Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Bruna Dantas Lobato, Writer and Literary Translator

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Born in the Northeast of Brazil and based between New York and St. Louis, Bruna Dantas Lobato once used her Twitter bio to proclaim that she was a writer and translator of all things sad. The bio is no more, but the sentiment remains.

Predominantly working from Brazilian Portuguese into English, Bruna’s translations—such as Moldy Strawberries by Caio Fernando Abreu—deal with queer identity, A¿IDS, and marginalised figures, while her fiction often centres on loneliness and disconnect.

In and amongst actually translating, she also teaches translation, serves on the Board of Directors at ALTA, and is the Communications Coordinator for Words Without Borders. And she makes tiny dollhouses. I wish I’d asked her about that.  

Here, we discuss working with queer writers, reconciling (or not) the simultaneous imposition of and desire for Anglo culture, and being a fan of “small audiences, intimate rooms”.


Lauren Cocking: Tell me about the things you translate.

Bruna Dantas Lobato: I’m intrigued by and drawn to marginalised voices, and so far I’ve worked especially with queer literature. I’ve done a couple of books about the AIDS crisis, when AIDS was mostly affecting gay men in Latin America. After translating so much death and illness and the body deteriorating, this started to take a toll on me. Like: wow, I really translate a lot of dying.

In Moldy Strawberries by Caio Fernando Abreu, there’s also a lot of suicidal ideation, which I wasn’t fully prepared for, though I’d thought I was. Some days I really didn’t want to sit with that feeling for so long. But then in the middle of all the dying, I would find other sources of joy in it—the language, the bearing witness—but certainly not the content.

LC: How do you cope with that kind of intense content as a translator?

BDL: I do a combination of tuning out and just pretending it’s not there. And I try to write away from home. When I was at this very nice residency, I would sit there with death all day, but when I moved away from the computer, I had a beautiful lake with turtles and sunlight and a castle and nice food. It was suddenly very easy to be present in my body and take a step back from what I was doing, so I’ve since been into taking translation vacations.

As a writer I struggle with some of that too. I write a lot about displacement and loneliness, a lot of loneliness. And obviously writing and translating are already very lonely tasks. Sometimes it dawns on me how much aloneness there is in the world. I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I think about that a lot. Like: wow, we’re so alone in the world because each experience is so unique, so particular to that person alone.

LC: I’m curious as to whether loneliness ties into the importance of translation for you. What’s the importance of translation for you?

BDL: Translation, for me, started as an exercise in being in touch with the other people I’ve been, as opposed to just the future of who I want to become, especially in my move to the United States. There was this pressure to be Anglo and to be educated in the Anglo Canon, and I’ve mostly followed it. But I often felt this need to move backwards, to move in the opposite direction, and to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind. There’s already too much loss as it is. So, I was trying to be in touch with Brazilian literature, Brazilian voices, a way of speaking that was becoming unnatural to me when it shouldn’t be. It’s just the nurturing of a mode of being, for me, a mode of existing.

And then the other thing for me, especially translating these queer authors, is expanding the notion of what Brazil is or can be in the west. I think people have such a specific, set idea of what Brazilian voices should be saying. A professor of mine liked to say translation can “increase the capaciousness of English”. I want English to be a little bit broader, more comprehensive, you know? Show that there’s a greater range of life than there might appear just at first glance. The importance of translation comes from that, too.

But as much as advocacy is a big motivating force for me, there’s also that more selfish side. I mostly want to have Brazilian Portuguese in my life, and to be in dialogue with who I am, and make that kind of space for myself.

LC: Has working with queer or marginalised writers always been something you set out to do with translation?

BDL: I didn’t know at that time that I was carving out any kind of niche. It came out of my interests as a teenager [when] I mostly read foreign literature—English stuff: Dickens and Jane Austen, or Cormac McCarthy, but certainly not much Brazilian literature, because I hadn’t been taught much Brazilian literature. And when I was taught, it was with the idea that here’s what’s happening in the slums or here’s violence. It was very superficial.

And then I came across Caio Fernando Abreu and I remember just… I cried and laughed, you know? All the things that should happen when you read a book. He writes these very short, short stories. So there’s nothing like the kind of character development you’re going to see in a novel. No, that’s not the ambition—he is uniquely producing something very Latin American. But I understood that as the kind of artistry that showcases the range of human emotions and I loved how he portrayed failed gay romance or a lot of gay loneliness. The idea that queerness isolates you doubly.

At the time, I was wrapping my head around the fact that my own father was gay. I’ve known my whole life and he’s very open about it, but I never really talked about it to other people. I lacked the language to talk about it. And then reading these stories, I learnt very quickly some kind of queer vernacular that I was missing. It just expanded something in my perception of the world and it took me in a direction I didn’t know I wanted to go.

Then, when I went to college in the US, I took a translation class and this was the only Brazilian book that I felt I had an intimate relationship to and that I could speak to. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it wasn’t a choice. A lot of us don’t have much choice. How much of a choice did I really have on anything? I didn’t really choose English. It kind of happened to me

LC: You mean learning English and speaking English?

BDL: Yeah. The cultural consensus was that if I were given the opportunity to move to the west, I should probably take it, and that’s how I ended up in the English language. When I moved to the States, I didn’t know or didn’t realise how permanent of a move that was, or how it would change me and it would make it impossible for me to go back to the person I was before.

And it’s a little bit how I feel about this kind of literature. I didn’t really choose to become someone who goes to the queer archives of the New York Public Library and watches AIDS documentaries all the time. But once I found myself there, I couldn’t go back. Now that I’ve seen certain things, I can’t unsee them, so I’m even more compelled to keep translating this literature, to keep on seeing the things I’m seeing.

LC: Supposing you had had a choice, would you have left Brazil?

BDL: I would never have left Brazil if I felt that I could have a comfortable life doing what I love there. A big thing that loomed really large when I was little was that I was poor [and] I was very aware of the fact that I was poor because Brazil is so divided. I would see wealth, I would see European tourists, the five-star beach resorts, and I wanted that wealth my whole life.

LC: Literary translation is an interesting choice for somebody who wanted to be rich.

BDL: I know, it’s terrible, I’ll never be rich. But I’ve accepted that, I’ve changed my thoughts on wealth and what kind of wealth I wanted to have, but I dreamed of having a perfect Western life. I wanted to go to boarding school and learn French and learn Latin and be educated and erudite.

There’s definitely this pressure in Latin America to exist vis a vis Europe, and the colonial baggage does not disappear. I’m from a city that was colonised four times over by the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, and the Dutch. That doesn’t go away, right? So, for all my fighting against Eurocentric views, I’m pretty much as Eurocentric as it gets. Not by choice, but because that’s the only way to be successful in this world we have. And I wanted that. I wanted to go to boarding school so bad. I wanted to have beautiful penmanship because that’s what I saw in the books I read, in the movies I watched. I loved A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Little did I know that those are utterly colonial projects, I was just a kid.

LC: I wonder how you reconcile those two sides then, that recognition that this is a remnant of colonialism and yet simultaneously desiring and aspiring to it? Can you?

BDL: I don’t think that I entirely can. I think there’s always going to be this cognitive dissonance about aspiring to whiteness and aspiring to being European and claiming this other side of me. I write in English, and I’m mostly educated in English, and I translate to bridge those gaps.

But it really dawns on me sometimes that this person is that person who was sitting there in the slums practising penmanship. And it does feel very split; it doesn’t feel like those two really go together, and I think that will be my reality forever from now on. When I go back to Brazil, I’m essentially a foreigner, and when I’m here, I’m also essentially a foreigner. And in Portugal, I was certainly a foreigner there. They were like: how did you learn Portuguese? Your Portuguese is so good.

