Brazilian Literature: Lost Without Translation

by Tom Moore

Brazilian literature abroad, and particularly its reception in the USA, suffers from a number of factors. First and foremost, the American domestic literary market is so enormous that American readers have a plethora of authors and genres to choose from when they want to pick up a book. Translations of literature from abroad make up an insignificant part of the American literary scene, something quite different from the situation in Brazil, where translations of works by foreign authors may outnumber those by Brazilian writers.

Secondly, when Americans think of Latin America, they think of countries where Spanish is spoken. Why? The USA has a large number of immigrants from Mexico, and an increasing number from Central America. American airports, subways, public offices now have signage in Spanish as well as English. At the college level, Spanish is by far the most popular foreign language for study, usurping the position that once belonged to French. Latin American literature has an infra-structure in American universities, a large number of professors who know the culture and the authors. And while these professors may also read and/or teach French, virtually none of them have studied Portuguese. This has effects all the way down the educational system — elementary schools may have (largely ineffective and useless) instruction in Spanish, but no primary or secondary schools teach Portuguese, and only a tiny fraction of colleges and universities do.

Thirdly, the world-renowned authors from Latin America (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Isabel Allende) already have a huge presence and brand recognition in the market, making it difficult for other brands to get a niche.

When Brazilian literature is taught at universities in the USA, it is almost always taught in translation, since no one is capable of reading it in Portuguese. This inevitably gives a spin to the choice of works studied, since a very substantial portion of Brazilian literature is unavailable in translation into English. It is certainly true that most literary works worldwide are never translated, but in the case of Brazil it is striking that major authors with decades of publication in Portuguese have never had a single work translated (or at most, one or two). Who gets translated often seems to depend on what is “sexy” in academic circles (e.g. Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) who seems much more prominent outside Brazil than inside).

Untranslated Brazilian authors (exceptions as noted below)

Cecília Meireles (Rio de Janeiro, 1901–1964) — Meireles, for whom the most important concert hall in Rio de Janeiro is named, is certainly among the most eminent women writing poetry in Brazil, and indeed in South America. The late translator Paulo Rónai wrote of her “I consider the lyricism of Cecília Meireles the most elevated of modern poetry in Portuguese.” In addition to her invaluable lyrics, Nova Fronteira has recently reissued multiple volumes of her crônicas(+) on travel, education and other topics.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Itabira do Mato Dentro, Minas Gerais, 1902–1987) — Along with Meireles and Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade completes the trinity of Brazilian twentieth-century poets (the great Vinícius de Moraes, the “poetinha”, merits a place as well, but more for his lyrics and influence on popular music than for his volumes of poetry). Drummond’s verses are known to any educated Brazilian, even those not particularly given to poetry, and “No caminho tinha uma pedra” is perhaps the most famous of all Brazilian poems. Unlike so many Brazilian writers, who made their living as journalists, Drummond held a position in the federal government from 1930 until his retirement. In addition to his poetry, he published 14 books of crônicas(+). At present there is one volume of translated poems in print in English. These three deserve to stand with the greatest of Latin American poets. Why don’t they? Only because they did not write in Spanish. Also available in English is Carlos Drummond De Andrade and His Generation, a collection of sixteen original research papers dedicated to the contemporary Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade presented at an international colloquium held at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Rubem Braga (Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, Espírito Santo, 1913–1990) — Rubem Braga was a lifelong journalist, something that often is considered as an inferior subspecies of littérateur, but the author managed to make his crônicas(+) into a fundamental contribution to Brazilian literature at the highest level — lyrical, introspective, philosophical. One might think of the author as a modern, tropical, urban Michel de Montaigne. He published sixteen collections between 1936 and his death in 1990, and practically all of these remain in print, a testimony to their lasting interest and charm.

Fernando Sabino (Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, 1923–2004) — How to describe Fernando Sabino? He was a widely-traveled journalist, prolific author of crônicas(+), short stories, and a few novels — charming, light, brilliant, and an important publisher. He founded the Editora Sabiá publishing house with Rubem Braga. Perhaps one might think of him as the literary reflection of the cultural moment of bossa nova, giving a sense of the everyday life of the middle class in Copacabana and Ipanema as that girl walked down to the beach.

Carlos Heitor Cony (Rio de Janeiro, 1926 -) — Cony has a long and illustrious career as a writer and journalist, and during Brazil’s long struggles with military dictatorship was notable for his political action and writings, being arrested six times on political charges. He produced eight novels between 1958 and 1967, and a ninth in 1973, which, he tells the reader in the preface to Quase Memória, he promised himself would be the last. Quase Memória (1995) is a “quasi-novel” as well, and began a series of five more late novels. The author has made an important contribution with six volumes of crônicas(+). I am partial to his recollections of suburban Rio in The Harem of the Banana Trees. One of his novels is available in Spanish, another in French, but none in English.

