Connecting Regions of Asia.

Crossing Borders Of Language: The Internal Defiance In Translation


Culture, even though being a significant aspect of the original novel A Hora da Estrela, is lost in the translated version of the novel, The Hour of the Star and literary devices such as paronomasia present in the source text in Portuguese escape. We put this novella into a dialogue with the text ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’ o, which argues for nuanced meanings and particularity of languages outside their lexical translations that carry a cultural weight with them. Additionally, drawing from Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel,” we plot the challenges faced by a translated work and the reason why a translation, though accompanied by a loss in culture, has its own purpose intact, which it intends to fulfill)

When we begin going through our novel, we need to remember that though its rightful author is the widely-acclaimed Clarice Lispector, these lexical terms we read in here are of its translator Benjamin Moser. When a piece of work is translated, we often forget that the original text was intended accrued to a string of words that were open to interpretation and the uncertainty of their placement extending beyond what has directly met the eye. It is especially probable when it comes to layered-texts written by Lispector. A Hora da Estrela doesn’t contain an exceeding amount of cultural references. However, those which are there are profoundly significant.

Of all Clarice’s works, A Hora da Estrela is now and again depicted as the one most significantly established in the Brazilian social reality. It isn’t at that point astonishing that the novel ought to contain suggestions to food items, greenery, fauna, places or articles that are usually found in Brazil or at the end of the day, things which have a place with a promptly regional aspect, if not unique social sphere. These things might be ‘culture-bound,’ profoundly established in their particular culture, and from this time forward become an ‘untranslatable’ object.

When talking about African compositions, Thiong’ o defiantly says, “The language of African literature cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention and a problem calling for a resolution.” (Thiong’o, 419) Extending this statement to A Hora da Estrela written in Portuguese and other translated works, we learn that locale literature has its own innuendos and isolating these terms outside of their context does not yield the results it intends to. “Social forces” thus become a facet of language and readership that is very difficult to deny, especially in the case of regional dialects.

Translator’s work on selected lexical items of the novel has grammatical structures and sound patterning that does not fall categorically in line with standard English. Macabea’s lifestyle becomes a platform to make nuanced comments about her life. Her feelings towards her lover, Olímpico de Jesús, is described as “sua goiabada-com-queijo” (Lispector, 59), subsequently being translated into “her guava preserve with cheese” (Lispector, 58). By repeating this phrase, the author suggests that Olímpico is special and appealing. This is also associated with home, childhood, and happiness as the bitter-sweet dessert, known more popularly in Brazil as `Romeo e Julieta’- a word born out of the popular tragic love-story that makes us wonder if the usage of the food item here was an omen of some kind. It is an epiphany to see that it somewhat alludes to the unfortunate romantic tale of Macabea and Olímpico as well as the death of Macabea in the end, much like the famous narrative of Romeo and Juliet.

If we walk on the lines of stretching our theory too long, we should take a look at one of the lines, “The couple’s rare conversations touched on flour, beef jerky, dried beef, brown sugar, molasses. Because this past belonged to both of them”. This entry is significant because it passes on two meaningful snippets of information about Macabéa and Olímpico de Jesús: first, that they don’t communicate effectively, and also, what attracts them to each other is a mutually-shared regional identity. Food is again put to use as a marker of social class when Macabéa goes to a doctor.

Food flags a distinction of class as well as turns into an image of everything that is missing from Macabéa’s life. The chasm of incomprehension between the doctor and the patient extends when he offers her dietary advice, prescribing that she eat nourishment that she has never at any point known about. Along these lines, we see that Brazillian food was a significant part to play in our protagonist’s romantic life and misquoting them- which we subsequently see in the case of “bologna sandwich” (Lispector, 21) being used instead of “mortadella sandwich” (Lispector, 14) towards the end of this paper- or not giving them their alluded significance with nuanced attributions that the original author did is in many ways an inconsistency.

What may somehow pass unnoticed, the frequent use of allegories and similes related to food, or food utilized as an image of cultural identity, poverty, or privilege- the entirety of their arrangements of significance become increasingly evident when analyzed in their social setting that the translation seems to let go. It is inappropriate to state that none of the components in the original text has been lost or discarded. At times, there have been slight adjustments or changes. However, the undertones are held to the extent which the English language will allow when crossing borders.

This limiting ability is not about English only but to almost every translational work that is carried out. Thiong’ o explains, “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe.” (Thiong’o, 419) The “social environment” here was Brazil as initially intended by author, but to adjust this “social environment,” according to the targeted readership, “bologna sandwich” appeared to be a lot more “natural” for the English language and the American audience.

The novel contains a whole series of connotations that do not automatically carry over into the English, the primary aspect being poverty. The translator has to make it clear that bologna sandwich is what poor girls like Macabéa habitually eat, that it is cheap and accessible in the line, “I know there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner instead of a bologna sandwich.” (Lispector, 21) However, this transpires at the cost of cultural flavor, as the food item which was used as the staple diet of the poor that girls like Macabea ate was the “mortadella sandwich,” (Lispector, 14) the indigenous food of Brazil and not “bologna sandwich” used here. This is done to universalize the textual meaning and reinstating the fact that what Macabea ate was indeed cheap- a bologna sandwich, that is common, cheap and readily available food item in America and Canada. As we see here, translations make altercations not only to the original author’s nuanced words but also to facts themselves, with a “mortadella sandwich” being replaced as a “bologna sandwich” here to reinstate the impoverished condition of our protagonist. This raises two questions: “Are texts are “Americanized” when translated, and if they are, what are the repercussions?”

