Greatest Women in Translation: Alison Entrekin

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Érick Tonin

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

Created with Canva

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. 🙂

Greatest Women in Translation: Diane Grosklaus Whitty

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Diane Grosklaus Whitty, nominated by Kim Olson.


diane-whitty

Created with Canva.

1. How did you get into translation? And what was the importance of co-translating a book by Mário Quintana, a well-known Brazilian author (and also translator), in your early translation years?

I drifted into translation much as I drifted into a 23-year residency in Brazil, cutting short vague plans to pursue an academic career in psycholinguistics. About two years into my ex-pat life, I started committing translations. I say ”committing” because I had no business tackling the task at that point. But it was 1978 and I was a native English speaker in a high-demand market, long before email, the internet, or even personal computers (I used a manual typewriter back then). Today I realize I got very lucky with Mário Quintana’s book: lucky to have been given the assignment and lucky that it didn’t present any major translation challenges, for which I would not have been prepared. Prime rule for a translator: know what you don’t know. I caught on to that over the years, as I took short courses and attended seminars in translation, and as experience hit me aside the head every once in a while. My four-year stint as in-house translator and interpreter for the Australian Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro (1982-86) was a period of intense on-the-job training. By the time the Australian government closed the consulate, I was ready to take the plunge as a full-time free-lancer.

2 The first thing that struck my attention when researching about you to create your questions was the quality of the detailed information one can find on your website, especially your vast portfolio. How important do you think it is for a translator to showcase their portfolio?

I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all formula. If you’re a new translator starting out and don’t have much of a portfolio, spending time and money on a website might not be as important as investing in ATA certification or a new CAT tool. In my case, however, while I don’t have a degree in translation or a master’s in, say, public health, what I do have is vast experience – more years than I actually advertise! So my site serves to showcase my work in a way a resume never would. I actually created it just a year ago. I source over half of my income from direct clients in Brazil and when the real plummeted in late 2015/early 2016, I pulled back from the Brazilian market for a while and devoted my extra time to  designing the site. I’ve gotten little traffic through it (half a dozen certified document translations), but I think it serves its other purpose well. I should point out that only about 10% of my work is for agencies; busy PMs want a neat and tidy resume to tuck away in their virtual file cabinet plus a list of the CAT tools you work with; they won’t take the time to visit a website. But here’s an example of how it works with my direct clients: I was approached last fall by a publisher about a non-fiction book on Zika. In my email reply to her query, I highlighted relevant jobs from my portfolio and pointed the editor to my website, where she could also look at samples of my work in the ”snippets” tab. I can’t confirm that the website made any difference in the fact that I landed the assignment (my current favorite-ever), but having the information neatly laid out somehow made it easier to pitch my skills.

At the same time, whether you want to showcase your portfolio or not, I feel it’s important to maintain one. For years, I used to do this in a simple Word file, plugging the raw data into a table hidden inside a folder on my desktop. The website transformed a dreary act of record-keeping into the chance to see the efforts of my labor on display.

3. You mention your all-time favorite escort interpreting assignment was working for the Australian delegation at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Could you tell us a bit what it was like and why you enjoyed doing it?

I think translators and interpreters are insatiably curious, and this particular assignment gave me glimpses into slices of the world to which I would otherwise not be privy. I sat in while the shadow minister for the environment – a devout Catholic – engaged in an hour-long private conversation with an elderly priest who had been a militant under the dictatorship; I also interpreted for the then-minister of the environment, whose appointments included meeting with a group of street children who were learning sustainable crafts. I was actually a “girl Friday” for the 40 or so members of the delegation, untangling logistic snarls, giving lessons in local culture, and accompanying groups through exhibits and sometimes just around town. Perhaps what I loved most was never knowing which of my language or cultural competency skills might come into play. And the Earth Summit was history – who doesn’t enjoy watching it unfold?

4. Besides having an amazing portfolio, you also showcase some great testimonials, such as “You are like Romário in Brazil. Nobody can replace you,” by a filmmaker, and “you choose the words as I choose the notes when I write an arrangement, very carefully,” by a jazz saxophonist and flautist. Do you think having testimonials help build trust with our potential clients and make them choose us?

