With less than three weeks to submit to our Close Approximations competition, we thought it’d be a good idea to revisit the winning translations of our previous edition (judged by Eliot Weinberger and Howard Goldblatt), each accompanied by a brief note from the victorious translator.
This year’s esteemed judges—Michael Hofmann (Poetry), Ottilie Mulzet (Fiction) Margaret Jull Costa (Nonfiction)—are itching to start reading your submissions, so we hope these prize-winning translations inspire you to submit your work and stand to win up to 1,000 USD in prize money! Visit our contest page for full details.
This weekend, we will be presenting the two runners-up in the fiction category. First up, Krista Brune’s prize-winning translation of an excerpt from Nuno Ramos’s Ó, from the Portuguese:
“Stains on the skin, language” is the first section in Nuno Ramos’s Ó, published in 2008 and awarded the prestigious Prêmio Portugal Telecom de Literatura in 2009. Throughout this collection of twenty-five short stories, Ramos meditates upon the origin of language, desire, the creative process, and relationships between people, words, and bodies. Written in prose, the work contains both essayistic and poetic qualities as its narrative fragments meander and repeat with slight variation in order to approximate experiences of thought, language, and artistic creation. The book revolves around the ó, which provides the title to the work and to seven of its chapters. By returning to the sound, exclamation, or perhaps even the origin of language represented by this ó, Ramos further interrogates the materiality of language. This interest in the material construction of words, bodies, and images appears in the excerpt translated here, and characterizes his artistic practice in general. Ramos insists on a separation between his visual art and his writing, yet similar concerns with materiality inform both practices. He molds malleable materials and incorporates natural objects into concrete structures to create the sculptures and installations for which he has received acclaim throughout the international art world. Although recognized by academics and prize committees within Brazil, his writing remains little known beyond the Lusophone world. The meditative language and rare grammatical structures of his Portuguese prose create a difficult task for the translator, yet his literature warrants an audience outside of Brazil and Portugal. With their philosophical inquiries, essayistic reflections, and poetic images, his writings evade classification by genre and instead recall the difficult to define works of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. This affinity to other universal writers emerging from the Iberian and Latin American tradition should not be surprising given that Ramos studied philosophy at the University of São Paulo and cites meditative, metaphysical, and essayistic writers like Walt Whitman, August Strindberg, Machado de Assis, and Clarice Lispector as influences. Like Machado and Clarice before him, Nuno Ramos deserves recognition beyond Brazil as one of the great writers of his time.
—Krista Brune, runner-up in the fiction category, Close Approximations
Stains on the skin, language
My body looks a lot like me, even though I find it strange at times. I meticulously feel the small bulges of skin, the short hairs that keep growing as they fall, and turn pale, and seem a bit chalky. Although they managed to grow only around my chin and above my mouth, I always trimmed them daily, so that when I didn’t, I would stroke—yes, that’s the verb—the collected group of small hairs without interruption, with the excessive indulgence of someone who needs to smoke or drink or belch, but seems to others to have adopted a reflexive and even ironic position, which was not my intention. In order to avoid misunderstandings, since the start of adolescence, I have rarely neglected to trim them when showering, like a constant enemy that I needed to control. So, when a few days passed without showering and then I looked in the mirror, I noticed bald circles on my neck. The small hairs had fallen in a rigorous geometry, like those circles in corn or wheat fields in Europe, Australia, and the United States that many see as extraterrestrial signs. I even found, above my right lip, a smaller semicircle, a little less pale, product of the same phenomenon. Mycosis? Stress? Fungus? Moss?—some friends later diagnosed with that illusion of amateur medicine, and I delighted in the possibility of gaining company, even that of an illness, of something with a defined name. But I did not lose the fear of its origin. Which gene or nerve ordered that they fall out in this perfect, circular format? In what internal language did they converse? I let them grow for a few days, so that I could examine the phenomenon, and I say with certainty that they could not be better traced with a compass. With the exception of two small circles almost superimposed, which made the examination of their common contour difficult, one can now perceive, clearly, five perfect circles on my chin and a semicircle above my upper right lip. It seems like the trace of my skin is no longer effective and that I start to become free from the parasites that clasped on all this time to the principal pelt—hairs, nails, eyelashes. It is horrible in the first days, when the hairs have still not grown enough and the circles are confused with stains on the skin, small albinisms or discolorations in linoleum, instead of intervals between hairs. I manage to shave two times a day so that this does not happen, dissembling their contour. But after some time, I become curious and want to know if they are still there, if there are new circles or if they traded places, or if the dark wooly weeds of my few hairs would now cover the entire contour of my chin, and I let it grow again, just to verify that they remain the same.
