Adam Morris on Brazilian Literature in Translation

The volumes below are a selection from some of the most important works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Brazilian literature available in translation. Although the titles are mostly rather conservative and canonical choices, they nevertheless indicate the diversity of the Brazilian experience: writers of Afro-Brazilian, Jewish, Syrian, and Russian émigré heritage appear together with a landed heiress from a família quatrocentona—the Brazilian analog to a family that traces its heritage to the Mayflower. Thus far the American publishing industry has stuck cautiously by the Brazilian canon. But interest in Brazil and its literary history have grown considerably over the past decade, and some exciting new translation projects are in the works. For those just beginning an exploration of Brazilian literature, here are my recommendations for where to start.

The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1881)

Translated by Gregory Rabassa (Oxford, 1998)

A Chapter of Hats: Selected Stories by Machado de Assis

Translated by John Gledson (Bloomsbury, 2009)

Although his later novel Dom Casmurro (1899) is usually considered Machado’s masterpiece, I’m partial to Brás Cubas. This edition was translated by the great Gregory Rabassa, whose passing was mourned in the translation community last year. As the title suggests, Brás narrates his memoirs from the beyond the grave. The novel owes a lot to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Rabassa capably renders Machado’s wit and wordplay, as well as the famously bittersweet sense of humor that later formed the emotional core of Dom Casmurro. But whereas the latter takes up universal themes of love, doubt, and betrayal, Brás Cubas is a mordant social critique of the late nineteenth-century Brazilian Empire: a colonial monarchy created by an accident of history when the Portuguese royals fled Napoleon’s armies in 1808. Machado sets satire loose upon the dusty social conventions of an archaic aristocracy marooned in the New World. But unlike the Europeans he admired, Machado literally had skin in the game: he was an Afro-Brazilian living in a society that until 1888 still held slaves.

For American readers thrilled by the discovery of “hidden” masters of the short story—writers who, like Lucia Berlin and Clarice Lispector, were until recently either out of print or unavailable in translation—I recommend John Gledson’s collection of Machado’s stories, A Chapter of Hats. They’re pearls of the form.

Bedeviled in the Badlands by João Guimarães Rosa (1956)

translated by Alison Entrekin (KNOPF, Forthcoming)

 Grande sertão: veredas is often cited as the crown jewel of twentieth-century Brazilian literature. The novel takes place in the sertão, a term for the wild and sparse backlands that the Brazilian national government struggled to bring under state control well into the twentieth century. The narration begins when Riobaldo Tatarana, a former jagunço, or backcountry outlaw, is approached by an unnamed “doctor,” perhaps a sociologist, while shooting practice rounds in the scrub. He proceeds to tell his life story: a grand, elliptical, and violent narrative of life as an outlaw in the Brazilian badlands. Intertwined with Riobaldo’s saga of warring gangs is the story of his love for Diadorim, a fellow jagunço. Riobaldo’s speech gestures to the rich diversity of Brazilian oral language, which in some regions retains the folk Scholastic metaphors that seventeenth-century priests used to sermonize to the locals in areas colonized by Jesuit missionaries. Guimarães Rosa spoke and read more than a dozen languages, and allusions to numerous linguistic heritages and to the Western canon, from Dante to José de Alencar, are embedded in the novel. It’s often said that Grande sertão: veredas is impossible to translate. In fact, James Taylor, author of the most definitive Portuguese-English dictionary, collaborated with Harriet de Onís on a translation in 1963. It wasn’t very well received. Alison Entrekin, the veteran of such heroic translation projects as Paulo Lins’s City of God (Black Cat/Grove, 2006), has a second translation of Grande sertão in the works. Entrekin published an excerpt of her translation in Words Without Borders in July 2016, and if this preview is reliable indication of the end result, readers should be sure to keep an eye out for the final cut.

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (1973)

Translated by Stefan Tobler (New Directions, 2012)

Machado’s short stories set an early high bar for Brazilian writers to follow, and one who took up the gauntlet was Clarice Lispector. Her Complete Stories were translated by Katrina Dodson and published in 2015 by New Directions to well-deserved critical acclaim. Lispector was a master of the story. But my favorite works are her late novels, beginning with A paixão Segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G. H., 1964). It’s tough to pick just one to recommend, but it’s just as hard to go wrong. Readers who enjoy a jolt to their senses might begin with Água viva, Lispector’s most formally radical novel. The poetic speaker who narrates the novel is a painter who describes her endeavors in writing as literary “chamber music” and her attempt to apprehend the “it” of existence. The results are stunning.

