Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The dead man who is an author: The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, around the time of the publication of Memorias Pósthumas de Braz Cubas.
Photo: Marc Ferrez. Image source: PublishNews

Is it possible to make judgments about the quality of a translation if you don't read the language of the original? The answer may seem obvious—of course not!—but as I've tried to show previously with works such as Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Machado de Assis' Memorial de Ayres, I think it's not so simple. In each case, using my own judgment of readability and some investigation and comparison to try to determine fidelity to the meaning of the original, I was able to point out flaws and felicities in the attempts of various translators to render these works into English.

What has inspired me once more to wade into waters that wiser ones would avoid is the near-simultaneous publication of two new translations of Machado's Memorias Pósthumas de Braz Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas). Posthumous Memoirs, first published in Brazil as a serial in 1880 and then issued as a book in 1881 (with at least three more editions issued in Machado's lifetime) is unquestionably a masterpiece. To read my first thoughts on encountering this great work, please see my previous post on the novel.

Posthumous Memoirs employs many techniques that we now think of as postmodern, although they are as old as novels themselves, and some are as old as storytelling: metafictional strategies, self-referentiality, irony, typographical playfulness. Here is the entirety of Chapter CXXXIX, "How I did not become a minister of state":
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The next chapter begins, "There are things that are best said by silence; such is the substance of the previous chapter."

The novel's status as a classic may be justification enough for new translations: how many different English versions of Eugene Onegin or Madame Bovary are there? But given the vast corpus of literature that has not yet been translated into English, it's curious when new translations are published of works for which multiple English versions already exist. I've been able to identify five English translations of Machado's novel: by William L. Grossman (São Paulo Editôra, 1951 and Noonday, 1952), E. Percy Ellis (Instituto Nacional do Livro, 1955), Gregory Rabassa (Oxford, 1997), Flora Thomson-DeVeaux (Penguin, 2020), and Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Liveright, 2020). Of these Ellis's Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas is not discussed in this post because it was unavailable to me.

The first translation into English was William L. Grossman's Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas, published in Brazil in 1951. Curiously, when the translation was republished the next year in the U.S. by Noonday Press it was retitled Epitaph of a Small Winner. This title has no source in the original: "epitaph" in Portuguese is epitáfio, not memorias, which means "memoirs" or "memories"; where "small winner" comes from or what exactly it means is anyone's guess. It's certainly not Brás Cubas' estimation of himself, and the equivalent phrase appears nowhere in Machado's text. Perhaps the title was forced on Grossman by an editor; let's hope it wasn't his own choice.

The narrator of Posthumous Memoirs is skeptical and self-deprecating, and unsparingly points out his own blindnesses, follies, hypocrises, and failures. As the (correct) title implies, he's also dead. In the first chapter, "The death of the author," Machado writes, "eu não sou propriamente um autor defunto, mas um defunto autor." (My translation: "I'm not exactly an author who is a dead man, but a dead man who is an author.")

Grossman's translation grossly over-explains: "I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing." Machado's eleven words have become Grossman's thirty-one. Rabassa is better: "I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer," although by using "dead" before the conjunction and "a dead man" after, he doesn't preserve Machado's reverse parallelism ("autor defunto" / "defunto autor"). Neither do the other translators: Thomson-DeVeaux has "I am not exactly an author recently deceased, but a deceased man recently an author" ("recently," of course, is not in Machado's original). And Jull Costa and Patterson obscure the parallelism still further: "I am not so much a writer who has died, but a dead man who has decided to write" (and "decided to" is another addition to Machado).

In Posthumous Memoirs Machado's prose is generally (so far as I can judge) lean, spare, and elegant in its simplicity. The narrative voice is that of a man who, now that he's dead, can finally speak plainly. Elaboration is not only needless, it misrepresents the narrator's directness.