A few weeks ago I also discovered another novelty on my body—I passed, as an old habit, my hand over my shin bone, looking for a small fragment that had lodged itself there at some moment in my childhood, probably the consequence of a blow to the shin. This bone fragment always accompanied me, creeping, under the pressure of my fingers, ten centimeters up or down, having the shin as a path. On that day, to my fright, I could not find it, not because it had disappeared but because the shin itself was now covered, with the thickness of almost a palm, by a flexible layer of a fatty or cartilage-filled substance to which my skin seemed to adhere, as if its hull, which was always sharp-edged, were now rounded, filled out. My small fragment stayed, probably, buried under this new layer, forever disappeared; gone along with it, the sensation of being able to touch the skeleton beneath a fine layer of skin.
Perhaps, in this case, my fear came from another, more generic one—that of perceiving that I am inescapably fatter, that the external layer of the form already rounds out my abdomen and my thighs shake when I move, that some parts previously part of my back now come together through concave pillows. And this fear, for its part, perhaps comes from another, even more remote place—one in which the entire time the body moves and operates a movement whose finality belongs only to it. Not one which defines—mine, for instance, now seems to be getting fat—but rather flees our control, our expectations. It is necessary to be quite meticulous in order to anticipate its subtle transformations and to perceive how the veins release pressure from the skin, like the cavities and creases caused by movements deepening themselves in long crevices, like the borders of the dermis drying up, like a generic line, unfixed, erasing the fine line that encircles each member. And if it seems pathetic, the constant preoccupation, especially among women, of isolating and preventing each small minutia, it is because these are boundless, like the water of a dam that breaks, in small quantities but for the whole and at the same time.
If there is, in the meantime, some difficulty and force in the anticipation or enumeration of these effects in ourselves, few things are more evident than when we perceive this amalgam of flesh and time in others. Such perception also escapes us about those surrounding us every day, as if a cloak of continuity encloses our immediate life. It is necessary to toss our distracted gaze toward someone distant from our affection and from our neighborhood—a childhood friend, an old actress, an ex-athlete, an acquaintance from another city or country—in order to perceive all the damage at a glance, spread out not in a single feature or even in diverse aspects of the observed face or the body, but in its entirety, in absolutely all of its elements. It is at this totality of aspects that the passage of time directs its fury. If, on the one hand, illness—that cataclysmic species accelerating time’s effects upon contact—sacrifices violently some isolated parts of the body, at least it diversifies this homogeneity, as if the gradual rancor of the years were concentrated in some details, and with this, it becomes satiated.
Like all processes excessively continuous, it is necessary that we remember aging from an entirely exterior point of view (in phrases like “I don’t have the age for,” “In that time” or “When I was a kid”) or, on the contrary, from an immediate interior, many times corporeal—in the complete lack of breath after a run, in the stupid tearing of some muscle. But it is then, under the sentence of an inevitable aging, that something in me seems to want, and to be able, to fly over my body, to free it—a mist of a distant gaze and of breathing, an afflicted amalgam of words, the melody like a door or a tunnel, the instant that my footstep delves into an immense landscape. But this progressive happiness needs constant nourishment and the body itself, in its shell, seems not to resist it well, becoming restless, breathless, and, progressively, tired and depressed. Like a whale letting its gas escape, the insane energy of our physical happiness seeks cover—in the images, in the arms of another person and, in the end, well, it is to this that we always resort, in language. It is there that we try to capture it, before the gas escapes at once and we are but mere spectators of our own decrepitude, of our indeterminate fusion in the material.
We arrive then at the edge of the old precipice—the enthusiasm of vague words. It is to this ancient last resource that we always resort—exclamations or compulsive phrases that we cannot manage to stop saying. Perhaps it is better to deal now with this strange tool—language—that places me outside my body—to try to understand it, indecisive between the moans hidden beneath my shirt and the grandiose fatuity of my sentences. Without managing to select whether life is a blessing or stupid material, to thus examine, patiently, some stones, dried organisms, raisins, phlegm, footprints of ancient animals, designs that I see in the clouds, codes, letters of smoke, rhymes made of cow dung, immensity imprisoned in a fence, beetles inside the ear, phosphorescence of an organism, common heartbeat of various animals, organs embedded in inert material, looking at a single time from high above and from within toward the enormous stage, like one who wants to select and does not manage to: material or language?
