Translating Clarice Lispector: A Conversation with Rachel Klein

Ilaria Papini interviews Rachel Klein, writer and translator of Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector.

Ozone Park Journal:  Why did you choose to translate Lispector, what drew you to her?Rachel Klein

Rachel Klein: I was first introduced to Clarice Lispector about fifteen years ago by an Italian friend.  Apparently Lispector was all the rage in Italy at the time because she had been embraced by the feminists.  They were reading her along with Christa Wolf and Ingeborg Bachmann.  Here there were fewer feminists and they weren’t reading these writers, but my husband happened to have a copy of her stories, Family Ties (Laços de Fámilia), which I read.  I was hooked.  A few years later, I wanted to find a story to adapt to the stage for the same friend, who is an actress, and I read through all her stories looking for one, which I found in “The Imitation of the Rose,” about a middle-class woman who is in the process of going crazy.  That, I soon discovered, was a model for the prototypical hapless Lispector heroine.  Lispector created that heroine from the inside out, so in the end you felt that the character was a natural extension of the writer.  At some point, my husband found a Spanish version of her collected stories, and I discovered that two short books of stories had not been translated into English.  Spanish, which I read, is as close as you can get to reading Portuguese in the original without knowing it.  One of the collections of untranslated stories, Clandestine Happiness (Felicidade Clandestina), made me want to learn Portuguese.  So I did that.  It seems a bit extreme, but these stories felt like something that I, as a writer of fiction, would have written myself, if I’d grown up in Recife, Brazil in the 1920s and early 1930s.  We both came from families of Eastern European Jews who had left Russia because of the pogroms (in my case, it was my grandparents) and shared a particular relationship to our childhood that was neither sentimental nor full of regret but was, at the same time, profound.  And later, when I had translated these stories, my daughter saw one on my computer screen, read the first page, and thought that it was a story I had written myself.

OPJ:  Please tell us about your translation process; how you go about it.

RK: First of all, I only translate writers with whom I feel a special bond.  I want to channel their writing rather than translate it.  This includes the Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese, the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, and Clarice Lispector.  That said, I am in a special situation because I am a writer first and foremost, and I translate to learn more about the writing process.  My approach to translation is very simple but also painstaking.  First I do as accurate a translation as possible, consulting native speakers whenever I have questions, then I work it over and over again, concentrating, literally, on each word, to make the result sound like a story or a poem rather than a translation.  I don’t want the reader to struggle with Lispector’s prose in the simple stories that I have translated.  I want the reader to read it in English the way I read it in the original.  Here’s where the channeling happens.  Of course, this obsessive approach would be almost impossible with a long novel, which I would leave to the experts.

OPJ:  What kind of advice would you give aspiring or beginner (or even intermediate or more advanced) literary translators?

RK:  Advice for literary translators:  if possible, translate work that resonates with you and that you can imagine in English.

OPJ: What makes Lispector translatable? Why bring her work into English?

RK:  I think that Lispector’s stories are eminently translatable into English, despite some gnarly syntax.  In each story that I translated, there would be at least one phrase, sometimes several, that made no sense to me.  When I consulted a native Portuguese speaker, he or she would shrug their shoulders and say that it made no sense to them either.  That was the point at which I had to interpret a bit.  The rest of the text generally was quite easy to translate.  To translate Lispector, one has to walk a very delicate path between being faithful to her language and having the story read well and be accessible to the reader.  So I did, at times, take more liberties than I might have with another writer.  I found many of her stories to be so moving and her perceptions so astonishing that I wanted to bring them to an American audience, especially the short autobiographical ones in Clandestine Happiness. These had been passed over and even dismissed because they were about her childhood and often narrated by a child.  She’s a national hero in Brazil, well-read in Europe, but hardly known in the United States, despite the recent biography.  As for her novels, they are much more complex linguistically and metaphysically and would be a real challenge to translate.  I wouldn’t dare to tackle them at this point.

OPJ: What is your opinion re usage: do you favor idiomatic English across the board or are you more partial to a translation with an “accent”?

RK: I think idiomatic usage depends entirely on the work that is being translated.  It’s probably true that all translations need updating: literary texts are embedded in changing linguistic contexts.  But nothing dates as quickly as slang.  There’s an early translation of Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, one of my favorite books, full of 1930’s American slang, and even though I can’t read the text in the original Russian, I know that the translation doesn’t work at all.  With Proust, for example, I prefer Scott Moncrieff to the later translations, even though he isn’t always absolutely faithful to the original.  He worked on the translation from 1922-1930, and apparently Proust had a chance to see the translation of the first volume before his death in 1922 and loved it.  Because Scott Moncrieff was contemporaneous with Proust, he was able to use a more formal language that might seem a bit stilted to us now but was more appropriate to Proust. With Lispector, on the other hand, I strove for the off-hand tone that she often adopts, as if she’s just dashing off a story.  So there’s no definite answer to that question.

First of all, I only translate writers with whom I feel a special bond. I want to channel their writing rather than translate it.

OPJ:  How well do you think a translator needs to know the source language or the country and culture of the original?

RK:  Obviously, the more familiar and comfortable a translator is with an original language and culture, the easier the task will be for the translator.  That said, translators don’t always have the same sensitivity to language that a writer might bring, and this is essential when translating poetry or a writer like Clarice Lispector who is often veers into the language of poetry.  Translating is a complex process that depends on many skills, and getting the words precisely translated is not enough.  English and Portuguese are not equivalent languages, and the translator is often forced to improvise:  a phrase that sounds perfectly natural in Portuguese will be awkward if it’s translated directly into English, a noun that contains within it a gender distinction will have to be at least two nouns in English, and so on.  That’s where the imaginative role of the translator comes in, and no perfect knowledge of another language and culture can substitute for imagination.           

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