Playing Frankenstein: An Interview with Alison Entrekin


Image of Alison Entrekin

When I met with Alison Entrekin for this interview, the first thing I noticed was all the books she carried with her: fat dictionaries, field guides on botany, one on the birds of northeastern Brazil—the type of book generally known only to birdwatchers and ornithologists—not to mention a copy of Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama, Under Milk Wood. I thought, only in the hands of a translator, an obsessive sort of word junkie like Alison, could such an assortment of books assemble.

We sat down to discuss her work in a coffee shop/bookstore in Santos, Brazil. As we made small talk, Alison, almost in passing, nodded toward the bookshelf above us lined with guidebooks on Brazil for gringo tourists. She explained that she had translated many of these guidebooks into English, a long time ago. She told me this, it seemed, neither to emphasize the extent of her work, which is no doubt impressive, nor to boast—and there is much to brag about—but in a self-reflective sort of manner, more to herself, as if surprised by how far she has come, from translating tourist guidebooks to now being the most sought after English translator of Brazilian literature. Her long list of translations includes works like City of God by Paulo Lins, Cristovão Tezza’s The Eternal Son, Chico Buarque’s Budapest, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, and Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera.

But I didn’t meet with Alison to talk about her bibliography. I was interested in her ongoing translation of João Guimarães Rosa’s literary behemoth, Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956). Unique to this project, and almost unheard of for a translation project, is that Alison has been fully funded by the Instituto Itaú Cultural, a nonprofit organization that promotes artistic production in Brazil, allowing her to focus all of her time and effort solely on translating this one novel. For 3 years.

Why, might you ask, is this such a long-term project? Well, on the one hand, Grande Sertão: Veredas contains what is considered perhaps the most inventive prose in the Portuguese language, with word play, confounding syntax, neologisms, regionalisms unique to Brazil’s backlands, and idioms invented by the author. Needless to say, the novel’s language can be so challenging that Alison considers 500 words to be an exceptional day, compared to the 1,000 to 2,000 words per day that are standard for an experienced translator. On the other hand, you have a work that is revered as one of the greatest novels not just in Brazilian letters, but on the scale of world literature as well. Yet the book is practically unknown to English readers.

The fact that Grande Sertão: Veredas is terra incognita for English readers is a bit of a mystery, especially since the book enjoyed a healthy start in English when a translation, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, was published in 1963 by the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. That translation project had been undertaken by the highly regarded translator of many Spanish American Boom writers, Harriet de Onís, along with lexicographer James L. Taylor, but has long been out of print. There are many theories as to why the book never really “caught on” in English, but central to this issue is the translators’ domesticating approach to Guimarães Rosa’s idiosyncratic narrative. In short, the book’s lack of success in English may be, in part, because its linguistic innovation was compressed into an English register that resembles a Western novel.

For Alison, there will be no shortcuts, no domestication, and no omission of entire passages deemed too enigmatic, as was the case in the first translation. At stake is a complete overhaul of the book—disassembly and reassembly of words and meaning. Ultimately, the goal is to bring the voice of Riobaldo—the first-person narrator of the novel—and his entire world of backland outlaws to life in English.



Heath Wing (HW): Let’s start with the book’s odd title: Grande Sertão: Veredas. “Sertão,” in English, is often translated as “backlands”, though there are many other available approximations. Harriet de Onís and James L. Taylor’s 1963 translation rendered the title as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Have you grappled with your translation of the book’s title and the word “sertão” itself?

Alison Entrekin (AE): That’s a doozy. It’s a work in progress, and I think the title will be the very last thing we decide on. And it might well depend, as in any kind of novel, on what comes up in the translation. As a title it is extremely hard to translate verbatim. I don’t find “Great sertão” or “Great Backlands” particularly resonating as a title. In that sense, I actually prefer the original title in English [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands], which is evocative and makes me want to read the book, whether or not it’s a faithful translation is a completely different story. I actually like the word “backlands.” It resonates with me. I like the word “badlands,” but then that casts things in a more negative way. Also, that sort of reminds us of the Dakotas, so again that pins it to a place that I would like to avoid. “Outback,” with me being an Australian translator, I’m going to be accused of making it Australian.

“Sertão”—because it’s a milieu—in some ways defies translation in the sense that if you talk about backlands, they can be anywhere, but this sertão is very definitely in the middle of Minas Gerais, in the middle of Brazil, and Bahia and Goiás. So, there is a great possibility that the word “sertão” will have to be in the title. But then there’s the whole issue of what to do with “veredas,” [the network of waterways that extend throughout the sertão], because if you read the correspondence between Guimarães Rosa and his Italian translator, [the translator] asked him, “what does “veredas” mean to you? Because I haven’t found a translation that fully satisfies me, can you explain a bit about it?” And Guimarães Rosa goes off into this whole explanation—this whole world—and so in a sense, “veredas” is like “sertão” in that it is just a whole world unto itself and any translation could possibly take away from that whole world. But then again you can’t have two foreign words in a title. I think that’s a bit too much. So, I really have no answers as far as that goes. I think one day I’ll have to, but not today.       