As an intermediary path, I seek to enter and remain in the kingdom of the question—or of an explanation that never explains. So, suspended, I murmur a confused name to each being that calls my attention and I touch their fragile solidity with my finger, pretending that they are homogeneous and continuous. I can even note in my journal the characteristics of what I touch, such as: “it is tinged with green before reproducing,” “it shows extreme anxiety before sunset,” or “it extracts the sap from the surrounding oak trees,” but I shall not, in any hypothesis, regress to the interminable causal chain, like a dog biting its tail. I end up complying with a vague and humble dispersion of beings, closed in their disinterest and deep incommunicability, and as a model misadjusted to the mould, I remain in my inquisitive torpor, lying down on the grass, trying to unite pieces of phrases to pieces of living things.
Since everyone agrees that when the meticulous shelter of one’s own skin is left, when one extends beyond the substantiation—this hurts, this hair grew—of one’s own monotonous architecture, it is necessary to create, because certainly no one gave us this, a tool—a language—a piece of wood with a hook on the tip, toward the other side. It is there that everything becomes complicated, since here the only question of real interest is: of what is this instrument made? If it were possible, for instance, to study trees in a language made of trees, land in a language made of land, if the weight of marble were calculated in numbers of marbles, if we described a landscape with the exact quantity of materials and elements composing it, then we would extend a hand toward the next body and we would know by touch its name and meaning, and we would be corporeal gods and nature would be ours like a living grammar, a dictionary of moss and silt, a river whose falls were its own name. But it is with our breath that we direct everything, with the voice emitted by the throat’s fragile bellow, with the exhalation that carries our enzymes, it is with the small wind of our tongue that we call the true wind. More than eating, running, or piercing the alienated flesh, more than warming the offspring beneath the straw, we sit and give names, like small emperors of everyone and everything. A woman directed her steps to the bridge and disappeared; do they know what made her abandon everything while she was staring at the bridge with cavernous eyes? He grunted, and this grunt became the name of the disappeared. He gave her a name, he earned her name, like a coagulation, a retention of that which passed, confusedly, by him, a bridge parallel to this bridge in front of him.
Since an expressionless halo circulates in all of nature—for example, in the impassive forms through which the frog is devoured by the snake, as if lightly frightened (and therefore with eyes wide open) by what is happening, or when the praying mantis calmly devours the head of her mate, like a small branch of bamboo, while copulating with him—it is because nothing needs to be communicated, dragged as it is by its own intense activity. Just among us, who exchange such a flux for fine modulations of the voice, that between all internal and external materials, between all solids, mosses and mucus membranes, between what flies and what sinks, between what glides and what emerges from decomposition, we select only the voice and the wind, organized into chords, to take as the world, only to us the exertion of facial expressions and gestures is given, and pain seems enraptured in an expression, facial or linguistic. So I affirm that even there, when we receive our assassin’s bite, when the feline paw reaches us from behind or the serpent’s venom slowly makes us sleep, even then we lie and fabricate with our face a false double in order to save us.
I still imagine one who with an injured hand, for instance, did not die or try to live, but expressed his pain. How would he have convinced others to be interested? Why did he not stay behind, isolated, with his interjections? The only response is that language could only be born and acquire efficacy in a situation where everyone, or a large majority, was sick or very weakened, thus becoming pocket change, a communion in illness, and so yes, if among them there had been someone well who turned a deaf ear to those screams, someone inattentive to the strange litany, the ill, in great majority, would have thus reunited forces in order to kill him or expel him. And once cured they would no longer know how to compete without this strange mechanism, which they were continuously perfecting.
But perhaps it does not matter as much to invent stories about the origin of language as to understand the enormous scission that it caused. For once fastened this cord between everything, once expelled or dead those who did not want to take refuge in it, there is no longer any possibility of return, since it is property of the strangest of tools, of the most exotic of inventions (language), seeming as natural and true as a rock, a cane, or a profuse spitting. This is its true foundation, its, shall we say, astuteness—that of substituting itself for the real like a virus for a healthy cell. There is a potential of forgetting that cannot be diminished, a trap in the agony that served some (and not all), sacrificing violently to those who did not utilize it.
