Translating Clarice Lispector: A Conversation with Johnny Lorenz

Editor-in-Chief Eric M.B. Becker spoke with translator Johnny Lorenz to talk about translating Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector. In 2013, Lorenz’s translation of A Breath of Life (New Directions, 2012) was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.

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

Johnny Lorenz: My name was recommended to Benjamin Moser, the editor of Johnny Lorenzthe four-book Lispector project published by New Directions.  I was thrilled by the opportunity to translate A Breath of Life (Pulsations).  I am an associate professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and I had been teaching Lispector in my literature classes, so I was quite familiar with her work.  I was born in the U.S., and English is my native tongue, but my parents are Brazilian, so I speak Portuguese as well.  This particular book had never been translated into English before, so it was really exciting to take on this project – and quite a challenge.  Lispector is unique in her approach to language.  I often feel like she’s writing from scratch, or that she’s thrown away the rules of “good” writing because the rules are too limiting.  In A Breath of Life, the narrator actually comments on this: the desire to write something that’s not meant to be “liked.”  Lispector doesn’t string pretty words together.  Her language feels to me like something… violent.

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

JL: I’ll just say a few things about translating A Breath of Life.  I reread the book, circling moments that were problems for me as a translator – in those moments I felt I might need to consult various dictionaries or Brazilian colleagues.  For instance, a sentence might have appeared to me to be grammatically “wrong,” or a figure of speech might have been reinvented by Lispector in an odd way—and with such moments it was helpful to talk through my questions with someone (particularly someone who knows Lispector’s work).  In general, though, the process was something like this:  I’d make a quick translation of about five pages.  Then I’d go back and revise.  And revise.  And I’d show my draft to the editor.  Then I’d revise again.  Then we might disagree about twenty little moments in those five pages (no kidding) and we’d discuss some more until one person had convinced the other.  Benjamin Moser was really hands-on in terms of participating in the final draft of the translation, but I have to say that for me, personally, this was a relief, because translation can be such lonely work.  Defending your translation, arguing for decisions you’ve made—this can only make your work stronger, I believe, and make you more confident about the quality of your translation.

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

JL: Remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation.  A translation is not a mirror to the original.  The translator must always find creative solutions.  Realizing this allows the translator to have more fun and enjoy more flexibility—this is important to good work, because the burden of creating an “accurate” translation can be debilitating.  One wants to be faithful to the original, but there are many ways to be faithful.  Also, the translator works with the silences of a text.  Sometimes we are tempted to say too much in a translation, in an effort to push our own interpretation of a passage.

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

JL: Her work is original.  She was doing something new with the Portuguese language.  I feel the same way about João Cabral de Melo Neto (the great Brazilian poet).  I feel the same way about Emily Dickinson, for example, in the English language.  These are writers who take their language and make it strange again.  Lispector forces the reader to explore his or her own relationship to language.  It inspires a kind of wakefulness of the mind that is not exactly easy to sustain.

OPJ: What are the particular challenges of bringing Lispector into English? Why bring her work into English?

JL: To translate Lispector, I had to think a lot about the awkwardness of her syntax.  I had to recreate that awkwardness in English.  Maybe “awkwardness” isn’t quite the right word.  Maybe her syntax feels… disjointed.  She is constantly interrogating words, pressing them, stripping them down, exhausting them.  There is a difficult balancing act here for the translator, because I didn’t want these sentences to read like a clumsy translation!  But I wanted the sentences in English to be as weird and as wonderful as they are in Portuguese.  Here’s an attempt from the first page of the novel:  “Could there be a number that is nothing?  that is less than zero?  that begins where there is no beginning because it always was?  and was before always?”  I need not tell you that I spent many long–sometimes, I admit, agonizing–nights translating lines such as these!

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

JL: I translated a short story by the Brazilian gaucho writer Simões Lopes Neto called “The Old Ox,” published in Brazil: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.  I didn’t want the Brazilian cowboy to sound too much like an American cowboy, so I often avoided using phrases we’d be familiar with from old westerns.  I don’t know if I was right to do this, but I felt the narrator would sound like a Brazilian imitating a mythic American figure, when in fact that would be a terrible mistake.  I wanted the to sound new and fresh and original to American readers.  But on the other hand, I lost some of the rural “flavor” of the text because I couldn’t always effectively translate some of the gaucho slang without making it sound like it was John Wayne talking, which I was trying to avoid.  So I’d say that every translator has to make some tough decisions, and these decisions have advantages and disadvantages.

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

JL: Tough question.  Hmm.  It’s difficult to say when one has sufficient knowledge of a language or culture, so I can’t really answer this question.  What matters is simply the quality of the translation itself.

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