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão (Araraquara, São Paulo, 1936-) — This paulista author, who presently contributes crônicas(+) to the daily newspaper Estado de São Paulo, is one of the only Brazilians to work extensively in the area of fantasy. We often think of fantasy as having to do with dreamworlds, full of elves, dwarves, wizards, but Brandão’s imaginings have more in common with the potent paranoia of Philip K. Dick — everyday life makes a sharp turn and heads in directions perpendicular to reality. The author has two works translated into English, Zero (reissued by Dalkey in 2003), and And Still the Earth (Não Verás País Nenhum, Avon, 1985), both of which could be classified as dystopias. My personal favorites are the short stories (nightmares, really) from Forbidden Chairs, Monday Heads, and The Man Who Hated Mondays, none available in English, alas. Cabeças de Segunda-Feira is out-of-print, even in Portuguese.

Oswaldo França Junior (Serro, Minas Gerais, 1936–1989) — Most writers in Brazil come from training in letters or journalism — there seems to be a wide gap between those in technical or scientific areas and those with a background in literature, a gap perhaps explainable by a Latin prejudice among the moneyed elites against anything that seems too much like work, work being something relegated to the plebs (and until 1889, to the slaves). This means, among other, things that there is a vanishingly small tradition of science fiction in Brazil. This is not the case for the late Oswaldo França Junior, another mineiro. França was an aviator in the Brazilian Air Force in 1961 when the populist governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Leonel Brizola, called on the people to defend democracy in Porto Alegre. França led the faction within the Air Force opposed to using air power against the Palácio Piratini, but this meant that he would be removed from his duties soon thereafter, and sacked. The author’s work has a lyrical yet realistic character that neither belittles nor exalts the working man, but takes him on his own terms. Particularly memorable (and innovative in terms of style) is the narrative in Beneath the Waters, in which the focus moves so gradually from one protagonist to the next that it takes one a while to realize that there will never be “one” protagonist, but that this is the story of all the characters’ interlocking stories. The work depicts a region which is about to be submerged by a hydroelectric dam, hence the title. Unlike most of the authors in this survey, França was lucky to have three works appear in English: The Man in Monkey Suit (Ballantine, 1989), Beneath the Waters (Ballantine, 1990) and The Long Haul (Dutton, 1980).

Luis Fernando Verissimo (Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, 1936-) — Verissimo is probably among the best known and most loved writers in Brazil, despite the fact that his chosen form, like that of Rubem Braga, is the three or four page short-short. Unlike Braga, whose crônicas(+) were often lyrical meditations, Verissimo, the son of a very successful novelist, has a genius for capturing character and wit in a minimum of space (a brilliant example is Lixo [Trash], a 600-word romance between two lonely neighbors who meet when throwing out their garbage at the chute in the corridor). Since the number of novels or even short-stories from his pen is tiny, he does not get the respect he deserves as the funniest writer in the country. Two recent short novels, The Club of Angels and Borges and the Eternal Orangutans appeared in English translation in 2002 and 2005, respectively, but the best remains inaccessible to English readers.

Roberto Drummond (Vale do Rio Doce, Minas Gerais, 1939–2002) — Roberto Drummond was born in Ferros, Minas Gerais, and moved to Belo Horizonte as an adolescent to go to high school. In his teens and early twenties, he was a militant communist, but with the military coup in 1964, it would no longer be possible to be communist in Brazil, and many went into exile. Drummond became a journalist, and made his mark writing about soccer. For a while he worked for Jornal do Brasil (the most important newspaper in Rio at the time) and lived on Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana (Mineiros are often drawn to the ocean…), but finally moved back to BH. Though he produced short stories, novels, crônicas(+) (like all Brazilian journalists), he will be remembered for Hilda Furacão, a fictionalized memoir/novel of his youth in BH, a best-seller when it was published in 1991. The book is a nostalgic look back at an innocent time, when it was possible for a beautiful young woman from the upper classes to become infamously successful as a whore — so sought after that there was a line of potential customers down the sidewalk in front of the hotel where she plied her trade. Translated into French, Italian, even Swedish, but not into English, it was adapted as a novela for Globo Television in 1998 (the set is available on DVD), starring Ana Paula Arósio and Rodrigo Santoro.

Sérgio Sant’Anna (Rio de Janeiro, 1941-) — Though his bibliography includes novels, carioca Sant’Anna tends more toward the short story. His Senhorita Simpson, the tale which gives the title to a collection published in 1989, portrays an American woman teaching English in Rio de Janeiro, and was adapted as a vehicle (Bossa Nova) for his American wife, Amy Irving, by Brazilian film director Bruno Barreto. Perhaps understandably (but regrettably), the filmscript softens the rough edges of the story and of the city, producing a dreamy love story for an almost virginal widow mourning her late husband, a Brazilian pilot, and pairing Irving as the beautiful blond with the most-beloved Brazilian actor, Antônio Fagundes, whose fatherly girth doesn’t detract from his popularity with his female fans. The result is a pastel postcard with none of the grit (and none of the on-the-surface libido) that gives spice to life in Rio. It’s too bad because the original is far more complex and attractive (with lots more sex, by the way), and much more faithful to Brazil.