But overall Grossman's text is not markedly less faithful than other translations, and sometimes it's more so. Here is his rendering of the opening sentences of Chapter XI, "O menino é pai do homem," or "The child is father of the man" [1]:
I grew; and in this the family did not help; I grew naturally, as the magnolias and cats grow. Perhaps cats are less mischievous, and surely magnolias are less restless, than I was as a boy.
The first thing that struck me are the two semicolons in the first sentence, a highly unusual construction. The semicolons are not Grossman's invention, however, but Machado's, whose first sentence reads:
Cresci; e nisso é que a família não interveio; cresci naturalmente, como crescem as magnólias e os gatos.
Here is how the three other translators render this passage:
I grew. My family had no part in that. I grew naturally, the way that magnolias and cats do. Cats may be less sly and magnolias are certainly less restless than I was in my childhood. (Rabassa)

I grew up; this the family had no part in; I grew naturally, the way magnolias or cats do. Cats may be less shrewd, and magnolias are certainly less restless than I was as a child. (Thomson-DeVeaux)
I grew, and in this my family played no part at all; I grew quite naturally, just as magnolia trees and cats do. Although cats might be less cunning, and magnolia trees certainly less restive than I was as a child. (Jull Costa and Patterson)
Only Grossman and Thomson-DeVeaux have followed Machado's actual sentence structure and included both semicolons. And although it may seem like a trivial point, I think the semicolons reveal something about each translator's approach. In that first sentence Machado wants to give the same weight to the pauses between each of the thoughts expressed. Rabassa accomplishes this, but substitutes a full stop for Machado's pauses, which changes the rhythm. The rhythm is also altered by Jull Costa and Patterson's use of a comma and a semicolon, which give the pauses differing emphases.

Posthumous Memoirs translated by Gregory Rabassa

Image source: Oxford University Press

Word choice and order, of course, also differ among these translations. I would translate the second phrase "e nisso é que a família não interveio" as "and in this the family did not interfere." (Another good choice would be "intervene," which is the exact English cognate of "interveio.") Grossman has "in this the family did not help," which is somewhat similar, but doesn't seem quite right—it's not chiefly help, but correction that his parents and other adult relatives don't offer this "little devil." The other three translations both miss the idea of not-so-benign neglect (we can "play no part" in events that don't concern us or that take place at a distance) and sound clunky in varying ways to the mind's ear: "had no part in that" and "had no part in" both end weakly, while "played no part at all" adds an emphasis ("at all") not present in Machado.

The narrator grows "naturally" or "quite naturally," as do "magnolias" ("trees," added by Jull Costa and Patterson, seems unnecessary, and the word "trees" (árvores) is not in the original) and (not "or," as Thomson-DeVeaux has it) cats. Grossman is the only translator to include a form of the word "grow" three times, as Machado does; the other three omit the third repetition, and again end the sentence weakly, on the unnecessary "do." I might translate this phrase, "I grew naturally, in the same way as magnolias and cats."

But the cats: are they less "mischievous," "sly," "shrewd," or "cunning" than the narrator? Machado wrote,
Talvez os gatos são menos matreiros, e, com certeza, as magnólias são menos inquietas do que eu era na minha infância.
"Matreiros" suggests sneaky, devious, or wily more than "mischievous" (Grossman) or "shrewd" (Thomson-DeVeaux): "sly" (Rabassa) or better yet "cunning" (Jull Costa and Patterson) seem closer to the meaning of the original.

And the magnolias: are they less "restive" (Jull Costa and Patterson) or "restless" (the others)? "Inquietas" is usually translated as "restless," but I like "restive," with its additional sense of recalcitrant, refractory, unruly, impatient of control or authority. I think I would have translated this sentence, "Perhaps cats are less guileful, and, certainly, magnolias are less restive than I was in my childhood." None of the published translators try to match Machado's rhythm by including all three commas; Grossman comes closest, with two, while Rabassa omits them (as he does frequently throughout his translation).

I've advocated for trying to follow Machado's diction and sentence structure as closely as possible. Sometimes, though, in order to best convey the meaning of the original it's necessary not to follow it too literally. In Chapter LXXVIII we learn that the husband of Bras Cubas' mistress Virgília has been offered "uma presidência de província" ("a provincial presidency"). Instead of "presidency" Jull Costa and Patterson offer "governorship" or "governor," which seem like better English equivalents.

