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The Translator Relay: Julia Powers

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 March's installment, Sophie Duvernoy passed the baton to Julia Powers, who translates primarily from Portuguese into English.

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

I studied abroad in Buenos Aires as an undergraduate, and even though my Spanish was terrible, I took a Portuguese class at a Catholic university with a bunch of students getting their degrees in hospitality. (This sort of nonsensical lateral move is pretty characteristic of me when it comes to languages, career trajectories.) I was delighted at the quick progress I made; it turned out I had already laid a lot of the conceptual and grammatical groundwork by studying Spanish. So Spanish turned out to be my gateway Romance language—once I’d cut my teeth on the whole concept of a second language by muddling through it in high school and college, I was able, for the most part, to teach myself other languages. French, Portuguese, Italian, and eventually, working backwards, some Latin, and even a little Provençal.

With that head start, Portuguese came a little more readily, and I could leave the embarrassment of being so bad at Spanish behind. Even though Portuguese has more phonemes, I found the sounds more liquid ( to risk a cliché). It flowed for me, at least the Brazilian variety; the continental is a whole other matter. And then there was the literature and music of Brazil, of which I was almost totally ignorant at twenty. When Machado de Assis and bossa nova are your introductions to a culture, it’s enough to sweep you off your feet. I figured that if I found these right off the bat, there must be so much more where that came from in such a vast place—Brazil is larger than the lower forty-eight, after all—and I have yet to be disappointed.

The first time I was in the country, technically, was during that same study-abroad semester. With a friend, I visited the Argentine side of the Iguaçu waterfalls, which also border Brazil. From there, we took a bus to Paraguay, and on the way to Ciudad del Este we passed through Brazil and made a stop. My friend and I didn’t have Brazilian visas, so we weren’t even allowed off the bus—I just looked longingly at the Portuguese on a billboard for potato chips and vowed to return.

It took me a few years, but I continued studying Portuguese on my own in the meantime (while living in Rome, no less, because that makes sense!), and eventually ended up in Salvador da Bahia with a Fulbright grant. There were two Brazilian poets I had intended to translate, but I enthusiastically abandoned that project when a friend introduced me to the writing of Hilda Hilst. (That friend was Lívia Drummond, who worked with me on a translation of the novel Contos d’escarnio/Textos grotescos). This was in 2011. I soon pivoted to translating Hilst’s poetry and now I find I’ve been doing that for the past decade.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

The untranslatables still stuck in my craw come to mind most readily. Here’s one I’ve been thinking about for years. In translating wordplay, ingenuity only gets you so far; you also need luck. When Hilst observes that porco (“pig”) is corpo (“body”) turned inside out, she makes concrete a marvelously graphic image of sin almost blossoming out of the perverted body. The closest I came to this pairing was “swine” and “sinew.” “Swine" has a nice biblical-moral resonance, and “sinew" is interestingly icky, though it lacks the irreducible simplicity of “body.” It’s also a stroke of luck that they share the same five letters, but I’ll be eternally disappointed that they both begin with “s.” It’s not inside-out enough. Bad luck.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

Not any interesting or unusual ones. Like many translators, I do a rough first pass. And then I go back, again and again and again. And again. I read aloud at various points. I tend to obsess over a few particular problems until I’m satisfied for long enough to send it off . . . and then a whole new set of problems becomes grotesquely obvious the moment it’s in someone else’s hands. Is that a ritual? Maybe. It’s certainly a way of life, though not one I can recommend.

I would like to have more rituals—I like the way they honor the process in itself. In October, I had a baby, and if you’ve read about getting babies and kids to bed at night, then you know about the sanctity of the Bedtime Routine. Things like the bath, the pjs, the story time. Repeated every night in the same order, they are supposed to signal to even a very young baby that it’s time to get sleepy . . . A proper routine has eluded us, though, because the baby might go along with something one night and then cry the next, so we adapt and the routine falls apart. He effectively decides his own bedtime and we do our dance around it. But one thing we’ve somehow managed almost every night is that my partner reads aloud while I nurse the baby one last time. We’ve been reading Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales—a gift from a friend. Highly recommended if you have children of your own, or if you know someone with children, or if you do not, but you like poetic gems of surrealist whimsy with the occasional charm of a communist moral thrown in. The translation is by Antony Shugaar, and it is genuinely funny. He captures Rodari’s particular brand of intelligent silliness very well. 

