Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with current NER writers in all genres.
NER international correspondent Ellen Hinsey speaks with Luis S. Krausz and Ana Fletcher, author and translator, respectively, of “The Clocks.” “The Clocks,” excerpted from Krausz’s novel Memories in Ruins and brought to our attention by Hinsey, appears in NER 36.1.
EH: I’d like to start by asking Luis to explain a bit about his family background, which plays an important role in Memories in Ruins (Desterro: memórias em ruínas). Your grandparents were Austrian exiles that came to Brazil in the mid-twenties—
LK: My paternal grandparents, to whom I was extremely close during my childhood, were from Vienna. Unlike most Austrian Jewish emigrants who fled Nazism in the 1930s, however, they left Vienna in the mid-twenties. They did this not as emigrants or refugees, but with the intention of spending a few years abroad, eventually returning to Austria after it had overcome the crises that followed World War I. This means that unlike others who wished to break with their past—for instance, by refusing to speak German—they remained very attached to their cultural background. They made a point of keeping the exotic, colorful, and lively Brazilian world outside their home, and the values, aesthetics, tastes, and atmosphere of Vienna inside. This led to a paradoxical kind of life. They did not wish to become Brazilian or tropical. Neither, however, did they identify with the Jewish community that existed in Brazil—Eastern European Jews who were speakers of Yiddish. The Brazilian way of life was as threatening to them as the world of Eastern European Jews who had settled in the Bom Retiro quarter of São Paulo.
EH: How did this attempt to preserve their culture impact your childhood?
LK: I grew up in a home that was very different from its environment—that was sealed off from time and space—and strove to preserve a culture that had become displaced after the Holocaust. We had to speak German with our grandparents. They read stories to us in German and read German books to themselves. They listened to German and Austrian music. Even their maids were German, from the south of Brazil, where a large German colony was established in the early twentieth century. My grandfather worked for big German firms and traveled often to Germany. Now this situation had become rather peculiar. Whereas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Austrian and German Jews saw no contradiction between being Jewish and being German, this identity literally lost its “place” after the genocide. So, Desterro: memórias em ruínas is a book about an impossible identity in an impossibly foreign country. It´s about the experience of being a foreigner anywhere in this world.
EH: This cultural heritage has played an essential role in your work. When one reads your novels one senses the shadows of such Central European authors as Joseph Roth, Bruno Schultz, and Danilo Kis, among others—
LK: The culture one grows up in shapes us in uncanny ways: the way we feel, think, and act is determined by it. Therefore it is no accident that I discovered among Central European writers a kind of continuation of the world I grew up in. In fact, I discovered Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, and others rather late in my life, in my forties. Before that I read mostly Brazilian or American authors, or German authors such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. But in the literature of Central Europe I found a kind of lost home, a universe I felt I could understand and identify with, and from which I had been estranged for a long time.
EH: You are now finishing your fourth novel. Would you speak, in a more general way, about your work and the themes your books explore?
LK: My first three novels—Desterro: memórias em ruínas, Deserto, and Bazar Paraná (which is about to the published in Brazil) all deal with the lost world of Austrian and German Jews, with the exile of a culture that was built on the supposition that a German-Jewish symbiosis was possible and desirable, and with the paradoxes this culture faced after the Holocaust. In my current novel I am trying to take a step away from this realm and to investigate how this background influences my relationship to the contemporary world. For instance, I was recently in Berlin and I found it, at times, challenging. On the one hand, I am fluent in German and I feel very at home in it. On the other hand, I experienced constant shocks. German was the “private” language of my childhood: it was the language of a secluded, isolated, family world, redolent in rituals from the Hapsburg empire. I experienced the fact that in Germany everyone speaks German like a profanation. I often feel that people are not using German as they should, that they are not respecting it. To see this “private” language in everyone´s mouth causes me a peculiar form of discomfort. Naturally, today’s German is in many ways different from the German I learned. Furthermore, there are all the ominous shadows of history there, which can’t be avoided.
EH: Could you also speak about your relationship to the Portuguese language and Brazilian literature?
