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“Sheltering in the Prose of a Master”: Padma Viswanathan on Translating Graciliano Ramos

By Miguel Conde

Last week, NYRB Classics released Padma Viswanathan's translation of São Bernardo, a classic novel by early twentieth-century Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos. Today on WWB Daily, Reviews Editor Miguel Conde interviews Viswanathan about the experience of translating this classic of Brazilian literature.

In the autumn of 1929, news of an unexpected literary debut reached the papers of Rio de Janeiro. The reports concerned an amusing and original manuscript (such was the critical consensus) recently penned by a certain Graciliano Ramos, the mayor of a remote village with the picturesque name of Palmeira dos Índios (“Indians’ Palm Tree”) in the Northeastern state of Alagoas, one of the poorest in Brazil. 

The excitement surrounding this surprising new arrival in the Brazilian république des lettres was connected, to a considerable degree, with a general feeling of hilarity and scandal aroused by the improbable genre in which the writerly talents of mayor Graciliano Ramos were first relayed to the public. His work’s sober title was A Report to the Governor of the State of Alagoas, and its contents, which gave a scrupulous account of city expenses and public works in Palmeira dos Índios in the year of 1928, diligently matched the description. The style, however, differed noticeably, and often quite impertinently, from the abstruse prose considered to be the appropriate mode of address in official documents of this kind. Where others strived for the optimal equilibrium point between deference and inconspicuousness, the mayor of Palmeira dos Índios seemed to revel in sardonic, epigrammatic takedowns of the failings of public administration, his own included.

“All political events are for show,” went a characteristic section on expenses for telegrams sent by town officials. “The Bastille fell: send a telegram; someone threw a rock in the street: send a telegram; Deputy F. kicked the bucket: send a telegram. Pointless expenditures. Everyone knows that things are fine here, that the deputy died, and that we wept when, in 1556, Bishop Sardinha was murdered by the Caetés.”

After the official report was published by the state press, papers in Alagoas picked up on the story. The press in Rio de Janeiro, at that time the political and cultural capital of Brazil, soon followed suit. Excerpts from the report were introduced to carioca readers with words of delighted praise: “Here is a Mark Twain in sandals,” marveled an apocryphal note at the A Manhã daily, referring to the traditional footwear of the Brazilian Northeast.  

In the following year, Ramos sent a second report in a similar vein to the governor of Alagoas. This led Rio de Janeiro poet and publisher Augusto Frederico Schmidt to reach out to the mayor of Palmeira dos Índios and inquire what else, if anything, might be cooking in those remote parts of Alagoas, as far as literature was concerned. As it turned out, Graciliano Ramos’s literary ambitions were not confined to writing cheeky administrative reports. He had indeed, as Schmidt had half-hoped, half-guessed, been working on something else: a novel called Caetés (incidentally, or not, it featured a cameo appearance by that same Bishop Sardinha, he whom a tribe of Brazilian cannibals so impiously devoured in 1556). The book was published in 1933, to a mixed reception. Antonio Candido, the great Brazilian critic, thought it was a promising exercise. Others seemed to have read it with those amusing reports still in their minds: Graciliano Ramos wrote “like someone who’s sending a telegram and paying dearly for each word,” remarked Aurélio Buarque de Holanda, connecting the former mayor’s now proverbial parsimony with his novel’s terse style.

It was only in 1934, five years after earning the moniker “Mark Twain in sandals,” that Graciliano Ramos managed to produce evidence that there was more to him than an amusing, but minor, curiosity. His second novel, São Bernardo, was published that year to critical acclaim. The book, which is now being published in Padma Viswanathan’s translation for the New York Review of Books Classics series, is written as if it were the memoirs of a Mr. Paulo Honório, a field laborer turned landowner whose obsession with amassing property and rising to the top of his provincial world takes a tragic turn once it seizes control of his sentimental life. Honório’s account of his own rise and downfall bears the marks of his personality: it often feels as coarse and callous as the deeds he performs to take possession of, and then bring order to, the São Bernardo farm, his biggest ambition and pride in life. Some critics suggested the result was too crude, but most were impressed: “One doesn’t feel here, as in Caetés, any overbearing influences or marks of an exercise,” wrote Antonio Candido. “There is rather a mature stylistic process, revealing a great writer in full command of his resources.”

