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from the June 2020 issue

Machado de Assis Gains Different Voices in New Translations of “Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas”

Reviewed by Charles A. Perrone

A deceased character writes his memoirs from beyond the grave in this sui generis classic by the Brazilian master, now published in two new editions that take divergent paths to convey its peculiar combination of "the pen of mirth" and "the ink of melancholy."

It is not every season that two new translations of a major work of Western literature appear simultaneously, yet that is precisely what has occurred with the 2020 summer catalog and the publication of fresh English-language versions of the Portuguese-language original of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881), by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908). Machado was the founding president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and, more importantly, is widely considered to be the foremost author of prose fiction in nineteenth-century Latin America, if not of all epochs. Brás Cubas was a pivotal event in his career, as it marked a departure from the conventional narrative of his early Romantic novels toward a sui generis “realism” that not only set him apart in the Brazil of the time but also singled him out amongst most of his contemporaries anywhere in the world. The temporal coincidence and shared literary interest invite comparison of, and provoke curiosity about, the attractive dual offerings, allowing us a new look into this major work.  

Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, a young North American scholar-translator now residing in Rio de Janeiro, has launched a highly touted annotated edition for the Penguin Classics series, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whilst the UK duo of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson have released Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas with Liveright. These translations have been preceded, in previous decades, by three other Anglophone renditions. The title of the first translation was—one still wonders why—Epitaph of a Small Winner (1952), by William Grossman (d. 1980), whose brief introduction presented the grand metafiction of Machado de Assis to English-language readers. A 1991 reissue featured a critical assessment by Susan Sontag. A scarcely known second translation was done, as Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas, by E. Percy Ellis for the Brazilian Book Institute (1955), which did not distribute effectively. The third was a prestigious university-press endeavor: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Oxford, 1997) by Gregory Rabassa (d. 2014), the beloved doyen of translation of Latin American letters. This inaugural volume of a series of new translations of the fiction of Machado includes a sharp preface by a resident scholar in the USA and a longer critical afterword by a Brazilian colleague.

As an annotated translation, the present Penguin title compares to its Oxford antecedent in academic aim. The foreword by writer Dave Eggers, heavily excerpted on the New Yorker’s website, is “writerly” and confirms that he, though an admitted latecomer to Machado, quite smartly grasps the master’s essential mix of humor and philosophical melancholy. Translator Thomson-DeVeaux has Ivy League pedigree (a BA from Princeton and a PhD from Brown) and a contagious love for Machado’s novel, the topic of her doctoral dissertation. She began recasting cited passages of Machado in English while translating a critical monograph on the author by a leading Brazilian critic, João Cezar de Castro Rocha (Machado de Assis: Toward a Poetics of Emulation, Michigan State University Press). Her Penguin introduction, notes on the translation and endnotes, and the extensive endnotes themselves are all delightful. She really did her homework and demonstrates a true dedication to her purpose. At Brown she had access to a Machado archive bequeathed by the aforementioned Grossman. Thomson-DeVeaux compares her work passim with her forerunners, sometimes in exquisite detail, so we witness the nitty-gritty of professional literary translation. One significant point that she rightly highlights is that her version maintains the page breaks for all chapters, per the original periodical installments and as in Brazilian first editions. No one else does that. And given the typographical play in the book, it does make a difference. Mise-en-page obtains from start to finish.

The Liveright remake is a four-handed affair in British English. The venerable lead translator, Margaret Jull Costa (b. 1949), has a hundred works of translation behind her, several prizes, and a young mentee, Robin Patterson, devotee of letters. Together they have recently published the collected stories of Machado de Assis, so they were certainly in the groove. There’s not much front or back matter in this newest effort, though the translators’ introduction provides a good idea of what readers have in their hands; it is complemented by a brief author biography and limited footnotes. Therein lies the principal difference from the Penguin counterpart; the Liveright translation, as a non-university-press title, is much less concerned with paratextual extras, which are more or less valuable depending on given consumers’ concerns and preferences.

And how did we come to have dual releases? Both publishers have New York and London offices, but there are separate North American and British/Commonwealth markets to which to appeal. Machado’s reputation has been growing steadily, so acquisition editors in both cities are surely more agreeable than ever. The author is in the public domain, meaning that there are no worries about bidding or estate permission. For whatever reason, the mutual sense that it was time to take advantage is to the benefit of us, we the Anglophone readers of the world.

The original text has 160 chapters, of one to six pages each. An initial “To the reader” note asks whether the book is a novel or not. There commences the extremely metaliterary aspect of the memoirs. Models are invoked—Sterne, Xavier de Maistre, the ingenious Portuguese Romantic Garrett—and a parade of legion allusions begins. In this regard, Thomson-DeVeaux’s notes are quite beneficial. Machado’s chapters are written with “the pen of mirth” and “the ink of melancholy,” and that tricky balance is the principal challenge for the translators, who overall have answered the call admirably. There is one imperfection to flag, however. At the end of chapter one, the narrator refers to his own idea for an anti-melancholy poultice as “útil” (useful), which the UK translators render as “futile,” an unfortunate inversion that could affect interpretation.