HW: You, probably more than anyone else on the planet, are aware that Guimarães Rosa employs a rustic and idiosyncratic Portuguese that constitutes what some might call a “translator’s hell.” Along these lines, in your 2016 article, “When in Hell, Embrace the Devil,” published in Words without Borders, you state that in order to successfully translate Grande Sertão: Veredas, you will “have to conjure the language of a literary outback that does not exist, but feels like it could, somewhere.” Could you elaborate on how you are embracing the devil to achieve this literary outback?

AE: I would like to say that I have this completely standardized approach to things, but the truth is I don’t, because the book just keeps throwing up challenges every step of the way. As I’m working through drafts, I’m always keeping in mind those guiding stars of [asking], What was the experience of this like in Portuguese? Where’s the magic in this particular passage, and how does it come across? Trying to capture the colloquialism, which in itself is a huge challenge because the more colloquial language is, the more it’s pinned to a particular time and place. So, the lower the register the more local it is, and the higher the register the more universal it is. And there is hardly any high register in [Grande Sertão: Veredas]. So trying to find that low register that can also embrace neologisms and things from other languages, and a certain erudite culture that Riobaldo [the narrator] has to a degree, that’s always what I’m trying to get in the translation.

But I actually do these things in different stages. So in a first draft I’ll just be squeezing the meaning out and trying to stay true to the register and so on. Then in other revisions, once I have talked to Daniela Tavaglini, my colleague and sounding board on this project, and once I’ve done all my research and looked things up and ruled out possibilities and consulted the Italian [translation], that’s when that sort of magic starts to take place.

HW: I’m curious, do you ever consult the English translation?

AE: No, never. Not the English, because there’s this undertow in the English. Even though I know quite often it’s really way off mark, I read it and I go, “Oh my god, they’re so much better translators than me. They got it.” Then you sort of want to make it make more sense and it doesn’t always. […] But as I work through I’m starting to notice his tics—for lack of a better word—things that make up Riobaldo’s voice, the actual components of his voice, what is characteristic of his way of speaking. The neologisms are the least of my worries. They’re actually quite easy. You can usually identify where they come from—what blends of words he has used—and then go back to those words. I translate them all in English, and then I look for the synonyms and then I just look for chunks of synonyms and basically play Frankenstein and keep putting them together until something just comes to life, and then I go, “Wow, yes, that’s what I’m going to run with.” There are two things that I haven’t found satisfactory translations for, that are a part of those cacoetes—tics—which are: “mire e veja” and “veja e mire.” There are a couple of variations on that, and I have yet to find something that totally satisfies me in English.

HW: So this “veja e mire” is like “see-look/look-see”?

AE: Yes. He’s really just saying, “Think about this.”

HW: How have you handled that up to this point? Are you just not satisfied?

AE: I’m totally not satisfied. I’m actually probably going to have to go in the direction of something like “look and see.” It’s sort of truncated at the same time, because no one actually says, “mire e veja” or “veja e mire.” So I can’t make it look too standard, like “Take a gawk at this.” It has to be something a little more truncated but that eventually becomes a part of [the narrator’s] repertoire. Are you familiar with Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas? This was his only published play. It’s a play for voices. People often compare Guimarães Rosa to James Joyce. I don’t find him Joycean at all. In terms of the difficulty and of the inventiveness of language, yes, but that’s where it stops for me. I think [Guimarães Rosa] shares things in common with these writers who break the rules and play hard and fast with language. Dylan Thomas just does incredible things. I don’t think the voice is the same, but I think, again, the kind of playfulness with the language that Dylan Thomas has here—it’s quite hypnotizing. I’ve read this so many times. It’s just gorgeous:

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

He does the same kinds of things morphologically that Guimarães Rosa does. [Thomas] will take a word that’s a verb and make it a noun, or vice versa. He will build up these compounds, which obviously you don’t have the same type of compounds in Portuguese, but the way he puts things together, it resonates in sort of the same way. He will attribute almost human or animalistic things to inanimate objects, and vice versa. And he performs that kind of operation on the language in his book. So quite often I revisit it.

HW: How do you situate yourself within a theory of translation that advocates preserving foreign “otherness” in the text, versus one that attempts to render the original in a language that is familiar for the target culture? Or does this book require its own bespoke approach?