It was as if the brutality of daily life in the poorer regions of Brazil had suddenly found its own voice, its literary correlate in the uncouth speech of Graciliano Ramos’s narrator. One would hardly think of Twain when reading the novel. Ramos had come into his own as an ironist, but one who was passionately so. His sense of humor was now often matched with, and shadowed by, an unsettling pathos. It smacked of exasperation and lurking anger, rather than the gaiety of a satirist laughing at human folly. 

“In a society where most lack formal education, like the Brazil of that time, language is a crucial marker of social standing.”

Brazilian fiction in the 1930s was broadly divided between Northeastern realist novels of social critique (Jorge Amado, Rachel de Queiroz, José Lins do Rego) and more introspective stories of private dramas, usually unfolding in the cities of Brazil’s southern states (Lúcio Cardoso, Dyonélio Machado, Cornélio Pena). São Bernardo has something of both camps, but belongs squarely in neither. Its plot concerns the conflicts between landowners, state officials, intellectuals, and peasants in a rural village in the Northeastern backcountry, but it is also the story of Honório’s doomed love for Madalena, an educated and independent woman, and his subsequent descent into jealousy and obsession. Class struggle and the pangs of unrequited love are entangled in Honório’s tale of self-fashioning and undoing.

Although he feels compelled to tell his story, Honório claims that he lacks the means to do it properly, so he begins by asking readers to “be so kind as to translate this into literary language if they want to.” There seems to be some irony in this request, since Honório is ostensibly derisive of the contrived, or to his ears merely conceited, language of the lettered class. But his infatuation with Madalena, a teacher and free-thinker who publishes her own articles in local newspapers, suggests that this disdain might disguise Honório’s real feelings. He may buy encomiums from local journalists, or give them a beating to put a stop to their criticisms, but Madalena’s intellectual accomplishments remain beyond the grasp of money and brute force. There is another dimension to power, we may think, that eludes (and allures) him.  

São Bernardo can thus be read as Paulo Honório’s attempt to figure out, and consequently to take hold of, this elusive power of language, which he comes to identify with his wife: “If I can’t grasp my wife’s character, what’s this story for? Nothing, but I still have to write it.” The book ends up, in a way, being a reenactment of his failure to come to terms with Madalena’s character: “What I wanted to say was simple and direct, though it was useless to hope my wife would ever be clear or concise. Her vast, slippery vocabulary was a closed room to me, and when she tried to use my rough, basic language, the mildest, most solid expressions sounded snakelike: twisting, biting, venomous.”

In the face of such insurmountable misunderstandings, this self-made man is confronted with a brake to his ambitions, and a feeling of defeat going beyond romantic disappointment. In a society where most lack formal education, like the Brazil of that time, language is a crucial marker of social standing. As clever as Honório is, his humble origins mean that there will always be a limit to how far he can go. There will always be some circles where he simply won’t belong. As Viswanathan puts it in her insightful translator's note to the novel: "This is the story, after all, of a man in a unique and lonely position, a position he reflects on at his own story’s close—how, had he remained illiterate, he might not have been estranged both from his own kind and from himself. [. . .] His story, told in the language of the class he has left behind for the benefit of the class he cannot fully join, functions as a metonym for this impossible situation."

In sticking to his own words, however, Paulo Honório achieves a kind of payback in São Bernardo, one that he won’t mention explicitly, but that was certainly on Graciliano Ramos’s mind as he wrote the novel. Making heavy use of vernacular speech collected from daily interactions in his remote Alagoas village (cursing, slang, proverbs, idiomatic expressions), and conceivably of some inventions of his own, Ramos created in São Bernardo a dialect that put readers in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro in a position similar to the one in which Paulo Honório found himself when talking to Madalena. It was as if the tables had turned, and critics and intellectuals were now the ones unable to fully grasp the language of the novel, the ones made momentarily powerless by Ramos’s writing. All of which, of course, makes any attempt at translating the book a particularly daunting project.

