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An Interview with Alberto Mussa

By Kátia Bandeira de Mello-Gerlach

Alberto Mussa was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1961. After graduating in Mathematics, he studied Linguistics at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University and earned his master’s degree with a thesis titled “The role of African languages in the history of the Portuguese language in Brazil”. His oeuvre includes short stories and novels, including the renowned Compêndio Mítico do Rio de Janeiro (Mythical Compendium of Rio de Janeiro). Additionally, he has translated pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and worked with Luiz Antônio Simas on a book about the history of samba themes. Together with Stéphane Chao, he organizes the Universal Atlas of Short Stories. Among other prizes, Mussa has won the Casa de Las Americas prize, the Best Fiction award by the Brazilian Academy, the Machado de Assis Prize from the Brazilian National Library (twice), and the APCA (also twice). His work has been published in seventeen countries and fourteen languages.

Could you share with us your experience on the translation of your books?

My first two books, Elegbara from 1997 and O Trono da Rainha Jinga (Queen Jinga’s Throne) from 1999 did not seem to make much of an impact in the Brazilian literary milieu at the time. Elegbara was released in Portugal in 2003, and that was it. When I released O Enigma de Qaf (Qaf’s Enigma), the situation changed: the novel was awarded quite a few prizes and earned coverage in a newspaper , which naturally influenced the book’s journey. It was immediately translated into Spanish, Italian, and English. Since then its reach extended, and today Qaf’s Enigma is available in nine different countries. My books began to be translated abroad, including the first two. Today, my work has been published in seventeen countries and fourteen languages. For that to happen, the book’s success in Brazil was crucial.
There are writers who refuse to read the translations of their books. Are you one of them? Otherwise, if you read some of the translations, have you found details that did not please you? Is there a disparity in the result depending on the language translated into?

I do not read over what I write, much less the translations. Even if I wanted to,  I am unable to judge the result in most cases, since I don’t know languages such as Armenian or Bulgarian. However, I can talk about the relationship I have with the translators: some of them do not even ask you a single question in order to clarify a point, while others request your presence frequently. Naturally, the latter must do a much better job.

Does the Portuguese language welcome a translation of itself?

Any language welcomes translation provided that both the original language and the one being translated into are well known. There could be difficulties in isolated cases, particularly with regard to poetic usage, but in the general group of linguistic functions everything is perfectly translatable.

And what about your experience as a translator from Arabic into Portuguese, what were your main challenges?

My first challenge was to learn Arabic on my own. I have always been a self-learner. However, I had a trump card: my background was in linguistics. My view on language is a slightly different one. I see a language as a system, I try to learn the rules and not worry about vocabulary. For that purpose, there are dictionaries. After taking control of a language’s syntax and morphology, I am able to analyze any sentence syntactically.

The second challenge was about knowing the culture in which the text inserted itself. I had been immersed in the pre-Islamic universe for eight years, by reading hundreds of books about the theme.

The final challenge was to translate poetry. I opted to translate solely the meaning of the verses, leaving behind any attempt to reproduce in Portuguese the Arabic aesthetic effects. Thus, I believe that I made a translation, not a reproduction, as has been the trend. This would have been above my ability.

In the preamble of your book, Meu Destino é ser Onça (My Fate Is to Be a Puma)you mention having studied old tupi. What are the lessons from this experience and the advantage of not having to rely on a translation?

In the specific case of this book, my sources were not in tupibecause there are no sources in that language. All the material already came translated into French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, or German. They were put down by Western writers based on the oral communication in tupi. Thus, the knowledge of the language allowed me to study only the expressions—in general, the names of mythical characters such as Maíra, Tamandaré, Sumé, etc.—and to make an attempt at the etymological interpretation in order to shed some light on the meaning of the myth.

Your books require vast research and deal with unordinary themes. What are your sources of inspiration? How accessible is historic data in Brazil?

My “inspiration” or motivation is always in mythology. I observe humankind through the lens of myth. This is the aspect that interests me. And I like—perhaps due to the fact that this gives incentive to my creativity—to place my narratives in the past, in times I’ve not experienced. There are many historic documents in relation to Brazil and innumerable academic studies. The sources, either direct or indirect, are abundant.

How does the city of Rio de Janeiro work as both setting and home?

It is the perfect combination: I love my hometown and I can go where my stories take place. I always do that: a journey by foot through the sceneries of my novels. It is one of the best parts of the creative process.

Do you concentrate on a single book at a time or prefer to tackle various works simultaneously?

One at a time, which does not stop me from, once in a while, getting ideas for a future book. But I do not develop the new idea: I write it down and wait for the right time to use it.

Do you think that Brazilian contemporary literature welcomes the mythical aspects of the society they represent?

I think that contemporary literature, Brazilian or foreign, is more concerned with the individual. It deals more with existential or social issues. The mythological point of view is the inverse of existentialism. Myth treats mankind as a species, not an autonomous being. Mythological characters are not actual individuals, but representatives of the human species: categories of humankind.

What about your current and future literary projects, is there something you can share?

I am currently working on the fourth novel of a five-book series entitled Mythical Compendium of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a series of five thrillers, one for each century of the city’s history (excluding the twenty-first century). It will be titled A Hipótese Humana (The Human Hypothesis) and takes place in the nineteenth century. The series will be completed with a book from the eighteenth century: A Origem da Espécie (The Origin of Species).

Published Dec 29, 2015   Copyright 2015 Kátia Bandeira de Mello-Gerlach

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