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Sun and Slang: On Translating Geovani Martins’s “The Sun on My Head”

By Julia Sanches

I slept poorly while translating Geovani Martins’s O sol na cabeça, waking up repeatedly in the wee hours of the night, a solution to a thorny problem on the tip of my tongue, alarm clock glowing beside me, leaves stirring somewhere outside. After mumbling something incoherent, I’d fall asleep again. Hours later, the first words that would come to me in the bright of the morning were “Acordei tava ligado o maçarico!” Or some version of what would later become my translation of that opening phrase. But it wasn’t. Hot, I mean, or scalding. It was chilly in the way of New England springs. I was split, somewhere between hot and cold, somewhere between the American Northeast and Rio de Janeiro. Somewhere in-between. 

The relationship between translators and the authors they translate—our authors, we sometimes say, our books—is often lopsided, unreciprocated, and hair-raisingly voyeuristic. We are protective of them; sometimes we are made to speak for them like dummies on a ventriloquist’s knee. When translating, I often feel like I’m crawling into the pages of the text I am working on. The image that comes to me as I visualize this is necessarily eerie, something that takes place in a book I have not read but have heard about. It is the image of a man crawling into the empty, still-warm carcass of a bear to keep himself warm on a winter’s night. The image is gory and unsettling. When I finally met Geovani Martins I felt a bit like a stalker—the seemingly harmless next-door neighbor who has been spying through his apartment windows and knows more than even he does about his own home—or a double agent who can’t afford to blow her cover and so pretends she hasn’t spent hours deep-diving into the author’s life in search of clues that would make her translation slip seamlessly into the shape of the original text. The closest I got to explaining this to Geovani without raising any alarms was to let him know that I had many, many drafts of The Sun on My Head on my computer. I wasn’t sure of the number then, but I am now. Thirty-six. It’s unseemly. 

Unlike in previous translations, I decided that this time I would save the translation as a separate word document whenever I worked on it: “THE SUN ON MY HEAD 050318 working document,” “THE SUN ON MY HEAD 052218 working document,” “THE SUN ON MY HEAD by Geovani Martins tr. JSanches – FINAL.” Many of these thirty-six documents are partial translations. But I thought it would be important, at least in this instance, to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that could lead me back to the source text, or that could take me day by day through my thought processes. Because there is something agonizingly unrestrained about translating the kind of language in pieces such as “Rolézim” (“Lil Spin”), “A história do Periquito e do Macaco” (“The Tale of Ape and Parakeet”) and “A travessia” (“The Crossing”), an urban, oral vernacular that shifts and slithers as you try to pin it down with words from another hemisphere, another socio-cultural context, another history. The kind of agony that comes with a certain kind of freedom. Thinking of it now, I sense that there is a stillness to standard literary language, to putting observations into words that have clear-cut (or at least mostly clear-cut) dictionary entries, a stability that seems to render them motionless, manageable, easier to carry across. Vernacular is both a language always in motion, breathing and reinventing itself constantly, and, perhaps paradoxically, some of the most geographically and temporally anchored language a translator can hope to negotiate. 

I’m faced now with the notion that when we translate we are trying, maybe, possibly, to create an evergreen text. One that will, like the source text, survive the ravages of time. But can a book built of ephemeral language be evergreen? When English readers read The Sun on My Head in many years’ time, will it sound to them as it does to me today when I read books about mobsters in Chicago or New York in the twenties and thirties, who use words like “hooch” or “broad”?

I make a decision (I make several decisions): I will not let this book sound like inner-city America, I will not, through a particular set of words and expressions, root it in any English-speaking place. Maybe time will be gentler on it if I make it sound like somewhere unknown to English speakers. I go back and forth on this a lot. I get a reading on one of my early versions of “Rolézim” (“Lil Spin”) from a friend whose opinion I respect and yet who I feel in my gut is wrong. I have to locate it somewhere, he says, in Miami, or Baltimore, or L.A., somewhere by the ocean seems right; no one speaks like this, he says. I feel the ground drop beneath my feet. I must regroup; though I know he’s wrong, clearly something isn’t working. I had taken out Alison Entrekin’s translation of Paulo Lins’s City of God from the library of the sleepy New England town where I was living at the time to see how it felt in my mouth, to see what it transmitted to me, the world she created with her English words; it clicks, I am transported. Anxious, I write her, the queen of Brazilian translation, and she responds almost immediately: “I agree, there is no Rio in the US,” she writes, “and I do not try to convey Brazilian regional slang in the slang of any other place. There will always be excellent arguments for it, but I feel that the arguments for not doing it are stronger. When you do, you strip the text of its original culture and overlay it with another. The challenge is to make your readers believe that people speak this way somewhere, even if it is not familiar to them. Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ It’s a high-wire act, I know, but I believe it can be done. Not everyone will buy it, but that comes with the territory.” The relief this brings me is immeasurable. 