Posthumous Memoirs, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

Image source: Liveright Publishing

But not all of Jull Costa and Patterson's attempts to substitute English equivalents work as well. In Chapter XI we see the narrator as a six-year-old child riding on the back of Prudêncio, "um moleque de casa"—literally, a "house-boy," but more precisely, a house slave. Prudêncio is on his hands and knees with a rope or cord between his teeth as a bridle; the child is holding the "reins" and has a switch in his hand:
eu. . .fustigava-o, dava mil voltas a um e outro lado, e ele obedecia, — algumas vezes gemendo,— mas obedecia sem dizer palavra, ou, quando muito, um — «ai, nhonhô!» — ao que eu retorquia: — «Cala a boca, besta!»
My translation: "I. . .flogged him, forced him to turn a thousand times to one side and the other, and he obeyed, — sometimes groaning, — but he obeyed without saying a word, or, at most, an — "Ow, nho-nhô!" — to which I retorted: — "Shut your mouth, beast!"

In his translator's introduction William Grossman describes "Nhonhô" and "Yayá" as "common nicknames for the male and female children, respectively, of well-to-do families." More specifically, they are forms of address used by children's social inferiors, especially slaves; "nhonhô" is a truncated and doubled form of "senhor" ("master," "sir," or "mister"). Rabassa translates it probably as well as it can be rendered into English as "little master," while Grossman leaves it untranslated (perhaps the best choice, with an explanatory note).

Jull Costa and Patterson, though, render it as "Massa." Later in the chapter a group of slavewomen refer to the narrator's uncle as "sinhô João." "Sinhô" is another form of "senhor," but strangely, given their choice to try to translate "nhonhô," Jull Costa and Patterson leave "sinhô" untranslated. Grossman translates "sinhô João" as "Mist' João," while Rabassa translates it as "Master João." Thomson-DeVeaux renders it as "Massa João."

As a translation of either "nhonhô" or "sinhô," "Massa" is a jarring choice, reminiscent for this reader of Stephen Foster, blackface minstrelry, and other supposedly comic attempts to render the speech of black American slaves and slave descendants. Yes, black writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay used "Massa" too. But to the modern ear it can't help but evoke an offensive tradition; Grossman and Rabassa, in my view, found much better solutions in both cases.

Machado's grandparents on his father's side were freed slaves; he grew up poor, and was under no illusions about the horrors of slavery and poverty. In Chapter LXVIII, the narrator happens across a crowd watching one black man whipping another (the translation is Grossman's, lightly edited):
The victim did not try to flee; he merely groaned, "No, have mercy, sir; sir, have mercy!” But the other responded to each supplication with a new lash of the whip. 
"Take that, you devil!" he was saying. "Here’s some more mercy for you, drunkard.''
"Sir!" groaned the victim.

"Shut your mouth, beast!"
I stopped, I looked. . .Good heavens! The man wielding the whip was none other than my house slave Prudêncio, whom my father had freed some years earlier. I approached him; he stopped immediately and kissed my hand. I asked him whether the other black man was his slave. 
"Yes, Nho-nhô, he is.". . .
On the outside the episode I had witnessed was grim; but only on the outside. When I opened it up with the knife of rational analysis, I found a curious and profound kernel. It was Prudêncio's way of ridding himself of the blows he had received—passing them on to someone else. I, as a child, had sat on his back, had put a rein in his mouth, and had beaten him mercilessly; he had groaned and suffered. Now, however, that he was free and could move his arms and legs when and as he pleased, now that he could work, relax, sleep, as he willed, unrestrained, now he rose and changed places: he bought a slave and paid to him, in full and with interest, all that he had received from me. See how clever the rascal was!
The brutality and humiliation visited on one generation are passed on to the next. In a world in which one's fate is a chance of birth, so is one's ability to be virtuous. Brás Cubas's insouciance about the violence he has delivered and has seen perpetuated is more devastating than any omniscient authorial comment could be.

