Visit theallusionist.org/translation to read about and hear this episode.
This is The Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, rescue language from the cupboard under the stairs and whisk it away to a magical boarding school.
Coming up in today’s show: the art of translation! Not in the 14th century sense of translation, relocating saints’ bodies or fragments thereof. Sorry to disappoint.
This episode is sponsored by Blue Apron, the meal kits you can have delivered to your door if you’re in the contiguous USA - which currently I’m not, so let me tell you something unpleasant: the other day, I was performing some minor excavations in the bottom of the fridge, where I discovered a bag full of a lumpy white ooze. It used to be carrots. This would not have happened with Blue Apron, because they send the right amount of each of the responsibly sourced ingredients for their easy-to-prepare meals, so that food waste is reduced and so are upsetting encounters with putrescent carrots. Check out the upcoming menus that Blue Apron has concocted for you to prepare with ease at home, and get your first three meals for free at blueapron.com/allusionist.
On with the show.
HZ: Many of you have heard Nate DiMeo on his podcast The Memory Palace.
NATE DIMEO: This is The Memory Palace. I’m Nate DiMeo.
HZ: And some of you have heard him on this podcast, when Nate and I tried to learn the minimalist language Toki Pona.
HZ: Kama pona, Nate DiMeo.
Welcome, Nate DiMeo.
NATE DIMEO: Toki, Helen!
HZ: One person in particular heard about Nate DiMeo on the Allusionist.
CAETANO GALINDO: And then I started listening to The Memory Palace and it was and it was a love story for me; it was something that really touched me from the very first moment.
HZ: This is a common response to The Memory Palace. But what happened next: not so much.
NATE DIMEO: So I, like you, get emails now and then from listeners. And I got this really nice email from this guy in Brazil that said, "Hey, I'm listening in Brazil, and I'm a translator and I really love it."
CAETANO GALINDO: My name is Caetano Waldrigues Galindo, and I'm a university professor and a literary translator.
NATE DIMEO: And what a lovely email to get. It's nice to think of some Brazilian man you know walking down Ipanema beach or whatever listening to The Memory Palace; it's a cool thing.
HZ: So Nate writes back to him.
NATE DIMEO: And very quickly I get a response that says, "Hey, I didn't expect you to write back, this is so great. But meanwhile, while I have you here" - which is a phrase that that is very near and dear to my heart; I feel like a lot of things that I've been able to make happen for myself in my life have come from me saying, "Hey, while I have you here, let me pitch you this thing..."
CAETANO GALINDO: Since I deal in books, I work with books, what if we could make a book out of that?
NATE DIMEO: And so then he, in a very charming very well-written way, laid out his bona fides, essentially like, “Listen, I know I said I'm a translator, but it actually turns out, I am the real deal. I am a top notch literary translator, and these are the things that I've done:”
HZ: James Joyce’s Ulysses. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Charles Darwin’s Diary of the Beagle. Right now, he’s working on The Wasteland by TS Eliot.
CAETANO GALINDO: But I've also translated Thomas Pynchon, I'm quite proud of that; Saul Bellow and Paul Auster - some big names.
HZ: So it's Joyce, Bellow and now DiMeo.
CAETANO GALINDO: Yeah. Now DiMeo, with a huge pride, I say now DiMeo.
HZ: That’s right: Caetano has written a Brazilian Portuguese translation of The Memory Palace -
CAETANO GALINDO: O Palácio da Memória.
HZ: And in two weeks’ time, the book will be published in Brazil.
NATE DIMEO: Sixty episodes of The Memory Palace, sixty episodes of my little podcast are being released in book form. It's kind of an extraordinary thing. Thanks to this email and this guy who I still imagine walking on Ipanema Beach listening to The Memory Palace, even though he lives like hundreds of miles away from Ipanema Beach.
HZ: But if you think translation is just a simple matter of rummaging through a bilingual dictionary to whack some words onto the page, prepare to have that thought translated into rather more complex reality!
There are two translation jobs happening in the case of the Memory Palace: the first job of course is translating the words Nate had written in American English into Brazilian Portuguese, capturing not just the meaning but also the character and tone. The second job is making the words work on the page when they had been written to be heard, not read.
NATE DIMEO: Part of the guiding principle of the writing of The Memory Palace - I have this notion that if it is fun to say that it is fun to hear, and that sometimes things like alliteration or all your classic poetic parts of speech, I am deploying them in part because they're literally just kind of fun to hear. That they are rhythmic devices and they are sort of musical devices, and that's certainly true on the page. I tend to think of writing Memory Palace stories in a way as writing pop songs. I also think about the construction of the pieces musically, that the pacing of the statements and the pacing of my voice and the turns of phrase and the alliteration and all of that stuff, I think of the scenes in the story as kind of movements in the music; I think very explicitly of the rhythm of language as literal rhythm and the pace of the language as tempo. And that really kind of both guides the writing and the way it gets said.
