Sao Tome and Principe: a team effort

December 16, 2012

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Starting the countdown of the final 10 posts of the year is the story of one of the most extraordinary collaborative ventures I’ve ever had the privilege to witness: the translation of a book by a team of volunteers in Europe and the US specially for this project.

The idea to see if this was possible started back in September when I was beginning to despair of ever finding a novel, short story collection or memoir that I could read in English from the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Like fellow Portuguese-speaking Guinea-Bissau, the country seemed to have no literature available in translation, no matter who I asked or how hard I searched – and in this case, there was no handy collection of speeches by a leading political activist to fall back on. As far as English-language readers were concerned, when it came to writing of any kind from Sao Tome and Principe, there was radio silence.

Finding me tearing my hair out at my desk one day, my fiancé Steve suggested that it might be time to try a different tack. ‘Why don’t you can see if you can get a group of people to translate something for you?’ he said.

I wasn’t convinced. No-one was going to want to give up their time to translate bits of a book so that some strange girl in a hat and scarf in London could read it, I thought. But Steve brushed my protests aside: ‘Just try it and see what happens,’ he said.

So, rather doubtfully, I posted something on Facebook, tweeted a call for Portuguese translators and sat back to wait. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait very long. Within half an hour or so, an old school friend who teaches languages got in touch to say she’d be happy to help. Then I heard from a blog visitor through the AYORTW Facebook page – she was prepared to take on a section too.

Meanwhile, the Twitterati were whirring into action, with loads of suggestions of people to speak to and new connections pinging my way. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was inundated with emails from people offering their time and talents – among them award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa, who translated Luis Cardoso’s The Crossing, the book I read from East Timor. In fact, the response to the appeal was so overwhelming that, within a week, I had heard from more people than I could involve in the project.

Next came the challenge of choosing the book to be translated. This proved to be rather difficult: although there were works by Santomean authors out there, most were too long to divide up into manageable chunks and only available as expensive one-offs through rare booksellers. Given that I needed 10 copies, these simply weren’t practical.

At last, however, I stoogled upon the website of Portuguese publisher Chiado Editora. The company had works by a couple of writers with connections to Sao Tome and Principe on its books and one in particular fitted the bill: A casa do pastor by Olinda Beja. Running to around 140 pages, this slender book was available in multiple copies. So, with next to no information about it, I put my order in, shipped the books off to my team of volunteers and, a month later, was delighted to receive their translations back.

Set in the Beira Alta region of Portugal (where Beja, who was born in Sao Tome and Principe and now lives in Switzerland, grew up), the collection brings together stories told to the author by her grandmother and octogenarian shepherd João Grilo, as well as her own childhood recollections. Ranging from quirky anecdotes to ghost stories, with a good helping of social commentary and the odd rant thrown in along the way, the pieces present a rich and varied picture of a way of life that is fast disappearing.

The setting of the book in Portugal rather than Sao Tome and Principe raised interesting questions for me and the translators. In fact, several of them were surprised and even disappointed to find that the backdrop to the stories was a lot more familiar than they had expected it to be. One in particular, Ana Cristina Morais in the US, was amazed to find herself reading stories in the dialect of the region her father grew up in, having braced herself for unfamiliar language and references.

For me, this was thought-provoking. While setting has not been a big factor in many of the book choices I’ve made this year – after all British writers write about other places all the time so I don’t see why I should expect authors from other countries to stick to stories within their own borders – the claim that this collection was Santomean literature was complicated by Beja’s strong links with Portugal. It seemed telling that, after all that searching, the only book that I could find that was short enough and available in large enough quantities for this project was by someone who had left the country and was writing about another place (although from what I understand much of Beja’s poetry draws more directly on her African heritage).

While it might not be Santomean, however, the rural culture that Beja explores and records in the stories is nevertheless fascinating. From the flamboyant saints festivals attended by João in his heyday, to the rough justice meted out to sheep rustlers and the majesty of the landscape, the Beira Alta region emerges as a haunting and characterful place. Indeed, it’s arguable that her Santomean heritage gives Beja the distance to appreciate the beauty and harshness of life in the region where ‘a whole generation of shepherds was coming to an end, leaving the hills [...] silent, bare of sounds and footsteps, stories and murmurings’.

The setting also threw up some translation challenges, with several of the region-specific and plant-related terms requiring careful handling. In particular, Yema Ferreira, an Angolan writer living in Denmark, and I had an interesting correspondence about how she should handle the word ‘giesta’ in the story ‘Maria Giesta’. The translation of the word is ‘genista’ (a flowering shrub) and this provides scope for some wordplay in the piece. As she was translating the character’s surname, Ferreira wondered whether she should also translate her first name, turning Maria Giesta into Mary Genista. In the end we agreed it was best to compromise with Maria Genista, however the discussion provided a fascinating insight into the sort of decisions translators have to make line by line.

Voice was another talking point. As might be expected in a collection drawn from the reminiscences and stories of three people and translated by nine others, the tone and register of the book varies considerably. There are wistful pieces such as ‘The Sower of Stars’, in which a boy grows up wanting to work in the night sky, and magical tales like ‘The Witch from Vila Chã’, as well as rambling anecdotes about a con artist who paints sparrows yellow to sell as canaries and a farcical run in with a cow on a country road.

This variety might explain the translators’ mixed reactions to the book. While some responded warmly to the simplicity of the storytelling, finding parallels with the work of writers such as Miguel Torga and Altino do Tojal, others disliked Beja’s writing, describing the stories as ‘dull’ and in one case as being like ‘torture’ to read.