But perhaps Brás Cubas comes to recognize, in death if not in life, the cruelty of inflicting injustice and suffering. The final sentence of the novel is "Não tive filhos, não transmiti a nenhuma creatura o legado da nossa miséria": "I did not beget children, and so did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery."

As I've tried to show in this post, each of the translations has strengths and weaknesses. Despite its title, Grossman's translation is not bad, but it softens some of the family and social dynamics. Rabassa's translation best replicates Machado's spareness (his is the shortest version by far), but he substitutes a staccato rhythm for Machado's succession of meaningful pauses. Jull Costa and Patterson try to subtly flesh out Machado's lean prose, at the risk of making his bemused, detached narrative voice seem more effusive and emphatic.

Image source: Penguin Books

Thomson-DeVeaux's translation deserves special mention for three reasons: first, she includes an extensive introduction and notes, highlighting in particular the way that the legacies of slavery haunt the narrative. The scene quoted above in which Prudêncio beats his own slave takes place in the neighborhood of Valongo; Thomson's notes inform us that Valongo was the site of Rio de Janeiro's slave market, at one time the largest in the Americas. As Machado's original readers would have recognized, Prudêncio's beating of his slave is an echo of the brutality inflicted in the same place over centuries on literally millions of men, women and children.

The second feature that makes Thomson-DeVeaux's translation stand out is that hers is the only one that begins each of Machado's chapters on a new page, as in the original. Machado's chapters are quite short, sometimes consisting only of a single paragraph—or, as in Chapter CXXXIX, an ellipsis. The other translations separate the chapters only by a few blank lines, so that a new chapter can start in the middle or at the bottom of a page. The bottom of the page is where Chapter CXXXIX begins in Rabassa's translation, which undercuts the humor: there is room for only three lines of ellipsis, and you have to turn the page to realize that the ellipsis is the entirety of the chapter.

Finally, as noted in the beginning of this post, the novel was originally serialized and then went through several editions. The other translators use one of the later editions as the basis of their version; Thomson-DeVeaux is the only one to include material from the earlier editions of the novel.

But in whatever version you choose to read Machado's brilliant work you'll be amazed that a novel written 140 years ago can seem this modern. As I wrote in my earlier post linked above, the narrator offers "unflattering honesty about himself and his motives: greed, fear, lust, envy, indolence, boredom, a desire to avoid difficulty and embrace immediate pleasure. Motives which, on reflection, are uncomfortably familiar." While the simultaneous publication of two new translations may seem like a surfeit of riches, if you have not yet acquainted yourself with this astonishing novel you now have two new reasons to do so.

  1. A small point: Grossman and Rabassa title this chapter "The child is father to the man" (emphasis added here and following). But in "My Heart Leaps Up" (1802), Wordsworth wrote "The child is father of the man." It was Gerard Manley Hopkins who slightly misquoted Wordsworth by writing "'The child is father to the man,'" which appeared as Fragment 68 in the posthumous Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins now first published (1918). Machado and Brás Cubas could only have known Wordsworth's poem, as the Hopkins was published a decade after Machado's death. Full marks to Thomson-DeVeaux and Jull Costa and Patterson for referencing Wordsworth by using "of," rather than referencing Hopkins by using "to."

Saturday, July 4, 2020

In memoriam: Saroj Khan

Saroj Khan in Nartakee (1963)

On July 3 Saroj Khan passed away. If you have watched Indian films from any of the past four decades you have probably seen her work as a choreographer; she also worked as a child actor in the 1950s, a background dancer in the 1950s and 60s, and an assistant choreographer in the 1960s and 70s.

Khan's parents fled Karachi during the Partition in 1947 and came to Mumbai (then Bombay). Her birthdate is given in Shalini Venugopal Bhagat's New York Times obituary as Nov. 22, 1948, although that date doesn't seem as though it fully accords with her appearance as a background dancer in songs such as "Aaiye Meharbaan" from Howrah Bridge (1958), when, if her birthdate is accurate, she would have been 9:

Saroj in "Aaiye Meharbaan" from Howrah Bridge (1958).

