Skip to content
Help us bring a world of writing to readers in 2022. Give now.

The Translator Relay: Katrina Dodson

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For July’s installment, Kira Josefsson passed the baton to Katrina Dodson.

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

I translate from Portuguese, entirely Brazilian literature up to now, though I’d like to translate work from other Lusophone countries. I first moved to Rio de Janeiro in 2003, where I taught English and then started taking Portuguese language and Brazilian literature classes at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica. I tumbled headfirst into this continental wealth of stories, music, and language that I’d had almost no prior exposure to, and it changed the course of my life. My relationship to Brazil deepened after I entered a PhD program in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005, which led me to return for research and language work. If you add it all up, I’ve spent over four years in Brazil, living there twice and visiting frequently over the past fifteen years.

Being mixed-race with family who were refugees from Vietnam, and growing up in San Francisco, a city of immigrants, I feel most at home in places where people look very different from one another and can connect through a shared language and culture while still connecting to their particular histories. Brazil is shaped by diversity, where people trace their roots to multiple regions beyond Latin America, ranging across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The fact that I have a European-sounding name (my father’s side is English and Pennsylvania Dutch, which is basically German) but look ambiguously “other” results in awkwardly phrased questions about my background and why I translate from Brazilian Portuguese. I myself am sometimes perplexed as to why I speak Portuguese like a Brazilian with an odd accent and have let my Vietnamese dwindle to subsistence levels. The simplest explanation is that it’s just easier for a native speaker of English to become fluent in Portuguese than Vietnamese, and I have no Brazilian relatives to laugh at my accidental abuses of their language. There’s also an unruly hybridity to the Brazilian way of being that resonates with my own experience in the world. That said, I harbor some ambitions of spending more time with Vietnam, to write about my mother’s remarkable life and maybe to cotranslate something with her.


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

So much of Clarice Lispector’s work is “untranslatable” that it’s hard to give just one example. Much of her style emerges from subtle distortions of known syntax, terms, or idioms in Portuguese, and I can’t always find an equivalent distance in English between the standard and the strange. The more fun a writer has with language, such as playing with multiple meanings embedded in a word, the more the translator has to sweat and contort her linguistic muscles to keep up. I felt an enormous wave of pleasure after figuring out a solution to salvage a pun on “prova” as both “proof” and “dress fitting” in “The Dead Man in the Sea at Urca.” In the story, a woman is trying on a dress at her seamstress’s house when she hears about a young man who’s just drowned in the sea nearby. She considers the incongruity of trying on cheerful dresses within view of a tragic death and asks for proof of God. Suddenly she smells the intense fragrance of roses and concludes, “Então tive a prova, a duas provas; de Deus e do vestido.” More literally, this reads, “So I had proof, the two proofs; of God and the dress,” but the second “proof” is actually a fitting, and proof that a dress exists makes no sense. So I expanded the wordplay to, “So I had fitting proof, the fitting and the proof; of the dress and of God.” I had to put the dress before God to correspond to the order of “fitting proof,” and the translation will always be a looser fit than the original, but I was satisfied to be able to keep the transition from singular into plural, as well as the sense of a double test, of God and of the dress.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

I’ve been trying to translate while on the road in the past few months, and it’s made me realize how attached I am to physical dictionaries, especially my Houaiss, which is like the OED for Portuguese. My attachment has to do partly with the singular content of printed matter that you can’t always find online but also with the way that browsing past the neighboring entries for the word you’re looking up can lead to unexpected insights. Yet I’m convinced that there’s also something psychosomatic going on. I like to work surrounded by a fortress of books: piles of dictionaries and other resources on either side of my computer, with the original text propped open on a book stand. And when I’m in refining mode, trying to grasp the exact feel and meaning of a phrase in both Portuguese and English, I start flipping pages and alternating between unwieldly volumes in a kind of frenzy, like Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, flailing my arms, running my fingers over pages, getting caught up in the crescendo. I think the physical movement and flurry of words and paper unlocks something in my brain and lets the right combination emerge in a way I can never quite achieve when I’m just using my laptop. I recently schlepped nearly twenty pounds of dictionaries and reference books to the Banff International Literary Translation Centre for a three-week residency. It was a pain in the ass, and I looked like a diva with all that luggage, but I was so happy to have my proper tools and made great progress on a difficult project.


