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Through the Looking Glass, and What the Author Saw after Being Translated

By Lúcia Bettencourt

Until I was published, I viewed my stories as my own, personal things, extensions of my mind that could be compared to an article of clothing, changed according to the day and season; or, perhaps, some easily alterable part of my anatomy, like my nails, or hair, things we do, let grow, and that even have their “bad days.” This sense of ownership ended right after the publication of my first book, A secretária de Borges (Borges’s Secretary). At one of the first meetings I had with my readers, a young man—whom I’d never seen before; he was from a city in southern Brazil, some two thousand kilometers from where I live—greeted me excitedly, asserting that I’d written one of my stories thinking of him. For a moment I stared at this stranger in confusion, but then I realized he was right. I obviously hadn’t written the story with him in mind, but in reading what I’d written, he’d found the story that was his. I don’t think I need to spend time explaining; my citing Fernando Pessoa’s well-known verses will suffice: “The poet is a pretender, he pretends so completely that he even pretends the pain he really feels is pain. And those who read what he writes, feel in the pain they read not the two he felt but the one he doesn’t.” Every writer is a pretender, and every reader is a creator (in Portuguese, fingi-dor, pretender of pain, and cria-dor, creator of pain).

I started to feel a sense of wonder, and genuine gratitude toward the people allowing the characters and stories I’d created to flourish in their imaginations. I’d smile in amazement on hearing someone say, for example, that the nameless character of “O divórcio” (Divorce) was tall and blonde, when I’d envisioned a dark-haired woman of medium height as I was writing the story. The silhouette of the secretary on the cover of my book is such a departure from the mental image I had constructed for her that my initial impulse was to reject the proposed cover.

My apprenticeship didn’t end there, however. Invited to speak with a Brazilian literature class discussing one of my stories, I listened to the students talk about feminist issues and questions of legitimacy. They quoted scholars, debated among themselves, interpreting, analyzing, having forgotten me somewhat, as I shook my head bashfully, denying it all, and stammering something along the lines of, “No, you’re wrong, this is just a little story I made up…” Fortunately, the students didn’t listen to me! But before I was taken for a complete fool, I came to my senses and understood that my story had a life of its own, created “despite” me. My writing contained things evident to others that I myself would never be able to see; these had slipped from my subconscious and planted themselves for others to see, although I myself could only discern them through someone else’s eyes. This experience causes a certain degree of discomfort and embarrassment. After all, if readers look to authors to know what we “meant to say” with a particular story, all we can honestly reply is: “exactly what’s written, but who knows what can be read between the lines.”

I thought I’d come a long way with my learning, but then came the experience of being translated. Picture what happens when we toss a pebble into a lake: the pebble sinks, disappearing from our view, but forms concentric circles that keep increasing, expanding, sometimes even covering the entire surface of the lake. Let’s suppose this pebble represents a story. On publication, or release, by the author, it will reach distant places, keep growing, over time and in space. A Shakespearean sonnet, from sixteenth-century England, continues to make ripples, to flood our imagination here in twenty-first-century America.

Let’s suppose, however, that an author tosses her pebble and it lands close to shore. The ripples formed won’t reach very far. Yet a translator nearby might detect a shimmer in the pebble and, seduced by this quality, pick it up. With his or her skill/translation, the pebble/story is tossed back into the lake. Only this time, the pebble skips before sinking, and the ripples therefore multiply, create patterns, and expand further. I’m lucky to have  one of the finest translators I know: Kim Hastings. She’s collected my pebbles and cast them with skill, generating ripples to the extent that some of my stories are stimulating the imagination of people farther away than I’d ever have thought. Making possible the reading of a story, bringing together readers and texts, joining distant sensibilities, creating harmony between cultures by pointing out common ground, and, where there are differences, tempering the stories—this is what I understand the task of the translator to be. According to Rachel Jardim, “the greatest tribute one can pay an author is to translate him or her into another language.” I feel honored to have had my stories translated.

