Saturday, October 9th, 2010
So I started reading one of Saramago's early works in Spanish translation, because I believe it is not available in English*: Objecto Quase (1978) was translated by Eduardo Naval in 1983 as Casi un objeto (online as PDF at www.inabima.org). It is 6 longish short stories told in Saramago's magnificent, inimitable voice -- the same voice we see in Blindness 20 years later, the same voice we see in The Elephant's Journey 30 years later, and I'm surprised to see it so fully developed this far back, ten years before his breakthrough with Balthazar and Blimunda in 1987.
I have started working on an experimental translation of the third story, "Ebb-tide" -- possibly this is hubristic, I can't imagine the Saramago foundation giving me permission to publish it... but I can dream. Even if it goes unpublished, it is a great exercise in understanding his voice. It seems (most of it, so far) almost ridiculously easy to render nicely in English, makes me wonder if I'm missing something... There are to be sure a few passages where I am having trouble figuring out the meaning, but these are distinctly in the minority.
*English Wikipædia has a stub page for it titled "Quasi Object" but there is no information about translator or publication, it seems like somebody just ran the Portuguese title through a mechanical translator. The page does contain the tasty information that a film adaptation of the second story, "Embargo", was released this year in Portugal. If I'm understanding Wikipædia's layout correctly, Saramago has a number of works of fiction, of poetry and of memoir which have not yet been translated, and I find this a bit surprising.
Tuesday, October 19th, 2010
I found a wonderful interview with José Saramago, published in the Spring 2002 issue of Mass Humanities. The interviewer is Anna Klobucka of U. Massachussets Dartmouth.
AK: The mainly historical novels you wrote in the
1980s, from Baltasar and Blimunda to The Gospel
According to Jesus Christ (published in 1991), form
the first grand narrative cycle in your work. Many
of your readers perceive a clear dividing line
between these narratives and your subsequent
works, the three allegorical novels from the 1990s:
Blindness, All the Names, and A Caverna. How do
you describe the balance of continuity and change
in your writing in the last two decades?
JS: The first narrative cycle you mention includes
also, as a starting point, Levantado do Chão, the
novel in which I articulated for the first time the
distinct “narrative voice” that from then on became
the hallmark of my work. And in the novels of the
second cycle there are clear echoes of my earlier
volume of short stories, Objecto Quase.
Furthermore, we must not forget my still earlier collections
of newspaper columns, Deste Mundo e do
Outro [From This World and the Other] (1971) and A
Bagagem do Viajante [The Traveler’s Baggage] (1973).
In my view, everything I have written in later years
is rooted in those texts. As for the definition of the
“dividing line” that separates the two novel cycles,
I explain it through the metaphor of a statue and a
stone: up to and including The Gospel According to
Jesus Christ, I was describing statues, insofar as a
statue is the external surface of
a stone; with Blindness and later
novels, I have moved inside the
stone, into that space where
the stone does not know whether
on the outside it is a statue
or, for example, a doorsill.
In one beginning, for everything must have a beginning, even in the case where this beginning is the same as that terminal point from which it cannot, ultimately, be broken, and to say "cannot" is not the same as saying "will not" or "need not", it is the extremity of not being able, for if this breaking could take place, we know that the whole universe would crumble into its component bits, the universe is a fragile construction, it cannot bear interruption, in one beginning, then, four paths were laid out.
I'm really getting somewhere with this translation of "Ebb-Tide" -- I've got a rough draft nearly done and have been doing some revisions, I think it's going to come out very pleasant. In the first sentence you can already hear Saramago's unique rhythm and pacing.
It's interesting to read Saramago talking about two cycles of his work, the narrative novels and the more allegorical novels he wrote after moving to the Canary Islands -- it makes a lot of sense to me that he named this book as the root source of the allegorical stories, I can hear Blindness and The Cave in it. I think Death With Interruptions will be worth rereading with this story in mind.
(It occurs to me that "the extremity of not being possible" or "of impossibility" might be better English. I kind of like the sound of "the extremity of not being able". The Spanish is "el extremo no poder".)
Thursday, October 21st, 2010
Saramago seems almost to be picking at a linguistic scab in his consciousness in these first few sentences of "Chair", the first story in An Object, Almost. If I'm understanding right the chair he is talking about is to some approximation the government of Salazar, though I'm not sure how explicit he makes that.
The chair begins to fall, to come down, to capsize, but not, in the strictest sense of the term, to come unleashed. Speaking strictly, coming unleashed means losing one's bonds. And of course, one can't say that a chair is chained or in bonds, if it had for instance a couple of lateral arm rests, you would say the armrests of the chair are falling, not that they have been unleashed. But truthfully, storms can be unleashed, I would say, or better I remember having said, so as not to fall into my own traps: if cloudbursts can be unleashed, which is just another way of saying the same thing, could not, in short, chairs likewise be unleashed, even without having bonds? As at least a poetic liberty? At least as the simple artifice which proclaims itself style, voice? Let's accept that chairs can come unleashed, even if it ultimately proves preferable that they should only fall, should capsize, should come down.