As someone privileged to enjoy the finished product and oblivious to the scaffolding holding it all together behind the scenes, I found the collection fascinating. While some of the pieces are undoubtedly less successful than others, there are moments of great charm and beauty. At her best, conjuring the wildness of the Beira Alta mountain ranges, Beja is mesmerizing.

The experience of watching the collection come together was also humbling and gave me a renewed respect for the work translators do. It made me realise how much we monoglots rely on the good faith, skill and judgement of people with the ability to bridge language gaps for us. Without them, we would live in a very narrow world.

The Shepherd’s House (A casa do pastor) by Olinda Beja, translated from the Portuguese by Yema Ferreira, Ana Fletcher, Tamsin Harrison, Margaret Jull Costa, Clare Keates, Ana Cristina Morais, Robin Patterson, Ana Silva and Sandra Tavares

As an adjunct to the post above, Olinda Beja tells me that she has a collection of short stories set in STP which was nominated for a big Portuguese language prize this year. It’s called “Histórias da Gravana” and was published in Brazil (so not easily available in other parts of the world). However, if you speak Portuguese and are in or planning a trip to Brazil it sounds like a good read!

20 Responses to “Sao Tome and Principe: a team effort”

  1. Tony said

    That is some feat, getting a group of people (including a very famous translator) to put a book into English just so that you can read it! Well done to all involved – and I hope that’s not the end of the project. It would be great to see the book available elsewhere for anyone who’s interested :)

    • Thanks Tony. As ever, I’m amazed at the generosity of people around the world. Yes, it would be great to see the book made available. I’ll let you know if and when that happens…

      • Hello,
        Fascinating post. Are there plans to publish the book here in the US? I would certainly be interested in seeing the book made available in North America.
        Best,
        Fernanda Viveiros
        Publisher, Fidalgo Books

      • Thanks Fernanda. It’s early days yet, but I hope the book will come out commercially in the US. Nothing definite yet though…

  2. vanbraman said

    Down to the last ten posts. I will miss reading new posts in your challenge, but I am sure that you will have something new to share with us once you are finished.

    I had to look up the word stoogled. Interesting word :-), and one that I may have to put to use.

  3. interesting read! & great story!

  4. storberose said

    That’s quite a story, I’m glad for you. The only writer from S. Tomé and Príncipe I know is Conceição Lima, a poet.

  5. Would love to read The Shepherd’s House!

  6. Dear Ann Morgan, congratulations for you cultural exercise. The world will be more open-minded if everybody do like yours. In any case, in spite of there’re not a lot of Santomean literature translated (published) into English, notice there’s a great santomean poet, Mrs. Conceição Deus Lima (known as São Lima) who was working several years for the BBC in UK. I’m absolutely convinced she has all his works translated into English. Quotation in Wikipedia about her: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concei%C3%A7%C3%A3o_Lima , and about her works: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dolorosa_Raiz_do_Micond%C3%B3 .

    On other side you also have written in English (only in English, there’s no Portuguese version) the very novelesque essay by Albertino Francisco Boa Morte & Nujoma Agostinho (santomeans) on “Exorcising Devils from the Throne”,(2009 first edition) that you can get in Amazon. Albertino Francisco was recently appointed as Minister of Youth and Sports of Santomean Government.

    Yours, respectfully, Xavier Muñoz-Torrent, Associação Caué, Friends of São Tomé & Príncipe, in Barcelona

    • Many thanks Xavier. That’s brilliant. Yes, I had heard about Conceição Deus Lima, but sadly as I am only reading prose work this year I could not include her work in the project.

      ‘Exorcising Devils from the Throne’ sounds interesting, although essays are also outside the scope of my project as I am reading stories (novels, short story collections and memoirs). However, I have had to bend this rule occasionally, as I did for Guinea-Bissau. If you could nominate one Sao Tomese novel to be translated into English, which would you choose?

      With best wishes

      Ann

  7. Dear Ann, Sorry for my long delay… Perhaps, the best novel I read from a santomean writer is “Vila Flogá”, by Sum Marky (José Ferreira Marques), that was edited by himself in 1963. This novel is an extraordinary portrait of santomean society in colonial times (written in neoralistic style), but it is really a tragicomedy, with lots of sharpness. You have some references in http://themodernnovelblog.com/2013/05/16/sum-marky-vila-floga-villa-floga/ , and about the author http://www.themodernnovel.com/saotome/marky/author.htm.

    Yours,

    Xavier Muñoz

    • Thanks – sounds interesting. By the sounds of it I wouldn’t have been able to get hold of enough copies for the translating team to create an English version. Let’s hope it gets translated one day…

  8. […] the United States ultimately came to her rescue, translating chunks of Olinda Beja’s 140-page The Shepherd’s House into […]

  9. Dear Anne & other interested people, hereby you have the link of my last article on the works of Francisco Costa-Alegre, a Santomean writter that perhaps you would like to know. The article is written in Portuguese, but I believe you can translate electronically: “Conversas entre (L)atitudes: Francisco Costa-Alegre, o fiandeiro de histórias” (“Conversation between (L)atitudes: Francisco Costa-Alegre, the spinner of stories”): http://www.telanon.info/cultura/2014/03/31/16037/conversas-entre-latitudes-francisco-costa-alegre-o-fiandeiro-de-historias/

  10. Dear Ann, you can enjoy the doc film “Mionga ki obô” (“Sea and forest”), by Ângelo Torres, now subtitled in English in: http://youtu.be/7BcGNBxOjL4 . Many histories and legends…

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