CAETANO GALINDO: And that was really why I didn't even work from the written text he provided me; but I chose to work from the audio, because what I wanted to translate was not only from the English to the Portuguese but from the audio to the page. I had to convey some sort of rhythm, some sort of pace that he creates while he speaks. And I had to represent it on the page through means that I had to develop and I had to conceive in my language. So I was trying to write down the audio and not his original text.
HZ: So you were trying to capture the atmosphere as well as the information.
CAETANO GALINDO: Yeah, yeah, especially the rhythms, the pauses, the ways he segments things when he wants to highlight information and create some sort of expectation on the listener - I would say 'the reader' right now.
HZ: And then in the translation, where's the balance for you in making the text be accurate and for it to have character?
CAETANO GALINDO: Well the first thing is deciding which character it should have, because there is this whole discussion about fidelity in translation.
HZ: What do you do to be faithful to the original? Translate the words literally, insofar as that is even possible? As well as being quite dull to read, that would miss out on the nuances, the tone, the character of the original. But if you then do endeavour to capture those, you as translator have to make editorial decisions.
CAETANO GALINDO: The whole idea, the whole game involved in translation and especially literary translation, is the fact that you have to be able to respond faithfully both to the original and to the criteria of your language and of your readership and how to make the original speak in a way that is true, authentic, and also palatable both to the author and to your readership is really the problem, the crux of the thing. There's quite a bit of editing when you when you translate, because you have to make all sorts of choices that could help to ensure a brighter future for the book in your country, to your readers.
HZ: Who, if they don't have a similar frame of reference as the author, might get a bit lost.
CAETANO GALINDO: The great interest of the book was Nate's voice, Nate's text. But sometimes, yeah, I had to change things and put things there to make it clearer to the reader - to the Brazilian reader.
NATE DIMEO: Because the truth of the matter is, The Memory Palace is one massive American reference.
CAETANO GALINDO: And I knew that; we knew that; and we wanted that for the book. But at the same time I sometimes had to tone down the American references to make it more of a universal thing so that the readers could relate more to it.
NATE DIMEO: There are ways that place names mean things to Americans that won't mean things to someone in England or Brazil or Australia, in the same way that there are English place names in English. An English brand name carries connotations that just don't translate on the other side of the world. And so in that regard, I am kind of used to and I've had to come to accept and embrace the idea that all of this stuff, all of the work that you do and send out into the world is open to imperfect interpretation. And I know enough about the way that languages work that no translation is a perfect translation.
HZ: As well as grappling with the specific challenges presented by the text he’s translating, Caetano has to contend with the problems that arise when Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t possess some fundamental qualities of the language of the original material.
CAETANO GALINDO: What is really difficult tends to be connected to these large sociolinguistic problems. For instance, the whole idea of freedom, creative freedom, within the language is absolutely different in English and in Portuguese. A typical English speaker is much freer with the language. He has this sort of a notion that he can invent, create or play with the language. And in Brazil that's pretty much not the case. It's not something that is typical of our relationship to language.
We do have some problems in Brazil with the idea of writing our real language as literature. We've had this century and a half of literary translation that was not really concerned with the representation of real everyday language on the page: either you had a caricature of regional accents, or you had the sort of high style of Portuguese that would be expected in good society. And we still have a long way to come to put this real Brazilian Portuguese on the page with with any natural feeling to it; and literary translators are pretty much on the avant garde of that process right now in Brazil, because we don't have a choice. A novel writer can choose if he or she wants to put real Brazilian Portuguese on the page or not; but we, if the writer has done it in English we have to do it in Portuguese, and that's a real great problem, a real big problem for us right now.
HZ: Happily, there are some problems that Caetano really relishes.
CAETANO GALINDO: Translators like games. Can you translate this sentence? Yeah. Can you do it in ten syllables? Yeah. Can you do it ending in -son? Yeah maybe. Can you do with three occurrences of the phoneme P? Yeah, we can try.
HZ: So it was great fun for Caetano when he came to translate episode 50 of the Memory Palace, which is 50 words long.
CAETANO GALINDO: This podcast I had to translate you know the same thing with a fixed amount of words. And I had to keep you know counting words all the time to make sure it would work.
HZ: Did it have to be 50 words?
CAETANO GALINDO: Yeah yeah. Or it wouldn't be nice. It's in the original. It mentioned in the title of the podcast the number of words that he would use.
NATE DIMEO: Fifty Words Written about the Arctic Bowhead Whale After Learning It Can Live Up To Two Hundred Years.
CAETANO GALINDO: So I had to do it with the same amount of words.
NATE DIMEO: There’s a whale right now
CAETANO GALINDO: Existe uma baleia, agora,
NATE DIMEO: who may have escaped a Nantucketer’s harpoon in 1850.
