Posts filed under 'debt'

In Conversation with Adam Morris

I regard one of the functions of literature as social interaction, of reaching and challenging other minds. Otherwise, why write at all?

Adam Morris and I emailed over the course of July about his translation of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Quiet Creature on the Corner from Two Lines Press. The novel follows a young, freshly unemployed poet-drifter in Porto Alegre, Brazil who lands himself in jail after committing rape. Then, without explanation, he is taken to a country house owned by German immigrants Kurt and Gerda where the world suddenly turns irrational. As the protagonists’ world turns surreal, the real world churns on around him, as Lula runs for president for the first time, and the Landless Workers’ Movement stages protests on the street.

                                    –Ryan Mihaly

Ryan Mihaly (RM): I want to start with a grammarian’s query as you say. Some of Noll’s sentences are relentlessly long and often change tense. They almost read like transcriptions of a casual conversation. Was there ever a temptation to break up Noll’s comma splices with something like a semicolon or em-dash instead of a comma?

Adam Morris (AM): You are really taking a risk with this question. I have worked as an editor for many years and am opinionated about grammar and punctuation. I’ll try to be brief.

Semicolons are not used in Brazilian Portuguese and are falling into disuse in English, except among the most pedantic writers. So I discarded that option out of hand. The narrator in Quiet Creature is not a pedant and is, as you say, speaking in a conversational tone. The em-dash was another available option, and unlike the semicolon, its prevalence is increasing. I often find it to be the signature of juvenile or lazy writing, which seemed suitable for the adolescent narrator of Quiet Creature. So I tried using it for some of the more blunt comma splices in Quiet Creature. But when I reread what I’d done, I discovered I’d lost the narrator’s voice. In English, the em-dash commands more of a pause than I heard in his wandering drift. His narration is not choppy or staccato, but a sort of numbed fugue of uneven pace. So the em-dash had to go. A few of them remained, and some turned into commas, but I got rid of most.


Sir Thomas Urquhart: The Cromartian

Josh Billings delves into the life of the famed 17th-century translator of Rabelais in the latest installment of his series

Read all previous posts in Josh Billings’ Lives of the Translators here.

Translation is supposed to be an impersonal art, but one of the interesting things about studying translators’ lives is that it gives us a chance to see how patterns from their biographies reappear, like watermarks, in the works from which they’ve allegedly removed themselves.

Some of this reflection can be explained by affinity (translators translate authors they like), or chance, or an overactive critical imagination. At the same time, in many cases the parallels between a translator’s life and craft are obvious enough to make us think that something else is going on—something closer to the public soul-searching and -solving that we like to think occurs in more explicitly confessional arts.

A good example of this can be found in the great translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel by the 17th-century Scottish translator Sir Thomas Urquhart. A man of incredible energy, Urquhart spent the majority of his life dealing with the debts that his father had accumulated on their ancestral estate of Cromartie. His original books sink like barges under the weight of their pedantry; but his Pantagruel soars on a spume of high comedy, freed by its source material into a pitiless celebration of language’s unwillingness to pay back what it owes.