I finished a couple of revisions of "Ebb-tide" and sent a copy of it to the editor who accepted my translation of "Requiem" -- I'm starting to fantasize about publishing a translation of this collection of stories, not sure if that means I have to learn Portuguese or if it's legit to translate from the Spanish translation -- what I have done so far sounds very nice to my ear so I am sticking to the Spanish for now.
Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
Another Saramago epigraph from El libro de los consejos -- at the front of his Small Memories is the line, "Déjate llevar por el niño que fuiste/(roughly) Allow the child you were to carry you." The first time I've been able to find a lead suggesting affirmatively that these quotations are actual quotations from somewhere else, not invented by Saramago -- this line takes me to Juan Pedro Villa-Isaza's blog
Casi un objeto, which gives some context for it:
Mientras no alcances la verdad, no podrás corregirla. Pero si no la corriges, no la alcanzarás. Mientras tanto, no te resignes.*
Déjate llevar por el niño que fuiste.
As long as you do not know the truth, you will not be able to alter it. But if you do not alter it, you will never be able to reach it. Still, do not resign yourself.
Allow the child you were to carry you.
(Also, Googling for the original Portuguese rendering of this quote "Deixa-te levar pela criança que foste" leads me to a 2006 interview with Saramago, where he talks about his life and his writing process.)
..."llevar/levar" can also mean "to lead" -- indeed that appears to be the primary meaning in Portuguese; a better rendering of this line might be "Let yourself be led by the child you were."
*... and now I am remembering that this line is the epigraph for The History of the Siege of Lisbon... and am back to thinking the whole thing is Saramago's invention.
Thursday, March 15th, 2012
How exciting: the current issue of Guernica features the first half of the story "Things", from Saramago's short story collection Objecto Quase (1978) -- the second half will be published in April. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time any of these stories has been seen in English translation. The full collection will be published by Verso Books at the end of April, under the title The Lives of Things. Really great news -- Saramago's signature style begins to take shape in these stories, and themes that will occupy his writing throughout his career.
It is also great news to see that the translation is by Giovanni Pontiero, the master who translated so many of Saramago's early books before his untimely death in 1996. Clearly the translation has been out there for a long time, at last it will be available to the public.
Speaking of translation -- I had good news today, word from the editors of Words Without Borders that they'll be publishing my translation of Fernando Iwasaki's "A Troya, Helena," my project of last weekend. It will appear in their April issue.
Sunday, June third, 2012
In Pontiero's translation, Saramago calls silence the "universal synonym, the omnivalent" -- a basis, a bottom layer to the intricate sediment of meaning which accretes as sounds are given voice and associated with their meanings. As these fluid meanings set and stick and harden, deepen, language diverges, attaining "a variety of words which never say the same thing, however much we might want them to. If they were to say the same thing, if they were to group together through affinity of structure and origin, then life would be much simpler, by means of successive" erosions of the sediment. Perhaps it is implicit here that this destructive simplification is/was a goal of Salazar*, the "poor wretch" sitting in the termite-eaten chair in its last moments as chair, but I may be reading this in.
*And a million thanks to Pontiero's introduction for elucidating this supremely important detail -- when I was reading this story in Spanish last year, I could mostly understand and make sense of the words and sentences, but was unable absent this critical bit of backstory to put them together into anything like a meaningful whole. Wikipædia says,
In 1968, Salazar suffered a brain hæmorrhage. Most sources maintain that it occurred when he fell from a chair in his summer house. In February 2009 though, there were anonymous witnesses who confessed, after some research about Salazar's best-kept secrets, that he had fallen in a bathtub instead of from a chair. Despite the injury, Salazar lived for a further two years; as he was expected to die shortly after his fall, President Américo Thomaz replaced him with Marcello Caetano. When Salazar unexpectedly recovered lucidity, his intimates did not tell him he had been deposed, instead allowing him to "rule" in privacy until his death in July 1970.
Here is the utterly beguiling epigraph Saramago chose for his short stories:
If man is shaped by his environment, his environment must be made human.
It is from Chapter 6 of Marx and Engels' The Holy Family, a critique of the Young Hegelians which was their first collaborative effort. Saramago's method of carrying out this transformation of the environment, while I cannot imagine it to be just what Marx and Engels had in mind, is somehow exactly the right thing.
Monday, June 4th, 2012
Currently reading Nostromo on the subway to and from work, The Lives of Things and (very, very slowly) Manual de pintura y caligrafía* for weekend reading, and making plans to open up and read and write about Antigua vida mía as my contribution to the Spanish Lit Month which Richard of Caravana de recuerdos will with his various co-conspirators be hosting in July. Here is a snippet of reading experience from this weekend --
One could say that the chair about to topple is perfect. In what sense? "complete" certainly -- is the implication here that perfection is death?
Two books in hand on Sunday morning, Sunday morning, pleasant summer Sunday in South Orange, in the village where I live. The orderly torrent of yellow luxurious sunlight amazes me, soft on my skin like satin.
I open up The lives of things and read about the Chair, about the bench beneath me, the allegory's still not crystal clear to me, I'm happy though to dig the plain, the superficial meaning of the words and phrases, marvel at the beauty of the key instead of trying it in its lock.
*(And what, precisely, is the point (you will ask) of reading Saramago in Spanish translation, a novel which is available in English translation, in translation by Pontiero no less? Not sure. But I am having fun with it...)
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