The Many Souls of Clarice Lispector’s Translators
By Sarah McEachernJuly 5, 2021
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CLARICE LISPECTOR remains distinctive as a writer for numerous reasons: her crackling language, the complex ideas bounding off the page, her disregard for classification, the vulnerable intimacy of her narrators’ interior thoughts. Another place where she sets herself apart is the epigraph addressed to her readers in her 1964 novel, The Passion According to G.H. In the 2012 translation by Idra Novey, part of this epigraph reads, “I would be happy if this book were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly — even passing through the opposite of what it approaches.” Uninterested in catering to or coddling the reader, or for her writing to be simply consumed for entertainment, Clarice demands the reader at attention, pushing her reader to consider their soul before they even pick up her book. How many spoiled readers have mistaken this note for a clever ploy? Only to find themselves consumed by Clarice, given fair warning and still unprepared.
When I had the chance to speak with Idra, she told me The Passion According to G.H. was her first Clarice novel, having read it years before learning Portuguese and taking on the project of its translation. The narrator, only identified as G.H., undergoes a spiritual and mystical journey upon finding a cockroach in her maid’s bedroom, offering a kaleidoscopic exploration reaching deep into her own humanity. Idra read the novel for a college class on experimental Latin American writing by women, and said, “Finding Clarice Lispector unlocked a door for me. I went to Brazil to learn Portuguese to read her work in the original. Her work just really spoke to me. She was really pivotal in what I wanted to do as a writer.” Idra’s eventual translation of The Passion According to G.H. was one of the first reissued in New Directions Publishing’s project of retranslating Clarice’s novels, as well as some of her novels which were translated into English for the first time.
Katrina Dodson, the translator of Clarice’s Complete Stories, also cites The Passion According to G.H. as her first Clarice novel. After moving to Brazil and beginning to learn Portuguese, Katrina read the novel on a trip down the Amazon River while sleeping in a hammock on the boat. She thinks of The Passion According to G.H. as Clarice’s most challenging novel, both emotionally and intellectually. Clarice herself considered it the most suited to her as a writer among her nine novels. Early in the novel, the narrator tells us, “If I confirm myself and consider myself truthful, I’ll be lost because I won’t know where to inlay my new way of being.” This idea of being lost builds throughout the book, another way of framing the spiritual transformation or the cockroach-induced metamorphosis G.H. goes through, which often provokes an association between Clarice’s writing and Franz Kafka’s. Later, G.H. confides, “I am so afraid that I can only accept that I got lost if I imagine that someone is holding my hand.” If my hand were held along G.H.’s journey by anyone, it was likely Idra Novey, whose translation brought Clarice’s novel to my attention.
Doubting my own soul while reading The Passion According to G.H., I found myself caught up thinking about Idra’s soul. What had been the state of her soul when she first encountered Clarice’s writing in college, when she set out to learn Portuguese to read it in its original, or when she started translating the novel years later? Perhaps what I most longed to know about Idra’s soul was what it looked like after she had translated the novel. What had the process of translation done to the souls of Clarice Lispector’s translators; how did they themselves transform in order to bring Clarice’s novels into a language that I could read — then transforming me?
When I spoke to Johnny Lorenz, the translator of Clarice’s posthumous novel, A Breath of Life, he returned to the same epigraph. “I’ll confess that the first time I read The Passion According to G.H., I was not ready for it. Perhaps my soul was not yet fully formed. Sometimes, you must come back to a book — when you are no longer the same reader, the same person.” Johnny later told me he first stumbled onto Clarice in a used bookstore as a graduate student, finding a book of Clarice’s short writing for the Jornal do Brasil, written during the ’60s and ’70s. Years later, having now become her translator, Johnny said, “I don’t think my soul is fully formed (whatever that might mean), but I know that now, when the narrator of that book asks to hold my hand before her terrible journey begins, I’m ready to give it to her.” Trusting Clarice, who begins already suspicious of your soul, is a similar theme among her translators, although their interactions with Clarice’s works, their translating processes, and their backgrounds are vast and varied experiences.
Magdalena Edwards, a co-translator of The Chandelier, said, “Lispector is an incredibly generous writer, to her readers and her translators.” I have read several of the translated novels from New Directions, and Clarice’s translators are always far from my mind. Each of their distinctions blend together to create a similar voice of Clarice through her novels. Alison Entrekin, the translator of Clarice’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, mentioned that in Clarice’s previous translations, “She was tidied up a lot in the past. In her original translations, to my ear, she sounds like an older English writer, and not the Clarice I knew from the Portuguese.”
