Clarice Lispector's sentences often begin in a colloquial mode before taking a left turn into profundity. Here's an example from "A Chicken," a story about a hen that had escaped the Sunday dinner table, "Until one day they killed her, ate her and years went by." That move, the sudden expansion of significance contained in the phrase "and years went by," was Lispector's calling card, and it either reaches your heart or gets caught reaching.
What's true of Lispector's spellbinding, weirdly addictive sentences is true of whole stories. They are variously mind-blowing and glib, but they're rarely long, so you never feel as if you've wasted your life. After reading one, you feel either devastated, devastating, or dead. Read "Pig Latin," "The Egg and the Chicken," or "Forgiving God," all collected in The Complete Stories, and you'll feel all three simultaneously.
Lispector's The Complete Stories, released last year (the author died in 1977), is full of thematic detail about life in Brazil in the middle of the 20th century—the restrictiveness of gender roles, harsh class distinctions, roses—but I couldn't stop thinking about how hard the book must have been to translate. She writes in so many modes, yet the charmingly detached tone carries through all the stories. So I wrote to Katrina Dodson, who translated the book for New Directions. Our conversation about the translation of the Portuguese word "galinha" will give you an idea of just how big and complex of a project it was to bring forth this gorgeous brick of short stories to the English-speaking world.
"The Egg and the Chicken" is MAYBE my favorite story in this collection. I've seen it translated "The Egg and the Hen." Why did you go chicken?
You've actually just touched on one of my biggest moments of conscious interpretation in the translation.
Lay it on me.
I made a case for translating "galinha" as "chicken" rather than "hen" throughout The Complete Stories because to me, the chicken in Clarice Lispector's writing is almost always a figure of derision and commonness. In that story, the chicken is the awkward, squawking antithesis of the thing she produces: the perfect, miraculous egg. She's often the butt of the joke, the stupid, ridiculous, timid creature, as in the story "A Chicken." She's also just food, an object to be eaten, even as she often takes on a more symbolic status as a female or even as a woman writer in some cases. So to me, "chicken" sounded more colloquial and more laughable than "hen," which strikes me as more elevated.
Why do you call the chicken a "she"?
I decided to use the feminine pronoun "she" for the chicken in many of these stories, where the chicken takes on the role of a particular character or has a strong resonance with female identity. In this case, the Portuguese pronoun is "ela" ("she") because the word "chicken" is gendered female, but I also think that Clarice plays with the fact that the word is feminine in Portuguese. In other stories, where an animal is just a passing thing, I use "it."
The other reason for "chicken" instead of "hen" is that the title, "The Egg and the Chicken," plays on the old conundrum "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" In Portuguese, the order is "Which came first, the egg or the chicken?" ["Quem veio primeiro, o ovo ou a galinha?"] So "hen" completely loses that allusion to an old, unsolvable riddle. And this story, if anything, is an unsolvable riddle.
I never thought of it before now, but that riddle answers itself if you think about the sentence literally. In the English sentence, the chicken comes first. In the Portuguese, the egg does.
Ha, yes, there's a bias to how the question is asked, which the difference in the two languages shows! Another point about the chicken: "Chicken" is longer, like "galinha," and hen is too much like egg (one syllable, three letters).
I respect that. Man, all these layers and layers of thought can go into the translation of one word! I'm looking at the book now, and there's gotta be five hundred trillion words in there.
Yes, I am an obsessive freak, which is why I was able to translate these stories. But I really did start losing my mind over tiny decisions at a certain point. Not to mention that the stories take a huge mental and emotional toll just by virtue of their content.
What did losing your mind look like for you?
One night, around 3 a.m., I found myself watching a makeup tutorial by a Brazilian teenager with a hick accent on YouTube because I was trying to figure out something about eyebrows or eye shadow, and the whole thing seemed so absurd, I started laughing out loud and nearly fell off my chair. It was a strange moment, and no one was around to witness it. Except maybe the ghost of Clarice.
I also kept a very detailed Excel spreadsheet for a while to keep track of certain key words she uses across the stories and to try to maintain certain repetitions. But it started making me feel crazy. Ben [Moser, my editor,] said to me at one point, "It's not the Bible. It doesn't have to be perfect." And I think internalizing more of her language helped me stay more flexible and intuitive while translating, so that at a certain point, I no longer needed that spreadsheet.
You use Clarice Lispector's first name when you talk about her sometimes. How come?
I code switch a lot when talking about Clarice / Lispector / Clarice Lispector, and sometimes without being aware that I'm doing it. In Brazil, even in formal literary scholarship, everyone calls her "Clarice," so it comes from habit. This is common with a lot of famous Brazilians, like Pelé, Caetano, Lula, or Dilma, for example. When I'm writing about her as an academic in English, I use Lispector, but when I'm talking about her in a translation context, I usually go with Clarice because it feels more natural, and I think of it as a sort of cultural translation to introduce the use of her first name among anglophone readers, as is the practice in Brazil.
But if I'm referring to her alongside another writer, it seems odd to say, "Clarice and Ferrante" or "Clarice and Woolf" for example, so in those cases, I would just say Lispector.
Now back to the chicken story. My thought about "The Egg and the Chicken" was basically like this: Lispector thinks that people are vessels through which creation passes. We are gallinaceous fools incapable of understanding ourselves but for some reason we try to anyway. Is that too reductive?
