Stefan Tobler’s piece for Music & Literature on translating water and jellyfish (and Clarice)


Clarice Lispector, 1961- foto Claudia Andujar

Our publisher Stefan Tobler wrote about his experience of translating Água Viva by Clarice Lispector for Music and Literaturea new-ish magazine that you really should check out and then subscribe to. It gives loving, lavish attention to a few very special writers, composers and artists. The piece appeared in M&L no. 4:

Tingling. That was how I described my state to the editor Benjamin Moser after he asked for – and within 24 hours got – a sample translation from Água Viva by one of my great heroes, Clarice: “Whether or not you like my sample, I’ve got to say thanks for having given me such a wonderful 24 hours on it! I am still tingling!”

More than most prose, this book comes alive on the tongue, in the air. Back then, in 2010, I would do my first draft translations from a library in autumn and winter (saving on my heating bill, even though it felt at times like the library was saving on its own bill), and then I’d read aloud at a later stage. With Água Viva I couldn’t stop reading aloud. The Portuguese several times, then the English as I translated. I hope I’ve captured something of those moments. So, instead of the library, I had to be where I could talk out loud. I lived then in an old house in the Oxfordshire countryside that refused to warm up ever: I was there with three jumpers on, a blanket-skirt round my legs and a desk lamp pointed at and warming my typing fingers as I spoke phrases that slowly started to sound like Clarice’s book, Água Viva: a book in which the narrator returns again and again to the sight of a Rio beach from her terrace.

In this heady book she leaves plot behind for improvised music, poetry and abstract painting. It is mystical and otherwordly, but there is also heart-breaking frankness, autobiographical it seems. The language can be colloquial and might appear sloppy or strange in its grammar and syntax sometimes. Clarice’s prose was noted for its foreign sound in Portuguese. Something similar has been said of other brilliant writers of course. (Borges, for example, who sounded a bit English in his Spanish.)

In short a little nightmare for a translator. If translated wrongly, parts could start to sound like the easy jargon of New Age or evangelical Christian patter. The very title could have been translated (apparently literally) as Living Water, but that would have lost an undercurrent of danger and weirdness, because in Portuguese an água-viva – with a hyphen, it all comes down to punctuation with Clarice – is a jellyfish, that strange translucent animal that doesn’t fit into our scheme of things. It can sting, scaring some beachgoers, while others play with them and throw them at brothers and sisters. And for many it is a delicacy. This book provokes strongly varied reactions too. As a translator I learnt to get over the fear of what readers might think about this weird translation (certainly not “smooth”, as reviewers so often hope a translation is). Get over the “what will people think” and just translate.

And then of course the editing process was not quick. As an editor or translator of Clarice, you are going to feel strongly about how the translation should turn out. We certainly did. It was worth it though. The translation benefited enormously from such close attention from both of us.

Of course, we didn’t always see things exactly the same. For example, I would argue that a translation from one language to another does involve a translation of punctuation, whereas Benjamin Moser (Brazilian informality in print is reserved for the canonical names, I’m afraid) was very aware of the letter from Clarice to Alexandrino Severino (referred to in his Introduction to Água Viva), in which Clarice gave clear instructions that in translation he was not to change so much as a comma of the manuscript that later became Água Viva. There were places where Benjamin Moser questioned my use of a comma because there was no comma in the original. Often I agreed with him, but not always, and he was good enough to allow this. As I said in one quick note to him with, as usual, too many punctuation marks: “we can’t worry too much about Clarice’s objection to a single comma being added… I don’t think translation was her strong point! .. is that sacrilege?!” And so we committed the possible sacrilege of adding commas to the sentence under discussion, because the English worked differently: “The unforeseen, improvised and fatal, fascinates me.” And I say “we did,” because I do think that just as the editing of Clarice’s book by Olga Borelli was a “breathing together” by the two of them (more on this in Benjamin Moser’s introduction to Água Viva), so too the translation was a breathing together – by translator and author, but also of translator and editor: “The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself? We make it together with our breath. And with the flair of the bullfighter in the ring.” And with the shock of touching the jellyfish. It was more than just a tingling.