An Interview with Karen Sotelino [#WITMonth]

For today’s Women in Translation post, we’re going to highlight a female translator, Karen Sherwood Sotelino. Sotelino translates from Portuguese and has worked on a couple incredibly big names in Brazilian literature—Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis and Raduan Nassar.

A few years back, she gave this interview with Luciana Carvalho. The whole thing is worth checking out, but here are a couple highlights:

CARVALHO: We last saw each other during your talk in the Translation Matters series at Stanford. I cannot help but start with a question that draws not only on the name of the series, but also on the title of Edith Grossman’s book: Why translation matters. However, the question has a slight twist, because I would like to focus on Karen Sotelino, the translator: Why does translation matter—to you? Or what is—to you—the meaning of translation? How has it shaped your life?

SOTELINO: Your mention of Edith Grossman’s book is, I think, a good departure point. She said, “Where literature exists, translation exists;” another way to think about why translation matters is to think about why reading, and reading fiction in particular matters. There has been a significant amount of recent research in psychology analyzing the question of the role the imagination and empathy play in our society, especially by Alison Gopnik at UC Berkeley. It so happens that ability to imagine, and to empathize has been linked to other forms of intelligence. If we can think of reading fiction as a form of honing our imagination and our ability to empathize, translating literature, and/or comparing works in more than one language is reading at its most complex level. And, of course the ability to reach into another culture through language has been enormously fulfilling. My Bachelor’s degree was in International Relations—political science, economics, French and Italian. It took me several years to realize that the language component of my studies had truly been the most useful, had offered me the most insight. Over the nearly 20 years I lived in Brazil, I had the opportunity to meet people from very different segments of society: business, art, education, and of course, the marginalized. Truthfully, it wasn’t my degree in International Relations from Stanford that facilitated so many situations; it was my ability with language. Obviously a translator should have other interests, and every single great translator I have ever known does, in fact, have other passions. But the love of language, the ability to communicate in another language is what makes a translator. I felt extremely fortunate when I was invited to teach translation at Associação Alumni in São Paulo, to be able to share my ideas on the importance of language and communication . . . because, as I mentioned, my sense is that language is integral to empathy and imagination. So translation has taken that role in my life, a means through which to express my, shall we say, more philosophical ideas. [. . .]

CARVALHO: During your talk at Stanford, you actually shared samples of your work on Resurrection and Ancient Tillage, and reflected on them. You even showed a wonderful photograph of one or two of the pages of Lavoura Arcaica full of notes in the margins, the pages were indeed extensively glossed by you. How often to do you take notes on the original? What do you usually consider worthy of notes? And when teaching translation, do you share your own process? How else do you foster students’ reflectivity?

SOTELINO: I think each translator has their own system. I usually describe my process as “hearing” the translation. When I start reading a novel, I plan to translate, I spontaneously hear it in English. But that process gets interrupted when there is a word I don’t recognize. Or a situation I might be unsure of. In the case of Machado de Assis, something as simple as location can throw one off. Think about this: a conversation that takes place in the garden might have a different tone than one that takes place in the living room. The same conversation might be different if there were someone else present. So as I’m reading or translating, I might create two different versions of the same conversation—later I go back to situate the dialogue. In the case of Raduan Nassar, there were many vocabulary words that he had used in unusual manners, which is of course typical of great authors. They bring language to life. But for the translator it is risky—we have to bring language to life but in a way that readers accept. Otherwise, it’s “kill the messenger.” I’m somewhat cautious about sharing my own process with students because I know that translating is a very individual exercise, like painting or singing . . . What I do tell them is to respect the original text, ask themselves why an author has chosen to express an idea in a certain way, to choose one vocabulary word over another, and to keep in mind that the author has had the same choices they, as translators, have. So if the author uses an unusual word, don’t use a cliché!

CARVALHO: Finally, when you are translating, and as an accomplished and seasoned translator, what are the translation theories that most often come to your mind? In what kinds of situations do you feel the need to tap translation theory when you are translating? How eclectic are they? And how significant are they to your work? Will you be sharing some of this in your forthcoming book on literary translation, practice and theory?

SOTELINO: Well . . . I sometimes think about the issue of domesticating. It’s funny, because I do not consider myself a very innovative translator—in the sense of creating a text in English that will read so foreign that readers will be alienated. But I have found over the years that I do feel strongly that the originality of Portuguese language literature must be recorded in English. I am currently working on a Portuguese author, Raul Brandão, who wrote before Virginia Woolf, and whose stream of consciousness and vague narrative voice are extremely innovative. In the process of copy-editing, I’ve had to be somewhat stubborn! How can I homogenize such a creative voice? And why should I? To make him conform to some preconceived notion of what a Portuguese language author should sound like? So the timeless question of the belles infidèles does come up in my mind. I really try to make my translations both belles and fidèles. Otherwise, I must admit, I am far more influenced by linguistic theory than translation theory. Saussure’s description of sign, signifier and signified seems to me crucial to approaching translation. The translator must understand that each reader will create their own image, or sign. I am very influenced by Voloshinov, who theorized that language is not neutral, that every speech act, every word carries different connotations for different readers/listeners. Umberto Eco describes the “deep story” that the translator must respect, that is, the translator should bear in mind the fundamental message of the author in order to choose the register, vocabulary and atmosphere of the text. Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of “making strange,”that is, re-representing works of art in new environments is another theory I’ve found useful. And Walter Benjamin, who, in “The Task of the Translator,” talks about the importance of translators reading between the lines, has been fundamental. He claimed that translation is the language of philosophers—that the translated text reveals the hidden meanings behind originals. Perhaps that goes too far, but one must look for one’s friends while facing the lonely endeavor of literary translation. These theorists in a sense guide me, if only subliminally. My book is based on their work. I look at literary prose in translation, and I study what is missing, where there are differences between the original and the translation. Guess what? It turns out that in most cases, what is missing from a literary translation is crucial to the original text. For example, I translated a novel by a Portuguese author who was very fond of using the indeterminate “-se” structure, which in English, as you know, can be translated as “I,” “we,” and “one.” This is standard fare from Portuguese to English, I mean this sort of difficulty. But what happens when we ask ourselves why a particular author used such a structure? When did they use it, at what point in the work? Such is also the case with Machado de Assis’s polysemic usage—difficult to translate and leading to discrepancies between the several translators of his major works. In my book I look at these discrepancies in the context of language philosophy.

Again, the whole interview can be found here.

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