If there is any inaccuracy in her birthdate, it may be due not to the usual (and completely justified) concerns about age discrimination in the film industry, but rather to the fraught politics of Partition and the need to ensure that there was no question about her place of birth.

Her father, a well-to-do businessman in Karachi, had to abandon his wealth when he fled to Bombay. As a young girl of three or four, Saroj displayed a keen aptitude for dance, and her parents were advised to seek work for her in the city's film studios. Here she dances as Radha in "Bansuriya Kaahe Bajai" from Aagosh (Embrace, 1953):

As she grew older Saroj continued to perform as a dancer in films such as Taj Mahal (1963), Teesri Manzil (Third Floor, 1966) and Do Raaste (Two Ways, 1969), but she also served as assistant choreographer to the Kathak masters B. Sohanlal and his brother B. Hiranlal beginning with Kalpana (Imagination, 1960) and continuing with films such as Nartakee (Dancer, 1963) and Mera Saaya (My Shadow, 1966), teaching dances to the great Vijayanthimala among many other actresses.

According to Shalini Venugopal Bhagat's obituary, Sohanlal began an intimate relationship with Saroj when she was 13 and he was in his early forties; she considered it a marriage, although he was already married and she was below the minimum legal age of marriage. Whatever Saroj's feelings may have been—in a 2018 interview commenting on the casting couch she said "It depends on the girl, and what she wants to do. . .Why would you sell yourself if you have the talent?"—the difference in their ages and Sohanlal's position as a professional mentor starkly raise the issue of meaningful consent.

Saroj named as B. Sohanlal's assistant in the opening credits of Nartakee.

In 1974 Saroj became a full choreographer in her own right with films such as Geeta Mere Naam (My name is Geeta) and Dost (Friend). She not only created movement, but instructed her dancers in their gestures and facial expressions, an integral aspect of what her dances communicated. She achieved wide recognition beginning in the 1980s when she choreographed films starring the expressive Sridevi, including Mr. India (1987), ChaalBaaz (Trickster, 1989), Chandni (Beloved, 1989), and Lamhe (Moments, 1991). From Lamhe, Sridevi and the Rajasthani singer Ila Arun in "Morni Bagama":

Some of Khan's most memorable choreography was set on Madhuri Dixit. The annual Filmfare Best Choreography Award was instituted in 1989 to honor Khan's work on "Ek Do Teen" from Tezaab (Acid, 1988), the film that made Dixit a star:

Khan received the first three, and five of the first six, Best Choreography Awards to be bestowed, and won a total of eight times, the most of any choreographer. Five of her awards were for numbers featuring Dixit, including "Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intejaar" from Sailaab (Flood, 1990), "Dhak Dhak Karne Laga" from Beta (Son, 1992), and "Choli Ke Peeche" from Khal Nayak (Anti-Hero, 1993).

Beginning in the late 1990s and she worked extensively with another great dancer, Aishwarya Rai (now Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), in films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs to Another, 1999), Taal (Rhythm, 1999), Devdas (2002), Kuch Naa Kaho (Don't Say Anything, 2002), and Guru (2007). From Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the astonishing "Nimbooda," which won the first of Khan's three Best Choreography Awards for dances featuring Rai:

Many North Americans' introduction to Bollywood was Ashutosh Gowariker's film Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001), which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Khan choreographed the dance "Radha Kaise Na Jale," featuring Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan:

I'll end this post with "Dola Re Dola" from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's version of Devdas, which featured Madhuri Dixit as the courtesan Chandramukhi and Aishwarya Rai as Devdas' childhood sweetheart Parvati, and which of course was another winner of the Best Choreography Award:

Saroj Khan went on to choreograph for many other films, including Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (My Country, 2004), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007), Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth, 2007), Love Aaj Kal (Love Nowadays, 2009), and Agneepath (Path of Fire, 2012). In 2012 she was the subject of a documentary directed by Nidhi Tuli, The Saroj Khan Story, which was a key source for this post. Khan's death is a major loss for Indian cinema and for lovers of dance across the world. Our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues.