Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Padma Viswanathan, Author and Translator of Brazilian Portuguese

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Padma Viswanathan is a Canadian writer based in Arkansas with her husband, the translator Geoffrey Brock, their parents and children, and an “ever-shifting array of animals”. As well as teaching fiction writing and literature at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, she’s also a would-be playwright and published author. Her two novels – The Toss of a Lemon (Mariner Books, 2009) and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Soft Skull Press, 2015) – were both bestsellers.

Most recently, she’s begun to translate Brazilian fiction, including work by Adelice Souza. However, her most recent title is a re-translation of São Bernardo by the lauded Brazilian novelist Graciliano Ramos. Eric Puchner described her translation as “soulful”.

Here, we discuss the challenges of translating São Bernardo, the boundary breaking work done by independent presses, and class as one of the biggest barriers to diversity in translation.


Lauren Cocking: On your website, you write that you’re Canadian by birth and temperament. How does that particularly Canadian temperament manifest itself in your translation practise, if at all?

Padma Viswanathan: I think of Canadians – and I don’t know how much I include myself now anymore, having lived over a third of my life in the US – as being both humble and funny. I like to think that those are two things that I try to emulate. But that line was sort of in there for laughs [although] I say sorry a lot. That’s true.

LC: You consider yourself a novice translator, as well as a teacher and fiction writer. How did you come to translation?

PV: I started as a playwright but really feel my natural home to be in fiction; I’m primarily a novelist. I became interested in Brazil 25 years ago, mostly through the music and through an interest in syncretic religious practises and religious histories. The part of India that I’m from, Tamil Nadu, also has an extremely interesting syncretic history.

So, I was investigating that for my first novel and around that time, some 25+ years ago, I also encountered – along with a lot of other people – Brazilian popular music for the first time, and I learnt about Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Elis Regina, and others. And somehow this coalesced in my mind into an interest; I started looking more and more into Brazil and I [learnt] Portuguese.

And then I landed up in Arkansas and started to really feel like the language and the culture were slipping away from me. I had already translated just one short story by a writer from the northeast of Brazil, ‘The Blue Women’ by Adelice Souza.

I was uncertain about my Portuguese language skills, so when I was moaning about not having people to speak Portuguese with, my husband [Geoffrey Brock] – who’s a very accomplished translator – suggested I look for a text that needed retranslation. And that was part of what led me to São Bernardo by Graciliano Ramos.

LC: Why did he suggest you look for a book that could be retranslated?

PV: I think so that I would feel a little more confident if ever I worried that I had gotten something wrong, that there would be at least one other direct source that I could check it with, especially because it was a dead author.

I know [the previous translation by R. L. Scott-Buccleuch] saved me from at least a couple of errors. I also found errors and omissions in his book, but there were a number of cases where I was uncertain about something. And so then I would refer to his and just see what he had to say. Often, I differed either lexically or interpretively with his choices.

[And] I have different what we now call ‘issues’ with the translation. I certainly took a different approach.

LC: Yeah, I’ve read what you wrote about the challenge of translating this novel and the way in which Ramos seeks to, perhaps, bamboozle the reader with obscure idiom, which you took a very considered approach to replicating in your translation. Did you ever worry that would confuse readers unfamiliar with the source material, that they’d assume it was a bad translation?

PV: [Ramos] never admitted to making up any of those idioms. He says that he collected all of them and most of them were unfamiliar to him. I found a whole glossary, published long after the fact, to the expressions in that book, many of which are not found in any other print source.

I asked my dear friend Sheila Ribeiro– who’s very literary and very literate, and her mother comes from the Northeast – [about] a number of them, and she was stumped by so many of them. And she was the one who told me, I think Graciliano Ramos wants people to be shut out of this. And as soon as she said that it made so much sense, given the narrator’s position in the book. He’s somebody who comes from obscure origins and rises to wealth, and who has a simultaneous desire for inclusion and contempt for these classes.

So, I just felt that if I normalised all of those expressions, if I made them more legible, it would certainly be a disservice to the book. But I was pretty assiduous about trying to track the incidence of normal expressions vs unusual expressions that you can understand vs expressions where you have no idea what’s going on, and I tried to replicate the numeric incidence of each of those in my translation.

It was also a question of character. The book is in first person, so if I had made it any more transparent, he would not be as I had read him.

LC: Lots of outlets have drawn comparisons between Ramos and Faulkner. I get the feeling that these constant (and quite opinion-skewing comparisons) are frustrating to you. Would you agree?

PV: Sure. I don’t know what it’s like when your mainstream is French or German, but here in the Anglo-American world, this is how we flatter writers from elsewhere. By saying they’re Brazil’s William Faulkner or India’s Graham Greene. But the power imbalance quasi-disguised in those comparisons can feel insulting and pernicious, [as if] the only way you can sell a book to North American audiences is to compare an author to Anglo-American authors they already admire.

Now, of course we’re more likely to be attracted to authors if we have some sense of their stature and possibly their style, but in this case [the comparison] was pernicious because [Ramos’] style has nothing to do with Faulkner’s, you know?

In the book that I translated, there are a number of quite interesting ways that we might compare the main character to Thomas Sutpen [from Absalom, Absalom!], but I would not say that readers of Faulkner will necessarily gravitate toward Ramos.

I think a little bit of that grouchiness comes out of originating, myself, in India and feeling as though this happens too often to writers who are considered to be from other places or marginal cultures. That they need to be made palatable, accessible from a mainstream point of view, instead of being introduced as like: “look, there is something very new here. There’s something very fresh.”

I was talking to somebody recently about one key difference I see between commercial houses and independent houses. It seems to me that commercial houses are mostly looking for the next [version of what] had previously been successful. In my case, it was the next Arundhati Roy, or, you know, the next writer of the same ethnic background as you. (Laughs.) [Meanwhile], the independent houses are looking for the thing nobody’s ever seen before and that’s why it tends to be the independent publishers that move our art forward. You know, it’s Coffee House Press that first published Valeria Luiselli. Various people who really break boundaries for us, they come up first in those places, [like] Deep Vellum or the Dorothy Project.

So, the pernicious comparisons? I feel as though there are literary ecosystems that draw on those more than others and I don’t see the independent, visionary houses doing that in the same way that the big, commercial presses want to.

LC: It’s sort of like the bigger presses often seem to have a desire to anglicise literature in translation, and that comes part and parcel with erasing the translator from the cover, almost pretending that the book wasn’t originally written in another language.

PV: Yeah. And, also, [smaller editorials tend to be] publishing way wilder translations. If you really want to see things that are so challenging, so different, that’s often the place to look.

LC: Definitely. Thinking more about translation again, is it quite solitary or is there actually more community there than people imagine?

PV: Oh, there’s tons of community. Translators are so generous and encouraging. [My husband and I] attend the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conferences, as well as the Association of Writers & Writing Programmes (AWP) conferences. There is a much more palpable air of competition, rivalry, anxiety at AWP than there is at ALTA, even though I love going to AWP and seeing friends there. It’s not that there aren’t any jerks who are translators, but ALTA is a very encouraging atmosphere. It’s very community oriented, very generous.

I wonder if it’s because translators’ work is serving another writer. All translators are writers in their own right, certainly, but they’re there in their capacity as champions for another’s work. They’re doing this because they love this other writer, they want so badly to be able to give this [work] to people who can’t read it in the original. And maybe that just conditions you for a kind of humility and a kind of generosity. The sense that people want you to become part of this.

LC: When you think of your own practise, as a fiction writer and a translator, does one influence the other and vice versa?

PV: I don’t think I’m experienced enough as a translator yet to know. I feel like translation, until now, feels much more a part of my reading life than part of my writing life, but my reading life is so much part of my writing life that it’s hard to tell.