AE: It does totally require a bespoke approach. I think this is a book where the otherness is already present. The otherness is there for the readers of the original. And so my approach is just to preserve that as much as possible. I also think that most books actually sort of dictate what they need by themselves, without you having to take an approach to foreignize or domesticate, because in trying to preserve that unique voice with its own syntax and the neologisms and everything that comes along with that, it’s not very present in my mind about maintaining the otherness. I’m just trying to maintain the “Guimarães-Rosaness.” Something often asked of me when I translated Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector was: “What did you think of the foreignness of her voice and everything?” And a lot is made of the fact that she was sort of a foreigner in Brazil, and of course she really wasn’t. She came here when she was a baby. She was a native speaker of Portuguese, and no matter how crazy she gets, she’s working within the realm of possibilities that her language offers her, as Guimarães Rosa also does. What is foreign about her, in the case of Clarice, is she is like a foreigner in the world. She is totally strange to this world and the way she looks at the world, and if you’re faithful to that aspect of her, you don’t need to worry about the foreignness of the actual translation or anything else. She’s already what she is.    

HW: As an Australian, you come from a country with its own sort of sertão—the Outback—which has its own literary tradition and rustic English. How conscious of this are you in the translation process? How do you ensure that Riobaldo, the first-person narrator of the text, sounds like a Rosean jagunço [Brazilian backlander/outlaw] and not like, say, Australian outlaw Ned Kelly?

AE: That’s more an exercise in avoiding things that pin you to a particular place than anything. I’m always conscious in all of my translations of trying to avoid anything that can be identified as specifically Australian. We have some great words, but if I use them then nobody is going to understand them, and then somebody is going to say that they’re Australian. That has always been present since day one for me. It’s funny, I often—I guess it’s part of my own idiolect—use the word “reckon” a lot, and I think that’s just Australian to some degree, but it is also American and English, and yet, in other books, whenever it crops up—usually in a character’s speech—I’ll get an editor saying, “Oh, that sounds too British,” or, on the other hand they’ll say, “That sounds too American,” and actually, god damn it, it’s used everywhere! So when these things crop up I do use them, but I research them carefully.

[Guimarães Rosa] uses a word at one point, “scaramuchar,” which I believe is his own invention. This was around the time the movie came out about Queen [Bohemian Rhapsody], and it just kept on reminding me of that song, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango.” And I was going, “Hmm, okay, I need to get to the bottom of this.” So I went off and I had a look, and “Scaramouche” in English comes from, I think, Commedia dell’arte, and it was a character who was a coward. Then I went back and looked at the etymology of the word in Portuguese and it also does originally come from Latin or Italian—I’m not sure exactly what the exact pathway was—but [scaramuchar] does actually have a reminiscence of that in it. And then I was thinking, “Hmm, okay, was he deliberately playing with that?” So what should I do with that in English? How far can I go with “scaramouching”? I try to identify what and how he plays with the language in Portuguese, because I sort of set myself rules. I don’t do what he didn’t do. So, for example, I did a big chunk of the translation using contractions, and signaling those contractions with apostrophes to show that it was colloquial language, but then I came to the conclusion that I can’t do that because he doesn’t do that in Portuguese. As an example, the word “gonna” in vernacular English shows just how low the register is. I don’t use those things anymore because that takes it in a direction that he didn’t go in Portuguese. I’m trying to observe: What are his rules? How does he shake things up in Portuguese? And I let that be my guide as to what I can do in English.

HW: I wondered about that, because he doesn’t imitate how his characters pronounce things in his orthography, right?

AE: Exactly. And yet he gets this incredibly vernacular feel in the text, without doing that. So I’m always looking for those little places, for the tics, for the little speech mannerisms that give it that atmosphere, without actually having to go as far as to put those things into the English or misspell things. The only times things are misspelled is where—this is also kind of a tricky one—Riobaldo gets some words wrong. But when he gets them wrong he creates new words. It’s all about the rendering of what Riobaldo can do, what he does or doesn’t do.

Daniela and I have a few acronyms for certain things, shortcuts for concepts that we’ve come up with. One of them, which we’ve used for years, is VDB, which is the valor do bonitinho (value of beauty), because when a word has its own value that goes above and beyond its actual meaning, where it’s cute, it sort of tickles you or makes you laugh—there’s something adorable about it, and sometimes that actually takes precedence over the actual meaning. So if you have to use something slightly removed from the meaning, but it keeps that VDB, then sometimes that has to be the guiding star in that particular moment. And then we’ve come up with another one more recently, which is BMNF, “bagunça mas não ferra” [mess it up but don’t screw it up], where I’ll be playing with the syntax of something and I’ve got to mess it up. It can’t be unreadable, but it’s got to be messier than it is, and it’s where Riobaldo has usually started off on one track, and then changed direction halfway through a sentence and gone off in a different direction, so it’s not perfectly tied up, the syntax isn’t perfect, it doesn’t begin and end perfectly.

