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Where the Sidewalk Bends: Translation History in the Capital of the Future

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

The Third Annual Seminar on the History of Translation, organized by University of Brasília professor Germana Pereira, took place from October 6-8 on the UnB campus, inside a moat-rimmed, mushroom-shaped silver building. The speakers included graduate students and professors from Brazil, the US, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Colombia, and England, translating into or out of Portuguese, English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and German. Flyers on campus warned of scorpion sightings. At times, the speakers were interrupted, even overpowered, by birdcalls and cicadas.

The standard battles of normalization versus foreignization raged during the conference. However, one major difference between this one and, say, the upcoming ALTA conference, is that within translation studies, English is considered a hegemonic language, while Portuguese is a marginal one, so the discussions were always angled from the outside looking in. 

This asymmetric relationship is exaggerated further when Brazilian writers push the Portuguese language to its brink, since the translator must bring a peripheral language into a more dominant one without undercutting the original text’s innovation. Professor Berthold Zilly explored the challenges of translating Guimarães Rosa, widely considered one of the best twentieth-century Brazilian novelist, into German, because his use of Portuguese in novels like Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) is comparable to James Joyce’s English in Ulysses.

Boston University doctoral candidate Victoria Livingstone delved into the complicated political motivations behind what literature is or is not translated. Her research focuses on the influence of powerhouse translator Harriet de Onís (working on behalf of Knopf) in bringing Spanish and Portuguese Latin American literature to the English-speaking world from the nineteen thirties to sixties, which laid the groundwork for the success of the Latin American Boom in the sixties and seventies. Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, for instance, is as famous for his staunch Communist politics as he is for his lush prose. Yet Onís specifically encouraged Knopf to translate Gabriela, Canela, e Clove (Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon) because she thought its non-political subject matter would sell well to a North American audience, at a time when FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy was looking to build stronger cultural ties between the US and Latin America.

Federal University of Santa Catarina graduate students Cynthia Costa and Kall Sales discussed an inverse method of rendering the translator invisible. Machado de Assis, one of Brazil’s most biting novelists, was also a prolific French-Portuguese translator. In several editions of Victor Hénaux’s De l'amour des femmes pour les sots, translated into Portuguese as Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, only Assis’s name appears on the cover, making him appear to be the author, because he was considered more marketable by the Brazilian publishing houses than Hénaux. By eliminating Assis’s role as translator, they made the original author invisible, once again erasing the translation process from the readers’ consciousness.


One of the goals in creating the seminar, Professor Pereira explained, was to bring these frequently buried translation issues to the forefront. Although students in the US may go their entire academic careers without reading a Brazilian book, a Brazilian student will read a majority of their texts in translation. So examining the impact of what gets translated and how it has been translated, whether into or out of Portuguese, has a different urgency here, especially as Brazil’s growing influence is slowly beginning to shift the traditional balance of power between it and the “first world.”


Brasília—a futuristic planned city, built in the middle of the desert savannah in just forty-one months—felt like the appropriate setting to have these conversations about visibility. Brasília is a place that never lets you forget that it was created. You can feel the mark of urban planner Lúcio Costa, architect Oscar Niemayer, landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, and President Juscelino Kubitschek (who made the new capital part of his electoral campaign promises) in every idiosyncratic detail.


Coined “The City of the Future,” Brasília became the country’s third capital on April 21, 1960. President Kubitschek ordered its construction in the Central West region to try and counteract the traditional power play between the economic and political strongholds of the previous two capitals, Salvador da Bahia in the North (1549-1763) and Rio de Janeiro in the South (1763-1960). Among its many innovative and slightly eccentric elements are that it is designed in the shape of a plane (Plano Piloto). The Monumental Axis, a wide avenue lined with governmental buildings, runs perpendicular to the symmetrical residential neighborhoods of North Wing and South Wing. Within these wings, people live in superquadras (super blocks)—autonomous units of four residential blocks each, with identical apartment complexes, and shared commercial and institutional facilities, which were intended to improve efficiency and community.


More than fifty years after its founding, Brasília’s modernist black-and-white architecture set against the dry red soil feels simultaneously dated and otherworldly. Much like a text takes on a new life once translated into another language, Brasília’s painstakingly planned avenues, monuments, and superblocks have taken on a life of their own once released from their founders’ control. It is now the fastest-growing major city in Brazil. I was grateful to have the opportunity to explore the city, and contemporary Brazilian translation studies, in one go.


Published Nov 7, 2014   Copyright 2014 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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