São Bernardo was first translated into English almost half a century ago, in 1975, by Robert Scott-Buccleuch. The new translation by Padma Viswanathan strives to recreate in English something of this experience of estrangement produced by Honório’s “rough” language. Viswanathan, a Canadian fiction writer and playwright who also translated Ramos’s 1929 report to the governor of Alagoas (the excerpt above comes from her translation, which can be read in full at LitHub), has a brilliant ear for irony and double-entendres. She perfectly captures not only the viciousness of Honório’s invectives, but also Ramos’s underlying ironic rejoicing in pushing his narrator beyond the edge of moral and linguistic decorum. From the novel’s deadpan opening sentence (“Before I started this book, I thought division of labor was the way to go”), her translation also brings out a sense of dark comedy in Honório’s narrative that feels very true to the spirit of São Bernardo, although one may at points pass over it when reading the original text. Her Paulo Honório is often mischievous, rather than simply cruel. This attention to nuance not only attests to a careful and perceptive reading of São Bernardo, but is also an illuminating interpretation of the novel in its own right.

In this interview, conducted via email, Padma Viswanathan talks about how she tackled the challenge of translating the novel, and what it felt like to work her way so meticulously through a book that can at times feel like “a tour-de-force of what we today would call ‘toxic masculinity.’”


Miguel Conde (MC): While reading your translation, I also had a look at the original Portuguese text of São Bernardo, and was surprised to find myself struggling to make sense of more than a few passages. Graciliano Ramos relied a lot on everyday speech for this book, which might have added to its realism for Brazilian readers eighty years ago, but now some of the language sounds almost foreign even for a native speaker (at least one from Rio de Janeiro, as is my case). How did you go about developing a register in English that you felt was faithful to the book but at the same time wouldn’t alienate readers?

Padma Viswanathan (PV): Yes, I don’t know if it was scarier or more reassuring when I realized that the book wasn’t only difficult to understand because of my Portuguese, but also because of its distance from the world of most of its readers. If it makes you feel a bit better, that was also the case back when it was written! Graciliano Ramos deliberately incorporated obscure Northeastern expressions that he collected from workers on his father’s farm or customers who came into their store. In a letter to his wife, he said he was translating the book “from Portuguese to Brazilian,” but he didn’t mean the language of the educated classes of the south, even though they were likely to form the book’s main readers, but rather “a complicated Brazilian, very different from that which appears in city-folks’ books, a backwoods Brazilian, with a huge number of unpublished expressions, treasures that I had no clue even existed.” So, in translating, I aimed to include or alienate readers about as much as he did. Where I learned an expression would be unknown to mainstream Brazilians, I would either invent an equivalent or translate it literally. When he used an expression familiar to Brazilians, I would try to substitute an expression familiar to North Americans (or, at least, I tried to use more broadly familiar expressions about as frequently or infrequently as he did). Some aspects of the book are obscure without being obscurely idiomatic—for example, when the characters are talking about politics—and in those cases, I tried to make the best possible representation of their positions without interpreting any more than the text seemed to give me license to do. I was primarily concerned with reproducing voice, however, and since the book’s conceit is that the whole story is written or told by a single narrator, that provided me a still point around which everything else could revolve.    

“Graciliano Ramos was, as you’ve said, an exacting writer and sui generis in his time as well as in ours.”

MC: One of the most frequent words in the book is “mil-réis,” the Brazilian currency of that time. Money is Paulo Honório’s foremost preoccupation, and I wonder if this is one aspect that might make the novel appealing to a North American audience. Sometimes it almost seems like Ramos is doing a narrative take on Max Weber’s Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, but set in rural Brazil. To what extent do you think the world of São Bernardo will seem familiar to readers in the US?