Ancient Tillage by Raduan Nassar (1975)

Translated by Karen C. Sherwood Sotelino (Penguin Modern Classics, 2015 & New Directions, 2017)

In addition to his work on Lispector’s Água viva, Stefan Tobler has published a translation of another Brazilian masterpiece, Raduan Nassar’s novella A Cup of Rage. Nassar’s work is legendary in Brazil, but has only recently appeared in English translation; A Cup of Rage was published by Penguin Modern Classics alongside my fourth recommendation: Nassar’s only novel, Ancient Tillage. Nassar is a more classically Brazilian writer than Lispector, in the sense that his themes are deeply rooted in the land and in a particularly Brazilian experience. Ancient Tillage is narrated by a young epileptic named André who has run away from the suffocating environment of his family’s farm, where tradition dictates he remain. André flees the shame of his condition, as well as his sexual desire for his sister. These are old tropes, but handled with incredible sensitivity to the poetry of the natural world, and to the deep melancholy sometimes bound into family ties. Nassar only published for a few years before retiring to his own farm in the countryside, perplexing Brazilian readers who understandably wanted more. Despite his restricted output, Nassar has remained a haunting presence in twentieth-century Brazilian literature by virtue of the sheer genius of his prose: it’s dense and heavily metaphorical, quickly paced but also anchored to the land.

The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst (1982)

translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo (Nightboat, 2012)

The year 2012 was a great year for Brazilian literature in translation. Not only did New Directions start releasing its new translations of Lispector’s later novels, but Nightboat Books began publishing the first of its three-book series of works by Hilda Hilst. The Obscene Madame D is considered by literary scholars and many of Hilst’s devotees to be her prose masterpiece, so it made sense that it would be the first book-length translation of Hilst into English. The poet Nathanaël, who collaborated in the translation, is a remarkable writer in her own right, and has conducted innovative experiments in self-translation. This translation of Madame D to English was accomplished, as I understand it, by using French as an intermediary language. By 1981-82, the year when she wrote Madame D, Hilst had already become one of Brazil’s most decorated poets. Her prose has always reflected this initial training and preference: as she seeks meaning in her desolation, Madame D’s language is probing, precise, and devastating. The translation nails it.

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas (2007)

translated by Hilary Kaplan (Phoneme Media, 2014)

Brazilian poetry in translation is a rare find indeed, so I’m pleased to be able to share some (relatively) recent verse on the list. Angléica Freitas’s poems in Rilke Shake are playful and erudite, sonorous and grounded—and sometimes very funny. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas make cameos, to great comic effect. Freitas’s sardonic and wise voice is strong throughout. It’s a rare accomplishment, published in a splendid bilingual edition.

Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub (2011)

translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Other Press, 2011)

Michel Laub is one of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation in Brazil, and his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, hardly requires introduction. Diary of the Fall is narrated by a middle-aged Jewish Brazilian who looks back on his four decades of life to try to make sense of a traumatic childhood event. It’s a story of fathers and sons, of diaspora and isolation, of the cruelties of youth, and of the inevitability of fate. Laub’s style isn’t really my cup of tea, but I’ll recommend Diary of the Fall to readers who may have enjoyed Alejandro Zambra, the Chilean writer whose works have recently found substantial acclaim in the United States. Laub is only now in mid-career, and his American fans can safely expect to see more of his work in translation.


Attention, publishers: could someone please step up to commission a translation of Hilda Hilst’s O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby (1991)? It’s an ingeniously naughty kick to the hornet’s nest of child sexuality taboos, and a simultaneous thrashing of middlebrow literary values. Hilst caustically described it as “porno-chic.”

Another writer richly deserving translation is Nuno Ramos, a celebrated sculptor and acclaimed author of several volumes of experimental fiction, prose poetry, and verse. I published an excerpt of his book Ravensbread (O pão do corvo, 2001) in the Buenos Aires Review, and Krista Brune published an excerpt from his book Ó (2010) in Asymptote. Indie publishers: get on it!

ADAM MORRIS is a writer and translator in San Francisco. His translations have appeared in BOMB, The Buenos Aires Review, and n+1. He is the translator of Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House, 2014), and of two novellas by João Gilberto Noll: Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines, 2016) and Atlantic Hotel (Two Lines, 2017). He received a PEN/Heim grant for his forthcoming translation of Beatriz Bracher’s novel I Didn’t Talk (New Directions, 2018).