Interacting with translators is very important to our daily life at a publishing house. Knowing the likes and dislikes, style, whims, and flaws of each contributor is the best way to know what kind of book will work for them. Some translators are ideal for theoretical books, biographies, and essays. Others are a good fit for fiction exclusively. And there are subdivisions in each genre as well. Extensive works of fiction with many ups and downs go to this translator. More poetic and lyrical wriyings go to another translator. Urban fiction with slangs and quick dialogues go to yet another translator. And then there is poems, scientific books, etc.
Some translators have a certain specialization―they work with only one author, for example―while others navigate through different source languages and genres. Unfortunately, nobody comes with instructions, so it takes time for us to find out each translator's style. And no matter how many emails, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings, it all comes down to reading a translation for these peculiarities to become more evident.
And that is how I knew Sergio Flaksman would do a good job when I assigned Jonathan Franzen's award-winning novel "Freedom" to him. I've been working with Sergio for almost six years―that's how long I've been at Companhia das Letras―and I know how he dedicates himself to each book. Sergio had already faced the challenge of "The Corrections," Franzen's previous novel, and is familiar with the author's bad habits, his paragraphs that seem to go on and on forever, and his untranslatable puns.
I had already read "Freedom" last year and was aware of how it would be so much work. Each paragraph has dozens of independent clauses without any conjunctions, truckloads of pronouns and adverbs, a bunch of scientific names of birds and plants. That goes without mentioning a plot that moves back and forth in time, changes the tone, and is a damn roller coaster. In addition to worrying about all that, a translator must also translate the book itself: giving a voice to the narrator, following the rhythm of each sentence, getting the way each character talks, adjusting the sense of humor, creating the same drama... And he also has to go look for what a cerulean warbler is called in Portuguese. For me, a bird is just a bird.
I was so relieved when I received the first part of the translation. Sergio really did it, and it was all there. The several traps that had me anxious in anticipation had been properly avoided. Actually, while reading the book the second time around, I grew fonder and fonder of it. I got more involved with the characters and bugged everybody I know about Connie Monaghan, my favorite supporting character. The text had already gone through a copy editor, so I was reading the translation along with her suggestions and questions. It's a three-party negotiation: keeping the author's voice, using the translator's options, and the copy editor's suggestions. Try waking up one day feeling unable to make a decision.
People usually associate editing to correcting grammar and spelling errors, when the truth is that translators rarely have problems with that. Sometimes there is a meaning that falls through the cracks here and there, especially in a 600-page book, but the bulk of the work is adapting the text to the original. It's about trying to recreate in the translation the experiences that readers of the original have had―and being eternally frustrated while doing so. Consequently, we must adapt vocabulary and syntax, that is, words need to belong to the same universe. Not only the meaning, but how often words are used in each language must remain as close as possible. The narrator's "register" must be kept the same.
And that's where people have disagreements. Each party has a different relationship with the book. A translator spends months working on it, researching, talking to co-workers and friends, looking up things a hundred times in the dictionary. Copy editors have about three to four weeks to compare the translation and the original to verify whether the translator has missed a line, double check the names of people and places, keep the text consistent throughout, adjust punctuation, raise questions, and find the name of cerulean warbler (it's "mariquita-azul" in Portuguese, by the way). Then the editor has to read both versions, which are integrated within the same Word document, to see if everything matches the original, answer current questions and raise even more questions, and bug a bunch of people.
Assuming that the text belongs to the original author, the time each party spends with the translated version does not indicate who has more rights to it. All these readers, and the two reviewers, point out pertinent issues, come up with miraculous solutions, and make this or that sentence work just right. But they can make mistakes too, get things confused and lose references, so they must complement each other somehow for the sake of the original. It's usually a very peaceful process, and some different views arise here and there and they don't always agree with each other. How many friendships have come to an end because of the good old (pertinent) argument that "This character would have never said it that way!"
I finished reading the translation, but I still felt I had left something go past me. That was when I asked our Editorial Manager Maria Emilia, a fan of "The Corrections," to read the material too. At the same time, Sergio was re-reading the text with the annotations that had been made by Lenny, the copy editor, and myself. In the end, I incorporated the suggestions that Sergio and Maria made, reviewed all changes, and got our final version. I really liked the result: Everybody was involved in the project and went after solutions that would address such a dense―the story happens over the course of more than 40 years―and complicated original material, since the voice of each character goes through changes as the tale evolves.
In the meantime, I went on talking to Sergio, who is also my friend in addition to being a long-term contributor to the publisher. We have gone on walks around Rio to talk about science fiction and editing dictionaries―he was part of the original team at Houaiss. But we've also had some bad arguments over work. Sergio is very zealous of his translations, a little territorial even, so he fights for what he thinks is right. On an email exchange, he suspected that Maria would change a specific word: propinquidade. It means "proximity" and triggered a long and hardened debate over emails.
Flaksman's argument was that "propinquity" was as obscure and rarely used in English as propinquidade in Portuguese. That is a common problem: English has a wider vocabulary, which makes it a very specific language, and we must resort to more comprehensive terms. In this case, we didn't reach a consensus. I was silly enough to point out that there were only 8,000 hits for propinquidade in Google, while "propinquity" had over 200,000. Of course something like that can't be decided by Google, but I just wanted to point out a fact and, all in all, I had clearly chosen the wrong time to do it, so I got an earful too.
It's not always easy to take everything professionally, so we still exchanged some peaceful messages (mine was so cheesy) and, above all, we were just doing our job. You can't see anything of our back and forth in the final copy. When you read it, I hope Franzen's voice is the one that prevails and this book has enough ingeniousness to overshadow all our work behind the scenes. Some of our colleagues at the publisher are reading it and enjoying it, and they're all making comments about the characters (“Poor Walter Berglund!”) and the story. Nobody cares about our suffering. And when you reach about the half-point of the book, there you'll find the inexorable propinquidade, of course. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original text written in Portuguese by André was originally published in May 2011 at the publisher's blog.
ANDRÉ CONTI is an editor at Companhia das Letras, a Brazilian publisher. Among other projects, he mainly works with two imprints: Quadrinhos na Cia., which is dedicated to graphic novels, and Penguin-Companhia, in partnership with Penguin Books. He has contributed to the publisher's blog by writing a column called Editing the Classics.