A Brazilian classic plus a Translator Spotlight: Alison Entrekin

A young child living in poverty, notorious in his neighbourhood for what would be described nowadays as anti-social behaviour (damaging property, frightening pets and neighbours, setting things on fire), who is so often physically abused by members of his family (once beaten badly enough to lose consciousness) that he considers suicide … this perhaps sounds like it might be some gritty and contemporary YA novel set on a run-down housing estate in a bleak part of the UK, but it’s not. In fact, it is a best-selling 50 year old novel from Brazil, so loved around the world that it has inspired two different cinema adaptations and even been the subject of a K-Pop megahit.

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, translated by Alison Entrekin, is not only surprising, but also rich, rewarding and moving.

Zezé lives in central Rio de Janerio, and has somewhat fallen through the cracks as one of the youngest in a large family who are struggling to make ends meet. Sparky, curious and left to his own devices, he finds ways to amuse himself which quickly earn him a reputation as something of a delinquent. Zezé is told so often that he is a terrible child, he starts to believe it himself. Even Baby Jesus seems to have forsaken him (if you remember that Rio is the city which sits beneath the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer then gentle thread running through this novel addressing the role of religion and guilt takes on a more complex hue).

But this is only half the story, for what most of his family and neighbours never witness is Zezé’s generosity and innocence. He looks after his younger brother with immense tenderness and imagination. He works hard to scrape together just enough to buy his unemployed father a packet of cigarettes as a gift.

And yet, despite these acts of kindness, people continue to believe Zezé is a good-for-nothing. When Zezé strikes up an unlikely friendship with the owner of a car he has long admired, you’ll find yourself rooting for the possibility that this might just be a turning point in poor Zezé’s life.

This semi-autobiographical novel (in the same way that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books are also fictionalised accounts of the author’s childhood) is full of hope and harsh realities. Ultimately a story about coming to terms with how difficult life can be, its humour and compassion will ensure charming, resilient Zezé and his enormous imagination find a place in your heart.

Touched and intrigued by My Sweet Orange Tree I approached its translator, Alison Entrekin to find out more about her work as a translator and to ask her advice on what other Brazilian children’s literature I should look out for.

Alison first become aware of different languages and the joy of moving between them in the mid 90s, when she first visited Brazil. She had studied creative writing at university in Australia but then decided to try to marry her two passions – languages and literature – by studying translation in São Paulo, with the intention of becoming a literary translator.

I love puzzles and words, and translation – especially literary translation – is basically just a big word puzzle. It appeals to the child in me. When I find the perfect word for something, I clap my hands and text the word to close colleagues, and dance around like a child.

It also appeals to the detective in me. I like to get to the bottom of things, examine them from all angles, shake them down to try and get at the truth of them. I’m quite stubborn. I don’t let go until I’m convinced I’ve fully understood something. It’s a trait that stands me in good stead, especially now that I am doing a new translation of the most difficult book of my life: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, by João Guimarães Rosa, which is akin to translating James Joyce into another language.

That definitely sounds like a challenge! So what process does Alison go through when translating a book? Is it basically the same process for each book or does it vary?

“It varies quite a lot, to be honest. But some things remain constant. I always read a book first, because I read very differently as a reader and as a translator. The translator in me sits around dwelling on things. The reader breezes through, and so I think has a more realistic sense of the book. There are things we take in our stride when reading but that are a headache to translate.

Then, more often than not, I do a rough draft of the whole thing, consult the author about things, research others on the internet and in dictionaries, compare it once more to the original to check for errors, and then revise it a few more times in English alone. But there are some books that I translate on a chapter-by-chapter basis, sending each new chapter to the author while I start work on the next one. And with extremely difficult books, I invite a close colleague to critique my translation during the revision process.”

Having a helpful colleague to critique the translation in progress is understandably useful, but I ask what other tools or techniques Alison uses to get under the skin of her translations.

My tools are basically anything that can help me solve something. With the translation I am doing now – of a book written in language that is half made-up, half prospected from the mouths of backlanders – I’m using a number of dictionaries, specialized and general, I look for rhymes in Rhyme Zone, I’m reading the author’s correspondence with his original translators in the 1950s and 60s, and on the side I’m reading authors in English who write in dialect to see how they handle things. I’m also planning a trip to the backlands of Brazil, where the book is set.

When I interviewed Latvian translator Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini it was clear that quite a lot of her role also involved suggesting titles ripe for translation to publishers. But for Alison, this plays a smaller role in her job:

I have suggested authors to publishers, some of which have subsequently been published by them. But most of what I translate is commissioned. I find that agents do the job of suggesting books to publishers better than I do, and I prefer to focus my energy on the work at hand. If ever I find myself between books, however, I will certainly go back to suggesting things.”
And talking of suggesting things, what children’s books already translated from (Brazilian) Portuguese can Alison recommend to me?

This is tricky, because not many Brazilian children’s books have been published in translation, and the ones I know are the ones I’ve translated myself. So, my selection of favourites is limited to Fuzz McFlops by Eva Furnari and My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, both published by Pushkin Press – although My Sweet Orange Tree is equally as much a book for adults.
And what about a couple of not-yet-translated Brazilian books Alison would like to see in English?

Fabulous Lists, by Eva Furnari, is one of my favourites, and has been a winner with every child I’ve ever read it to. I also loved the award-winning Elbubb’s Wind, by João Luiz Guimarães, one of the most creative and delicate children’s books I have ever read, about the importance of thinking for oneself.

These both sound great, and I hope a publisher is listening!

My thanks go to Alison for taking part in our interview, and to Pushkin Press for the review copy of My Sweet Orange Tree

With this post I’m taking part in Gathering Books’ Literary Voyage Around The World Reading Challenge 2018. So far, for this challenge I’ve read books from Finland, Latvia and Spain, Mexico and now also from Brazil.

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