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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!

Portugal: a moral dilemma

January 7, 2012

If you could make yourself rich beyond your wildest imaginings by ringing a bell would you do it?

What if ringing that bell caused the death of someone you’d never met on the other side of the world?

Such is the dilemma facing the unlikely hero Teodoro, an impoverished scribe at Portugal’s of Internal Affairs and Education department, in the title of story of this collection by Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiroz.

Confronted with this choice (a reworking of the ‘mandarin paradox’ first posed by French writer Chateaubriand in 1802) late one night after a Mephistophelian character appears in his bedroom, Teodoro gives in, half-believing that he is dreaming. Then a messenger arrives with bank drafts making over the fortune of recently deceased Mandarin Ti Chin-Fu to him, setting in motion a carnival of excess and guilt that ultimately leads to our hero travelling to China in an attempt to make amends for what he has done.

Eça de Queiroz is widely hailed as Portugal’s greatest 19th century novelist, yet there is a freshness to his writing which makes it seem much more recent. Where English authors such as Hardy and Dickens point to the loosening grip of Church teachings on the popular imagination, Eça de Queiroz comes right out with the assertion that ‘Heaven and Hell are social concepts created for the sole use of the lower classes’, albeit hedged round with the private superstitions and blindspots of each of his characters: self-professed atheist Teodoro, for example, makes regular offerings to his patron saint, our Lady of Sorrows.

In addition, the difficulties Teodoro encounters trying to repay his moral debts to the community he has wronged find echoes in many of the debates about global development and aid today. Initially hoping to salve his conscience by making a donation to the state, he is warned off this course of action by the Russian ambassador in words that might have been spoken yesterday (if not in relation to China):

‘Those millions would never reach the imperial Treasury. They would line the bottomless pockets of the ruling classes. They would be frittered away… They would not help to relieve the hunger of a single ordinary Chinese person… They would merely contribute to the continuance of the whole Asian orgy.’

This freshness, blended with lyricism and spiced with sardonic insights into the hypocrisy and blindness of humanity, flavours the whole collection. Playful and experimental, Eça de Queiroz  delights in turning on his readers at points, challenging them with the same quandaries he poses his characters, a technique he takes to its limits in the final story ‘José Matias’ by putting the narrative in the second person, thereby plonking the reader into the carriage right next to the narrator. Even the least successful piece in the collection ‘ The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman’, which is more of an extended character sketch than a fully realised story, is lively and compelling.

I shall return Eça de Queiroz (probably in about 2020, when I get through the backlog of all the other wonderful things I’m stumbling past during this attempt to read the world). Thanks to Silvia for the recommendation and for lending me the book.

The Mandarin and Other Stories by José Maria Eça de Queiroz (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa). Publisher (this edition): Dedalus (2009)

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