To this day in Brazil, the Northeast [where I’m from] is still very marginalised. We have a specific way of talking and I have a pretty strong accent in Brazilian Portuguese, very partial to that region. That becomes evident when I go to Portugal because they can’t identify my accent as the standard Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation.

So, yeah, I’m constantly having to reconcile with these multiple identities. And I think I bring that into the work that I do, in trying to give my characters and the voices all this room to exist instead of pigeonholing them as one thing or another.

LC: I wonder how this idea of aspiring to whiteness ties into translation and the way that people tend only to value work if it’s been “worthy” enough to receive an English translation.

BDL: That’s such a good point. You’re right. For one, I think that not all things should be translated. Certain things are written for certain communities and it’s perfectly fine if the west doesn’t have access to it. I reject the notion of literature as anthropology. It’s OK for a text to exist in a more intimate context; it doesn’t need external validation. I think in the same way that not all writing needs to be published. I’m a big fan of small audiences, intimate rooms. It’s translation; can you think of a smaller room?

At the same time, I do think there are so many things we benefit greatly from being translated. I think it’s about finding a balance within that and not thinking of picking these texts like plucking something from a culture to display at a museum, and instead thinking of it as more of a dialogue.

LC: You recently tweeted about translators working with texts from the Northeast of Brazil, and how they should consider passing these assignments to writers from there. Can you expand on that?

BDL: I don’t think that’s always the case, of course. There are many entry points to the same text. We have different relationships with the same text, that can appear in the translation, and many translations can coexistent. That’s a great thing.

Say there’s a book from the Northeast of Brazil about a woman struggling with a drought. Maybe I really relate to that woman’s relationship to her body or to her children and motherhood. And that would be my entry point. And that’s fine.

But that being said, obviously the person who has a personal history with that place and positioning of that body has something unique to contribute as well. And I feel like those translators are often kept away from the text precisely because they might not be Western enough, or their link to the text might be stronger than their link to the audience. And that’s considered undesirable.

LC: Julia Sanches mentioned that she’s lost opportunities for not being a first-language English-speaker. Have you ever experienced that?

BDL: Yeah, I have. I’ve gone back and forth about keeping in my bio that I’m a Brazilian writer and translator living in the United States. For a long time, I didn’t have it there. I was just like “Bruna’s educated in these places, and she lives in New York”. And then I was like: that’s so disingenuous. Who’s not going to know I’m Brazilian, just from my name? And also, why would I hide? The people who don’t want me, that’s OK; I don’t want them either.

But I do lose jobs and constantly editors will ask me: oh, but how come you speak English? Are you really fluent? And I explain, but I shouldn’t have to explain. Why do you have any doubts? The work should speak for itself, and I think it does for most people. Though not for me, apparently, I need to answer a couple more questions.

In working with the Northeast, I feel like my experiences of trauma, which are stored in the body, can help me make the text have a pulse in translation. When I feel passionately about something, about a story, I can make it come to life. I can give it that pulse.

LC: I like that idea of bringing a text to life. It makes me think of reviving and then it makes me think of the Spanish revivir.

BDL: Yeah. I think if I have this pulse or this passion already alive within me, I should be given the opportunity to explore my relationship with that text, especially if it’s built-in. It’s such a missed opportunity and often I am kept away from those opportunities, even though I think I can come up with better alternatives for, for example, speaking a Northeastern dialect. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of time to think about that.

I would like to open up those possibilities and I think the gatekeepers won’t do it. It will have to be translators making room for their peers to be able to do that kind of thing. In the same way that I would like to see men making more room for women translating women. It’s not that men haven’t done brilliant things with women’s work before—we know that they have—but opening up those opportunities, giving room for that possibility, needs to come from someplace.

