Translating Brazilian Modernism: A Roundtable with Katrina Dodson and Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

Written by
Daniel Persia
May 1, 2023

On Tuesday, April 11, 2023, the Brazil LAB co-sponsored the third event of the Spring 2023 “After Translation” series, with renowned literary translators Katrina Dodson and Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. The series, organized by graduate researchers Daniel Persia and Julia Kornberg, has aimed to explore Latin American, Iberian and Luso-African literatures while inquiring about the role of the university in contemporary translation. This encounter also celebrated the publication of two new books in translation: Macunaíma: The Hero with No Character (Dodson) and The Apprentice Tourist (Thomson-DeVeaux), both by acclaimed Brazilian modernist Mário de Andrade.

Dodson, in recognizing her past and present academic affiliations, began by acknowledging the significance of the Amazonian Poetics conference hosted by the Brazil Lab in 2019, where she engaged in dialogue with indigenous artists such as Jaider Esbell and Denilson Baniwa. Dodson spent around six years translating Macunaíma, including a journey through the Amazon and extensive archival research. Not wanting to interrupt the “frenetic tempo” of Mário de Andrade’s delirium—but still hoping to promote access for students and teachers—Dodson decided to move her copious notes to the end of the book (recently published by New Directions), cataloguing them under a series of playful titles. “[I want readers] to be able to trace the sources,” she said, noting the abundance of indigenous myths and Afro-Brazilian traditions, and “[to be able] to read the book against itself, or on a second level. To see its manner of composition.” Dodson shared her attraction to works that “do something thrilling with language,” that push the boundaries of English. Macunaíma does just that, holding up a mirror to Brazilian society while embracing linguistic wordplay reflective of a distinctly multilingual nation. Dodson’s reading of an excerpt from Chapter 4 revealed the deliberate musicality of her words and the importance of rhythm in approximating the myriad languages of Mário de Andrade’s landmark work.

Thomson-DeVeaux followed by invoking the title of the series, “After Translation.” After translation is “where we find ourselves now,” she stated, and “it’s the part I like the least. I’m afraid to crack the cover and see what I’ve done, to see this other version of myself in print because there’s always a temporality of the publication—you leave that version of yourself behind.” Thomson-DeVeaux—a Princeton alumna and translator of Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas— found joy in the oddities and discomforts of The Apprentice Tourist, its “peculiar interplay of expectations and disappointment, discovery and obtuseness.” The book, sometimes placed in the “travel” section (recently published by Penguin), dances on the line between fiction and non-fiction, often leaning toward documentary realism. In its pages the reader will find “everything that makes travel an existential challenge,” claims Thomson-DeVeaux. “Everything that makes our relationship with the Amazon so fraught.”

Questions from the audience addressed legibility, “queering” Mário, the notion of untranslatability, embodied experience in the Amazon, and the placement of each work in academic and public conversations today. Dodson and Thomson-DeVeaux admitted that they don’t always agree with Mário’s words, but that, as translators, they had to “invent their own forms of legibility” and decide on proper ethical orientations. Neither sees her translation as “definitive” but rather as one iteration at a particular moment in time, to be expanded upon and rewritten in the future. Dodson further emphasized the pedagogical value of teaching multiple translations: “suddenly [the students] have something to say because it’s very concrete, and before they know it they’re doing literary analysis and interpretation, because each translation is a different interpretation.”

Macunaíma and The Apprentice Tourist are two brilliant works brought to life by two of contemporary translation’s most generous writers and scholars. For more, see a recent exploration of these publications in The New York Times.

A recording of this event is available on the Brazil LAB YouTube Channel.

This event was co-sponsored by the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Humanities Council and The Graduate School.