Cai Olsen and Dr. James R. Krause, Department of Spanish and Portuguese
João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) was a contemporary Brazilian author whose works were translated into a number of languages and sold throughout the world. Known for writing the great novel Grande Sertão: Veredas, Rosa was well-received in nearly all of the countries where his books were published, particularly throughout Europe and Latin America. Surprisingly, however, Rosa’s works were never successful within the United States, despite being undertaken by the well-known publisher Alfred A. Knopf. One factor that may have influenced such tepid reception in the United States, was translation error, which constitutes the basis of our project.
Rosa maintained vast correspondence between his translators, including his North-American translator Harriet De Onís, who was responsible for many of Rosa’s books sold within the US. Such letters, housed at the University of São Paulo, contain invaluable details about the translation process. Due to copyright restrictions, however, the letters may only be transcribed by hand. My primary participation in the project was to travel to the University of São Paulo, and transcribe, proofread, and analyze the correspondence. Although there is no definite or single answer as to why Rosa was not successful in the US, the letters provide a behind-the-scenes insight of the translation process, and point to several errors that occurred along the way. Ultimately, these findings will be used to co-author a report to be published in the academic journal Ellipsis, as well as publish the Harriet De Onís correspondence.
The process of transcription, although tedious, was relatively simple. The correspondence between Rosa and De Onís are kept in a protective vault within the Institute of Brazilian Studies at USP. I was allowed to retrieve only one box of letters at a time, and was required to wear gloves while handling the originals. Employees of the archives ensured that all letters were returned to their correct place, and that no cameras or recording devices were present at the time of the transcription. After completing the transcription, I went over the entire correspondence once more to proofread for mistakes. During this process, I took detailed notes that would be relevant to our thesis. I also traveled to the Museum of the Portuguese Language, as an exhibit with information about Rosa’s unique linguistic style is present there, to take notes.
Although the letters do not provide statistical data, they reveal a number of problems that occurred during the translation of Sagarana, a collection of short stories, as well as Rosa’s only novel, Grande Sertão. The majority of the letters consisted in lists that De Onís made of the doubts and questions she had about Rosa’s works, with a particular focus on the language complexities. De Onís, who was primarily a Spanish translator, had no experience with Portuguese before working with Rosa. Rosa was famous for inventing his own words, and employing an intricate writing style, making De Onís’s work even more challenging. Rosa was also exceedingly stubborn in regards to very specific word choices, and told De Onís several times that he abhorred “common-place” phrases. Besides linguistic challenges, both author and translator fell ill for long periods of time, causing deadlines to be postponed as well as pauses in the correspondence. Finally, several people, such as Ernesto Dacal and Nina Oliver, were mentioned as being involved in the process, but present a mystery as to how much they actually affected the translation. Rosa’s Grande Sertão was so extensive and difficult that De Onís gave up after translating only a third. The rest was passed off to Professor James Taylor, and the resulting translation was a rough mix of two literary styles that received poor critic reviews. De Onís recognized the weakness of the translation and said, “Too many cooks spoil the broth” (De Onís 1964).
As stated in the article “Arquivos Pessoais São Arquivos” (“Personal Archives” are, in fact, Archives): “‘The most precious archives are those that have no institutional equivalent, that have no copies anywhere, that inform about what is exclusively private,’ affirms French historian Anne Zink. In her opinion, the most significant archives are, above all, correspondences, in which it is possible to identify manners of feeling and motivation'” (Camargo 2002).
This statement greatly applies to our project. The letters highlight the intricacies of the translation process, the personalities of all involved, and information that a simples sales or royalties record cannot. One might question why Knopf continued to support the publication of Rosa’s works despite the initial lack of success. In another archive of letters kept between Rosa and Knopf, we can assume that a great intimacy existed between Rosa and his translators and publishers. Even in light of all the problems, Knopf appears to be more concerned with his friendship with Rosa rather than pursuing an actual business endeavor. Such evidence would be lost without the correspondences.
By studying the correspondence, we become one step closer to the answer of why Rosa was unsuccessful in the United States. Such an extensive collection of letters is an unusual advantage in literary analysis, and must be considered as a legitimate source. We are given an insider’s view of the details of a translation process from one of Brazil’s greatest authors, and perhaps by studying the factors and errors of the translation, similar problems can be avoided in the future. There is, however, hope for Rosa’s career in the United States. Although he has been deceased for nearly 50 years, the Australian translator Alison Entrekin will make a second attempt at Grande Sertão. Perhaps, with the prior mistakes of De Onís and Rosa in mind, this second “broth” will come out just right.
- De Almeida Carmago, Ana Maria. “Arquivos Pessoais São Arquivos.” Revista Do Arquivo Público Mineiro (2002): 27-39. Print.
- JGR-CT-03, °64, Harriet de Onís, 2 de abril de 1964