Yes, definitely. In a world where ”e-meeting” has become the norm, and where scams are a constant plague, I think testimonials help legitimize your claims and add a personal touch. I’ve drawn most of the testimonials from email exchanges with clients (with their permission), and I have two criteria in mind when deciding what to post. First, I want the comments to mention the qualities and skills that I feel I bring to the job. Second, since the bulk of my work is for direct clients, I give top billing to recognizable names in a given field. So if a scholar or publisher contacts me about a potential job, I can direct them to my site, where they will often recognize a name or two, by reputation or even personally (Brazilian academia is a small world). It helped that I had horded positive feedback over the years in a special file. I recommend it for those days when a job, or a client, has you tearing your hair out and wondering why you ever decided to be a translator – you can take a stroll down memory lane and re-visit some of the clients who make your job a pleasure.

5. Besides having a thorough website not many freelance translators have, you also have a Facebook page, something else not all freelance translators have either (not to mention a rather active ProZ.com profile). And you do share some interesting articles there. How important do you think it is, for freelance translators, to be online?

I don’t consciously seek to maintain an active online presence. In fact, I’m not really a big fan of social media. I created my professional FB page on a whim, but then I found that it forces me to pull my head out of my work and have a little fun. When I left Brazil and returned to the Midwest, in 1999, I started my own little email newsletter for my clients back in Brazil, called ”News of North and South” (a nod to Elizabeth Bishop). It wasn’t focused on translation but on news that might be of interest to my clients – Caetano Veloso’s show in Chicago, my experience with ”return-to-my-native-culture shock,” a US report about something happening in Brazil. It was my excuse to send clients an email and remind them I existed, without directly nagging them for work. I’ve discovered that my FB page works much the same way. I post about translation, language in general, Brazilian literature in translation… and try to keep it light and entertaining. And since it’s FB, I also use it to advertise my accomplishments and pat myself on the back. I automatically repost to my personal FB page, because many of my FB friends are also longtime clients. I can’t say the rewards are all that tangible, but the investment is minimal. Over the years, I’ve learned that big rewards can come from tiny investments.

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

I would like to nominate Alison Entrekin, a force in bringing new voices in Brazilian literature to the world stage. Alison has three skills I greatly admire: a matchless talent for reproducing the Brazilian reader’s experience in English (a way of looking at translation that I’ve learned from her), utmost grace in crafting English prose, and an ability to reflect on the translation process itself – reflections that she generously shares with her colleagues, much to our good fortune.


It was a pleasure to e-meet you, Diane, and to get to know a bit more about you. I really appreciate your taking the time to kindly answer my questions. 🙂

Greatest Women in Translation: Nancy Cristina Martorana

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month’s interviewee is Nancy Cristina Martorana, nominated by Angela Levy.

Welcome, Nancy!


nancy martorana

1. You are American, but moved to Brazil in 1956. Why?
2. Every translator has a different story on how they became a translator. What is yours?

Since the answer to these two questions is interrelated, I will merge my answer.

I came to Brazil with my parents when I was only 10. At the time my Dad was an executive transferred to Brazil from a parent company in the United States. I did my schooling at Escola Graduada de São Paulo, better known as Graded School, and knew early in life that I wanted to pursue a career that involved languages. I had actually been in Brazil before, between the age of 8 months and 16 months, also because my Dad was transferred to Brazil from Romania (where I was born). However, My Dad’s company (ITT) won a bid to install basic infrastructure in Iran (Persia, at the time) and I was to spend the next 3 years in that country. Although it was my first language, I do not remember anything, not even after hearing it spoken by the natives years later. Because of all the countries we moved to, my mother decided to get a French governess, wherever we went to make my language learning more consistent. To make a long story short, I already knew in high school that I wanted to do my college at the translation/interpretation school of Geneva. However, I was rejected because I was too young (minimum age of 18) and had to speak three languages fluently to be accepted. This irritated me immensely to be discriminated, especially because of age. Today, as a teacher, I understand fully – years of experience are needed to pursue a career with any degree of success in translation/interpretation; as I tell my students, layers of knowledge are compacted year after year.

3. Although you teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting at Alumni, you have more experience with simultaneous than with consecutive interpreting. Do you prefer one over the other? If so, why? If not, what do you like and dislike in both?

In addition to consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, there are other oral forms, like intermittent and focus groups. Basically, consecutive requires rephrasing and own-writing-deciphering skills and the others are direct delivery of the language. I find consecutive the most difficult of all forms since it requires notetaking and notereading (your own notes!). I have done a total of 3 consecutive interpretations in my career, and although some people do prefer them (to my great surprise), I think that associative learning (memorization of translated word associations) is easier than rephrasing. However, consecutive training is a good learning method.

4. However, you go even beyond and also translate (both technical texts and books). Do you prefer one over the other (translation x interpretation)? If so, why? If not, what do you like and dislike in both?
5. Do you only translate from Portuguese into English (your mother tongue)? Why don’t you feel comfortable translating into Portuguese, even after living for so long in Brazil?

