Smiling in the Darkness was published earlier this year but, because of the pandemic, a book launch event could not happen in the physical world. Luckily, FresnoState’s Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute held a virtual book launch on November 10th, 2020.
I am grateful to Diniz (Dennis) Borges, Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute Director and Portuguese Language Lecturer, for hosting and facilitating a panel presentation made up of Portuguese-American authors Anthony Barcellos and Katherine Vaz, Mário Pereira, executive editor of Bellis Azorica-Tagus Press-Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
I was also a panelist, as one of the co-translators of the novel, but it was really Katharine F. Baker who should have been on the panel, not me. She is the one who lead the translation of Adelaide Freitas’ important book, and her absence from the panel discussion was sorely missed by me. It’s not that she was not invited, far from it. Kathie chooses to limit her on-line social media connectivity, and so we do respect her for it.
Here is the text of my remarks from the panel presentation:
I feel deeply honoured to be associated with the translation project of Smiling in the Darkness. I am also thrilled that Mario Pereira’s team at Tagus accepted one of my photographs for the book cover.
My introduction to Adelaide Freitas happened many years ago while I visited Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Açores. I was browsing for books to bring back to Toronto at Gil’s, a wonderful bookstore, now gone, when I came across, nas duas Margens: da Literatura Norte-Americana e Açoriana, a book of essays, including Adelaide’s masterful dissertation on Moby Dick. Alas, I had not seen Sorriso por dentro da noite on the shelves. If I had, I am sure I would have bought it, too. I still don’t have a copy of the novel in Portuguese.
I fell in love with Adelaide’s writing and even wrote about her on my blog in July of 2018, Adelaide Freitas, from the Azores to North America, when she passed away.
By that time I had already met Katharine F. Baker and knew that she was working on the translation of Sorriso por dentro da noite. She assumed, rightly, that I would be interested in the story of Xana, the 12 year old girl protagonist in Adelaide Freitas’ heartbreaking account of what it means for a child to experience the fracture of family ties. One of the strongest themes in the novel for me is the idea that you can’t ever really go back and recapture the past and that the present is not always a better place. The damage has been done.
I related to Xana because I, too, experienced the tearing apart of being taken from one culture to another, from losing beloved family members through immigration, and the ultimate realization that something deep within the soul gets damaged or changed. The ending of the novel has Xana clinging desperately to hold on to her world just as it is about to change forever. It’s a profound moment that captured my own moment of leaving the island of São Miguel for Canada at the age of nine.
While my life has been mostly lived in English, I miraculously maintained an “intuitive feeling” or “soul” understanding of my maternal language over the years, although at times, it feels like a distant memory, too.
This is the background I had and so Sorriso was a very emotional read for me. Although Kathie Baker is a very competent and careful translator, she only learned Portuguese in her mid-fifties after discovering that she had Azorean ancestry in her family. Since then, she has been a tireless champion of bringing Azorean writing to the English speaking world. We owe her a great debt of gratitude for this. I owe Kathie a great debt of gratitude for trusting me and bringing me along on this translation journey.
She had done a meticulous job, but I felt the translation still needed some wordsmithing to capture more deeply the nuance, richness and texture of Adelaide’s lyrical writing, and so I tried to make some polite suggestions to Kathie as to where to change a word here, a phrase there. To my surprise and delight she was open to my suggestions and invited me to collaborate fully on the final draft of the translation. So as I compared the texts, side by side, I guided Katharine into bringing out as much as possible the flavour and soul of the novel.
I suppose the first attempt at any translation is to try and get the words, the sentence structure, the syntax, the equivalents down on paper as much as possible. It’s like jigsaw puzzle pieces all in front of you. Some pieces are hard to make fit, while others are so self-evident that they lull the translator into a false sense of “getting it right.” It’s also like seeing a painting in front of you with all the colour foundation but still in need of some additional brush strokes, some smudging, or even small additions of colour to fill out the complexity of the image. That’s where I came in, at this final stage after the groundwork had already been done.
When we completed the translation, all that was missing was its English title. Sorriso por dentro da noite is one of those phrases that is very hard to find the equivalent of in English, but we finally settled on Smiling in the Darkness. I think it’s a fine equivalent, but for me, a native Portuguese speaker, the Portuguese contains a richness and a nuance that I can’t really explain or translate. I can only experience it through a feeling in my most inner self.
This is the challenge of all translation. It’s not just words. It’s a culture, a people, a geographical landscape, it’s everything to do with how we identify and belong in the physical world, but put down into words.
Given the beauty of Adelaide’s writing, so drenched in local language, so poetic in its prose, it was indeed a challenge to get the translation right as much as possible, without losing the lyricism of the book.
I think we have done justice to Adelaide’s novel and I hope it will please those who will read it in English, that it will help them enter Adelaide’s world, see it, touch it, taste it, in translation, yes, but still connecting with the essence of the original.
I once wrote a reflection called Being Through Words, which you can read on my blog posting of March, 2018 and which has recently been published in a new anthology Antologia Literária Satúrnia, Autores Luso-Canadianos (available as a PDF download).
In my reflection on the meaning of translation of not only words, but of the self through words, I would like to end with a poem by Avelina da Silveira, a visual artist and poet, born in Angola but who lives in both the Azores and Canada.
When I first read her poem, Palavras onde me perco, (Words where I lose Myself) it was like having a knife-stabbing-to-the -heart experience, especially the line: “Já não sonho em português.” “I no longer dream in Portuguese.” This is the painful moment I had experienced through immigration when eventually my mother-language receded to make room for the new language of the country that became home. This, I suspect would be something Xana would experience eventually, and that Adelaide would be conscious of in her own reflections of language and identity. I think this poem captures the heart of Smiling in the Darkness, and so I’d like to finish here by reading it.
Palavras onde me perco
How I long for the days when words were essential!
Outros tempos quando a palavra encerrava uma certeza
— coeur et mots, moi même in a fabric of being.
Foi há tanto tempo que parti…
As palavras custam a vir;
como se eu as quisesse articular mas houvesse uma pedra
A voz lusitana escorre sem que dela eu beba,
quase alien, porque já não sonho em português.
Palavras, words, mots perdus…
Labirintos de imagens onde me perco
na ânsia de chegar à outra margem de mim.
J’ai changé le profil du jour
et j’ai perdu mon visage en ce temps,
never again myself between the sea and the maples.
Oh tragédia de imigrar, de partir sem chegar
tecendo na diáspora un être d’ici et de toujours.
Demain será un autre pays, un autre matin,
De identidade dispersa
I’ll be searching in yesterday
for the name of a water bird among the snow.
©Avelina da Silva
I invite you to watch the book launch event here: