In collaboration with PEN Transmissions, this month we are celebrating translators’ and translated writers’ roles in fostering internationalism. This is part of a series of pieces where we invite translators to directly respond to a text that they’ve translated.
C’mon Vigidal-Leblon-Ipanema-Gávea, we’re off! Carlos yelled, even though he knew they’d still be five minutes, much to the annoyance of hurried passengers. He was itching to leave, too. The beginning of that trip – when the van rolled down Avenida Aquarela do Brasil and passed beneath enormous trees until it reached Avenida Niemeyer, coming face-to-face with the ocean – that was his favourite bit.
Carlos was quick to learn the art of fare collection. If it wasn’t for his mixing up street names, no one would’ve known he’d started that gig just over a week ago. Used to the streets of Bangu, Padre Miguel and Realengo, the streets of the South Zone – named after a bunch of generals and marquises – seemed to belong to another world. On top of that, there were the buildings, the people paid to walk packs of dogs, the crowds of nannies hefting other folks’ children this way and that.
The van finally left, not at maximum capacity but a good way there. Now he just had to pray it filled up in Vidigal. The rest was profit, Carlos thought, cut off by the sight of the looming ocean. He had the feeling again that the world was too good to be true. Carlos wondered if he’d ever get used to that view, like the passengers who rarely bothered to turn and face the window. As long as that didn’t happen, he’d relish every second of it.
One stop before Vidigal, in the Fourteenth, the college girl climbed on again. They’d ridden together at least three times that week, always at the same hour. She went from there through Leblon and Ipanema, till the van came down to Jardim de Alah and then back through Gávea, dropping her in front of PUC. She was one of the passengers with the longest route. As he saw her flag down the van, Carlos realised he didn’t only look forward to the ocean but also to that moment, when she climbed into the vehicle, took out one of her earbuds and said: Afternoon, how’s it going? Carlos could hardly answer, busy thinking to himself: I could love this woman.
In the house where he used to live, his sister and mother admitted he needed a change of scene, of air, and of friends. It was the only way for him to turn over a new leaf, something they agreed he needed. Even so, Dona Creuza was heavy-hearted. She was scared of what might happen to her son in an unfamiliar place. Whether she liked it or not, even with all his screw-ups, he was family and that always counted for something. Since Carlos moved to Rocinha, Dona Creuza’s had several dreams in which her son gets himself in a fix on a strange hill, with no one to stand up and say that he was a good kid – that he’s Dona Alzira’s grandson, that he went to Clementino then Ana Amélia, studied to be an electrician, that he’s just going through a rough patch, that friends are foda: they can lift you up and drag you straight to hell. In Rocinha, the only person Carlos has to lean on is André, his ex-brother-in-law and the driver of the van he’s ended up working. Guy’s tight, he’s trying to give him a hand, but he’s not from those parts either; if shit flies, there isn’t much he can do.
Aside from the striking route, another thing Carlos likes about fare collection is competing with other vans. Every trip is a new race. And every detail counts: the time spent calling for passengers at every stop, the traffic lights, pulling up to let people off. The fare collector rides shotgun and warns when somebody’s nearing or if the van in front does something stupid. It’s just as important to know when to accelerate – so you can blow through and reach the crowded stop to collect passengers – as it is to know when to slow down and let the van in front get a good distance ahead so you don’t pull up right after to an empty stop. On the first day, Carlos just sat around, thinking all he needed was to call passengers, collect their fare, let the driver know when they were getting off. As the day unfolded, he watched the other fare collectors’ movements and noticed the game they were playing. At the end of the day, André clued him in on how it all worked. He said Carlos needed to wrap his head ’round it quick and get behind it 100 per cent, ’cause a good fare collector makes all the difference.
Now and then some cracked-up chick or dude would get in the van, either mission-back or mission-bound, at all hours of the day, in all kinds of states. From the most put-together, to folks in dirty clothes who hadn’t slept in days, and nine-to-fivers in their work gear with Bibles under their arms – all kinds of specimens. They were heavy with worry and had a look in their eyes that reminded Carlos of his very worst moment, when he hit rock-bottom.
It happened on a day he and 2D spent smoking a ton of zirrês by the trainline after finishing a gig together, tossing out some rubble for a tia in Vila Vintém. Soon as they’d smoked all their cash came the torture of figuring out what to do to scare up some more green – but then a playboy from Castelo Branco rocked up wanting a toke. Fiend got to the trainline all amped up. Hell knows where he started to end up there, but player was way too fucked up to hit the boca. He asked them to mission for him, and they went in exchange for a ten-real rock. And they went once, twice, three, four times, till player decided to stop snorting and smoke rock instead, but not with weed like they were. It had to be in a cup: pure crack. 2D said he’d fetch two rocks; playboy smoked it straight and they carried on with their zirrê. Except then the player said he was running low on cash and that’s why he’d switched to rock. That was the sitch: if they weren’t game, he’d find some crackhead in a minute flat to mission for him instead. 2D shoved off after that, kid had never smoked crack out of a cup. Carlos spent the rest of the day with the playboy. Once it got dark and they were peaking, some of the playboy’s friends came to the trainline to bail him out. They were all players too, gym-rat types, and shit went sideways: they wanted to come down on Carlos, claiming he was the one who dragged their buddy there, that the guy was clean, been off drugs for months. Wasn’t for the other junkies around Carlos, he would’ve got his ass beat, for sure. On his way home to see if there was an umbrella or anything to sell, he remembered that before that mess had started, playboy’d left him twenty reals.
