João Gilberto Noll is well-known in his native Brazil as a highly prolific writer famous for publishing two short stories a week from 1998 to 2001, for his haunting novels, and for having won the prestigious Prêmio Jabuti (the “tortoise” prize) six times. Despite his prestige in Latin America, Noll remains relatively obscure this far North.
San Francisco-based Two Lines Press, whose mission is to publish works by authors relatively unknown to American readers, recently released the first English translation of Noll’s 1991 novel Quiet Creature on the Corner (QCOTC). The novel follows the story of an unemployed poet thrown into jail for rape. Expecting to serve out his sentence, he is inexplicably released into the care of a man named Kurt, and is taken to a manor in the countryside where his every need is cared for as he writes poems and reflects. This strange and surreal tale pushes the boundaries of form and reality with its cinematic imagery and fluid action. Although it is a slender book, it is one that leaves a lasting impression on the consciousness.
Adam Morris is the translator behind QCOTC. His work on Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst earned him the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He published a translation of Hilst’s 1986 novel With My Dog-Eyes in 2014. His translation of Noll’s 1989 novel Hotel Atlântico will be released by Two Lines in the Spring of 2017. I was thrilled to talk to Adam about his work on QCOTC, the act of translation, and what drew him to Noll’s fascinating prose.
Adam Morris and I corresponded over email.
The Rumpus: In addition to being a translator, you’re also a writer.
Adam Morris: Yes. I primarily write nonfiction. Research, reflection, and spending time with ideas are important to me. So, this is how I spend most of my time writing—in thought.
Rumpus: How does your translation work affect your writing?
Morris: The fiction I’ve written and published is certainly inflected by the work of authors I was reading or translating at the time. One of my methods for developing my own voice in fiction, a process I am taking very slowly and deliberately, is through these very intense encounters with certain writers. I will read several works by a single writer in succession and then hear their diction in my sentences when I speak to friends or write long emails. Strength and power in fiction is being able to resist these intoxicating voices, recognizing that they are the signatures of other writers and not one’s own. To bring the conversation back to Noll, this is what I find so entrancing about his work: it is unmistakably his.
Rumpus: Where did your interest in Latin American literature originate?
Morris: The main reason I decided to study Latin American literature was because I’d gotten somewhat bored by the American fiction I was reading.
Rumpus: Do you find yourself drawn towards a certain aesthetic in Latin American literature?
Morris: I am not drawn to a specific style or aesthetic. When I think about literature, I think about it in the three languages I read easily (English, Spanish, and Portuguese). The authors I prefer are all very different and are not limited to certain genres or even certain time periods. Reading across three languages is a way for me to diversify my intake as a reader, not to tunnel into certain categories or demographics.
Rumpus: How did you hone your translation skills?
Morris: By doing.
Rumpus: Do you have a kind of code when it comes to translation? By which I mean: do you follow a certain set of rules, or does each author require that you throw out the rules and start over again?
Morris: I have a few minor rules for myself but I break them all the time. For example, when translating from Romance languages to English, there is often a choice between a Latinate cognate and a Germanic equivalent. An easy example would be the Portuguese escuridão: English offers both obscurity and dark or darkness, and some translators will tell you the Latinate word is generally reserved for poetic and figurative expressions, while the Germanic word is used for colloquial and idiomatic use. As with any rule of thumb, it would be idiotic to let this over determine my decisions. Sometimes there are also near-miss cognates that work better than a direct translation even when they’re not technically accurate. English can be tricky because there are so many false cognates, but sometimes, as long the idea conveyed is not wrong, these false cognates can themselves offer synonyms or lead to a better alternative word or phrase.
Rumpus: How did you come to translating Noll?
Morris: I have high regard for Noll’s work. I’d first encountered and written about Noll in the academic context. A few years into my graduate study, I translated Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes. By the time that translation was published, Hilst was already gaining traction in the United States thanks to two fantastic translations that Nightboat Books had released in 2012 and 2014: The Obscene Madame D, translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo; and Letters from a Seducer, translated by John Keene.
With My Dog-Eyes got more exposure and reached far more readers than I ever expected. Even my editor at Melville House, who championed the project form the outset, told me she was surprised by the response. After this, editors began asking my opinion about which Latin American writers ought to be translated. I realized I had some cultural capital to spend, and I wanted to use it to introduce another author who might be considered a risk by conventional publishers. Noll was at the top of my list.
Once I looked into it, I was taken aback to learn that pretty much nothing by Noll was available in English translation. Two of his novels, Hotel Atlântico and Harmada, were translated by David Treece for a UK university publisher, Boulevard Books, in 1997. As far as I know, those editions never made it across the Atlantic and were not widely distributed. They’ve long been out of print.
I was confident that I could find an editor and the readership for a translation: Noll is highly respected in Brazil, and at the same time divisive, somewhat like Hilda Hilst. Neither of them enjoys the universal acclaim you might associate with Clarice Lispector, whom everyone adores, myself included. Still, I considered it a tremendous injustice that Noll had not been more widely translated and was determined to rectify it.