Elizabeth Bishop was one of Clarice’s earliest translators, publishing three of her short stories in The Kenyon Review in the 1960s, but Clarice’s novels were translated throughout the ’80s and the ’90s, published by academic presses in the United States as well as New Directions. Her most recent group of interlocutors reflected translators with more diverse backgrounds than simply academic, as well as emulated by a more global world. Johnny Lorenz, Magdalena Edwards, and Katrina Dodson grew up with immigrant parents, which offered exposure to different languages spoken around the home. Idra Novey, Johnny, and Katrina grew up throughout distinctive American regions (Appalachia, Florida, and California, respectively), while Magdalena grew up in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. She speaks English with a West Coast– and Los Angeles–inflected accent. Alison Entrekin grew up in Australia, where she lives now. Language — as one must admit when they’re working with Clarice, and as Katrina later echoed to me during our conversation — is boundless. Clarice herself grew up with parents who learned Portuguese around the same time she did after they immigrated from what’s now modern Ukraine during her infancy. Her parents used Yiddish at home, although Clarice herself didn’t speak it. Portuguese was her native language, but she spoke it with a lisp, which she passed off as a mysterious, foreign accent, only adding to her own mythos.
Her translators’ relationships to Portuguese are similarly diverse and non-singular. Alison Entrekin moved to Brazil after studying creative writing as an undergraduate, with the aim to become an academic, although her focus quickly shifted to translation, which she studied in São Paulo. She said, “Translation is an incredible school of Portuguese, and I was also getting full immersion in the language living in Brazil, being married to a Brazilian, and surrounded by the Brazilian people and culture.” Her sojourn in Brazil was originally intended to be two years but ended up lasting 24. Likewise, Katrina Dodson moved to Brazil in 2003, leaving behind America during the early Bush years. She noted, “Both Vietnamese and Portuguese are more personal languages to me, since I first came to them in the course of daily life and only later studied them in a classroom.”
Katrina’s relationship with Portuguese feels like its own kaleidoscopic metamorphosis. She said, “I feel a lot of emotional resonance with Portuguese. Even though it’s not my family language, it’s a language I inhabited in my early 20s during a big adventure living in Rio de Janeiro.” After teaching English in Brazil, Katrina began to take classes at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University, studying Portuguese more seriously by reading Brazilian literature. In 2004, she returned to the United States, in part to pursue a PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, and her later trips to Brazil became focused on research, including living there again in 2011 through 2012 on a Fulbright-Hays dissertation fellowship. “There was a major shift in my relationship to Portuguese, from being more personal when I was reading for pleasure and speaking it just to get around Rio, to later when I was training to be a scholar, reading Brazilian literature to master the field while constructing arguments and interpretations.”
While Katrina identifies Portuguese as a personal language since she didn’t begin learning it in a classroom, Johnny, the child of Brazilian immigrants, used the same words to describe his own relationship to the language. He said, “My formal education happened in English-speaking classrooms; I would learn Portuguese during family cook-outs and parties, or on trips to Brazil to visit family, or listening to Brazilian CDs on my local visits to Tower Records.” He would later go on to earn a PhD in English Literature from The University of Texas at Austin, in addition to pursuing a Fulbright to conduct research in Brazil. Magdalena additionally cemented her relationship with Portuguese by way of a PhD program, although she mentions having an emotional connection to the language that started during childhood. Born in Santiago and raised by Chilean parents in the United States, she was regularly exposed to Portuguese, often through music. She said, “As I got older and started to connect the dots of childhood, I realized that my parents had spent their honeymoon in Rio de Janeiro in 1976, the year before Clarice Lispector died. Surely this could not be a total coincidence.” When she first went to Rio to conduct research on Elizabeth Bishop and Clarice, she said, “It felt like a homecoming.” Like Magdalena, Idra was likewise drawn to Brazil and Portuguese in large part with the desire to better understand Clarice.
Clarice offers many ideas about writing and language to her translators, which many of them have carried into their own creative works. Idra’s novel, Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown and Company, 2016), is about a translator in search of the writer she’s working on, who has disappeared into an almond tree in a park in Rio. Her book of poems, Clarice: The Visitor (Sylph Editions, 2014), is written as letters directly to Clarice, interrogating translation and visitations. Idra said, “Clarice is always working toward the ineffable. As a writer, I always follow where she went as a writer — something that I feel ambivalent about, something I cannot find resolution about. That’s where Clarice goes.” While translating The Passion According to G.H., Idra began drafting her first novel. Regarding the relationship between her work as a translator and her work as a writer, Idra said, “I think translation is one of the deepest kinds of reading. You have to really inhabit the mind of the writer as much as you can, and as a result, I think it’s an apprenticeship.”
