03 June 2010

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands: Translation bedeviled

"Grande Sertão, Veredas by the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa is the greatest novel of his country – and one of the most extraordinary attempts to render simultaneity of time and space in the modern novel."
– Carlos Fuentes, “Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium

"One of the greatest books our literature has produced, brutal, tender, cordial, savage, vast as Brazil itself, the image of Brazil drawn by a writer with a consummate mastery of his craft."
– Jorge Amado, “The Place of Guimarães Rosa in Brazilian Literature,” in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

"His literature is pure stream of consciousness in the Joycean sense: language dances free, unabated, across time and space zones .... As in the novel-as-mural, exemplified by his most memorable opus, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (in Portuguese, Grande Sertão: Veredas), he believed the challenge in Brazilian literature was “to be inclusive and exclusive, to strive for the universal and the particular.” … [H]is fabulous display of language and his encyclopedic knowledge are neutralized by a Chekhovian attitude to character: Guimarães Rosa turns the speaker into [an] unsanctimonious storyteller, at once map and compass to Brazil."
– Ilan Stavans, Introduction to Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas (ed. Cass Canfield Jr.)

"It’s a damn good book. Some have said it’s the best contemporary Latin American novel of them all, but it’s hard. The American version, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a travesty. Can you imagine such a title!"
– Gregory Rabassa, interview

"[Guimarães] Rosa would have to be rewritten, not translated, unless by the likes of James Joyce."
– Gregory Rabassa, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents

1. About the book

Apropos of the blurbs above, Grande Sertao: Veredas (1956) is a notoriously difficult novel, employing puns, neologisms, and archaic words from the Portuguese. The writer, João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1964), was a diplomat, fluent in many languages, and had a wide experience as a doctor in the countryside of Brazil. The novel is about bandit wars in Brazil, about making a pact with the devil, about leadership politics, about the celebration of the flora and fauna of the land, and about things not seeming what they are.

When The Millions last year asked readers about what out-of-print classics they think should be reprinted by NYRB, I did not hesitate to name The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1963). This despite the fact that this novel, as translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, is generally regarded as a flawed translation. The translators supposedly disregarded the rhythms and linguistic innovations in the original novel, cutting certain scenes in the books, and producing a western landscape instead of a backland country of north Brazil.

In the absence of a new translation, English readers can only consult the one English translation if they want to access the book. Though they can always wait for a retranslation, it will take some time, many years, if at all. Someone commissioned by New Directions (presumably, Gregory Rabassa) was supposed to retranslate it, but later backed out due to the difficulty of the task.

2. Availability

The book is out of print. A used copy in the Amazon (the bookseller jungle) costs some 300 bucks.

By default, we read what we have, what is given us, and what is handed down to us by the translators Taylor and de Onís, who must have wrestled with the Joycean intricacy of the language created by the master novelist. In reading this not-well-received translation one still recognizes the stream of genius, a genius which even if only a fraction of the original, is still a generous flow. For now, it’s the closest we can ever be to an obra maestra.

3. Selected bibliography

All of Guimarães Rosa's English-translated works below, except the latest (The Jaguar and Other Stories) and the story anthologies, are out of print. They've become collectors' items for their literary merit and the beautiful illustrations and binding, usually featuring the drawings of the artist Napoleon Potyguara "Poty" Lazzarotto (1924-1998). (See for example A Journey Round My Skull and A Missing Book.)

Magma, 1934 (poetry, published 1997).

Sagarana, 1946 (English translation by Harriet de Onís: Sagarana: A Cycle of Stories, 1966).

Corpo de baile: sete novelas, 1956 (7 novellas).

Grande sertão: veredas, 1956 (English translation by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1963).

Primeiras estórias, 1962 (English translation by Barbara Shelby: The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories, 1968).

Tutaméia: terceiras estórias, 1967 (very short stories & essay-like "prefaces").

Estas estórias, 1969 (short stories).

Ave, palavra, 1970 (miscellaneous).

The Jaguar and Other Stories, 2001, English translation by David Treece.

In selected anthologies:

Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, ed. K. David Jackson – contains 7 stories by Guimarães Rosa.

Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas, ed. Cass Canfield Jr. – contains the long story "My Uncle, the Jaguar," trans. Giovanni Pontiero.

The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature, Volume II: The Twentieth Century – from Borges and Paz to Guimarães Rosa and Donoso, eds. Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie – contains a "chunk" of Grande Sertão, trans. Thomas Colchie.

The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories, ed. Roberto González Echevarría – contains 1 story ("The Third Bank of the River"), trans. William L. Grossman.


  1. Very interesting post, Rise! I've had a read of this novel in mind off and on for a couple of years now, but I too have heard complaints about the English translation. My foreign language bookstore (and probably my library) carries a Spanish translation of the work, so I'll probably give that a try when the time comes. Thanks for all the bibliographical info, though!

  2. Richard, I've read The Devil to Pay about a decade ago and at that time had no idea that the translation was poorly regarded. Maybe the Spanish version will be a better alternative to access the book. I just finished reading the wonderful story "My Uncle, the Jaguar" in the translation by Giovanni Pontiero, and I can just imagine that it's the kind of translation that will showcase the strengths of Guimarães Rosa. As it is, I think that his greatness still comes across in a poor English translation.

  3. Rise, please contact me at AMISSINGBOOKatGMAIL.

  4. Although I can read this novel in Portuguese, the book doesn't exist in Portugal. It's a travesty! I've grown tired of searching for it in bookstores. We're so poorly served by Brazilian books here.

  5. That's a shame. Look harder. I would love to hear what you think of it in its original language.

    1. Here's a funny story. Last week I found a Brazilian bookstore in Lisbon. Yay, I thought, I'm finally going to buy the bought! But no, although it had a fine selection of books, it didn't have Guimarães Rosa's masterpiece. Well I order it. Well, the books are imported from Brazil, and in order to save costs and keep them affordable, they're put in a huge metal container and they're only shipped once it's full. So I ask how long it may take to arrive. Oh, six months, a year, the owner tells me.

      I ordered it anyway, but it'll be a long time before you know what I think of it :)

    2. Ha! The tentativeness of that answer was very amusing. At least there's a (semi-)definite time frame.