HW: What are some of the factors, in your opinion, that have contributed to the book remaining largely unknown to the English-speaking world to this day? What is different this time around with your translation and circumstance that might help bring the book to light in English?

AE: I think that the fact that I’m doing this translation decades later, with so many more resources than the original translators had, and being a translator with more experience in the Portuguese language than either of them. I mean, James Taylor was an incredible lexicographer and I really like his dictionary. I use it all the time. It is by far the best Portuguese-English dictionary out there, in my opinion. (Others would disagree with me. Other people actually complain that there are too many trees in this [dictionary], but I need those trees.) I have all this material that I can consult that they just had no access to. They were dealing with something that hadn’t even been written about or commented on. It was just too close in time for any serious academic reflection to take place, and for all of these lexicons to be studied and developed and written about. I have literally hundreds of PDF theses from people who I will have to thank personally. […] There’s this book called Aves do sertão [Birds of the Sertão]. And it’s got ALL the birds of the Grande Sertão. So if I want to find caboré, there it is with the scientific name. I’ve got the picture of it here, I can see it. I’ve got a description of it. I can go into Google, type in the scientific name in English and I can look at the bird in Portuguese, I can compare the picture to make sure it is exactly the same bird. I can look at all of its common names in English, if there are any, and decide what to do with it. This saves me often an hour of research, per bird. If you’ve got a section with ten birds in it, believe me, that’s a day’s work. So [the original translators] didn’t have access to that. They didn’t have these lexicons. They didn’t have each other’s correspondence. I have access to all of these things. I’ve got funding to sit down and write. Harriet de Onís, I think she was going broke when she was doing this book. That’s the impression you get. There were stories about maybe her not being in very good health. It was also true that she had other paying work that she could do a lot faster, because it was in standard Spanish and she could knock it out and get paid. Whereas I can afford to sit down and do 200 words a day, and try to get up to 500 words a day. I’ve got a consultant who can be a sounding board, and who I can argue with; otherwise it’s just me arguing with myself. I’ve got other translations. I’ve got my Facebook group. I’ve been able to travel and go to seminars and meet academics who have specifically focused on aspects of the book in their own work, who I can consult. The resources I have at my fingertips are just infinite. And with that difficulty taken away, I can focus on the language, because I believe that the language is the heart and soul of the book, and if I don’t get that, then what’s the point? We’ve already got a translation that renders it in more prosaic language, and it actually is a really good read in and of itself, even though somebody who is familiar with the original can lament the loss of all of the creativity.

HW: By way of conclusion, what is ultimately your hope for the future of your translation?

AE: I don’t expect it to become a “best seller” in English but I would be very, very happy and it would feel like a mission accomplished if it becomes a slow, steady seller, like Finnigan’s Wake—a classic recognized for the work of art that it is. If my translation can be studied in universities and find its place on the map of world literature and Brazilian literature, I would be really happy. And that might not translate into massive sales, but as long as I’m able to put the book on the map and have people appreciate it for what it is. I’m painfully aware that whatever somebody reads in English will be vastly different than the original, just because of its very nature and the fact that it has to be reconstructed in English, [but] I hope that they’re able to read it and appreciate that inventiveness and that voice and fall in love with Riobaldo and his story. No translation of a book of this sort will ever be a “perfect” reproduction of the original. It will fall short in many ways, and I am sure there are people out there sharpening knives, ready to attack it, but if it can be approached, studied, appreciated, and make people want to read the original as well, then that’s a job well done.


Alison Entrekin is an acclaimed Australian literary translator from Portuguese into English. She studied creative writing in Australia and literary translation in Brazil, and has translated many of Brazil’s famous and talented writers. Her translations encompass a wide variety of works, including short fiction and poetry for anthologies and literary magazines, as well as novels, children’s literature and biographies. Her publications include City of God by Paulo Lins, The Eternal Son by Cristovão Tezza, Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, and Budapest by Chico Buarque. Her work has been shortlisted for a number of awards, and she is the recipient of the 2019 NSW Premier’s Award for Translation. She is currently working on a new translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa.

Heath Wing, a West Texas native, received a PhD from Texas Tech University in 2015. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Spanish at North Dakota State University. He translates for contemporary Latin American writers and poets from Spanish and Portuguese. His translations have appeared in magazines and journals such as Fishousepoems, Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote, Waxwing, and Hinchas de Poesía. His work in translation also appears in the anthology of contemporary Brazilian writers titled Becoming Brazil: New Fiction, Poetry, and Memoir (MANOA).  

Playing Frankenstein: An Interview with Alison Entrekin

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