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?

I often use the metaphors of translation as performance and translation as channeling, especially for translating Clarice Lispector, a dead writer with a distinctive voice and strong sense of theatricality. Lately, I’ve been thinking about translation as cultural cannibalism, an act that’s both violent and intimate, in which you absorb the force of another textual body and render it in terms of your own textual body. This is 100% influenced by my next project, which I’ll tell you about below.


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

I’m currently army crawling through a first draft of the 1928 Brazilian modernist classic Macunaíma, the Hero Without a Character, by Mário de Andrade (forthcoming from New Directions). It’s one of the most important twentieth-century novels in Brazil and is written in an aggressively oral Brazilian language. Andrade elaborates on the story of an indigenous mythical trickster hero, Macunaíma, to create a patchwork portrait of Brazil and its various populations through an amalgam of regional dialects and sayings interwoven with Tupi (the major Brazilian indigenous language), and words from other indigenous and Bantu languages. Andrade wrote the novel in the context of the 1920s Cannibalist Movement, a group of avant-garde artists, mainly from São Paulo, who took inspiration from the cannibal tribes that Europeans first encountered and sensationalized in the sixteenth century. These modernists had no pretensions to a sense of “pure” origins or motives in recuperating Brazilian indigenous cultures as an antidote to European colonialism and US imperialism, but their aim was to “cannibalize” all of the cultures, religions, histories, and languages that marked their experience into distinctly Brazilian manifestations.

I’m experimenting with mixing the English translation with traces of Tupi and other languages that Andrade uses to invade everyday Portuguese, and I have to look up about thirty words on every page in multiple glossaries and dictionaries. Unlike translating Lispector’s stories, this is very much a research project. I’ve gone to the Amazon to get a better material and cultural sense of the novel’s flora and fauna and am looking at early manuscripts in archives at the University of São Paulo, where I also sat in on a Tupi language class. It’s going to take a while to get it working in English, but I’m very excited to get this new translation into people’s hands since it’s such an amazing book and so important for understanding Brazil.


(Kira Josefsson’s question for you) Translating can feel like being submerged in someone else’s voice, thoughts, words. Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories is a huge work, and you’ve compared the translation process to running a marathon. After being so intensely intertwined with another for two years, how, if at all, do you emerge again as yourself? 

Ha, actually it was my editor, Benjamin Moser, who compared it to an ultra­-marathon. It definitely shut down my personal life for two years, during which my interior world with Clarice sometimes seemed more substantial than my relationship to the people around me. I’m still in the process of emerging from that experience, though as with the first time I lived in Brazil, it stands as a major turning point in my life that will always stay with me. One way of “moving on” was to dive into Macunaíma, an equally challenging translation but with a radically different, much more experimental approach. Another way is through the catharsis of revisiting my translation journal from when I was working on the Complete Stories—I’m adapting it into a more personal book about Clarice and translation. I still don’t know what it means to be entirely “myself” in my work, since translators are shape-shifters and academics are so tethered to citational authority, but I’m working on taking more risks in my own writing. Is it troubling that I answered this question in terms of work? I should probably go on some sort of meditation retreat.


Katrina Dodson is the translator from the Portuguese of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, winner of the 2016 PEN Translation Prize, the American Translators Association Lewis Galantière Prize, and a Northern California Book Award. She is currently adapting her Lispector translation journal into a book and translating the 1928 Brazilian modernist classic Macunaíma, the Hero Without a Character, by Mário de Andrade, for New Directions. Dodson is a mentor in the Mills College MFA in Translation Program and holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, with a dissertation on Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil.

Published Jul 28, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.