To answer the above question, we take a broader look at the reason why regional texts are being translated. We might speculate as to who will read A Hora da Estrela in translation as the ones who are English-speaking educated readers that cannot read the original text. To satisfy readers such as those mentioned earlier, the text must read well, and its literary quality should be discernible. Commonly, a literary work is often rejected by the reading public if its language is not every day, fluent English, we know.

This reader exerts more influence than we might believe. Literary works are translated in radically different ways, depending on the reader whom the respective publishing house wishes to attract. Nowadays, no book or translation proposal is complete unless accompanied by a detailed breakdown of the market segment to be targeted. This may comprise a juvenile or adult readership, the `educated,’ or the `average’ reader. Additionally, if a text is to be re-translated, then the publisher will be swayed by notions of modernity, originality, creativity, or even something so fundamental as greater accuracy than was found in earlier versions. Such reasons account, in part, for the existence of multiple translations of such canonical writers such as Shakespeare. From the translator’s point of view, the reader is a prime consideration in making grammatical and stylistic choices.

Maybe then what Thiong’ o argued in his work, Decolonizing the Mind, was not far from the truth. What was blatantly written as “Imperialism continues to control the economy, politics, and cultures of Africa,” (Thiong’o, 419) does seem to take place with A Hora da Estrela as well, especially in an age where it is hard to argue that America doesn’t have an authority over others and that works are being translated for them to be consumed primarily by American readers, much like this novella. The moral question that Thiong’ o raises thus a point that seems to raise the stakes of this discourse, “How can we ‘prey’ on the rich humanist and democratic heritage in the struggles of other peoples in other times and other places to enrich our own?” (Thiong’o, 422) While not particularly “struggle” in this case, “heritage” has indeed been compromised with the Americanization of the novel. An excerpt from Decolonizing the Mind states:

We therefore learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances. Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words. (Thiong’o, 424)

Thiong’ o clearly states that it is not only the words themselves that bring out the meaning but other aspects of their placement and intended connotations that help in doing so, At the same time, it should be remembered that certain rhetorical figures, notably puns, obdurately defy translation, thus provoking an inevitable loss of meaning. (Thiong’o, 426) In such cases, translation becomes an exercise in damage limitation. The best example of this concerns Olímpico de Jesus’ political aspirations:

Quando Olímpico lhe dissera que terminaria deputado pelo Estado da Paraíba, ela ficou boquiaberta e pensou: quando nos casarmos então serei uma deputada? Não queria, pois deputada parecia nome feio. (Lispector, 59)

When Olímpico told her he’d end up a congressman from the State of Paraíba, her jaw dropped, and she thought: when we get married, will that make me a congresswoman? She didn’t want to since congresswoman sounded like an ugly name. (Lispector, 63)

In a case like this, it is very difficult to see what else the translator could do, other than adopt a compromise solution. The humor in the Brazilian text is based on the wordplay deriving from the resemblance between ‘deputada,’ (female) politician, and words deriving from ‘puta,’ meaning ‘whore.’

Another type of loss involves sound patterning, and again, there are no easy solutions. The clearest example of this occurs when the narrator alludes to Macabéa’s childhood as “uma infância sem bola nem boneca” (Lispector, 48). The translator must choose between an utterance that uses alliteration and rhyme, or one that conveys the information contained in the original. In the event, the option was for accuracy and the evocation of sadness, achieved through “a childhood without balls or dolls.” (Lispector, 45) Thiong’ o seems to summarize the essence of this moment in his work:

But the particularity of the sounds, the words, the word order into phrases and sentences, and the specific manner, or laws, of their ordering is what distinguishes one language from another. Thus, a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. (Thiong’o, 427)

“Particularity” of a culture embedded in a language has a vital role to play that we often seem to disregard. Literature has never been only about lexical terms and their face value. Moreover, the nuances, puns and other devices we often use to enrich our work in a particular language is not generally translatable to other languages. Limiting capacity of translated works thus obliterate the alluding, euphemism and connotations which made the original text so strikingly compounded in the first place. Thiong’ o admits:

As for a discussion of the other language of poetry- where poetry, like theatre and fiction, is considered as a language in itself with its own structures of beats, metres, rhymes, half- rhymes, internal rhymes, lines and images – it calls for different resources including a knowledge of the particular African languages of its expression, which I cannot, at present, even pretend to possess. (Thiong’o, 431)

If Thiong’ o feels this inadequacy of ability in the case of African language, it would not be wrong to assume that so is the case with others. Henceforth, we cannot ignore the fact that the Portuguese language has its play of words that the English language does not have the instruments to withhold and vice-versa. Thus, a translation is destined to fall short of its cultural significance and literary prowess that the original text imbibed within itself. There is a trade-off between the actual meaning of the term and the literal term itself, that sees its translator often picking the former that results in loss of narrative and linguistic techniques.

