Place and Space in Translation (Part 1)


Photo Credit: Rafa Lombardino

Photo Credit: Rafa Lombardino

Elenice Barbosa de Araujo

Last November, the Portuguese Language Division opened its ATA57 conference sessions in great style. For our first session, our presenter Jayme Costa Pinto invited two prominent visiting colleagues, Karen Sotelino and Adam Morris, to a panel to talk about literary translation. The session title said it all: “Place and Space in Translation: Machado, Noll, and O. Henry Find Their Way in English and Portuguese.”

Costa Pinto, a Brazilian translator and interpreter, started the panel by introducing works by each of the three authors: Contos, a compilation of short stories written by O. Henry from 1906 to 1910; the novel Ressurreição, by Machado de Assis (1872); and the novel O quieto animal da esquina, by João Gilberto Noll (1991). Even though the three pieces belong to different eras, they all feature similar aspects of urban life: the city’s strong presence, diversity, and challenges. Such aspects served as a backdrop for the panelists to address specific translation issues and the challenges of dealing with spatial descriptions that rely on readers’ historical and geographical knowledge.

The panel theme traced the similarities among the urban settings described in the works by the three authors. Vivid, almost cinematographic descriptions of the city are an attribute shared by all three works. According to Costa Pinto, O. Henry and Machado were contemporaries during a time when cities began playing a larger role in the lives of people as they moved through surroundings that were modernizing at a frantic pace. The same sense of speed in the rate of new discoveries and developments is also recognizable in Noll’s rich descriptions. This is the link bridging all three authors, which inspired the speakers to explore the literary role of physical surroundings.

To better illustrate theses aspects, Costa Pinto showed us two literary excerpts. The first was a passage from Finnegans Wake, comprising a sequence of different letters, a resource used by James Joyce to describe claps of thunder. The book contains eleven or twelve descriptions of thunderstorms. They may seem unintelligible, but are not as random as they appear at first. Scholars have carefully studied and deciphered them, and to many they are associated with God’s voice, Adam, and humanity’s fall. Costa Pinto pointed out that translators have to find ways of rendering descriptions of a city’s cosmological features, such as the sounds of nature, the elements such as rain and air, floods and earthquakes, even in difficult portrayals like those of Joyce.

The second aspect relates to culture and the city, as well as the impact of nature on the characters’ lives, as shown in a brilliant trilingual poem by Augusto de Campos called ‘Cidade City Cité’:


To understand this, we have to split the radicals and add the word ‘cidade’ or its English or French equivalents ‘city’ and ‘cité’ to form perfect cognates:


Costa Pinto claimed that this poem conveys the fast pace of the city’s life. It reverberates with the themes of culture, human influences, and, a shift in the relationship between humans and cities. Like the previous example, this one reflects in a nutshell how he creates the best mood for working on a literary translation. He suggests finding exciting references, insights, and solutions that evoke our enthusiasm and make us feel pleased with our choices. As we all know, we never truly finish a piece of translation, but we do have to deliver it. However, as long as we have it in our hands, the process of refining the translation does not come to an end. We keep revisiting the text and, time after time, find certain aspects that inform us about new details.

Turning to his translation and compilation of a selection of O. Henry’s short stories, Costa Pinto admitted that, looking back on the project today, he would do a few excerpts differently, but he resisted the temptation and did not change a thing, letting all of them remain as they were when he delivered them for publication.

He then addressed some specific issues posed by O. Henry’s short stories. In the five or six pages of “Man About Town,” for instance, O. Henry created some new words and expressions to characterize typical urban characters, such as “the man about town.” This expression he coined was then used in a movie and a magazine, among other things. The author unveiled this man’s character as he walked around the city of New York, obstinately identifying and encapsulating his character, his gestures, and his gait throughout the entire story. People who live in large cities, even in Brazil, will recognize this character. In this case, the cultural background played a decisive role: the sagacity, the ferocity, the voracity, and the duplicity are easily identifiable, whether in New York or São Paulo.

Photo Credit: Rafa Lombardino

Photo Credit: Rafa Lombardino

To Costa Pinto, one particular difficulty was O. Henry’s emphasis on the use of varied verbs in English. For example, the inspiring sequence “skipped, strolled, sneaked, swaggered and scurried” is comprised of verbs that indicate a vector, as well as an action, direction, and mode. The problem is that there’s only one equivalent in Portuguese (“passar”) for all of them. And that’s not all: the references to Ancient Greece and Arcadia posed an extra challenge, yet they are not impossible to translate. Costa Pinto showed us a practical example of how he managed to translate such verbs, making sure to preserve their original semantic content:

People passed, but they held me not. Paphian eyes rayed upon me, and left me unscathed. Diners, heimgangers, shop-girls, confidence men, panhandlers, actors, highwaymen, millionaires and outlanders hurried, skipped, strolled, sneaked, swaggered and scurried by me; but I took no note of them. I knew them all; I had read their hearts; they had served.

And then, the Portuguese version:

Pessoas passavam por mim, mas não prendiam minha atenção. Olhares cortesãos me lançavam ofertas de amor pago e eu seguia incólume. Gente que gosta de jantar fora, gente que quase nunca sai de casa, moças fazendo compras, homens superconfiantes, pedintes, atores, assaltantes, milionários e estrangeiros passavam por mim. Alguns seguiam apressados, saltando obstáculos; outros passeavam, alguns ainda se esgueiravam e havia quem caminhasse com o queixo empinado. Mas eu não reparava em ninguém. Conhecia todos eles; havia lido o que guardavam no coração, já tinham servido a um propósito.

According to Costa Pinto, this passage features not only the city’s mood and vibrancy, which sparked his interest in translating this author to begin with, but also a couple of linguistic challenges embedded in the text, making it difficult to part from the original, which forced him to find his way creatively, giving him a sense of satisfaction. To him, we have two ways of looking at this particular translation challenge; one is through a macro approach, such as referring to Joyce, Augusto de Campos, and mythology; the other is to treat the solution he presented as a suggestion, a model to be adopted if we have to translate movement verbs such as these, which have few counterparts in Portuguese.

Costa Pinto talked about another short story in the book, “A Cosmopolitan in a Café,” which emphasizes O. Henry’s obsession with the hustle and bustle of the city. He always depicts modern city life in the first decades of the twentieth century.

At midnight the café was crowded. By some chance the little table at which I sat had escaped the eye of incomers, and two vacant chairs at it extended their arms with venal hospitality to the influx of patrons.
And then a cosmopolite sat in one of them, and I was glad, for I held a theory that since Adam no true citizen of the world has existed. We hear of them, and we see foreign labels on much luggage, but we find travellers instead of cosmopolites.

And then, the Portuguese version:

Meia-noite e o café estava lotado. Por acaso, a mesa em que me acomodei havia escapado ao olhar de quem entrava, e duas cadeiras vazias estendiam os braçøs em falsa hospitalidade aos fregueses que cruzavam a porta.
Então, um cosmopolita sentou-se em uma delas, e fiquei feliz porque sempre nutri uma teoria de que, depois de Adão, jamais existiria outro cidadão do mundo. Ouvimos falar do tipo, claro, e sempre nos deparamos com bagagens repletas de etiquetas de países estrangeiros, mas o que temos ali são viajantes, e não cosmopolitas.

Costa Pinto explained that the solutions shown here arose from the concerns just mentioned, and from the particular syntax structure and the specificity of the terms and letters. He suggested that, since the book is now in public domain, we could compare a few parts of it if we were interested in learning more. According to him, each short story is full of rich content and intricate semantic surprises that culminate in an unexpected finale, which is another pleasant quality of O. Henry’s work. In the end, the readers become aware that, had they paid attention to leads throughout the story, reading calmly, not fleetingly, they would have anticipated what surprises were in store. No doubt it is a riveting book.

Next in the session came the second and the third parts, delivered by Karen Sotelino and Adam Morris, respectively. Given the intensity and richness of the content they shared, I will review their presentations later in two independent blog posts.

In his conclusion, Jayme Costa pointed out how Machado and O. Henry stand apart from João Gilberto Noll. They have totally different standpoints, mainly historical. The former two express a dose of social concern, featuring few non-explicit critical social comments. Machado showed somewhat more consistency, as the historic moment allowed. Noll rarely offers optimistic points about the human nature. He talks about dysfunctional people such as a drug addict, or about nonconformists such as people who fall far from gender stereotypes. In fact, he entices his readers by addressing such points and exploring the same ‘speed’ and ‘urgency’ elucidated in the poem by Augusto de Campos. As I will discuss in my next posts, Morris also talked about Noll’s vivid, cinematographic depictions, as well as his descriptions of non-pragmatic, dysfunctional, self-reliant individuals who are characteristic of the modern world in a century marked by problems and catastrophes. Despite the different points of view among the three authors, we are still able to bring them together under the rubric of “place” and “space” and demonstrate that translating them is indeed fascinating.

To be continued…


eleniceElenice Barbosa de Araujo is an independent English<>Br-Portuguese translator based in São Paulo. She has a degree in translation and interpreting from the Associação Alumni and a bachelor’s degree in Education, from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. In her fifteen years as a professional translator and proofreader, she has worked for the main Brazilian publishing houses and has translated several fiction and nonfiction books, and magazine articles.

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