CAETANO GALINDO: que pode ter escapado do arpão de um baleeiro de Nantucket em 1850.
NATE DIMEO: And a Japanese whaler in 1950.
CAETANO GALINDO: E de um japonês em 1950.
NATE DIMEO: Who once heard the distant songs of 50,000 of her kind.
CAETANO GALINDO: Que um dia ouviu o canto distante de 50 mil irmãs.
NATE DIMEO: Then several thousand.
CAETANO GALINDO: Depois poucos milhares.
NATE DIMEO: Then hundreds.
CAETANO GALINDO: E centenas.
NATE DIMEO: But who can hear 25,000 again,
CAETANO GALINDO: Mas que agora pode ouvir 25 mil,
NATE DIMEO: singing in the warming water.
CAETANO GALINDO: cantando na água aquecida.
CAETANO GALINDO: It's really difficult not to like the things you have translated, and it's not just an ego thing. The point is you had to put things apart. You had to really understand everything. Translators have no alibis. You have to at least convince yourself that you have a working explanation to everything and you have a theory to understand everything, because you cannot just skip it and say, “Oh, later we'll see how it goes.” You have to propose something; you have to offer a solution. And when you get to that level of reading, you come to love everything; you come to see what was there and that you as a reader sometimes was not able to see.
HZ: And then I guess if you're a translator you have to ignore your own ego, because if you've done your job well, you're almost invisible.
CAETANO GALINDO: Yeah! Yeah. And that may sound like some sort of a curse to some people; but to me that's probably the best part of it, because I don't have to worry about how I am being perceived or how I am coming through as a speaker or as a writer. When I write these days, I tend to be really tired of my style, my choices, my words, my sentences. But when I'm writing other people's books, they've made the tough choices for me. I only have to clothe their books or their stories with a new language, with the new prose.
NATE DIMEO: It is fascinating to know that I will never know - I really will never know if Caetano did a good job. I'm never going to get good enough in Brazilian Portuguese as I am in English and I'm never going to get good enough in any language, no matter how much I studied it, than in the one that I grew up with.
HZ: You started learning a bit of Brazilian Portuguese, how’re you doing with it?
NATE DIMEO: Yeah, right now I'm able to say things like, “What would you like to do today? And when would you like to do it?” And I would say, “I would like to eat something and drink something tomorrow at 6:30.”
HZ: Would you be able to order something to eat and drink? Have you got that far?
NATE DIMEO:As long as it's pão de queijo, which is cheese buns apparently.
HZ: That's all you need to know.
NATE DIMEO: That's all I need to know. I can order cheese buns and I can order smoothies and some sort of espresso-like drink, I'm told, called the cafezinho.
HZ: Well. You're all set.
HZ: Caetano’s Brazilian Portuguese translations of The Memory Palace, O Palácio da Memória, will be published by todavia on 12 July. And as that book deal came about when this show featured Nate DiMeo, I’m wondering whether this episode could result in more books?
NATE DIMEO: I'd like to see The Memory Palace in all languages, both financially and also because it would be like a hoot.
HZ: Nate would love to see it in Spanish, or Italian...
NATE DIMEO: I would love to see it in a pictographic language. You know, I would I would love to see what The Memory Palace looks like in Chinese, in Mandarin; I would love to see it in Arabic, that'd be fantastic.
Caetano Galindo has a book of his own out too - Yes, I Say Yes: a Guided Tour of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s up for a pretty major award, so if you want a companion to Ulysses, make it this one.
Thanks very much to Babbel for sponsoring this episode - the perfect match for an episode about translation. Babbel is the number 1 selling language learning app in the world. From your computer, smartphone or tablet, you can learn how to have conversations in other languages in short, interactive lessons. I’ve just started using it to learn Spanish. So far I’ve completed the first few beginners’ lessons, which are a bit like a game where I’m playing against myself, so I always win! And when the points roll in for each task, I feel like an absolute genius. Imagine how buena I’ll feel when I get as far as being able to order cheese buns!
You Allusionist listeners can get three months of Babbel FREE when you sign up for a three month subscription. That’s double the Babbel, people. Visit babbel.com/podcast and use the offer code ALLUSIONIST.
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Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
quinella, noun: a bet predicting the first two places in a race, but not necessarily in the right order.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with thanks to Nate DiMeo and Caetano Galindo. Martin Austwick did the music - and after last episode, Eclipse, a lot of you asked if you could have his 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'-inspired soundtrack without me talking all over it, so that is now available to you at soundcloud.com/allusionistshow. And come to see us both at the London Podcast Festival in September, at the live performances of The Allusionist and Martin’s own podcast Song By Song. Tickets are on sale now.
The Allusionist will be on a break through July, while I gather new stories for episodes, but I’ll be back on 4th August, and you can find me on twitter.com/allusionistshow and facebook.com/allusionistshow. Or pay a home visit to theallusionist.org.