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Simina Popa •• Translator of Portuguese Literature

Stories about pigeons and Portuguese

I have recently travelled to Angola, a country somewhere in the middle of Africa, on the West coast. An impressive sky, a completely different climate, lots of nature in the city, lots of instinct in the civilization. People talk concisely and directly, in an unequivocal Portuguese.

Their Portuguese is different than the one spoken in Portugal. Once a few phrases ring in your ears, the language sets a rhythm that doesn’t let go of you, just like the firm rhythms of percussion commonly associated to the African lands.

The stories I heard there are incredible, the people there seem to live just like in the movies. For example, it may seem a lot to hear of a woman walls herself up in her own apartment out of fear and who, in order to survive, learns to hunt pigeons using diamonds – however, it is a true story. One which is surely deserving of being passed on.

From behind my computer’s keyboard, sitting in my office chair in Bucharest, I have been in England, honoured to be translating the words of a famous writer, one so generous with his stories which are worth passing on, named José Eduardo Agualusa. Most of the times, the experience of literary translation is so powerful, especially when you like the book, that you have the impression you know a place by heart. And, translating A General Theory of Oblivion, I got to go to Angola as well..

One of the perks of the so-called “minor languages” – even though Portuguese is the fifth most spoken language in the World, the perspective here is that of the market, so the number of speakers is irrelevant – is that the writers who are published are almost exclusively well-known. Publishing houses don’t take the risk of publishing début writers or authors who don’t yet have a proven reputation on the international publishing market, who are not in the headlines, because this way they would lose some of the arguments to sell their books.

As such, I have had the opportunity to translate the novels of the most well-known authors who wrote in Portuguese. It is always an overwhelming feeling to translate the words of famous authors, even if they are unknown in our area – or all the more so, it is because they are not known around here that responsibility is even greater.

Agualusa is the most famous Angolan writer, well-known, of course, also in Portugal, Brazil and Mozambic, and, from one prize to another, he has succeeded in becoming appreciated and promoted at an international level as well. It is still an obscure name in Romania, with only two published translations, two novels, but the time passing between the two was long enough for him to become lost in the publishing industry.

His style is so clear and well-constructed, making it easy for me to learn to dance to his tune. Usually, upon first trying one’s hand at translating, the beginning of a novel still has the clumsiness and conventionalism which are typical between two strangers. It is only upon rereading it, only after the translation is in an advanced stage and there are no more secrets between the author and the translator, that the beginning can be remade using the proper tone and vocabulary. Upon each additional reading, there is something to be corrected, regardless of whether you erase or add a preposition, whether you undo an inversion, rephrase or you decide to translate or to leave a name as it is. It’s just as if the text represented the drawings in the clouds, which Agualusa mentioned in the novel: they change at all times and what you see depends on how long you look at them and on your perspective. A translation is a state of the text, a photo of a drawing made out of clouds, which becomes, in its turn, a travelling cloud under the eyes of other readers.

That is the reason why the discussion with the editor of the book is a very important step, which I look forward to with great interest and curiosity. The editor checks the coherence and stylistics of the writing in the target language. Most of the times, I am prepared with arguments to defend my translation, when needed, to explain my choices, but in the case of the Angolan, everything unfolded just as smoothly and naturally as his writing – an additional confirmation of a good writer. Without feeling a heavy historical or national identity, through stories and characters which leave you breathless just as in an African Pulp Fiction, as it was named in a review, Agualusa talks about his favourite subject: Angola – as a continuous, sincere quest for what is, in fact, yours, what makes you yourself, what good or bad means – and particularly Luanda, its capital city.In this city I have seen things beyond my wildest dreams. These are stories that always lead you to new ones, as serious as they are balanced by a sense of humour. Despite the troubled and gory history of Angola, strained more or less discretely in various episodes in the book, the writing inspired power and optimism, and this really matters for the work atmosphere. However, one spends a few months with a book, until the final version is reached, which is submitted further for revision and editing.

As a Portuguese translator, I especially enjoyed the sincerity and simplicity of the conversations, as if there were no time or reason to avoid, excuse or edulcorate. It is a style that has a specific dynamism and rhythm. I remember that, as I was translating Agualusa’s book, I was more observant of the way we talk to each other, of what and how we say it, of areas and limits, but I guess this is part of the translators’ permeability.

Even if I already know what is about to happen, while translating, the thrill is just as high, especially during dialogues, it is the time you choose the words and you interpret without reserves (nobody sees you), may it be just in thoughts, every character, good or bad. You have the opportunity to experiment different personalities and lexicons and you find out, for example, that the character of the Angolan teenage punk you translate about will know how to swear when angry just as daringly, racily and shyly as you know or as much as you want to let known you know.

I was amused to find out also that one of the greatest fairs in Africa, which started out in Luanda, was named after a famous Brazilian soap opera from the eighties: Roque Santeiro. The Roque Santeiro fair was huge, as big as 500 football fields, made up of rudimentary shacks, counters or products displayed directly on the floor. You could find absolutely anything there, from mayonnaise to diamonds. It was closed in 2011. This is not something I found out from the book, but from the research I did in the background of the translation, an occupation which fascinates me. Checking any proper noun which appears in the text, any date, space or time coordinate or the local colour is a meticulous work, in which I lose myself voluntarily, just as a tenacious detective, however, one who is happy about the availability of the Internet.

The woman who builds a wall between her home and the rest of the world is called Ludovica and she is Portuguese. She lives at the end of colonial Angola and at the start of independent Angola, with all the changes that such an event implies, from a national to a personal level. But the way in which Agualusa tells the story – dryly summed up here – triggers that mechanism which some literary translators say has made them chose their calling: wanting to pass on the story. Ultimately, Agualusa says it as well: A man with a good story is practically a king.


[Simina Popa is a literary translator of Portuguese. She has translated authors from Portugal, Brazil, Angola and Mozambique. A General Theory of Oblivion, by José Eduardo Agualusa is the most recent translated novel, published at Polirom]

This article was written by Simina Popa, our guest and our Portuguese translator, to disclose part of the experiences of a literary translator and, perhaps, some of their secrets.

For more articles on the theme of literary translations, plese click here.

Publishing date: 15.04.2019

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