Magdalena’s performance work and her own writing often revolve around what it means to be a creative and a translator, as well as where these two practices interfold. With regards to Clarice, Magdalena said, “She has marked my creative practice indelibly — as a writer, translator, performer, mother, and sentient creature.” Magdalena has incorporated her experiences translating Clarice into performance pieces. In her one-woman show I Wanna Be Robert De Niro, Clarice and the protagonist of Clarice’s novel The Chandelier, Virginia, return to Magdalena in her daydreams, demanding she return to their translations. The piece was performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and she performed a second piece, The Body Speaks: On Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier, at Oxford University.
When I asked Katrina if she felt like translating Clarice had an impact on her life, she told me, “Completely.” She sees her project translating Clarice’s short stories as a defining moment in her life. Katrina said, “She’s emotionally demanding, and I felt very wrapped up in her world. For two years, the most important person in my life was this dead writer. I learned so much about writing, about all the things you can do in a sentence.”
Johnny has consistently returned to Clarice’s approach to writing in the opening pages of A Breath of Life, saying, “Those pages had quite an effect on me as a reader and as a writer. In these opening pages, the book itself is telling us that it does not want to be ‘liked.’ I’ve thought about this a lot — to write beyond the desire to be liked.” His answer came full circle, and I found myself back at the ideas in The Passion According to G.H.’s epigraph. How its simple few lines pivot the entire expectation of how readers approach books — as serviceable objects. The formation and maturity of a reader is held just as responsible as the writer’s craft. Clarice’s novels find a great diversity among each other, ruminating on an ever-changing interpretation of what it means to be a reader, a writer, a novelist. These roles constantly reinvent from novel to novel. Translation itself offers an expansion on literature, especially when novels move away from the confines of the Western novel and its predictable plot arc.
Instead the varied lives and experiences of the translators find themselves against the groundwater of Clarice’s own explosive ideas and experimentation, making up a giant engine of language that goes into the translation of her novels. Johnny noted, “My work as a translator makes me think constantly about the limits of a language — the conceptual places English will take you, and the ways in which Portuguese (for example) takes you somewhere else, not exactly the same imaginative or intellectual destinations.” As I said to Katrina deep in our conversation about Clarice, grammar is a social construct, and it’s much more malleable and fallible than is often perceived. Grammar’s mirage of rigidity seems to be what Clarice is most thrilled by deconstructing, allowing her ideas to roam in an open field. Katrina said, “The more you understand Portuguese and the more you understand Clarice, the more you can recognize how she makes her writing feel wrong in a subtle way. Her sentences go against grammar, but the way she writes makes it nevertheless seem right, because of the rhythm and because her very particular idiolect is so compelling.”
“She’s thrilling to read,” Alison said, “and that thrill comes from the combination of her ideas, which are not comfortably housed in language, and the way language has to work to keep up with her. And she does have strange turns of phrase, which make you stop and think about what she’s saying.” This awareness of language’s limits, or perhaps language breaking at the seams to express Clarice’s ideas, has a history of being subdued in previous translations, so that its oddness didn’t feel like a by-product of translation. Idra noted, “Working with her sentences, I could see how many layers they had. How they could be straightforward and also have the sense of surging questions underneath. She’s so good at creating a sentence that is technically straightforward while reading it feels almost mythical.” With a more global world in the last 50 years, the style of translation has also changed. The idea of an uncomfortable reader, or perhaps a reader who is simply aware that a text shouldn’t be changed for their own comfort, is more acceptable. Likewise, there is the expectation of feeling like an outsider when reading translation, of being temporarily confused, or for the syntax to still feel “foreign.” This new approach to translation has created a space to embrace Clarice’s distinctive play with language.