He was headed to the boca when he bumped into 2D. He tried to sneak past but his friend clocked him, came up to him, and said: Yo, I’ve got a hold of seven already, throw in three and we’ll smoke a zidane. Carlos said he was cool, player had left him tripping and he was homebound to see if he could get some grub. 2D stuck around, on the mission to find a buddy to go halves with, while Carlos headed to the other end of the favela, where 2D wouldn’t catch him copping two ten-real rocks. He was bent on smoking from a cup, and doing it solo. It was only when he was crumbling the rock over some foil that he remembered the ashes. He didn’t have a cigarette and, without ash, there was no smoking from a cup. Asking another junkie was out of the question – folks didn’t give handouts and the junkie’d want a pull at the very least. He’d have to ask around on the street, knowing people were wise to what the ash was for. Doing that in the favela where you grow up is foda, like filing for junkie credentials, bottoming out. But being all the way on the other side, he decided to risk it.
He spotted a couple of parás drinking at the bar door and waited to see if one of them smoked. They all did, one cigarette after the other. Carlos hung around, working up the courage. Till one of them stepped away a little, and he approached him. He started by asking for a smoke, wanting to keep a low profile. But when the guy turned him down, Carlos said the ash would do. Dude flipped. Said if he wanted ash or some other crap like that he could get a job and buy it himself, that he hadn’t come to Rio to support a bunch of bums, much less junkies.
Carlos figured he’d best ask a girl instead. Though wracked with hatred and shame, he wasn’t about to give up. He was there after all, rocks in pocket, and there was no turning back now. He passed a young piece smoking a cig and made to approach her but didn’t, then leaned back on the wall to wait for his next chance. A girl rocked up to the gate opposite Carlos. She called out a bunch to some chick called Brenda and, when it looked like she was about to leave, leaned back on the house wall and lit a cigarette. It was time. The girl was raging, cigarette between fingers. Carlos thought he’d best just ask for the ash so the girl could wash her hands of him fast; sometimes folks even spared a cigarette if the packet was full. He got there and, sure enough, when he asked for the ash, the girl, fed up and ready to eighty-six him, pulled out a packet. As she was handing over the cigarette, about to say something or other, she looked the crackhead right in the face. Carlinhos? she asked. It was Priscila. They’d gone to school together as kids and, in their teens, they’d even made out a couple of times in one of those bailes. He left the cigarette and hightailed it out of here, wanting to bury his head in the concrete.
He bumped into 2D again on his way home, said he’d got a hold of two ten-real rocks and been trying to track him down so they could split that zirra. 2D had dropped seven on a five-real rock and some two-real weed but he had a cig and they could fix a zirrê with some tobacco – not ideal, but that’s what they had. They sat on the trainline. Everything was dark and crawling with junkies. They smoked the first one. Complete silence. Carlos crumbled the second rock and handed it to his buddy so he could roll another, which he didn’t finish smoking. In the middle of that bagulho, something real weird went down. Carlos got the feeling he’d start crying right there on the line, then split. That was when he settled it: he had to change.
Up top, Rocinha looks like another city. Every time Carlos passes route 99 he turns to scope the view of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, even for just a second. For folks who work in transit, it’s not the best spot to start spacing out. That’s where the fierce bustle on the hill begins. Moto-taxis, cars, buses, moving trucks, garbage trucks, police vehicles – all of them fighting for space on a street halved by the parked cars. As Carlos tries to commit the name of each part of the hill to memory, he gets used to that new reality too. Everything’s fast; there are 24-hour stores, 24-hour noise. Even with the confusion, Carlos has the feeling he could live there for the rest of his life. Maybe, in time, he’d buy his own van, start a business, make a life for himself. He’d always heard that the South Zone was where the money’s at and, now that life had taken him there, it was a matter of diving in and seeing what happened.
After his last trip on his seventh day of work, it was time for his wages. Dona Creuza had asked André only to only pay him at the end of the month, and her former son-in-law had agreed, but after talking to Carlos he realised it’d be foda to get through the month without a cent. He’d pay him on that day so he had something to keep him going, then every two weeks. André believed that showing a person you trusted them could help give them the strength to be better. With this feeling in mind, he pulled his pouch out of his bag, set aside R$560, and handed them to his assistant. Carlos pocketed the money, lit a cigarette, said goodnight, see you tomorrow, and walked off into the hill.