Kim’s translations have gone beyond homage. Through her, I have learned that translators have a far more analytical relationship with language (I should say, languages) than everyday speakers have. Even authors; our relationship with language has an intuitiveness that leaves us “blind” to some aspects of our speech/writing. Why do we choose one word over another? At the time of composition, this escapes me. But even without knowing the why behind my choice, I’ll instinctively go back to a line until settling on the word or phrase that satisfies me most in the context. Or the sentence structure. Or the tone. Translators seem to go from there. They read the text and detect a motive behind our choices, which we’re often not even aware of. Translators also know that the writer’s work develops on many fronts simultaneously, and they confront us with our own doing. Choices of not only vocabulary but point of view, organization, emotional content, rhythm. We work with countless variables at once, creating a verisimilar universe where our stories and characters can come to life. Translators recognize this and transform these worlds where signs denote social classes, settings, intelligible concerns, and so many other details that give substance to the elements that compose the texts in their original language, in small details that make them just as meaningful in another context. So, let me ask, in reading a text we’ve authored (can this be?), written by someone else, in a language other than our own, what are we actually reading? Our own work?

Honestly, before becoming a translated author, I thought these were minor details, part of a conversation having to do with technicalities. Today I view it all very differently. My notion of ownership has vanished. I see how much  the translator has invested in crafting her translations.  When I first read the translation of “Borges’s Secretary,” I realized I had become one of my own characters. I was in the same situation as my Borges, discovering a text that was his, but that he had never written, and never could have written. Was “Borges’s Secretary” my own story or wasn’t it? And yet I didn’t feel threatened or deprived of my authorial rights. On the contrary, I was grateful, delighted to find something I hadn’t written but that was nevertheless still my story.  And to think that, in writing the story, I was telling what was going to happen to me! It was discovery—and more!

I’m not a native speaker of English, but I read and even write in the language with some fluency. I’m a friend of my translator; I trust her completely; I’ve had the opportunity to review and comment on the texts she’s put together. But then there’s the tale of the translation of “Borges’s Secretary” into Arabic. When this story of mine, translated by Kim Hastings, was published by Words Without Borders, an Egyptian reader, living in Yemen, sent me an e-mail (in English) telling me he’d been so taken by the story that he’d translated the piece into Arabic, and was asking permission to run it in the newspaper where he worked. I replied that I’d love to see the translation; I was counting on showing it to an Egyptian friend so she could read it and tell me what she thought. The translator, meanwhile, took this to be my authorization and sent me a message saying that the story had been published. I realized then that, once written, one’s work becomes a kind of mirror, but the image that mirror reflects is never of the author. It’s the kind of mirror Machado de Assis and Guimarães Rosa created, which reveals unsuspected truths. There’s always a difference. My image is necessarily inverted, transformed. Re-created. And if I search for what’s behind the glass where I think I see myself, I find the opaqueness of the metal. I’ve also come to realize that I can’t comment or offer suggestions on translations that other people perhaps interested in my work might one day undertake. I might not know the language, or the person doing the translation—or I may already be dead. I’ve also come to appreciate the opinion of Walter Benjamin, who regarded translation as something beyond the work. A meta-work. Something that transcends (the) simple creation, takes it up a notch, and makes translation a sophisticated intellectual exercise, simultaneously creation and philosophy, since it’s closer to what may be the essence of language.

When Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass, I wasn’t born yet. When some translator (and today I truly regret not knowing who that person was) took Carroll’s text and translated it into Portuguese, he (or she) couldn’t have imagined that I’d be here, today, using this story as the inspiration behind my reflections. But it was thanks to that translation, and thanks to countless others, that I’ve had access to Carroll, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Borges, Dante, Homer, Cervantes—to so many authors I love and who accompany me like faithful friends. Some I can now read in the original. English, French, and Spanish are among the languages I’ve learned. Yet I still rely on translations. Even if I can read Proust in the original, and revel in the musicality of his composition in French, I see no reason to forgo the magnificent translation by Porto Alegre poet Mário Quintana, for example, who knew how to align his spirit with that of the French author and create a universe full of beauty and meaning, even though the signs he worked with were in another language, another time, a new society. And so well chosen that they still fill readers’ imaginations to this day.

I’m grateful for the mutual tributes that permit the circulation of ideas between different cultures and times. Thanks to medieval copyists and translators, thanks to the admirers and patient translators of Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, we built our so-called Western civilization. Eastern cultures preserved the ideas that reached us as our own. The image that this “other” gave back to us is the basis of our identity. They were our mirror, magical and generous. Maybe that’s why Borges, whenever possible, translated the Thousand and One Nights, with his thousand and one ideas. We writers will go on translating our ideas and translators will go on translating these translations, thereby creating an accommodating world, comprehensive and comprehensible.

Translation copyright 2011 by Kim M. Hastings. All rights reserved.

Published May 31, 2011   Copyright 2011 Lúcia Bettencourt

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