Rumpus: Why do you think Noll has yet to be widely translated? Is it the difficulty of his prose?
Morris: No. This neglect of a very important Brazilian writer is, in my view, the result of Brazil’s relative isolation from what metropolitan tastemakers. If Noll were writing in French or German or even Russian, it’s likely he’d be more broadly translated.
Rumpus: How do you approach a text that’s as psychedelic as QCOTC? I’m particularly interested in how you negotiate the dreamy sections.
Morris: I am surprised by the word psychedelic. Noll does not accept realism in a straightforward way, but I am more inclined to call Quiet Creature a realist text than I am to call it a psychedelic one. The transcendent aspect of the psychedelic experience is totally absent. There are certainly some surreal images, however—for instance, when the narrator is in the car with Kurt listening to Bach on the tape deck, he pictures a slumbering lumberjack cradling his ax. The narrator’s blurry demarcation of dreams from waking life is part of his passive resistance to and questioning of what constitutes his reality: Is reality what appears in his poetry? Is it what happens in his dreams? Or is it the listless and “shitty” life that he was dealt?
Dreamlike sequencing is perhaps one of Noll’s most remarkable triumphs in Quiet Creature on the Corner. I translated the novel and still it remains a mystery as to how exactly how this works. Noll thinks more like an experimental filmmaker than a novelist. This makes his writing very pleasing to read: Noll pays attention to detail, but only to certain details. And it’s never easy to foresee which details will send the narrator or the plot in an unsuspected direction. There is a druggy affect to this mode of narration: maybe this is what you meant by psychedelic.
Rumpus: Yes, I believe so. Do you read other works by the author before you begin translating the work at hand? Or do you take each book as a separate artifact, requiring its own concerns outside the greater body of work?
Morris: I only translate authors whose work already interests me as a reader, and that’s a decision I make based on multiple encounters with an author’s work.
Rumpus: Have you been to Brazil?
Morris: Yes, I have been to Brazil.
Rumpus: Is there something of the country’s flavor in Noll’s writing that is imbued in the text?
Morris: Unless you count the political backdrop, which in any case is a familiar one to many international readers, I don’t think there’s anything that I would call essentially Brazilian in his work. In that regard, it translates very well to a cosmopolitan audience. This touches on a common misconception about Brazilian cultural production that I would like to address, one that actually relates to all Latin American literature: that is, not every author is interested in being a representative of his or her national culture on the global stage. In his well-known essay “El escritor argentino y la tradición,” Borges cites Gibbon as claiming that the Arab text par excellence, the Koran, does not mention camels. This is not true, and Borges is inaccurately recalling Gibbon, who says only, in relation to milk preferences, that Mohammad does not mention camels in the Koran. But that is beside his point, which is that writers who are from a place that metropolitan readers consider to have an exotic or colorful culture are not obliged to comment upon or romanticize that culture or exploit its trappings. Why should they?
Borges was lamenting a variety of Orientalism that was used to measure the alleged authenticity of Argentine and Latin American writers in the midcentury. The Argentine literary tradition was believed by many, including many Argentines, to be concerned with a national imaginary in which the gauchos and the pampas and the tango were fundamental tropes. Borges, in part to legitimize his own Europhilia, correctly pointed out that expecting writers to engage with these romantic nationalist tropes was arbitrary and limiting, a genre that was demonstrative of its own artificiality. He had the soapbox and the authority to complain about this myopic understanding of the duty of Latin American writers, which sometimes forecloses their unique modernism and experience of modernization in favor of a mythic past or an artificially constructed ideal national subject. So likewise in Noll, readers shouldn’t expect samba and Carnival and futebol. The Brazilian national identity is not one of his primary concerns. This does not mean social critique is absent: race, gender, and class relations are considered in Quiet Creature. And these are universal relational matters, not necessarily particular to any country. Some critics have commented that understanding the specific Brazilian political context of the novel is helpful for reading Quiet Creature. This may be true, but it’s not prerequisite for understanding it.
Rumpus: Did you speak with Noll during the translation process?
Morris: Not really. Noll is a writer, and I’ll leave him to that. There were a few queries that I had for him at the conclusion of my first draft, and he was kind enough to answer them. But I am not one of those translators who think that working closely with the writer will yield the best translation.
Rumpus: What about Noll’s style did you find couldn’t, or wouldn’t translate? Is there anything inherent in his writing that refuses translation?
Morris: One thing that brought me joy as I translated this text was the narrator’s voice, which carries with it all the irregularities and unevenness of an adolescent mind. He is an aspiring poet, so sometimes his tropes or descriptions are exquisite. Other times they are clumsy or ugly. And just as often as the narrator appears to be mentally and morally adrift, he is also capable of sharp snares of wit that recall Nietzsche. I am hoping none of this is lost in translation.