I’m very much a writer who is always reading. I’m reading an interview with Javier Marías where he says it’s best when you’re writing to forget that contemporary literature exists for a while. There are people who do that.

When I started writing my first novel [The Toss of a Lemon], I had read pretty much every major Indian writer writing in English. And then after about a year of working on my own book and still trying to keep up, I just stopped reading all of them for about four years because the anxiety grew paralysing.

But I’m not like that anymore and I’ve come to understand that I am always, while I’m writing, looking for other writers I admire to inform and assist me in my work. And I think of translation as another really delightful kind of reading, just a very close reading.

LC: I feel like translation is a woman-dominated field, but this is possibly just skewed by who I speak to. Do you agree and, if so, do you think that has anything to do with the invisiblisation of the profession?

PV: That’s so interesting. That had not occurred to me. I don’t feel that anecdotally that our circles are denominated one way or another in gender terms, but it reminds me of the controversy* between Benjamin Moser and three translators [Katrina Dodson, Magdalena Edwards, and Idra Novey] of the new Clarice Lispector books for New Directions.

In that case, it may have assisted Moser that all the translators were women. We are accustomed to the idea that we do various kinds of work without credit, we’re conditioned for that more than men are. And translators always have to swallow that. Every translator I know has had to battle for certain kinds of credit and recognition, and you feel weird because you didn’t do this to get glory for it. Twenty percent, maybe; eighty percent because you just love this book and you want other people to read it.

But, of course, it’s painful when people act as though there was no translator involved. You want the writer to be seen first, but you don’t want to be entirely unseen.

*Editor’s note: You can read more about the controversy Viswanathan is referencing here in the article Magdalena Edwards wrote for the LA Review of Books.  

LC: Just to think about diversity in translation for a moment, often people say that money is the biggest barrier to diversity. What do you think?

PV: I would say if class is a barrier to diversity in translation, it’s more [about] the chances of you being fully functional in another language, sufficient that you can render into another language. [That’s] often, but not exclusively, based in class. How many of us have the chance to travel and to learn other languages?

In the last 70 years, barriers to South Asian immigration came down both in Canada and the US, but they initially came down with the condition that it would really only be professional class people who would be welcome. I know in my own ethnic community [of Indo-Canadians], most of the immigrants tended to be in the middle and professional classes, so that affords certain kinds of leisure, certain kinds of opportunity.

We might inherit a language from our parents, [but] we also had the opportunity to learn other languages and to travel. You have access, you have the idea that you might learn another language for enjoyment. You might travel because you’re interested, not just for a job, not just for immigration.

If your parents didn’t go to college, if education is viewed in your family primarily as a means to an end, as opposed to something to be enjoyed as a route to knowledge, then it’s going to be a lot harder for you to translate literature.

LC: Are you conversant in other languages? Do you speak French for example?

PV: I can certainly get along in French, and my parents’ language is Tamil, though I’m not as comfortable in either of them as I am in Portuguese.

LC: Have you ever considered translating from either of your other languages?

PV: French, not so much. Tamil, I would love to. I achieved a certain measure of fluency when I was working on my first novel and I co-translated a story with my mother, but then my Tamil really fell away.

I mean, this is a language where translators could be really useful, but first I need to get my language skills [up] and then finding a writer that you love and who needs to be translated can also take a really long time. Maybe I’ll get there in another 10 or 15 years (laughs).

LC: Are there any books you wish more people knew about?

PV: I always feel like I’m behind! The book I bought for the most people last year was John Keene’s Counternarratives. He’s amazing. Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among The Whites is the book I bought for my friends and my sister the year before. One book that’s coming out next year is Ghost Forest, by Pik-Shuen Fung who I mentored as part of the Kundiman Asian American Literary Retreat. I just got to read it in galleys and it’s so good. Everybody should read that next year.

LC: And is there anything you’re working on at the moment, whether that’s fiction or translation?

PV: Yes (laughs). That’s all I’m gunna say.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Header photo is © Brian Bettencourt.

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