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João Guimarães Rosa’s “Grande Sertão,” featured in “Words without Borders,” gains new translation

By Eric M. B. Becker


The wait appears to be over: on the sixtieth anniversary of its publication, Grande Sertão: Veredas (Bedeviled in the Badlands), the masterpiece of twentieth-century Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa, has received the financial support necessary to make its re-translation into English viable. Today, the Instituto Itaú Cultural announced it will support Alison Entrekin’s translation of Rosa’s novel—championed by Words without Borders in our July 2016 issue, Brazil Beyond Rio. This opens the way for the translation, to be published by Knopf in the US and by Harvill Secker in the UK, to move forward.

Why is this news such a big deal? Up until this point, English-language readers have not had access to the linguistic wizardry that has caused critics to compare Guimarães Rosa to writers like William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Jorges Luis Borges. The six hundred-page novel is set in the Brazilian Northeast (you can now visit Grande Sertão Veredas National Park, created in honor of the novel) and follows Riobaldo, the book’s narrator and protagonist who, now an old man, recounts a life lived as a bandit in the Brazilian sertão.

The translation into English of what is widely considered to be the greatest work of Brazilian fiction in the twentieth century, if not of all time, has a fraught history.

The translation into English of what is widely considered to be the greatest work of Brazilian fiction in the twentieth century, if not of all time, has a fraught history. The first English translation, published in 1963, had not one but two translators—Harriet de Onís, who translated primarily from the Spanish, and James Taylor, a lexicographer who took over the project after Onís wrote Alfred Knopf to say she could no longer continue the project. (The motive for that letter is shrouded in mystery, though the ostensible reason was health problems.)

(Image: Translator Alison Entrekin.)

While it would be unjust to completely dismiss the previous translation, it’s widely agreed that its language is more conventional than the original and has kept Guimarães Rosa from regular mention alongside other literary giants of the twentieth century.  James Krause of Brigham Young University, in an essay on the subject, reminds us that entire sections of the novel were simply cut in English. William Grossman, who earlier worked with Taylor on a translation of Jorge Amado, charged in his New York Times review that “much of the color is drained from the book” while at the same time acknowledging the enormous task that fell to the original translators and which now falls to Entrekin. The correspondence between Guimarães Rosa and his Italian translator, Edoardo Bizzarri, first published in 2003, reveals the extent to which Rosa was involved in early translations of his work. In response to many of Bizzarri’s queries, Rosa himself is only able to give approximate responses, often revealing the inspiration for his linguistic innovation. It is also not uncommon for the writer to explain to Bizzarri that this or that name—for certain vegetation, for example—was either used in diverse contexts by those living in the Brazilian sertão or simply invented by the writer based on his time spent there.

According to Eduardo Saron, director of Itaú Cultural, the institution has committed to supporting the project over three years. In addition to funding Entrekin’s work, the Institute will also support the small team of regular consultants from the academic and non-academic worlds who worked closely with Entrekin to produce the excerpt from the work that appeared in Words without Borders earlier this year. Entrekin notes that she also intends to consult dozens of other translators and specialists on an informal basis. 

(Image: Cover of a Brazilian edition.) 

“Itaú Cultural has not sponsored any translation project in a direct way [prior to this one],” Saron told me by email, adding that the relationship between Entrekin and Itaú Cultural, first developed via an event series the institute produces related to Brazilian literature abroad, Conexões Itaú Cultural, was important to forging a relationship with Entrekin. “[Alison] was not an unknown to us and she has already participated in and added value to the institute’s work.”

The collaboration between Entrekin and Itaú will not be merely financial. Throughout the translation process, Entrekin and the institute will collaborate on a variety of projects around the translation, which Entrekin says will be developed as she completes the translation. Work on the novel is set to begin in March 2017.
 

Stay tuned to WWB Daily for future updates on the translation of João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (Bedeviled in the Badlands).

FURTHER READING: Alison Entrekin on her translation of João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (WWB Daily, July 2016).


Published Nov 8, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

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