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The Portuguese writer Clara Paulino thought she’d never find another language that could express the depth and nuance of her experience.  And then she did:

A few months ago I made the momentous discovery that I can write in English.

Strange discovery, one might say, given that I have lived “in English” for the past seven years and teach Art History to American students. Yet it was the sound of Portuguese that welcomed me into this world, and English is not even my second language. I was introduced to it at the rather late age of fourteen in Porto, Portugal by the intensely British Ms. Symington, who started every class by frightening us. “Picture each word as a scalding hot potato,” she’d say with glee.

In spite of years living in different countries, I never felt confused. Other languages did very well for most things, but only in the warm diphthongs of Portuguese could my inner self step onto the page – or so I thought. The creative impulse, too elusive even for Freud, must surely resist anything foreign to the earliest experiences!

For years I filled page after page with cedillas, tildes and circumflexes (Portuguese on the page resembles a cross between words and music), publishing widely in books and magazines.  Then I moved to the States to teach at a university in South Carolina. Suddenly I fell into a state of linguistic confusion and creative paralysis. “Why don’t you just translate your Portuguese stories?” asked my American friends.

But I couldn’t.  It is tricky to put anything other than a short note into a new system. A language has a peculiar, slightly odd (to unaccustomed eyes) geography, archeology, even time. It swells into hyperbolic mountains, retreats into timid valleys, blends deserts and forests in disconcerting oxymora – all in its own inimitable way; it lives on layers of semantic sediments; it stretches and contracts in rhythms as varied as the rumba and the waltz. A language breathes like an animal and winds its way towards meaning like a plant towards the sun.

If a word is planted in foreign soil, it either dies or adapts – and adaption is only another word for change. Good translators know this. They look at each word from different angles and consider all the contexts while looking for the right niche to move it into. It is painstaking, often thankless work because so much of it is invisible.

Publishers want the book out, and it needs to be readable, but does “O poeta é um fingidor/Finge tão completamente/Que chega a fingir que é dor/A dor que deveras sente — by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa –really mean “The poet is a faker/Who’s so good at his act/He even fakes the pain/Of pain he feels in fact (published translation)?  Not quite.

“Not quite” is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am for the translation of texts, all texts, from memos to Shakespeare. The idea of not reading Tolstoy because Russian is a closed book to me is frightening. But I wish I could read it in Russian not only to hear its time, including the silences between the words, but its sounds too. Sound is important; sound carries landscapes on its fluttering wings, and at least for me, reading is listening. Anna Karenina in the original language conjures up a world imaginatively and sensually so different from that of any other version! Language conveys so much more than plot that, to be good, translators have to be magicians.

And though I have translated other people’s work – rarely, and with the utmost reverence – my magic tricks fail abysmally when I try to translate my own work. Sentences turn and twist in the oddest directions, and soon a text is born that carries the original only as memory. Exasperating, yes – but also a reminder that meaning is more than semantics, that it rests in form more than one could ever imagine.

So it was indeed momentous discovery when I found that places and characters came to life in English as mysteriously and miraculously as they do for me in Portuguese. I realized how well I know this language now, how lovely it is to explore its wild and secret places, how capably it translates my foreign experience.

Clara Paulino was born in Portugal and educated in England, Germany and the U.S. She has degrees in English and German Literature, and a Ph.D. in Art History, and has taught at universities in Portugal and the U.S. In Portugal she wrote articles for various magazines as well as Danças com Gémeos, a fictionalized memoir of a professional woman raising twin girls.  She has worked as a freelance translator and interpreter and is currently editing a 19th-century Women’s Travel Writing Series for the London publishers Pickering & Chatto. She is also working on a memoir about growing up in a nation under Fascism.

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Anna Karenina is more than 800 pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many 300-page books?

Anna KareninaAs I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. He often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense – a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk – which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is fairly easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’d be tempted to put it down, but then I’d riffle ahead to find that the next chapter was only three pages long.

Three pages – I can do that. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door …

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DSCN7684When you’re working on a novel, not writing is part of the writing process.  At least that’s what I told myself today.  It was a gorgeously mild and sunny day — Memorial Day; the park across the street from our house was filled with people biking, strolling, and listening to a military band that played for hours.  (The music wafted across the pond: muted patriotism.)  The kids were home from school, milling aimlessly around the house, and eventually I abandoned all thought of work and took them to a lake for the afternoon, where I sat in an Adirondack chair and read Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s exacting descriptions — his careful parsing of behaviors and attitudes, woven gracefully into the narrative — made me think of my own character, a 90-year-old woman with complicated responses to and relationships with everyone around her.  From Tolstoy I am learning (re-learning; I read this novel once before, in my early twenties) how to give an omniscient narrator immediacy and warmth.  And I wonder about the perspective I’m employing in my own novel-in-progress, alternating first-person and third-person limited chapters.  Perhaps the third-person perspective should be broader?  That would allow me to bring in other points of view — one in particular that I haven’t been sure how to convey.  I’ll be thinking hard about this question of perspective in the coming weeks.

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