I’m a straight woman translating queer literature and I had to do a lot of research. That’s one way of having a relationship to that or trying to embody those issues. Another way is just having lived through it, and I think a lot about how we’re not all equipped to translate all texts. I guess all I wanted to say with that tweet was: hey, translator who might not be uniquely equipped, the fact that you’re a native speaker of English doesn’t make it the end-all of knowledge and experience for this book. There is more to it than just being born with English.

LC: Absolutely. Can you tell me a bit about your fiction?

BDL: Oh sure, I love to talk about my fiction. No one ever asks, so thank you. Right now, I’m working on a novel about this mother-daughter relationship. They’re basically the only two characters and the novel is mostly set on Skype. It’s about their relationship away from each other and trying to stay close to each other as the two of them change.

So, the mother has just lost her own mother and then lost her daughter to college abroad. And the daughter wants to be fully present in her life and learn about this new place and live in this language, but is also trying to hold on to her previous life.

I’ve long wanted to see a book that used the internet in the way that I experience the internet, which is that it both aids and hinders connection, akin to the fragmentation that I experience in my identity. With two screens, you know, it’s so visual. I also wanted an immigrant novel that was closer to my experience of immigration. I often see these books where people immigrate because of violence or trauma, which is so true of so many people’s lives, but it’s not the only way to immigrate.

And I wanted to see an immigrant relationship where those ties [with home] are maintained, or at least there’s this attempt to maintain them and see the loss that’s experienced there. That’s much closer to my relationship to translation and my relationship to home: looking at it, this image in the distance, and reaching for it and reaching for it and never quite grabbing it. And I just can’t believe there isn’t a novel that does that already.

LC: You also teach translation. What’s the hardest thing to communicate about translation to your students?

BDL: I think the hardest thing is explaining that accuracy goes beyond the literal meaning and that there’s a greater truth. That you have to make a decision about what that truth is and how you’re going to capture that, as opposed to just following some rigid notion of accuracy. A lot of beginner translators are very married to the original semantic, and I have to help them gain a little bit of distance, take a step back and make the hard choices about their work.

LC: What are you working on right now, apart from your novel?

BDL: I’m translating a Brazilian novel called Tokyo Suite by Giovana Madalosso for Europa Editions. It’s about a live-in nanny who works for a rich white family in São Paulo and feels they don’t pay much attention to their daughter. The mother is busy having an affair with another woman and feeling ignored by her husband, and the father is too preoccupied with work, so she kidnaps the girl and takes her to Paraguay to hide in a motel room, in the Tokyo Suite. There’s a lot of racial and class tension in the book, and of course motherhood is a major theme.

I’m also working on this co-translation with Julia Sanches, a story collection called Whirlwind on a Torrid Day by Jarid Arraes. And it’s a Northeastern writer writing about matriarchal families, set in the Northeast of Brazil and about these women who are working class, poor, mostly women of colour. There’s a little bit of humour in it, dark humour.

LC: What are you reading at the minute?

BDL: I just finished reading Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, which is about an interpreter at The Hague who’s translating on behalf of these men who’ve committed war crimes. I’m also reading this poetry collection called Look by Solmaz Sharif. And I should probably recommend at least one translation—Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, translated by Julie Winters Carpenter, is on my nightstand right now. I’m one of those people who reads like 10 books at the same time.

LC: Are there any translators doing interesting things with Brazilian or wider Latin American literature?

BDL: With Brazilian literature, Julia Sanches. She’s an angel. She really is, and a genius translator. And Cristina Pinto-Bailey. She’s working on a really incredible Northeastern novel called Outros Cantos by Maria Valéria Rezende, a road trip novel set in the Brazilian countryside. I’m also intrigued by Johnny Lorenz’s forthcoming translation of Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Júnior, another novel set in the Northeast of Brazil. As for wider Latin American literature: I’m a big fan of Jennifer Shyue’s translations. I adored her Words Without Borders issue on Asian-Peruvian writers.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Header image of Bruna Dantas Lobato is © Jared Krauss.

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