The narrator is chatty, wandering, unpredictable. There is more commentary than diegetic action, old-time discursive narration. At the outset, one wonders: when does the story start? It will tell of birth, growth, dalliances, decadence, and death, with a bit of bildungsroman and abundant comedy of manners. Self-referentiality and gamesomeness abound. A “chapter” on Adam and Eve is all ellipses and marks (! ?); another is nothing but lines of periods (......). A key segment is called “The flaw in the book” [Thomson-DeVeaux], or “The problem with this book” [Jull Costa and Patterson] (The original “senão” has also been translated as “defect”).

This story of a man incapable of committing to love, career, or straightforward language has endless postmortem speculations, especially about text-making. One commentator says there are so many that the reader loses count. But not the perspicacious critic. In Machado de Assis and Narrative Theory: Language, Imitation, Art, and Verisimilitude in the Last Six Novels (Bucknell University Press, 2019), Earl E. Fitz dedicates chapter one to Brás Cubas and the beginnings of Machado’s auto-aware “new narrative.” He counts eighteen chapters in which the author-narrator speaks of his original way of writing. This is the ultimate “self-conscious novel” by Machado. The word “author” appears seven times, “writing” eleven, and “reader” forty-eight. Indicative counts.

Three instances of comparative translation will illustrate what may distinguish these two versions, and previous ones as well. Brás Cubas’s quick opening address to readers ends with a piparote. Translators render this gesture as a snap of the fingers, with the single exception of Thomson-DeVeaux. In a note, she cites the closest historical equivalent, “fillip,” but explains that the word is unfamiliar and that “flick” would be best. Indeed, this word better communicates the dismissive attitude in play. This is an example of her capturing of subtlety praised in expert endorsements. The organizational conceit of the novel is that the author/memorialist/narrator is dead, writing from the grave. Thus, in the initial chapter, he must explain his unusual condition. In the original: “eu não sou propriamente um autor defunto, mas um defunto autor.” A literal, etymologically biased, unidiomatic gloss: I am not properly an author [who is] defunct, but a defunct [who is an] author. How to capture this clever capsule in modern English with a nineteenth-century feel? Grossman wrote: “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing.” This rendering communicates the idea but sacrifices any pretense to concision. For his part, Rabassa translated with necessary noun clauses: “I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer.” Certainly a shorter and sweeter option. Thomson-DeVeaux footnotes, with reason, the whole affair and offers: “I am not exactly an author recently deceased but a deceased man recently an author.” “Deceased” as a vocabular selection is closer to “defunto,” while “recently,” though apt, is an add-on. Finally, Jull Costa and Patterson write: “I am not so much a writer who has died, as a dead man who has decided to write.” Their volitional attribution, again, fits perfectly but is the translators’ decision, not strictly a semanteme in the source passage. These comparisons should give readers an idea of the kind of difficulties that all the translators might come up against.

Another quite telling locution is the novel’s last line, often cited to demonstrate Machado’s pessimism. “Não tive filhos, não transmiti a nenhuma criatura o legado de nossa miséria.” Grossman: “I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.” Rabassa: “I had no children, I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature.” Jull Costa and Patterson: “I did not have children, and thus did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” Thomson-DeVeaux: “I had no children; I did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” If the very last word carries most weight, then any pessimistic interpretation would prefer “misery” to be that word, as four of the translators have done. The word “misery,” by the way, appears ten times in the course of the memoirs. Another question here is the relative effect of “transmit” and “bequeath.” The latter is one of the acceptations of the original verb (Machado’s sentence is even so cited in the Aurelião, Brazil’s standard dictionary), and it puts an accent on the idea of a doomed property inheritance, but “transmit” has the advantage of association with the passing on of disease as well, which fits the joco-somber mood.

Far be it from me to end on a down note like that, so let’s celebrate the enormous progress present in the appearance of two finely crafted translations of Machado’s brilliant proto- modernist text. Back in the 1980s, a young professor in the USA specialized in the Brazilian master’s fiction submitted a related article of criticism to an academic journal. They wrote back praising the quality of the study but rejecting the submission because the subject was an “unknown author.” That reaction does not speak very well to the broad comparative knowledge of the editors involved, but is perfectly indicative of the situation at the time. Just imagine sending in a study of a work by Cervantes, Flaubert, James, Kafka, Borges—all of whom have been invoked by leading writers in recent years to try to convey a notion of Machado’s deserved stature—only to have it returned for the judges’ lack of familiarity with the universally recognized author under scrutiny. For Machado, the turning point in international awareness and appreciation was the brilliant 1990 piece by Sontag in the New Yorker, reprinted as a foreword to the Grossman reissue. The current volumes cite all sorts of praise for Machado, who should grow even more with these welcome additions to the bibliography. The Liveright version comprises a trade title, not a university press book, as the Oxford volume was in 1997. Thomson-DeVeaux’s, based on a thesis, is an anomaly, a trade title with all the marks of an edited critical edition. It seems we readers can have the best of both worlds: a British release by a top name in the field of Spanish/Portuguese translation and her accomplished partner, and a North American translation by a newcomer with superb talents who researches and writes as if she were a seasoned veteran. Potential clients and readers should not think in terms of choosing one or the other: they should simply go for both. Double your pleasure. You can never have too much Machado de Assis, in originals or in winning translations.

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