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Machado de Assis

I've just finished enjoying Epitaph of a Small Winner by the 19th-century Brazilian literary pillar Machado de Assis, renowned for his pessimistic wit. It's about the life and loves of a member of the leisure class, covering some of the same satirical ground as a picaresque novel or Voltaire's Candide but from above rather than below. There's even a pessimistic answer to Dr. Pangloss in the form of a character named Quincas Borba, who apparently figures in some of de Assis's other novels.

It forced me to overcome a couple of literary phobias. I'm not in the habit of reading much that predates, say, Hemingway, and as I've said before I'm skeptical about translations.

On the first point, Louis de Bernieres asserts in an introduction that de Assis was a postmodernist, due to his employment of various currently fashionable formal tricks -- starting his story at the end, in the voice of a posthumous narrator, with self-referential chapters as short as a single sentence. De Bernieres' claim is less startling if you accept the Borgesian view that there's nothing new under the sun. He calls Homer a postmodernist, too, for starting his story in the middle. At any rate, de Assis has a clever style that suits contemporary taste. And some of his aphorisms anticipate current usage, too -- "We kill time and time buries us" isn't so far from "Life's a bitch and then you die."

As for the translation, it didn't seem so bad. The version I read was done in 1952 by William L. Grossman; there's also more recent translation by Gregory Rabassa in print under the title The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas but the older seemed less clumsy when I spot-checked them in the library. (The original Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas from 1880 is available online. Hooray for expiring copyrights!)

I enjoyed the book enough that I'm doing something more ambitious: I'm now trying to read some of his short stories in parallel Portuguese and English versions. I'm starting with O Alienista (The Psychiatrist) about the establishment of a rural mental hospital, excellent fodder for de Assis's pointed humor. Reading a paragraph in Portuguese, then in English, then checking it again in Portuguese takes some discipline but it's fun. And it puts me right in the middle of the old translation problem again. I'm not good enough to catch errors in tone, but I find myself gnashing my teeth at every turn as the translator rearranges paragraphs and, worse, edits content completely out. Let's hope I improve enough to bypass the middleman.

books 2004.04.24 link


Wow! Postmodernist? It sounds pretty strange - in Brazil the first generation of modernism was released in 20'. Brasilians use to study Machado as a writer from realism.
After Memorias Postumas, Machado wrotes a novel called "Quincas Borba" about Rubiao, the nurse of the filosofer Quincas Borba, who received his heritage after his death. And I'm improving my knowledge about historic neighbourhood roots reading Betty Smith - A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

Mina [neuza punkto paranho cxe uol punkto com punkto br] • 2004.04.24
I love Machado, the mulatto Chesterton. Bras Cubas is very Shandean. I have had some practice translations of the Contos Fluminenses on the back burner for a while. Wanna try?

Colin [cbrayton cxe blogalization punkto nu] • 2004.04.24
Colin and I posted comments for you at a same time - but we didn't know that both of us was visiting the friend-blog Aprendiz... each one in a different place of the apartament.

Mina [neuza punkto paranhos cxe uol punkto com punkto br] • 2004.04.24
Simultaneous unpremeditated comments by a husband-wife tag team -- that's what I call a 21st century moment!

Colin, the story looks interesting. I'll bookmark it. But a problem in the first line: isn't um romance a novel?

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.04.24
Clearly you should do your own translation. If you are good enough to notice the missing things and weird rearranging, you are good enough to type up how you think it should be done! I dare you.

badgerbag [lizzard cxe bookmaniac punkto net] • 2004.04.25
Great post and site. I liked the Machado book I read once. I wish I could remember the name of it but I read it because John Updike thought it was swell. It did have amazing descriptions of long black female hair, post-modern is not something, though, was not something that came to mind.

fairest [fairestincrease cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.04.25
L1zz8rd, I'd forego the translation if I could read the original without any crutches. My ultimate goal isn't to render Portuguese into English, it's to get Portuguese into my brain.

The next step, after the dual-language bit, will be to get a monolingual Portuguese dictionary (as opposed to a Portuguese-English dictionary) and remove English from the process altogether.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.04.25
I am bilingual too, and would love to do translation full time. I am looking for editions in English of Assis' short stories, can you help? I am writing a column about short stories as a genre and would like to recommend some Assis.

Aninha [aninha7 cxe alltel punkto net] • 2005.07.05
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