On Translating in a Not-So-Vast and Noisy Room
Now and then, I imagine people think translation happens in a vacuum. An unadulterated translator (picture a vessel) sits alongside her unimpeachable text in a vast, mostly empty and colourless room, with all the words – past, present, and future – of her source and target languages floating around her like invisible apples to be picked as needed. The text she translates and its author may have a history, baggage; they may have influences and motives, politics and intent. But not the translator. She is to approach her task unattached and apolitical, and handle each word gingerly so as not to smoosh or deform it, or make it too much her own. She should not, in fact, think of these words as hers at all; they belong to the English language – that wriggly thing that we are constantly trying to pin down, curate, make sense of. Now and then I imagine people think of translation as solitary and soundless, as effortlessly graceful as sex in a Hollywood movie.
We translators know better, of course. Although we may want to come at the text fresh and uncontaminated, armed with words come from goodness knows where that click into place with a sound that announces their rightness, we know that’s not how it happens. We also have our histories and our baggages and our politics and our very own trajectories to our very own Englishes. Korean translator Anton Hur recently tweeted that, ‘in a literary translation, finding the voice is an act of triangulation between the author, the translator, and a third voice’. (In that vast colourless room, there is also, always, Twitter.) What appeals to me about this is that the translator, rather than sitting on the author’s knee as a quiet ventriloquist dummy, has not only words but also that very authorial thing: voice.
When I first started translating Geovani Martins, it was (I mean, it still is) as a white, middle-class Brazilian who has spent all but three months of her life outside her home country. My voice (my English voice) has been formed by the American public-school system, a smattering of international schools, a Scottish university, British and American friends, and British and American literature and cinema, not to mention the British and American translators I have read throughout my life. Geovani’s voice has been crafted by exposure to several of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, a keen interest and ear for their various and varied slangs, fiction by authors like Machado de Assis, the crônicas of Rubem Braga, and Brazilian hip-hop, samba, and rap; information I’ve gleaned from conversations with him and some light online stalking.
The Portuguese voice in ‘Out of the Ashes’ reflects many of these formative points: Rio street slang mixed with the democratic eye of a writer of crônicas, which demand a careful attention to the minor details that make up daily life. It’s important to note that the voice in this story shifts according to the protagonist’s circumstance. In the beginning, when Carlos seems more at peace, the rhythm of the writing is regular and staid. Towards the middle, when we read about the day Carlos hit rock-bottom, there is a hankering, restless energy to the prose; the language is at street-level. And then, at the end, a lull, followed by a certain ominousness as the narrator’s omniscience retreats and leaves a lacuna of information. As Carlos walks off into the hill, we know what his hopes are and we know the weight of his history. But we have no idea how things will go.
Thinking back, I realise that the van Carlos rides through Rio de Janeiro, and those of his competition, first appeared in my readerly imagination as the dollar vans I would see screech and honk and yell their way down Utica Ave. and Flatbush Ave., toward south Brooklyn, when I lived in New York City. It’s possible that some of the texture of this image has found its way into the translation, much as a person will begin unconsciously to use a word she has recently read or heard. (Weeks ago, I picked up Sophie Lewis’s translation of Colette Fellous’s This Tilting World, and her use of the verb ‘heft’ obviously stayed with me, edging fittingly into my translation of ‘Out of the Ashes’.) This past Saturday night, after a day spent surrounded by people at my ceramics studio (where I learned that in the schools of South Providence, kids are using the term ‘kiki’ to mean ‘hang out’), my partner and I watched John Waters’s certifiable Cecil B. Demented, about an independent film director who kidnaps a Hollywood actress called Honey Whitlock (played by Melanie Griffiths) to star in his film rebellion against Hollywood and in favor of independent cinema. Adrian Grenier plays Lyle, a young man constantly off his head on some narcotic. At some point, Lyle/Adrian yells at Honey/Melanie: ‘Honey, I’m peaking!’ In ‘Out of the Ashes’, Carlos and the playboy with whom he gets high also peak.
Now and then, I imagine people think translation is or should be as self-contained and handsome as a Hollywood actress in a perfume ad, or a suburban front lawn (I can’t help thinking of Ocean Vuong’s ‘suburbs with suicidally pristine lawns’). And I wonder if what we translators should be doing is making our baggage (read: voices) more visible, if not louder; if we should not be exposing our army of make-up artists and dieticians, our home chefs and careful lighting, our mowers, water sprinklers, and trash bags full of mown grass and litterfall. Perhaps the truth is that our vast and colourless room is rather noisy, colourful, and not very vast at all but a labyrinth of corridors and chambers. And that, from this mess of experiences, we translate.
– Julia Sanches
Image © Chico Cerchiaro