The particularity of a language as an impediment to translation is also brought out by the help of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel.” According to Bakhtin, there is “internal stratification” within the novel, accruing to various discourses and dialects that simultaneously develop in a novel. He says:

The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types, sometimes even a diversity of languages and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized. The internal stratification of any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions, languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour (each day has its own slogan, its own vocabulary, its own emphases) – this internal stratification present in every language of its historical existence is the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre. (Bakhtin, 30)

We learn that a novel, even though generally written in one language, is not “unitary.” This term means to imply that the language used in the book has diversity in its form or style and is indeed bifurcated, though we often tend to put a language as an entity whose nature is often considered to be indivisible. There is categorization within the language, and this “heteroglossia” is an essential characteristic of a novel.

If we hold this theory true, then our work in translation is multiplied enormously. Previously, a novel had to be translated from one language to another. However, now every separate dialect that takes place within the novel has to be translated into that specific dialect of the language we are translating to, keeping in mind the dialect we associate the translated text to has the same relation to what the source text’s dialect has had with its original language. This challenge appears to hinder both our structure and substance when we attempt to cross borders within a language, as we realize they have to be carried on to the other side not as a singular piece but in parts that need to be appropriately assembled later during the drafting process. This becomes clearer when we look at a paragraph from the book The Hour of the Star:

Now (explosion) with a few rapid strokes I’ll sketch the girl’s previous life before she stood before the “bathroom mirror.

She was born with rickets, a legacy of the backlands — the rap sheet I mentioned earlier. By age two her parents were dead of the bad fevers of the backlands of Alagoas, there where the devil lost his boots. Much later she went to Maceió with her sanctimonious aunt, her only relative in the wide world. (Lispector, 34)

All through the novel, the narrator interposes his very own critique to clarify, describe a significant aspect in Macabéa’s life or any of the different characters and his opinions on it. He does this by either consolidating a few passages in first person to show that it is his mind or by including comments in brackets toward the finish of a section or in a sentence. Howbeit, there are injections of “(explosion)” in a sentence, and for that, he offers no clarification for it. This might be because the writer himself doesn’t have the most precise idea what he implies, which is conceivable as he says commonly that the composing is “well beyond him” (63). Nevertheless, regardless of whether the narrator gets it or not, the word was incorporated and thusly implies something in the bigger picture of the novel. One can suggest that the interposition symbolizes snapshots of progress or acknowledgment of change in Macabéa’s life.

Arguably, the most significant “(explosion),” is the point at which “Macabéa’s eyes were opened wide as if by a sudden voracity for the future (explosion).” (Lispector, 99) This is perhaps the most salient point that the storyteller endeavors to make. Previously, he was resolved that she had no future since poor, miserable young ladies with no acknowledgment of what their identity is didn’t have prospects nor did they consider fates. This, at that point, is the most considerable change and acceptance that Macabéa has: her affirmation and expectation that she has a future, which unfortunately remains short-lived. What we notice is that there is a discernible stylistic method that the “(explosion)” brings. It seems like a shift, more of an unexpected one where the narrative, almost edging into monotony, exits to reveal something significant about Macabéa. The following lines after “(explosion)” may not necessarily be accompanied by a tonal shift, but the mood certainly models a different attire. The retrospection, back-seated narration is taken over by one that is of paramount importance, though it seems to be concisely jumped over to some kind of conclusion drawn about our protagonist.

These stylistic shifts are few of the many dialectics within the novel that constitute our “heteroglossia,” (Bakhtin, 30) the idea that Bakhtin proposed to us earlier in the paper. We have to be wary of these changes that occur inside a novel. These shifts are in addition to the specific kinds of language used, such as that the speech used by Olimpico stands apart from the analytical, reflective passages of the narrator, for that matter.

Nonetheless, it would wrong to end without disregarding the fact The Hour of The Star has made available to English-speaking readers a seminal work of Brazilian literature to which they might otherwise be denied access, both now and in the future. It does its job well in conveying the meaning, though the original bodywork was inarguably richer in its cultural tones and literary wordplay. After everything is said and done, this paper’s purpose is not to be taking shots at the translated work but rather magnifies its readers’ eyes towards the nullifying of literary devices and cultural flavor in the process of translation itself.

The ‘art of translation,’ seems to be an under-appreciated one. While we continued to discuss the loss of culture during translation, it is necessary also to point out that it was Arabic translators that kept the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers alive throughout the Middle Ages. We will be not giving the translated works their due credit if we ignore the fact that they have in almost every way helped us expand our scope in literature and beyond. What we, however, take away from this paper is that it is not foolish to assume that the effort and skill that goes into translation is enormous, and dare I say, a translated work though destined to fall short of the original serves its purpose.

(Mohammed Faiz Yusuf is author of ‘Midnight Sun’ and a Fellow of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain.  With this piece, Easternlink begins its Essay slot  to accommodate serious thought-provoking writing )

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