Greatest Women in Translation: Alison Entrekin

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After a one-month break, welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series! I assure you it was worth the wait.

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, the great Alison Entrekin, acclaimed literary translator from Brazilian Portuguese into English (nominated by Diane Whitty).

Alison Entrekin

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1. You were actually a professional dancer! What made you change careers and become a translator?

I hurt my sciatic nerve dancing and had to give it a rest. So I went to university to study Creative Writing, because it was the only other thing I liked doing. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was learning Portuguese, that I decided to study translation with the intention of becoming a literary translator.

2. According to Guilherme Sobota (Estadão), you are one of most popular translators when it comes to contemporary Brazilian literature in English. You have already translated Paulo Lins, Daniel Galera, Chico Buarque, and Fernanda Torres, to name but a few well-known Brazilian authors. You are currently retranslating My Sweet Orange Tree (Meu Pé de Laranja Lima), by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, and will start Grande Sertão: Veredas soon. What are /were the challenges of translating such famous works?

Every work comes with its own set of challenges and they’re usually not what you expect them to be. Sometimes it’s the syntax, like in Cristovão Tezza’s The Eternal Son, which is very Brazilian and seems to resist translation into English; or the vocabulary, like in Paulo Lins’s City of God, which is very colloquial and born of a reality that has no direct equivalent in an English-speaking country. Adriana Lisboa’s writing is very poetic, and I spend a long time trying to find the right balance and flow for her sentences in English. With retranslations, there is the issue of the previous translation being either dated or unsatisfactory in some way, and I feel an unspoken obligation to somehow make the new translation work in ways that the previous one didn’t.

3. Which book did you enjoy translating the most and which did you find the most challenging? In both cases, why?

Budapest by Chico Buarque, for the intense word-play, which is incredibly hard to reproduce, but so much fun. The most difficult to date was Tezza’s The Eternal Son. His sentences are long and winding, with many asides, and English just doesn’t have the grammatical flexibility to pack so much information into a single sentence and still sound natural. But I am sure that my next project, a retranslation of João Guimarães Rosa’s 1956 classic, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—often likened to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake for its linguistic complexity—will make everything else feel like a walk in the park.

4. In this article you wrote for the Words Without Borders blog regarding your translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas, you mention untranslatability. I frown when people widely share articles with lists of untranslatable words in any given language. I do not believe anything is untranslatable, after all, what would our job consist of if this were true? Can you say a few words on the matter? What is your opinion regarding translatability x untranslatability?

I know what you mean about those lists. They often consist of words that describe culture-specific phenomena, which require a few sentences of explanation. Or words that compound a lot of information, which is easier to do in some languages than in others. Or words that are incredibly versatile—like saudade in Portuguese—and can be used in myriad ways, all of which require different translations in the target language. Perhaps they are better described as words that don’t have a single corresponding word in other languages. But they can be explained, and explanation is a kind of translation.

As for Grande Sertão: Veredas, it is possible to unravel the underlying meaning and translate it into straightforward English (albeit with the loss of many nuances). The 1963 translation does precisely that, but the translators chose not to go the extra mile (or light-year, as the case may be) and reproduce Guimarães Rosa’s linguistic alchemy, with its unique blend of quirky syntax, neologism and regionalism, which is what makes the novel so special. These things have to be reconstructed in the target language in the spirit of the original, because there are no direct equivalents, but it’s still translation, nonetheless. Anything that seeks to convey the message and spirit of something else is a kind of translation.

5. In some interviews you gave you mentioned punctuation as being the most challenging aspect of translating literature (as here). This is the first time I see someone point out punctuation, and not words, cultural aspects, or puns/jokes, as a challenge in translation. Could you please elaborate a bit more on the topic? What is so fascinating, yet challenging, about punctuation?

I think of punctuation as traffic signals in a text, telling readers when to stop, when to go, when there’s a bridge coming up.

But while the rules of punctuation are very similar in Portuguese and English, Brazilians and English speakers often punctuate quite differently. It’s all about usage. Brazilian writers regularly join clauses with commas where we would use full stops (periods) in English, and readers are used to it. It seems to help the flow, whereas it can have the opposite effect in English. When readers of English come across an odd connection between clauses (i.e. a comma instead of a full stop), they tend to stop and go back to try and figure out what they missed. So much for flow. I’m not saying that every time there’s a weird comma, we should use a full stop in the translation, just that a case can be made for this kind of swap in some instances. You have to analyse the context and ask questions: How does this piece flow? Who is speaking? Does this comma cause readers of the translation to pause where readers of the original keeping going? Does it change the rhythm or tone?

Just the other day I had to make a decision about whether or not to italicize foreign words in Chico Buarque’s My German Brother—with the author’s blessing, of course—as they are not italicized in the original. There are passages where the Italian-Brazilian mother says things half in Italian, half in Portuguese, and others where the brother tries to seduce an Argentinean girl in Portunhol (the Portuguese-Spanish equivalent of Spanglish), to name just a few examples. The transition from one Latin language to another is so seamless and natural in the original, but somehow clumsy in English without italics. I eventually came to the conclusion that italics, like punctuation, signal that something different is coming up, like a sign warning of a road bump ahead, and the translation flows better with italics. But it’s all very subjective, and case-specific.

There are days when I don’t agree with myself.

6. When you mention translation, people in general usually think of two things: interpreting and literature. The dream of most translation students is to become a literary translator. However, translating literature is not a bed of roses, as we say in Brazilian Portuguese. It once took you three weeks to translate three pages of a Brazilian literary classic, as you mention in the essay you wrote for WWB Daily (link in question 4). That is equivalent to 57 words a day! What is the advice you would give a student or beginner – or even an experienced translator – who would like to enter the realm of literary translation?

I think everyone needs to find their niche. A friend of mine, who is a legal translator, says she can’t imagine working on a single text for months on end. She will happily turn out several documents a day, and she does it so effortlessly because she knows the terminology back-to-front.

Literary translators, on the other hand, need patience and staying-power. Books have a habit of taking twice as long to translate as you thought they would. Every novel takes you somewhere different and you have to become an overnight expert in subjects you’ve never dealt with before (you invariably discover that your vocabulary is really very poor). I would say to someone starting out in the field: Always ask about the things you aren’t sure of, even if you feel stupid asking. If you can, read your translation out loud, listening for glitches, sense, transitions, alliteration that isn’t supposed to be there. Revise, revise, revise. When in doubt, revise again.

7. Now it is your turn. Who do you nominate to be our next interviewee?

I nominate Sophie Lewis, editor and literary translator from French and Portuguese.


It was a pleasure e-meeting you and learning more about you, Alison. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions for the interview. 🙂

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