Today only some traces of this origin or, in other words, some signs outside of language remain. It seems a quotidian experience, still accessible to everyone, finding suddenly strange the sound of a determined work as too abstract or improbable in relation to what it designates, and the old childhood game of repeating indefinitely the same word until it completely loses any connection it had to what it seeks to indicate perhaps wants to drive us, only, to return to an era in which each thing had its synesthetic weight, and as much the color as the flavor as the image were the free index for that bird wounded by an arrow. The diversity itself of languages, absolutely comical for those who listen to them without understanding, also remits to the arbitrariness of origin, to this primeval reunion of injured ones in search of solace and protection that expelled away, or even killed, the first mute heroes. When we clash with something inacceptable or excessively beautiful and we remain, literally, without words, we are recovering the dormant stage of our nature.
The problem, meanwhile, is that even then, by habit of origin, we want to communicate what is happening. And for this we need language, and everything restarts again. There is an astuteness here even more hidden that needs explanation. Let’s return to the community of the sick. It is clear that, surpassing the epidemic or surpassing the consequences of some cataclysm or attack, the ill slowly become healthy, regain the old confidence of past times. They want to return now to the nomadic existence, to the boat lined by hides that carries them down the river, among animals and golden pomes. Why do they not do it? Why do they not retake their condition and follow the steps of those who were expelled? Because they can no longer, contaminated by the new virus? Perhaps, but the most probable is that it has been for fear of those who were expelled. The irony of all this is that the instinct of some collective manner of language could only be developed by transforming the first mute heroes into victims. It is the ring of exile, circling the new speaking people (like Polyphemus around the cave of Ulysses), who preserved language, making it indispensable to survival.
Perhaps these mute heroes, who never expressed pain, rancor, or astonishment before nature, organizing themselves in extremely isolated nuclei, had been distanced more and more from the communities where language developed gradually, so that they feared confronting adversities in their way, without any precaution. Surrounded by their old peers, who already planted and hunted with arms much more refined than their own, they should have suffered from the melancholy and the sadness of lives in extinction. And they should have experienced this integrally, in their own bones, in the asperity of their skin, without the anesthesia of words. And the last of them, upon dying alone, would have cast a terrible silent curse on those strange speaking beings that had already taken him to the cave. The enigma of this resentment, which paradoxically did not become expressed in articulated sounds or recognizable gestures, incites from close-up all living or dead languages, cursing their pact of origin.
Perhaps this curse has been sheltered in our own body, in its piercing and inexpressible malaise, in its unarticulated burden of pain and suffering, of such an inconceivable form that narcotics themselves become legitimate, in medicinal doses of morphine pacifying what goes beyond words. In this moment of blind pain we equal ourselves to our ancient mute cousins: our body is one who speaks in some manner, through the wrinkled hands or through the contorted mouth, but it is not our tongue that recedes and groans and grunts or, at the most, screams. So, the entire arc is closed, and one who by weakness betrayed the fire of the eyes, one who killed the cerulean blue upon inventing its name, now has in return, in the pain of his own body, the old denied coincidence, and can thus be united to the flux of everything. Yes, this would be a consolation for the silent king who died: knowing that pain does not duplicate itself, that there is not a sign for pain and that the body, the profound body, continues unexplored and mute.
In this point, there is a somewhat paradoxical conclusion that is imposed—can it be that we did not do everything to the contrary upon duplicating the bridge and the color of the sea unless this serves for nothing but to spare us from true physical pain? Wouldn’t a language that served only as an illusion of the rebellion and the body’s poor functioning be better, in the form that our relationship with high fever, tooth pain, or colic could now be appeased by telling us the name of our illness? Now it would serve for something. But it seems that we direct, on the contrary, our force to the free and not linguistic part of our relation with the world, saving the panicking, corporeal, and painful part—there is no language there and it is exactly then that we need it most. As we will gaze upon a pair of eyes, perceiving the brusque movement, in cross, of the tail of a lizard, nothing should stimulate our brain to comment on his color or the rapidity of that movement. We should pass with these events, and their immensity would take us, leaving us empty until the next object called our attention. It is from death, from old age, from the loss of contact that language should nourish itself. I am capable of accepting it for the protection of our body, to turn our mild death, species of natural anesthetic, like the toxins some animals release in order to not feel that they are being devoured. But it is the opposite that gives: we die quietly, or to the disarticulated bel-lows, but we live the healthy splendor of our body surrounded by works that, at first chance, jump to the front and meticulously rob our day.