PV: North American readers will find ready comparisons for Paulo Honório in Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen of Absalom, Absalom, or possibly in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby—men of obscure origins driven by the desire for material gain and the power that accrues with it. These men rise to command respect but know that, to some extent, they will always be denied respectability. The American dream, after all, is not limited to America or even the Americas, and neither is the Protestant work ethic limited to Protestants. I’m not sure, in this regard, that money per se is Paulo Honório’s sole preoccupation, although it’s up there. Rather, his ruthless capitalist strategies seem aimed at institution-building, which is to say, remaking the world. The novel, after all, is named after his ranch—the ranch where he once worked as an illiterate day-laborer, and which he repossesses after luring its dissipated owner into taking multiple loans from him. It not only irks Paulo Honório that the owner, who inherited the land, can’t be bothered with its upkeep. It’s that Paulo Honório sees its potential and will do what it takes to realize it. He works hard—planting orchards, paving a market road, building a dam—educating himself by poring over agricultural manuals and developing outsized opinions on chicken and cattle breeds. “. . . [F]or me,” he says in the book, “São Bernardo was the most important place in the world,” his fiefdom and his refuge, a place where he has absolute control and whose prosperity and beauty he can believe to be his own.


MC: Ramos famously compared his writing to the work of the women laundresses in his home state of Alagoas: he strived to emulate, he said, their zeal in soaking and wringing each piece of clothing many times over before hanging it out to dry. This suggests a Flaubertian discipline in the use of language, a striving for precise words. As a tale of Paulo Honório’s undoing, however, São Bernardo often gives the opposite impression. Honório increasingly loses control over his own narrative, to the point where it is difficult to tell reality from imagination, or to figure out who said what. What was your method, if any, in conveying Honório’s madness? Did it worry you that the reader might feel disoriented and that this might seem like an issue of mistranslation?

PV: Well, one of the great internal fictions of the novel itself is that it is being written by Paulo Honório himself, a man who only learned to read after having been thrown in jail for a brawl. Paulo Honório would have nothing but contempt for Graciliano Ramos’s fussy exactitude: he says in the book itself that he has no use for literature’s artifices, that what interests him is life and its concrete realities. We can guess that his dismissal is at least a little defensive, but regardless, he says, “I mean to tell my story. It’s tough. I might neglect to mention useful details, ones that seem to me beside the point, irrelevant. Or maybe, more used to dealing with hicks, I won’t trust readers to understand and will repeat insignificant passages. All the rest of it will be arranged without any order, as you’ll see.” In other words, he says up front that he won’t pretend to understand how to control his narrative. So when he falls into inadvertent poetic reveries over the nearby mountain and “the red ribbon of road winding around it, the woods, the cotton fields, the still water of the dam” or when, alone in his empty house, he hears ghostly echoes of the long-departed, I would hope the reader participates in the accidental poetry and the disorientation, which are part and parcel of the narrative construction, and not think they’re the products of mistranslation.


MC: Writing and literacy are also crucial themes in the book. They are instruments of power that Paulo Honório, for all his brute force and ambition, can’t ever really master. His jealousy of his wife, Madalena, seems to always be connected to her relation with books and knowledge. He is initially bothered by her newspaper articles, and then obsessive about her letters. Did these connections between gender, writing, and power in São Bernardo have any bearing on how you saw your own work of translating Paulo Honório’s narrative into English?

PV: I started this translation in an odd moment in my own life as a fiction writer. My second novel had been shortlisted for a big prize, which brought it some unexpected attention before it sank again, as novels tend to do, allowing me to resume my normal life, for which I was grateful and resentful at once. So sheltering for a while in the prose of a master, particularly one I felt had been unfairly overlooked in the international literary canon, seemed like the perfect remedy. Translating this book’s multiple ironic layers, knowing what incredible care Ramos took chiseling out each sentence—I felt that I was doing him and his legacy a service, but that the greatest benefit might be accruing to me.

Translating him also led me toward a greater awareness of Brazilian literature more broadly. The first woman author to be awarded the Brazilian Academy of Letters’ Lifetime Achievement Award, Rachel de Queiroz, received it in 1957, but de Queiroz wasn’t allowed to become the Academy’s first female member until twenty years after that, as though the revered gentlemen of the Academy had less trouble acknowledging her work than her person. Graciliano Ramos himself confessed that, until he first read her, he didn’t believe a woman could actually write. He admired her first novel so much that, even despite seeing her name and picture, he thought it must be a front for a man.

