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 (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.
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Asymptote‘s fifth anniversary celebration in New York brought together top literary translators Ann Goldstein (translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy) and Natasha Wimmer (translator of seven Roberto Bolaño novels including The Savage Detectives and 2666) for an evening of conversation moderated by acclaimed fiction writer Frederic Tuten. Whether you couldn’t join us in NYC or just want to revisit this fun and informative discussion, this month’s Asymptote Podcast gives you a front-row seat! Podcast Editor Daniel Goulden brings you the highlights from the New School panel, which includes introductions by Poorna Swami, our own Editor-at-Large for India, and several terrific questions brought forward by audience members during the Q&A. Download your copy now. It’s almost as good as being there in person!
This event was co-sponsored by the Liberal Studies Department, New School for Social Research.
Natasha Wimmer‘s translations include The Savage Detectives and 2666, by Roberto Bolaño. She lives in New York City.
Who are you? What do you translate?
In an attempt to avoid the obvious, I’ll borrow the 25-things-people-don’t-know-about-you meme from years ago. Except let’s make it five, and keep it translation-specific.
1) The first word I ever spoke in Spanish was ”hola”—except that I pronounced it ”olé.” 2) I learned lots of Spanish from watching dubbed versions of Highway to Heaven (Autopista hacia el cielo) and Murder She Wrote (Asesinato Escribió). 3) My first translation project was Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy, which stretched my skills to the breaking point with its Bukowskian cool and scatological sex scenes. 4) I was once given the wrong draft of a novel and had to go back over every word of the translation to make sure it matched the proper version. 5) My working title for the translation of The Savage Detectives was The Wild Detectives. 6) (bonus point) I was convinced that American readers would respond better to The Savage Detectives than to 2666—the popular success of 2666 in the U.S. was a total surprise (to me, at least).