To end, there is a last hypothesis that I want to examine. I began by considering that the first men would have been divided between linguistic beings and mute heroes, and that the latter, isolated and not very gregarious, would have become extinct. But I did not manage to describe their muteness, in all its diversity, from that of the animals. From what was it made? Did they have full eyes, concentrated, that always seemed occupied, distracting themselves? What filled their days, besides basic tasks? Perhaps, contrary to what we initially postulated, they were radically linguistic beings, to the point that everything belonged to language. Each tree would thus be the logarithm of its position in the forest, each boulder part of the anagram spreading everywhere and in everything. They would be moved between physical alphabets perceptible to their five senses (and reading perhaps constituted a sixth, which reunited and gave meaning to the others), and each color would be music and each song would be mime, and each gesture would be a text. The design of the lines on their hands would be part of this enormous text; the blood of the deer that they knocked down; the threads of the fur that warmed them. In everything they read, in the clouds and in the breath, in the dorsal of the mammal’s back, in the phosphorescent light on an insect that had already died, in the texture of the logs and in the silt, in the design of the flight of a beetle, in the vast mustache of a walrus—and in the grunted sound, in the spit that they spat, in the eyes that blinked, and in the number of days. Everything seemed written for them and it was enough that they touched the body of stone or of flesh so that the enormous book was opened and another line was written. Everything that happened seemed a part of this page, re-written every moment; all the dead, the chirps, each drop, each salt.
The only restriction of this dissipated text of everything was that it be made of physical, mutable, and perishable material. Each material accepts a fairly high degree of metamorphosis, but there is a limit after which it is no longer recognizable. Perhaps a large cataclysm—an earthquake, a meteorite or a fire—had transformed the material surrounding them to such a point that it has just muted forever the physical text, obliging it to substitution. Isolated in their own body, which no longer seemed part of this unique writing, they had to use the lightest and easiest to handle material that they had arranged (the voice), and substituting it for that which they had lost. They sought then to mark, for each thing that faded, a proper sound that substituted it and made it present, even though in an incomplete manner. They preferred this fragile duplication to the loss that they had suffered. And so, as a precaution, never again did they attribute material to language, but only wind and signs without material. With this, they did not run any more risk. They brought in their own lungs and memory the richness and diversity, which they had formed a part of before.
I continue to imagine what would have happened if they had challenged the cataclysm and constructed another language with the remains of the old burnt one. If instead of becoming ventriloquists of things they had transformed their own ashes, the desert land, the badodor of so many dead animals, exposed to the sky and to the laughter of hyenas, if they had transformed the hyenas themselves into subject and predicate of their own moribund world. If they had had the heart to write and to speak with pieces and destroyed remnants. Then they would be part of this chaos, of this current of cleansing and of death, but they would bring the raised head, their steps would have the tremor of the earthquake that annihilated them and their laugh the potential of the wind.
Click here to read the Close Approximations judges’ full citations.
Nuno Ramos (b. 1960, Sau Paulo) is best known as a visual artist. With his sculptures and multimedia pieces and installations, he has represented Brazil at the Vienna Biennale. Critics consider him among the best living Brazilian artists. In recent years, he has become more recognized as a writer, with the publication of Cujo (1993), O pão de corvo (2001), and Ó (2008). This last work, a collection of short fiction, received Brazil’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prêmio Portugal Telecom de Literatura, in 2009. His writing crosses genres of narrative, poetry, and essay, exploring the materialism of language.
Krista Brune is a PhD candidate in Luso-Brazilian literature and culture at UC Berkeley. A Fulbright scholar to Brazil in 2007, Brune is currently researching the processes of cultural translation between Brazil and the United States in the late 19th century and the contemporary moment. Recent articles and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Mester, Lucero, Brújula, and ellipsis. In July 2013, she participated in the NEH Summer Institute “The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities” at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.