Every time I try to "explain" a Clarice Lispector story, it feels like a failure, like I'm doing some kind of injustice to it by assuming I can reduce it to an "answer." But I do think your take on it is accurate. There's also a very strong gendered component to it, with the mother in the kitchen making eggs for her children, and women and chickens as the ones that give birth or lay the eggs. I'm still struggling to make sense of all the stuff in that story about the secret agents and the mission at the end. It starts getting really loopy, as does her delirious two-part essay "Brasília."
On the gender tip—I couldn't really get a hold on my thinking about it. Sometimes she essentialized, claiming that certain characters had become men or women, sometimes she blurred gender expressions. Her thinking on gender seems at once very strict and very fluid. But here I am using all these newish notions of gender identity and applying them to a writer who was writing in a different time. I feel lost.
I think the essentializing you're hearing is actually an ironic replaying of the strong gender stereotypes imposed on men and women during her time, especially in 1950s Brazil. There are a lot of stories in which we witness women being talked down to or underestimated because they're women, or in which a younger woman looks up to an older or seemingly more world-wise man who ends up being less clever than she is. "The Message" is a good example of this.
She also thinks a lot about the push and pull involved when women have to conform to certain "proper" social roles, namely wife and mother, versus a need for independence or to write their own script. I definitely think she was a feminist, but she also didn't necessarily reject these roles typically assigned to women. Instead, she explores a lot of the conflicts and confusion that come with doing what's expected of you as a woman—or, in fewer stories, as a man.
Yes, "The Man Who Showed Up" seems like a very sympathetic portrait of the expectations imposed on men.
I agree. I think the stories show Clarice's sympathetic, human side more consistently than the novels, which tend to feel more abstractly philosophical or tend to lack the earthy, even burlesque, humor that a lot of the stories have.
How much research did you do about the Portuguese that was being used in Brazil during the time Lispector was writing?
I've read a lot of Brazilian literature, from the 18th through the 21st centuries, so I have a sense of how the registers change that helps me hear how the words fall in Portuguese. But the biggest challenge in translating Lispector's Portuguese is that hers is like no one else's. Even Brazilian critics remark on how she sounds like a foreigner in Portuguese. So most of what I had to research was whether she was saying things in the usual way or in her own way. She makes up a lot of words, but subtly, just by changing the usual word ending or making an adjective or adverb into a noun, like "devagar," which means "slow" or "slowly" but that she uses as a noun in "Imitation of the Rose." So I made it "a slowing."
Generally, I would have a sense that something was unusual in the Portuguese, and then I would use dictionaries and the internet to figure out if it was standard Portuguese. If I was still stumped, I would write to a Brazilian colleague and ask, "Does this sound strange to you?"
What's your relationship with other translators of Lispector's work?
I read all the most recent New Directions translations of Clarice Lispector very carefully because this book would be the sixth in this series edited by Ben Moser, and I wanted to get a sense of the sorts of decisions people were making. Even though I didn't consult with any of the other translators, I do think of us all as a team in this most recent iteration in English, which began with Moser's The Hour of the Star in 2009.
The other two previous translators who loom large for me are Elizabeth Bishop and Giovanni Pontiero. Bishop is Lispector's most famous translator, and the subject of my entire dissertation, but she only published translations of three short stories, so I don't feel like I had to be compared to her too much. I adore Bishop's work, and she's hard to top, but her Portuguese wasn't very strong.
Giovanni Pontiero translated several of Lispector's novels and a good portion of her stories, and I've taught his translations in my literature classes, so I know them somewhat. There are a lot of problems with his translation, which has its own beauty but smoothes out Lispector's language in some outrageous ways—like dropping punctuation or appending a single sentence to the previous paragraph, or excising repetition.
I was using his edition of The Foreign Legion to translate, so it was eerie to see his marginalia while I was translating, such as exclamation points, questions marks, asterisks, unknown words.
Oh, weird. Eerie how?
It felt eerie to be using the same book to translate Clarice Lispector as her previous late translator, like I had yet another voice in my head. I would squint my eyes a little while translating so I wouldn't see his notes and be influenced by them before I got my own version worked out
I've heard translation is like a bicycle. When selecting a bike, you can have one that's strong, fast, or cheap, but you can only pick two. With translations, you can have literally accurate, rhythmically/sonically accurate, or emotionally resonant (translating "cannon," say, as "nuclear bomb"). Does that jibe with your framework?
You can have strong and cheap? Noooo. (I used to date a bike mechanic.) I think the choices are much harder when translating poetry, where you have so few words and such restricted spatial and metrical parameters to deal with. With prose, there are a lot more ways to configure the language and make up for what you lose at the start of a sentence in another section or another sentence.
I think translation takes a rigorous knowledge of both languages you're working with so that you always have a sense of semantic accuracy. That's the baseline, and then from there, you need to have a good ear to catch those cadences that create a certain spell on the reader in the original or to convey a certain mood. These elements have less to do with dictionary definitions and are more connected to a deep instinct about how language relates to voice and feeling. I read a lot in both English and Portuguese, and I've lived in Brazil for a total of four years, so that lived experience in Portuguese has helped my instincts for the language tremendously.