Translation Tuesday: “Blind Spot” from Brief Cartography for Places of No Interest by Marcílio França Castro

"We banished from cartography all lions, mermaids, pygmies, and dragons. The sterilization of maps only confirms the disdain we have for nature."

When I first met Marcílio França Castro at a coffee shop in Brazil during the winter of 2016, he showed up toting a bag full of presents for me. When he dumped the bag onto the table, out came books, like he was some sort of combination of Jorge Luis Borges and Santa Claus. What most impressed me was his eagerness to promote Brazilian literature in general; several of the books were from his peers and not just ones he had authored. And perhaps Borges is a good comparison for Marcílio; indeed, his writing is in line with the likes of Borges, Calvino, and Cortázar. Yet he does not simply imagine other worlds, he perceives with brilliance unsuspected oddities in places of absolutely no interest. In his short stories, which range from traditional length to flash fiction, and with a prose that is at once economic and yet never lacking in precision, Marcílio França Castro transforms his culture’s most unsuspecting spaces into fantastic reading. The author and I have worked together in producing translations for many of his stories, overcoming differences in idioms, metaphor, sentence structure and other obstacles found in the passage from Portuguese to English. Most importantly, this project kept the translator sane during the subsequent North Dakotan winter of 2017. 

—Heath Wing. 

The manuals say such devices are made to take anything. Bumps, turbulence, high winds, lightning. Even crashes and hurricanes. It’s said they come out unscathed from the most intemperate of weather. You know the protocols. For every inconvenience there is a plan, an automatic fix. An aircraft like this one, with all its resources, ought to be, according to the manuals, practically uncrashable. That’s why, if it were up to manuals and manufacturers, our role would be merely to maintain course and keep her steady, taking advantage of the dignity of flight and the charm of our profession. And that’s really what we do here, before this gorgeous instrument panel, full of buttons and colorful lights: with the prudence it conveys, we relax and commend our fate and everyone else’s to the invisible wisdom of the display.

Look ahead. The sky’s magnificent, full of stars; someone might say it’s a painting commissioned to decorate the cockpit. A captain, from the moment of departure, always has his beard well-groomed, his uniform impeccable; he pilots the plane with swan-like indifference. That’s how the passengers see you. We fly calmly. The seats are anatomic and dinner well-balanced. An almost anesthetic experience. The Pacific is nothing more than an enormous tapestry of black silk that clips the horizon. We think and act as if the world outside no longer existed, as though the clouds and the ocean below us were but unfailing radar bleeps or a set of geographical coordinates. In truth, as we fly we simply ignore the substance found in Earth’s elements. Try this coffee, it’s wonderful.

What’s in fact curious is if we disesteem nature, she also grows uncomfortable with us. The storm which rages and dies off miles from the coast, far from any archipelago, far from any beachgoers and reporters, is never the same as the satellite images show. No. Only those who pass through her, through her terrible lead façade, can bear witness to what happens, like those of a bygone era bore witness to the existence of sea monsters. To tell of such things, my dear friend, is to be afraid. When a carousel of clouds advances across the sea, it does not ask the instruments’ permission—it simply becomes that which it should be. Nature has always ignored the manuals and calculations of men. She takes no part in that, do you understand?

Don’t take me too seriously. I don’t mean to freak you out. After so much logged flight time, I overcame the unimportant details. That’s what comes with age: the capacity to see what matters. You were trained to trust the instruments, the lights on the panel. Compass, altimeter, manometer. Dozens of buttons, levers, controls. Yet I ask, plastic, steel, copper, lithium, electricity: do you know what the mood of these elements is like?

130 degrees west. We are on the route that once was Ferdinand Magellan’s. Two hours away from sunup. My dear fellow, forget the utter darkness which engulfs the aircraft, the laziness which deceitfully bothers you and that you cannot comprehend. Just think about charts, about maps; remember the names of a few places. Better yet: open a colorful book, an atlas; place it on your lap. The contours of the Pacific are nice and complete, reassuring even. Imagine the landscape out there and those imprecise currents of air are nothing but a blue box in the vicinity of Polynesia, that there to the southwest is Easter Island, and that farther on the Cook and the Solomon Islands will appear. Imagine a bit more—that after crossing Kiribati and the time zone, we fly over the Mariana Trench, the deepest precipice on the planet. And before Tokyo, the backside of Honshu. Ready. The haze that terrifies you, that which haunts the nightmares of all pilots, eventually evaporates, and at once you are enthralled with encyclopedic statistics and information. To narrate those stories, you need to abandon what you see.

Be careful, Captain. Look outside again. What goes on out there? The same frigid atmosphere and thin air, the same void that no photograph, no skilled artist is capable of reproducing. Nature brings maps, like it always has. If you land in Kiribati, where the world begins and ends, perhaps you might see beaches where they raise pigs or the shadows of fishing boats. But up here we only have a fiction of the Pacific, on the dark side of the globe, away from the sun. Nature’s ghost can, at any moment, surprise you. To narrate, you need to return to what you see. Would you give me another sip of coffee? God it’s good, Captain.

I don’t know what went through the mind of a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century navigator, but one thing is for sure. He must have had a lot more imagination than we do. We banished from cartography all lions, mermaids, pygmies, and dragons. The sterilization of maps only confirms the disdain we have for nature. Now sip your coffee and pay attention. For quite a few miles we will be in a blind spot in the middle of the Pacific—the center of a blotch no radar can reach. I’ve spent countless hours in this place. For almost thirty minutes, the little blinking light that is us will be wiped from all screens. We will become part of a place that does not exist. Do not try to make contact; all pilots know this. Take a good look at the indifferent ocean, observe the beauty of that indifference. For a little while longer we will be alone with the ocean, as if it were the first time. Here some have already seen the carrousel of clouds: white, red, black…to tell that story, you must lose all fear. And afterwards, in the worst-case of scenarios, they will look for a black box to hear what we said—and what we said, my friend, doesn’t explain a thing except our perplexity.

Translated from the Portuguese by Heath Wing.

Marcílio França Castro was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1967, the city in which he now resides. His first book, A casa dos outros, published by 7Letras in 2009 (Rio de Janeiro), won the Brazilian Union of Writers Award in 2010. In 2009 he was also the recipient of the Funarte de Criação Literária Grant, which he used to write and publish his second short story collection Breve cartografia de lugares sem nenhum interesse, 7Letras, 2011. This book would subsequently go on to win Brazil’s prestigious Clarice Lispector Award from the National Library Foundation in 2012. He is the author of a new book of short stories titled Histórias naturais, Companhia das Letras, 2016 (São Paulo). For this book, he was invited to present as a keynote speaker at Brazil’s largest international literary festival FLIP (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty) in 2016. Histórias naturais is also currently nominated for the Rio de Literatura award. Castro earned his master’s degree in literary studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), where he also received a law degree.

Heath Wing received a PhD in Spanish with a Portuguese Minor from Texas Tech University in 2015. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Spanish at North Dakota State University. He teaches courses in Latin American civilization and culture, Latin American literature, Spanish American women writers, and Chicano literature. Aside from his research, Heath translates poetry and prose for contemporary Latin American writers. He has published poetry translations for the Spanish poet Sara Gallardo in Shadowgraph and Fishousepoems, as well as poetry translations for the Argentine writer Federico Falco, which appear in Hinchas de Poesia. His most recent translations of the Brazilian poet Ana Martins appear in Waxwing. He is currently translating for two other Brazilian writers: Ramon Mello and Marcílio França Castro. Since arriving to Fargo in 2015, he has become an avid curler and stone thrower. He is also a dedicated collector of alpargatas and other rural footwear.


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