(Such prejudices haven’t been entirely effaced: recently, as I struggled to craft an inclusive syllabus for a class on Brazilian fiction in translation, a colleague directed me to Regina Dalcastagnè’s 2012 study showing that contemporary Brazilian writers are nearly 73% men and 93% white.)

So I can only wonder what Graciliano Ramos would think of a woman translating his tour-de-force of what we today would call “toxic masculinity”! I have to say, though, that I find his portrait of Madalena not merely sympathetic but nuanced. The book’s account of her marriage to Paulo Honório is almost unbearably touching, not least in its treatment of the relationship of literacy to class, to emotional connections, and to the articulation of the self. Translating it has been a gift.


MC: Perhaps the most salient aspect of Paulo Honório’s voice is his viciousness. He’s not only rude or aggressive, but really sadistic in the way he deals with other people and in how he relishes being, as he perceives it, on top. How was it for you to deal with such a narrator? Are there any similar characters in the English-language canon that helped you find the right tone for Honório’s wickedness?

PV: Paulo Honório really does enjoy making certain people suffer, doesn’t he? Honestly, though, he only does this to people who he thinks have it coming—people he sees as uppity or lazy—and, as someone who maybe got a little too close to him, I confess I often saw things the way he did. He takes such care both in orchestrating these tortures and in describing his evil machinations to the reader that I had to enjoy helping him tell it the way he wanted.

As for comparable characters in English-language fiction, there is Thomas Sutpen, but he is more distant and less sympathetic, and São Bernardo is funny in a way that Absalom, Absalom is not. But there are many other ruthless, self-determining men created by authors who care a great deal about language. Back in the day, I was a big fan of Martin Amis’s The Information and Money; also, of Stephen Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, who is sweeter and less ruthless. More recently, we’ve seen rags-to-riches stories in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia or Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, books that give the theme a contemporary developing-world spin.

I can’t say any of these novels, though, helped me with tone, any more than did reading Ramos’s forebear Machado de Assis or his contemporary Jorge Amado or even Flaubert. Graciliano Ramos was, as you’ve said, an exacting writer and sui generis in his time as well as in ours. Although the themes of his work arose in a certain context, the tone and rhythms emerge out of his prose. What was probably most helpful to me in fine-tuning the sound was progressive rereadings of his work, including the novels before and after this one, different as they are.

Let me mention, though, apropos of Paulo Honório’s viciousness, that there are several notable exceptions in the book. He goes to great lengths to locate his erstwhile foster mother, for example, then brings her to the ranch and installs her in her own little house. He similarly rescues a one-time small-town big man, Seu Ribeiro, who has been rendered obsolete and impoverished by the twentieth century. To them, he is never less than tender and respectful. He is, by contrast, terrible to his wife, in part because he thinks of her as a possession, like the ranch, but one he can’t control. It’s his regret over his treatment of Madalena, though, that motivates the writing of the book, and the melancholy tones of that regret echo back over all its madness when it is done.

“There is a staggering variety of swears and insults in this novel! It was a huge challenge.”

MC: One small detail I particularly enjoyed in your translation was the recurrence of the word “yessir,” which Paulo Honório uses a few times in his conversations with himself. It is a verbal tic that perfectly sums up his authoritarian personality, as if, even when he is alone, he must find a way to be involved in a dynamic of dominance and subjection (in this case, putting himself in both positions simultaneously). Perhaps this is already present in the original “sim, senhor,” but it had never caught my eye. I think your use of “yessir” instead of simply “Yes, sir,” is a tiny gesture that makes a huge difference, because it helps single out and highlight the repetition. Can you talk a bit this specific decision?

PV: What a keen observation: I’d never exactly thought through that, how Paulo Honório is addressing himself with this honorific, assenting to his own authority, as it were, playing his own lackey. I can recall a very specific moment when that formulation was used on me. One of my best friends, also my first Portuguese teacher, is Brazilian. (Sheila Ribeiro, I’m talking about you.) Twenty-some years ago, she was lecturing me for being a wimp in my relationship with a man, and to emphasize a point, as is common, she said, não, senhora. She was addressing me, not herself, but her facetiousness was clear: in using the honorific, she was putting me in my place. I’m Canadian but now live in the American South, and “no, ma’am” is used here in a similar way. It is just luck, though, that English has “yessir” available; there is no feminine equivalent I can think of that achieves the same effect.   