Alison spoke of this stylistic change, saying, “If the language is strange, it’s strange for a reason. I like to think about what it does to the reader in Portuguese and how that can be replicated for an English reader. What is she trying to do, and how can I do that too? And just let her be herself.” Alison noted that Clarice uses verbs in a strange way, saying, “She’ll say, so-and-so ‘dilated their eyes,’ but you open your eyes, and you dilate your pupils. That strangeness carries across into English perfectly, as long as you don’t use a more conventional verb. In the process of interpreting something, you might unconsciously correct things that sound odd. You have to be careful not to let those ‘corrections’ flow through into the translation.” Part of the change in the approach was to let Clarice sound both like her strange-self but also like her Brazilian-self, who wrote in Portuguese. In English translations, her syntax is characteristically strange in addition to being stylistically Portuguese, instead of being Americanized or made to feel like it was originally written in English.
The more the translators spoke about the complexities of translation, and often what is lost during the act, my mind drifted in a different direction. Instead of looking toward the translators’ creativity and ingenuity in finding alternatives, I kept returning again and again to their own journeys into Brazil, into Rio, into Portuguese to better understand Clarice in her original words. Collectively, they’d worked so hard to understand, to get close to her. Having read so much Clarice, translated by such a myriad of translators, her voice had always felt singular, pulsating through the texts. Still, how did the Clarice I’d read in translation hold up to Clarice in the original Portuguese?
Unlike Katrina and Idra, my first Clarice novel was not The Passion According to G.H., but instead The Hour of the Star, published in October 1977, less than two months before Clarice’s death. I have this in common with Magdalena, who told me she had just graduated from Harvard and was teaching in Santiago when she first read Clarice in the form of Giovanni Pontiero’s translation of The Hour of the Star. For myself, it was Benjamin Moser’s 2011 translation, which I came across a few years post-grad while I was volunteering in a used bookstore, similar to how Johnny first found Clarice. My brain felt immediately electrified by the ideas coursing through the novel. I shrieked out loud — Clarice! — reading on the New York City subway at rush hour, bringing everyone’s attention to me while my head was still deep in the book. Later, when I was reading Água Viva, I wrote to a friend. I told him that riding my bike in the November cold over the Williamsburg Bridge, after going over the bridge’s peak and starting to speed up as the decline increased, is almost exactly the same feeling one can receive from reading a single sentence of Clarice Lispector.
In The Hour of the Star, Clarice’s surrogate writer, Rodrigo S.M., integrates his own practice for the first quarter of the novel, as he obsesses over writing about a singular character — the girl Macabéa. Aware of the multiplicity of ideas within the writing, Rodrigo S.M. tells the reader early on, “I do not intend for what I’m about to write to be complex, though I’ll have to use the words that sustain you.” This concept of language bending and breaking norms to match a rush of ideas is characteristic of Clarice, part of her pull as a writer. Magdalena said, “As I read the story of Macabéa the typist and Rodrigo S.M. the writer, as framed by Clarice Lispector in her author’s dedication, my spirit and heart and brain were exploding. I had no idea language could be used in such a way.” Magdalena learned Portuguese when she started a PhD program at UCLA, where she studied with Elizabeth Marchant, who taught a class exclusively devoted to Clarice. Magdalena reread The Hour of the Star, now in Marchant’s class and in the original Portuguese. She told me, “My brain, spirit, and heart exploded all over again.”
It was Magdalena who was able to speak to the beauty of translation’s sacrificial nature: “Translation requires me to embrace both loss and difference. The loss of never fully being able to experience Clarice in all the languages I do not know, and the loss of not being able to read the majority of the world's writing in the original language.” Yes, translations are different versions which omit or replace or attempt to replicate, which lose the original rhythm and word associations, but more than that the translations are in many ways deeply personal readings of Clarice’s beautifully strange, variegated texts. These readings are intimate by nature, representing years of scholarship and each translators’ own spiritual transformation. Magdalena mentions, “With every translation comes a new and different path toward the spirit of the original text. This is beautiful and exciting.”
Each of the translators have been through their own G.H.-like metamorphosis, arriving at their own relationship and understanding of the texts. Instead of her 2010s translation being presented by all one translator, offering a unified reading of Clarice, a web of multiple readings emerges instead. Each novel offers a glimpse into each translator’s own unique discovery of Clarice’s meaning. “Rereading her work today,” said Magdalena, “in whatever language, is a meditation in everything it means to be human in a cosmos that is much bigger than us.” As a reader, it’s a unique gift to receive, which for many of the translators has taken a lifetime to assemble. It’s a gift I’m not so sure my soul could ever be ready to truly begin to accept.
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, New York. Some of her recent writing has been published by The Ploughshares Blog, BOMB, The Believer, The Rumpus, Split Lip Mag, and Full Stop.
Banner image: Bisilliat, Maureen / Instituto Moreira Salles
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