My confidence mostly restored, or the ground mostly gathered beneath my feet, I make more decisions. I decide that I will pepper the text with Portuguese that can be easily understood contextually, or that doesn’t get in the way of the sentences’ meaning, grounding it ever more securely and sonorously in Rio de Janeiro. These words are not selected on the merit of sense or their importance to the text, but on how effectively they can be understood in x, y, or z situation. Some of them are: “bolação,” “panguando,” “marola,” “mano,” “pô.” Unitalicized, they pussyfoot through the text. I will not gloss unless absolutely necessary, because it seems to me that Geovani has made a similar decision: to not explain; to let certain readers in and keep others out; there’s something for everyone here, but more for some than for others. This is something I have identified as part of his intention, a thing that rests somewhere around the text’s asthenosphere or hypodermis, invisible on the surface and yet elemental. Part of a translator’s task is to identify this, I think. I consider texts like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is written in different codes, not all of them understood by everyone, but some of them understood by those for whom I imagine the book is meant. Likewise, The Sun on My Head will let some in and keep others out. One of the things I identify as crucial to the stories in this collection, most if not all of them, is their rhythm. It is like translating poetry written in free verse; as I translate, I get up, I walk around, I read aloud to myself. I decide that I mustn’t let fidelity to a certain order of words or things get in the way of the cadence.

 I read every article about the book, and about Geovani, that I can find online, anything that isn’t behind a paywall. Everyone is talking about the opening sentence, “Acordei tava ligado o maçarico!” Sérgio Rodrigues calls its syntax luminous and subversive. I wonder if Geovani knew, while he was writing it, that he was writing a sentence with luminous, subversive syntax, or if it just came to him, if it just felt right on the page and in his mouth. Impossible to get away with a straight translation of this oh-so-important, oh-so-talked-about, tone-and-scene-setting opening sentence. “I woke up the blowtorch was on.” Nope. Flat, boring. Sometimes English can feel so lacking in verve, like you have to work harder to tease the energy out of it. I want to keep “blowtorch,” not because I’m worried about faithfulness to the text but because to me it telegraphs something about the place where the story is set. It indicates that there, or here, in the place of this story, this tool, the blowtorch, is a thing of everyday use, or at least of occasional enough use to make sense as an image. Even so, I spend some time thinking up some other objects that could stand in for the intense heat that drives the story’s plot. Someone also suggested that modern English readers might not know what a blowtorch is. This baffles me. What about a car engine, or an oven, a stove, or a deep fryer? None of them feel right. 

 In the first six versions of “Rolézim” saved on my computer in a folder called “Geovani Martins,” drafts whose titles are still at the “Rolézim/Lil Spin” stage—that stage in which the Portuguese and English live side by side—the opening sentence is translated as “Woke up and shit/the sun/the flare was lit/roasting!” Apparently, I spent six versions of the text avoiding the issue altogether. It had kept me up at night so, during the day, I decided to ignore it. I remember sometimes waking up with the dreadful feeling that I would never, ever come up with a solution that really clicked, that fulfilled every little thing it set out to do. On the seventh version of the story, the sentence is rendered “Woke up and shit was lit/the flare was firin’/roaring/torch was blowin’/cinerator was lit!/Woke up in blowtorch city/Woke up to blowtorches blazing!” By the eight version, which dates to the following day, I have settled on the last one, “Woke up to blowtorches blazing!” By the next document, dated April 22, I’ve gone with “Woke up in blowtorch city!” By May 3, I’m back at “Woke up, blowtorches blazing!” minus the “to” and plus a comma. By May 22, I’ve dropped the exclamation, which always sounds louder, more forceful, and more unnecessary in English. But, on June 1, the exclamation mark is back. By the end of June, I have dropped both the exclamation and the comma. “Woke up blowtorches blazing.” So it stays, so it still is. A fleeting, metrical rush. 

Now that I make most of my living translating literature—don’t kid yourselves, I have side gigs—now that I do it every day for hours on end, I find myself with more time to think of the process, to consider how bewildering this muscular act of conjuring can be. There is the research, of course, the close reading, the grind, but there are also the words that come to me from a place I can’t quite put my finger on, seeming to emerge from behind a mist. Then there is also the unglamorous decision-making: deciding not only on words that are exact, weighty, evocative, but on all the ones that tie them together into sense-bearing sentences. An inordinate amount of my time is spent choosing between “begin” and “start,” between “speak” and “talk,” between “choose” and “decide;” the infinitive and the gerund; and so on. Flipping clauses, then unflipping them, inserting and removing commas. And never quite knowing why one way seems preferable to the other. It is this decision-making that I find agonizing—as someone who must know what every single person around the table is ordering before I can choose (hell, for me, is the seemingly endless menu at the Cheesecake Factory)—and yet which makes translation such an exquisite challenge.

Translation often feels to me like the art of deciding between equally valid options in a sea of commensurate alternatives while striving every day to draw closer to a platonic ideal that does not, in actuality, exist. (It’s not the destination but the journey, I guess.) What comes to mind is a nebula of possible translations—one of which I have created and which I must validate as The Translation (for as long as it’s in copyright) and that I would tinker to death were I not contractually bound to turn it in (hell, for me, is working endlessly on a translation with no delivery date)—suspended solar-system-like around The Original. Is the syntax of the opening sentence of Geovani Martins’sThe Sun in My Head (in my translation) subversive and luminous enough? Has it gotten close enough to that bogus platonic ideal? Someone at some point suggested to me that just because everyone is talking about this one sentence in Portuguese doesn’t mean it has to carry the same weight in English. You gain some you lose some. There’s still the rest of the book after all, and hopefully a luminous, subversive something hiding somewhere in those pages.  

Published Jun 10, 2019   Copyright 2019 Julia Sanches

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