MC: There’s a lot of cursing and swearing in São Bernardo. Did this present any particular challenges to the translation? And more broadly, thinking of all the vernacular expressions Ramos uses, can you mention a few that were really hard to figure out? Did you resort to any specific dictionaries or local informers in the Brazilian Northeast?   

PV: There is a staggering variety of swears and insults in this novel! It was a huge challenge: I kept an index of their frequencies and tried to create a roughly equivalent range in the English but abandoned that in the later drafts because the tonal variations started to feel at odds with the relatively consistent tonal palette of the original. And there are also many vernacular expressions that were and still are super-obscure. Ramos himself talked about rewriting the book using expressions not found in any encyclopedias, and when I tried to consult with that same friend, Sheila, whom I mention above (she was raised in São Paulo but her mother is from the Northeast), she was stumped by many of them, as were various people in Recife and Bahia whom I asked more casually. Plus, I had a steep learning curve: idioms such as “going around with a flea behind your ear” or “it’s time for the jaguar to drink water” turned out to be relatively common, though I was not familiar with them. Others I did know, such as “each monkey to his own branch” (that particular one from a song by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil), and others were easy enough to decode. But then there are others that don’t really show up anywhere in writing except in this novel and that none of my informers felt certain in interpreting. I thought I’d hit pay dirt when I found a published guide to the expressions in São Bernardo—the Glossário Regional/Popular da Obra São Bernardo, de Graciliano Ramos, by Maria da Salete Figueiredo de Carvalho and Maria das Neves Alcântara de Pontes, only published in 2008—but discovered I still had quite a bit of sorting to do, particularly since various expressions these authors list are not found in any of the written sources they consulted, which meant I still felt beholden to translate them according to my interpretation of the situation where they are deployed in the book.

I was additionally fortunate to have as an ally and buddy Sarah Ann Wells, an erudite and perceptive translator and scholar. Sarah has written extensively on Graciliano Ramos and read this manuscript for me not once but twice. Her help was invaluable. And then Edwin Frank, who edits NYRB Classics, gave me the nudge I apparently needed to feel confident leaning in to the lexicon and my reading of the book.


MC: How did you first get interested in Brazilian culture to begin with? Did it initially involve books at all?

PV: I'm a dilettante, in the worst and maybe best way. My initial interest in Brazil came from a threefold coincidence, as I recall, and your intuition is correct: nothing to do with books. I was doing research toward my first novel, set in the part of India where I am from, and an interest in syncretic religions (which have interesting manifestations there) led me to do a little reading about Bahia and candomblé. At that time, I also hosted a short-lived radio show dedicated to international devotional music, and I found myself drawn to the Brazilian selections. Somewhere in that time, David Byrne released a couple of albums of MPB on Luaka Bop, and I was completely hooked. It was my favorite genre of music ever and still is. 

I was living in Edmonton, Alberta, where I'm from, and, as head of our local chapter of the Amnesty International Artists Network, became friendly with a couple of Argentinians who had suffered terribly during that country's dictatorship. When they learned I was a playwright, they told me they would like to see a play written about human rights abuses in their part of the world. That winter, under Amnesty's auspices, they brought a Brazilian policeman to Edmonton (of all places) to do six weeks of training in community policing. We hung out: I asked him a lot of questions and he answered them very frankly. I started learning Portuguese that year, and traveled to Brazil to do research toward that play. (Apparently, I wrote the whole thing before abandoning it.) After that, one thing led to another. 


Padma Viswanathan is the author of several plays and two novels (The Toss of a Lemon and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao), and has published short stories and essays in such journals as Granta and The Boston Review. She also translates from Brazilian Portuguese.


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Published May 12, 2020   Copyright 2020 Miguel Conde

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