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The Translator Relay: Jayme Costa Pinto

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For August's installment, Karen Sherwood Sotelino passed the baton to Jayme Costa Pinto, who translates from English into Portuguese.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I started learning English as a child in school, much like most middle-class children in Brazil. Later, and much like most teenagers across the Western Hemisphere, I was exposed to massive doses of American pop culture through music, films, and books, and it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted to really enjoy the full experience—for better and for worse—of that D-Day-like cultural invasion, I’d better learn the language in which it was being deployed, so to speak. At the time, the go-to language school for someone like me was, funnily enough, the Sociedade Brasileira de Cultura Inglesa (or the Brazilian Society for English Culture). So in my quest to absorb everything that I could about all things American, I ended up poring over textbooks churned out by the revered, and very British, Cambridge University Press. Cultura Inglesa is known to place great emphasis on the study of grammar and structure, which served me just fine. In no time, I had become a grammar geek. That opened up a whole new world of language learning to me, one in which I discovered that diving into the intricacies of a tongue could not only be fun, but also revealing of different cultures, customs, and behaviors. I also found that it could serve as a bridge to places where the language in question was spoken. I did not know it then, but all those insights had come together to put me on a one-way road toward eventually working as a translator.

At university, I pursued another passion I’d always had, which was—and is—exact sciences, and that led me to a major in physics from the University of São Paulo, followed by graduate studies in geophysics. But all along I kept the “language fire” burning and took up German and then Spanish, languages I do not work with as a translator today, but that have also helped push me in the direction of translation. And it was during those years in college, with huge piles of books and plenty of empty space in my wallet, that I first tried my hand at translation, as an odd job, starting with academic math texts and eventually, near the end of my years in school, translating the PhD thesis of a good friend. I wasn’t a bad physics student, but I was certainly not as brilliant as my colleagues, and I soon realized I’d have a more fulfilling professional future elsewhere. And of course by then I knew exactly where “elsewhere” was.

I then sought specific training in translation and interpretation at Associação Alumni in São Paulo, where I live, and after a two-year program I started to work on a more professional basis, first as a translator and then as an interpreter, and have been on this road since. I translate mainly from English and, in a few (very) specific technical areas, I also translate into English. I have translated literary works as well, always into Brazilian Portuguese.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English (or, in this case, Portuguese)?

It’s interesting to note that many expressions that native speakers of English deem untranslatable into other languages—though this may be true for speakers of any language—are perfectly translatable! Perhaps not in a single “surgical” way, but certainly in a way that fully conveys the original idea. One expression that comes to mind is “to take for granted.” Just the other day, I heard an English sports writer who’s lived in Brazil for decades say on TV that it’s impossible to translate “take for granted” into Portuguese. And as he is a native speaker, or someone who “owns” the language, he will sound very authoritative to a Brazilian audience. The expression is perfectly translatable into Portuguese, of course, in all its glory, but what I’d like to emphasize here is the linguistic naivete embedded in the journalist’s statement. He is not alone, naturally, and I’m sure he means well, but he just did not factor in a most important element when it comes to translation—or translation (im)possibilities: context. Sure, there will be instances when even context will offer little solace, but I like to think that more often than not the broader picture, the cultural, geographical, and historical aspects of the text, will provide very satisfactory solutions to whatever translation issues come our way.

“My main challenge has been to make [Jerome K. Jerome's] satire resonate with twenty-first-century readers.”

Do you have any translating rituals? 

When translating literature, I like to get a hold of biographies of the author, books on historical events that took place at the same time as the narrative I am translating, and also literary works of the same period as the text I’m working on, to get into the mood of the author’s life and times. Also, if there’s a previous translation of the book I’m translating, I prefer to stay away from it to avoid being influenced. But then when I’m done, I like to take a look at how my colleagues dealt with the same challenges I faced.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Maybe something along the lines of translation as a window that allows readers to peek into different worlds and, when all goes well, come out of the experience with a richer understanding of what makes us human.


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

I am in the final stages of translating a collection of texts by English humorist Jerome K. Jerome, a witty observer of human behavior who developed a style characterized by vivid descriptions and colorful metaphors, not without a hint of mockery toward Victorian ways and customs. The texts were published in 1886, and my main challenge has been to make his satire resonate with twenty-first-century readers.


Karen’s question for you: How would you describe the arc of your remarkable career as both a successful international simultaneous translator in agribusiness and financial markets and a gifted literary translator of canonical English-language authors? In terms of your simultaneous experience, to what extent has your acquisition of vocabulary, phrases, and analyses unique to these fields contributed to your success, or does empathy with your speakers’ train of thought have a greater influence? As for your literary work, how have you navigated the difference between the objective, specific language of agribusiness and finance and the humorous, idiosyncratic language of Jerome K. Jerome and Damon Runyon?

My first regular job as a translator was at the international desk of a popular newspaper called Notícias Populares, a sort of Brazilian version of British tabloids, much like The Sun. I joined the paper in the early 1990s and was tasked with translating foreign newsfeeds about the first Gulf War. The conflict in the Middle East lasted a lot longer than the paper’s interest in the subject, so after four months updating our readers on the war, I was assigned by my editor to write copy at the police/crime desk—a promotion, really, given the popularity of that particular section among readers. I stayed at the paper for another year and a half, a period I’d describe as key in shaping my approach to writing. I can honestly say I owe whatever translation/writing expertise I might have today to those years at NP, as we affectionately called the paper. Having to be precise, straightforward, concise, and still manage to tell a captivating story, and having to do that every day, was the best training I could have had. I can safely say that the Damon Runyon characters I gave voice to in the Brazilian edition of his short stories have more than a passing resemblance to the real-life characters whose stories I told during my stint as a journalist. Their lingo, a mishmash of street talk and newspaper style guide, unites them all. And along with the writing came the chance to be in contact with people from all walks of life, to develop that empathy you mention in your question, and to cultivate an awareness of others, which came in handy when I decided to pursue a career in simultaneous interpreting, an area in which being able to truly listen to other people accounts for more than half the skills needed to be a good professional.


Jayme Costa Pinto was born in São Paulo, Brazil, where he works as a translator and interpreter. He has translated works by Damon Runyon, O. Henry, Jerome K. Jerome, and John Updike, and has interpreted for authors Salman Rushdie, Scott Turow, and James Ellroy.


Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Julia Powers

Another Country: Afro-Brazilian Writing, Past and Present

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

Published Aug 11, 2021   Copyright 2021 Words Without Borders

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