LK: Portuguese, especially Brazilian Portuguese, is a very supple, very sweet, musical language. Its sounds are delightful to listen to and its words evoke the vast world of Romance languages, but also the very diverse ethnic realities of Brazil. I once heard said that a writer´s best instrument is his ears and I agree with that. I have an enduring love affair with the Portuguese language, with its words and sounds. The more you know foreign languages, the better you get to know your own. It is a language full of new possibilities, with an extremely rich vocabulary, much of which is now obsolete. As for Brazilian literature, I would like to mention the works of João Guimarâes Rosa. I think he has explored the depth and the musical possibilities of our language like no one else.
EH: Ana—Luis’s novel Memories in Ruins has an inherently poetic quality to it, and there is a keen attention to language in the text. What specific challenges did this pose for you as a translator?
AF: Luis’s prose was a real pleasure to translate—his writing is erudite, polished, sinuous . . . Memories in Ruins is shot through with a nostalgia evoked not only by memories, but also by a language that, in its decorum and propriety, harkens back to times past. The first-person narration means the tone remains direct and conversational: a balance I was keen to observe in the translation. Long, winding sentences give the narrative its lulling rhythm—this is a comforting blanket of prose—while at the same time the teetering sentences of piled-on clauses mirror the proliferation of clocks threatening to topple over into chaos. My priority was maintaining the rhythm, which meant treating the various sub-clauses like pieces in a puzzle that had become jumbled and needed arranging before they would make sense. It also meant thinking hard about punctuation. To give just one example, in the Portuguese text Luis uses multiple colons in the same sentence—an unconventional practice in English. Do we keep these, or do we ‘standardize’ the text? We opted to keep them, not wanting to sacrifice rhythm for the sake of convention, and trusting readers to take this kind of deviation from the norm in stride.
EH: Could you describe how it is you came to live in Brazil, and what led you to choose translation as a profession?
AF: I grew up in an English- and Spanish-speaking household in Portugal, so have always been into the shifts and gaps and humour that exist when you’re constantly moving across languages. My interest in translation began during my MA in Comparative Literature at University College London, but the idea that I could be a literary translator myself didn’t take hold until I attended a week-long literary translation summer school with Margaret Jull Costa at Birkbeck University. For a while I fit in short translations around my job, but in early 2013 I moved from London to Rio de Janeiro to set up as a translator and editor full-time. I’ve since split my time between editing literary fiction—including a number of novels in translation for the really great independent publishing house And Other Stories—and translating for contemporary Brazilian writers.
EH: Luis, your work has also included translations, for example, Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. How do you see the role of translation in your work as a whole?
LK: Having grown up with two languages, or between two languages, translation has become second nature to me. My work as a whole is about translation and about the impossibility of translating, not only from one language into another, but from one cultural context into another. Some things have different meanings in different places and in different times and this allows for irony, estrangement, and surprise, elements I see as fundamental to my writing. I would like to add a remark about the German translation of Desterro: memórias em ruínas. Mr. Manfred von Conta, my translator, did a wonderful job and I think the book often sounds better in German than in Portuguese. When I told this to him, he answered that he thinks there is far more German in my Portuguese then I am aware of. Maybe he is right. Maybe the book was written in that same region in-between languages to which I return when I myself translate. Maybe writing is all about translating the unspeakable into words.
Ana Fletcher is an editor and translator based in Rio de Janeiro. She holds a BA in English/Writing and Performance from the University of York and an MA in Comparative Literature from University College London. Her translations from Portuguese and Spanish have been published in Granta, Music and Literature, and Wasafiri.
Luis S. Krausz, born into a family of Austrian and Bessarabian Jews in São Paulo in 1961, studied Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Classics at Columbia University. He earned his Master’s degree in Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and holds a PhD in Modern Jewish Literature from the Universidade de São Paulo, where he teaches Jewish Literature. Desterro: memórias em ruínas [Memories in Ruins], the Portuguese novel from which “The Clocks” was excerpted, has since appeared in German and Italian. Krausz translates German and Hebrew Literature into Portuguese and is the recipient of several literary prizes in Brazil, including the Jabuti Prize and the Benvirá Prize.
Ellen Hinsey is the author of numerous works of poetry, dialogue, and literary translation. Her most recent book, Update on the Descent, draws on her experience at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague. She is also the co-author of Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2016). Her essays on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe have appeared in New England Review. She is a former fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and in 2015 she is the recipient of a DAAD Künstlerprogramm fellowship.