This tangent reminds me that I do have one habit, which I just might turn into a ritual. I often like to read a few paragraphs of some piece of literature unrelated to my project before settling down to work. It’s my way of calming and distracting my inner critical neurotic to make space for creative thought—I think of it as sneaking up on myself.

“Fidelity is the material, the clay that the translator manipulates.”

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?

This isn’t exactly a metaphor, and no one I’ve shared it with has particularly liked the idea or thought it made any sense, but I still think there’s something to it: fidelity as the medium of translation. Fidelity is the material, the clay that the translator manipulates. So it’s not a matter of how faithful or true the translation is to the original but in what way. In other words, a fitting way to describe a translation would be by the style of its fidelity.

Other than that, I appreciate George Steiner’s definition of translation as “an exact art,” which is probably a more concise way of phrasing what I’ve said above.

Looking through some papers to remind myself of proper metaphors, I came across a passage from Frank Nisetich’s foreword to his translation of Pindar’s Victory Songs, which I have by way of Peter Cole’s translation course at Yale. In answer to Benjamin’s observation that there is no Muse of translation, Nisetich assigns the role to Eurydice. The translator, Orpheus, descends into the underworld to bring Eurydice “in all her original beauty” back from “the underworld of the foreign language.” But, fatally, when he looks back, “all that is left of her is a memory, only an impression that he can convey to others—his version, his translation.” Nisetich is elaborating on the frustration he says is inherent in translating poetry, but his extended metaphor evokes fidelity and dedication as well—Orpheus and Eurydice are husband and wife—and, much more than frustration, grief. I think this grief, over a gap, a distance, is latent in the best translations of poetry.


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

The aforementioned baby has put translation work on pause, but before he was born I was starting in on a novel set in an arid, rural region of Brazil, narrated by two sisters in a family of sharecroppers. When the novel begins, the two young girls are playing with a knife, its blade so sharp and gleaming they can’t help but taste it, and they take turns putting it in their mouths. One cuts her tongue severely and the other loses her tongue altogether. But for much of the novel, the narrator, speaking in the first-person plural, doesn’t reveal which of the sisters is mute. The speaking girl, who perfectly understands the speechless gestures and expressions of the other, must serve as her sister’s interpreter, a way of paying a debt for having kept her tongue. I’m not sure it’s intended to be a metaphor for translation, but I also don’t know that it’s not.


And Sophie’s question for you: When we’ve discussed Hilda Hilst, you’ve often mentioned that she was an extremely self-contradictory person. She was a strong, willful woman, yet wasn’t feminist in the slightest; she constantly kept others at arm’s length through her own spikiness, yet her poetry is full of yearning. How do you, as a translator, position yourself toward an author who seemingly wanted to push people away, both in her life and her work? Has this led you to make certain choices in your translations?

Yes, I’ve written (unpublished) reams on this topic: the antagonistic and, to her mind, unrequited love Hilst had for her audience. The writer-narrators of her later fiction intentionally walk the line between brilliant writing and bad, and it is very difficult to translate this and to get it published. It’s confusing! Hilst is taunting and belligerent with her readers, daring them to take the writing seriously or to dismiss it, pairing downright goofy pornographic elements with excruciatingly precise character portraits and moments of disturbing beauty. I was reading about the American poet Frederick Seidel recently, and it occurred to me that Seidel is absolutely the narrator in a Hilst novella come to life: an old sophisticate, a wealthy, white male writer solipsistically and desperately crass in the face of death, penning badly rhymed erotic poems that are as nauseating as they are virtuosic; that’s Hilst’s late fiction in a nutshell.

Her poetry is something else, however. Spiky, yes, but more thistle than mace. Has this led me to certain choices? I hope so, yet it’s hard to say exactly how. What I want to do is get at the pinpricks, the un-pretty sounds and unsettling word choices, and cross these with her lofty, intoxicated lyricism.


Julia Powers is currently translating the collected poetry of Hilda Hilst. For her translation work she has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN-Heim Foundation, the Susan Sontag Translation Prize, and the Fulbright Program. Her translations have appeared in the Paris Review, Triple CanopyHarper's Magazine, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut and Hamilton, Montana.


Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Jack Jung

Three Poems by Salgado Maranhão, translated by Alexis Levitin

Brazil Beyond Rio

Published Mar 25, 2021   Copyright 2021 Words Without Borders

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