Again I will merge the two ideas since one leads into the other.

Actually, I do not like technical texts or books. If you consider that any text which is not conversational is technical, including literary texts, then I would have to say that I only like certain technical texts, including literary texts, where the technicality comes in knowing the language perfectly. Then, after a translator has sweated many hours looking up technical terms and can say that he/she has relatively mastered the subject, even though he did not do 5 years of college to learn the terminology, he is comfortable enough to say that he likes technical translation, but, mind you, only in that particular subject that he has mastered. I, for one, love to do cosmetics (actually very technical) because I have been translating its terminology for many years, and, even though I don’t know all the terms, I am comfortable to accept, even welcome, the challenge of finding those I don’t know. On the other hand, I will promptly refer any engineering or equipment maintenance texts to my colleagues who now master and welcome these fields, because of their years of exposure.

Books was the second question and my answer was that I don’t prefer them either. I think it all depends on your customer base. All my customers have short deadlines, and I don’t mean “for yesterday,” but short texts, commonly institutional, that don’t take more than a few days to complete. Because of the fast translation turnover of my customer base, I must give anyone wishing to translate a book a l-o-n-g delivery date, since I must translate the book at the same time as I fulfill the translation needs of my regular customer base. Sometimes it works out, and books authors accept the terms.

Lastly, you broached the issue of translation versus interpretation. This depends on one’s personal vision of one’s career. For example, it is difficult to be a teacher and also available for simultaneous interpreting, because you cannot miss too many classes. I saw many students invited to join the Alumni faculty after they graduated, but, since they were excellent interpreters, and the pay is much different, they chose to pursue a better paying and more personally satisfying career in interpretation, and very rightfully so, since they were very good at a very difficult profession. As for me, I was frustrated at the beginning of my profession by a colleague whom I was practicing my Portuguese (and she, her English) with. After scrutinizing my second translation into Portuguese, she had marked my paper with only a dab of red ink. However, all the joy I felt in seeing the few corrections (mostly commas), were abruptly crushed by the words, “It’s all grammatically correct, but it isn’t Portuguese.” I had failed to realize that Portuguese is very nominal, whereas English is very verbal. Now that I know, I can’t really say that it is too late, because my customer base has always been avid for translations into English, which I was better at than Portuguese, so why sweat it?

It is better to go with what you know!

As for the pay, my students reward me in so many other ways; I embrace teaching with great satisfaction – I love to teach; I found my core in teaching translation/interpretation.

6. You introduced the didactic material of the simultaneous interpretation oral skills segment of Alumni’s Translator and Interpreter Course and are responsible for updating it throughout the years. In your opinion, what topics should every interpretation course cover?

Yes, when Alumni added another day to its course to cover oral skills like simultaneous interpretation, I and the teacher responsible for “the other way around,” namely from English to Portuguese, asked how we should put together this course, what should be given. The answer we received was whatever and however we thought best. After many, many, many hours of toilsome thought, I decided that the best place to start was filling in the gaps of what was needed in the original Alumni course (creating a glossary based on the pertinent terminology of the interpretation job) and this led to organizing and managing the target of oral delivery. As mentioned before, I prefer associative learning (memorizing basic translation associations) to what I would call a “philosophical” didactic approach, but admittedly with tips on how to enhance delivery of the know-how.

Updating? Always, since language lives and breathes, always changing and updating itself. We translators must keep abreast.

Topics? Those that all translations and interpretation require, i.e., all involve some degree of marketing, management, economics and business. No matter what the topic, these are always addressed, because we are taking about companies that want to make money selling their wares. Apart from these, interpreters must know a little (or perhaps a lot!, but a little is good for starters, and experience provides the lots) of everything, because one never knows when a lecturer will make an example from a totally different field, or cite a current event from today’s newspaper. We interpreters always have to stay on our toes. For those more interested in literary translations (I would say that you practically have to choose between one or the other), the prerequisite is definitely knowing one’s own language. Even with all my college English and reading, and the many layers of knowledge that I have accumulated over the years, I could never equal this with the same dose in Portuguese, never! Moreover, I have to constantly update myself in my own language, as it lives and breathes at a heartbeat that I passionately desire to grasp.

7. Now it’s your turn. Who do you nominate as our next great woman in translation?

I would have to say it is Elenice Araujo. Hopefully she will accept.


And she has! 😀 Thank you, Nancy, for accepting Angela Levy’s nomination and my invitation, and for kindly taking the time to answer my questions. It was a pleasure to e-meet you!