagem, que traduziam para português a correspondência que esta lhes ditava. Desta forma, o que hoje tomamos por falas da rainha, pela expressão direta do seu pensamento, é, na verdade, uma recriação dos seus tradutores. Assim acontece comigo. Também eu sou, enquanto romancista em língua inglesa, uma invenção de Daniel Hahn. Um abraço ao meu criador.
II – CONNECTING WORLDS, INVENTING WORLDS
José Eduardo Agualusa
Created by Daniel Hahn)
The narrator of one of my novels, Queen Ginga, is a translator – he’s a Brazilian priest, with indigenous, African and Portuguese blood, who is sent to Angola at the end of the sixteenth century to work as an interpreter for Queen Ginga, or N’Zinga M’Bandi.
It took me my whole life to write that book. I spent years reading old texts about the history of Angola, talking to experts, collecting documents that mentioned lesser-known aspects of this great queen’s remarkable life. I wanted to write from an African gaze, a story as seen by someone who moves about in N’Zinga’s court, but who doesn’t know how to build the bridge connecting it to the world that’s invading his, and, especially, to our own time. One evening, without warning, a character appeared inside me, the figure of the priest, the translator, Francisco José, and then I started writing and only stopped nine months later. Francisco José isn’t only a translator (a língua as they used to say: a tongue) – he is a mediator between worlds. It is his role to strive to translate universes.
That, ultimately, is the difficult task faced by all translators. The easiest part is finding the word in the target language that provides the best mirror-reflection of the one in the source language. What really is difficult is the translating of concepts. If a writer confronts the challenge of being other people each time he enters into his fiction, the translator is faced with the double challenge of being these others in a distant language, and yet still managing, somehow, to make every character coherent and convincing, as if this language had come to them with their mothers’ milk.
A writer rarely gets to choose his translators. If he’s lucky, he is chosen by them. If he’s really very lucky indeed, he finds a friend for life, somebody capable of sharing with him the adventure of inventing and reinventing worlds. I had just that very luck in the English language. I was the first writer of fiction Daniel Hahn translated, and he was the first person to take on the translation of a novel of mine. We began together, then. Daniel is my língua in the English language. To a great extent, I owe the international success of our books to him.
A writer who has the misfortune of seeing his books recreated for a given language by multiple translators must inevitably, in that language, seem somewhat incoherent and depersonalised – however good all those professionals might be. On the other hand, a mediocre writer, benefiting from a single remarkable translator, can even be transformed, in this second language, into a writer who is substantial and interesting. Such cases do exist, of translators who improve the original works to such an extent that the best thing one might do for them would be to translate them back.
Queen Ginga, in real life, did have secretaries and translators, from Portugal and Brazil, men of the church, like my character, who translated into Portuguese the correspondence she dictated to them. In this way, what we today take as quotations from the queen, as direct expressions of her thinking, are in reality a recreation by her translators. So it is with me. I, too, as a novelist in the English language, am an invention of Daniel Hahn’s. I’m sending my creator a hug.
III – CONNECTING WORDS, INVENTING WORDS?
(After an original idea by José Eduardo Agualusa)
Agualusa starts thus: The narrator of one of my novels, Queen Ginga, is a translator – (OK – sorry to interrupt, but Queen Ginga will have to be in italics, otherwise readers will think she’s the narrator referred to. Whereas the narrator is actually…) a Brazilian priest, with indigenous, African and Portuguese blood, who is sent to Angola – taking out a comma here, I think – at the end of the sixteenth century – and another – to work as an interpreter for Queen Ginga, or N’Zinga M’Bandi. (Possibly add a little gloss here – my readers likely won’t have heard of her. Though maybe readers of the original wouldn’t either? OK, leave it for now.)
And so it begins.
para: this one looks – oh – surprisingly easy! I shouldn’t say that out loud.
Agualusa is often very much easier to translate than I’ll admit. (Don’t tell
anyone.) He goes on: It took me my whole
life to write that book.
God, I’m glad I’m not a novelist. (Sorry,
that last bit’s me, not him, obviously. Don’t mind me.) I spent years reading old texts, collecting documents, etc. (Etc.
etc. This bit’s a doddle.) Ah, now the priest character appears to him: Then, one afternoon, without w–. Oh
You wouldn’t think ‘one afternoon’ would be the biggest challenge in this paragraph, would you? But Agualusa’s ‘tarde’ covers some of what we’d call the afternoon, and some of what we’d call the evening – *sends JEA e-mail asking ‘What time exactly did imaginary priest materialise?’*. (This afternoon/evening thing is a recurring annoyance in my work, and there are many similar examples – languages are precise or imprecise in entirely different ways. English basically needs a new word coined and all my troubles in the world will be over – eveternoon, perhaps. Or afterning. No?)
I do like the idea of a writer being possessed by the spirit of a translator, btw – we usually talk about just the opposite happening, of course. Revenge!
Anyway, on we stumble: Francisco José is not only (isn’t only?) a translator – a língua, as they used to say (oh, shit – OK, I’ll come back to that), he is a mediator between worlds. It falls to him to make an effort to translate universes. Wait – ‘Falls to him to make an effort to’ is horrible, though. To struggle to? But that seems to emphasise the unlikelihood of his managing it. Can I get away with a word like strive, which is such a lovely word? I think I can.
To strive to translate universes. Yes – nice. I’m quite pleased with the clarity I’ve retained from that line of Agualusa’s. He couldn’t have put it better myself. Or vice versa.
But back to that ‘língua’. The word means ‘tongue’ (in the same double-sense as English, both language and organ in your mouth), so I might drop in a little gloss for my Anglophones who don’t know this: Francisco José isn’t only a translator (a língua as they used to say, a tongue) – he is a mediator between worlds. But there’s another problem, which is that ‘língua’ meaning ‘tongue’ is a feminine noun (uma língua); here, used as a sort-of-synonym for translator-person, it’s masculine (um língua). Christ, I hate writers. ‘He is a tongue man’? No, that absolutely doesn’t help. I think I just have to live without that little gender-swap, tbqh. Not entirely satisfactory, but this time I’m going to admit defeat. I wouldn’t usually, but I have a deadline, and, well, my work happens in the real world, and circumstances here are sometimes imperfect.
(Aha – answer just in from author-oracle email: the imaginary priest materialised late in the tarde, which is to say, in the evening. Good – strange things are more interesting when they happen in evenings than in afternoons.)
looks like para 3 at least I can speed through. That, ultimately, is the difficult task faced by all translators.
(All translators, but especially those
whose writers use language-play involving changing the gender of nouns that aren’t
gendered in English. Just saying.) If a writer confronts the challenge of being other people each time he
enters his fiction, the translator is faced with the double challenge of being
these others in a distant language, and yet still managing, somehow, to make
every character coherent and convincing.
Yes! (Oh, sorry – the interjection is me
again.) This is well said. I agree, obviously. Naturally I don’t need to agree
with the substance of everything I say on behalf of my writers, but it helps! A
good sympathetic match between writer and translator can be a blessing.
Which – oh – is exactly where it looks like paragraph 4 is going.
A writer, we continue, rarely gets to choose his translators. If he’s lucky, he is chosen by them. If he’s really very lucky indeed, he finds a friend for life. Yeah, I think I’m going with friend, but the Portuguese companheiro can be companion, collaborator, partner, comrade depending on context, and none of them neutral, so I am simply choosing, based on what I presume to claim about my relationship with my author. The word companion would be better, in the sense of a travelling companion, a fellow traveller, except that a companion for life suggests the wrong things. A friend for life, then, capable of sharing with him the adventure of inventing and reinventing worlds. (A lot of vent-ing in that line – advent/invent/reinvent – but it’s the same in Portuguese so I should probably just grit my teeth and go with it.) I was the first writer of fiction Daniel Hahn translated (God it’s weird writing stuff like this in the third person – I know it’s meant to be in his voice, but I’m here, too, you know!). We began together. Daniel is my língua (I know, I know, I’m a failure – don’t @ me) in the English language. To a large extent, I owe to him the international success of our books. No, hang on – sorry! – that sounds unnatural to me – ‘I owe to him the success’? More natural would be to reorder as ‘I owe the success of our books to him’ – though ending the paragraph in this way now shifts more emphasis onto the final ‘him’. (Me!) Yeah, OK, my ego and I can live with that. (Also, what a nice thing to say!)
A writer who has the misfortune of seeing his books recreated for a given language by multiple translators must inevitably, in that language (this word is repeated in English, where it isn’t in Portuguese – damn – no matter, ignore it, no one’s going to notice…), seem somewhat incoherent and depersonalised (right word?). On the other hand, a mediocre writer, benefiting from a single remarkable translator, can even be transformed, in this second language, into a writer who is solid (this is the ‘correct’ translation of the Portuguese word, but doesn’t work for me – robust? substantial?) and interesting. Great.
And so to the conclusion.
(That was quick! Well, it’s easy when you know how…)
Queen Ginga did have secretaries and translators who translated into Portuguese the correspondence she dictated to them. What we today take as quotations from the queen are in reality a recreation by her translators. So it is with me. I, too, as a novelist in the English language, am an invention of Daniel Hahn’s. And then comes that lovely final line, in which he sends a hug to ‘my creator’. (So tempted to capitalise that as Creator. Would be nice to make a Shakespearean ‘onlie begetter’ reference, too, but he hasn’t so I mustn’t. He hasn’t so I mustn’t – good translators’ rule of thumb, that.) Actually ‘sending a hug to my creator’ is less natural in English than a ‘sending my creator a hug’, so let’s go with that – also thereby redeeming me for the earlier paragraph where I moved the ‘him’ to the end – here the reversal is opposite, balancing out, with the object in question (still me!) moved slightly away from the focus. That’s it. A lovely simple ending:
I’m sending my creator a hug.
And thus, as a humble, invisible translator, I let him get the last word.
Well, since I’ve broken cover and am here anyway, companheiro, I’m sending you a hug back.
José Eduardo Agualusa is a novelist and a reporter, born in Huambo in 1960. He studied in Lisbon and currently lives in Portugal, Angola and Brazil. In 2007, Agualusa was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and in 2013 the Fernando Namora Prize, as well as a translation grant from English PEN in 2014. His novel A General Theory of Oblivion was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and was awarded the International Dublin Literary Award 2017.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with sixty-something books to his name. His translations include six novels by José Eduardo Agualusa, with whom he has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. He is on the board of English PEN.