“But we were growing up and it was necessary to learn, or so my dad told us after he sent Abel to inspect the gully up to the dam—the water from the garden spout had dwindled, perhaps because of a collapsed bank or some rotten branch blocking the stream—only for Abel to return while we were helping beat beans in the yard and announce, with his hoe on his shoulder, that he’d found Balão, news that made us drop our sticks and run to him and ask why he hadn’t brought our horse with him and whether Balão was far away or nearby. Abel responded that the only way he could have brought Balão was if he dragged him since our horse was dead. The two of us were struck dumb. I didn’t know if we cried or cursed Abel, judging him somehow guilty, not for Balão’s death, but for the malice of finding him dead.”
The above passage is from a short story by the 20th century Brazilian writer José J. Veiga and serves hopefully as an example of the choices a translator faces and what I am trying to illustrate through my summer Digital Publishing Fellowship.
A bit of context on the passage: This is from a story titled “A Invernada do Sossego” (roughly “The Long Winter of Quiet”) by the Brazilian author José J. Veiga, the same writer I brought in for our first round. The above passage occurs near the outset of Veiga’s story. The narrator and his brother Benício are children growing up on their family’s ranch in Goaias, a mostly rural, agrarian state in the center of Brazil. Their favorite horse Balão has gone missing and this is the moment where they find out his fate.
What makes José J. Veiga the author challenging to translate is the amount of regionalized and anachronistic language he uses, language particular to agrarian settings, actions, and tools that I am unfamiliar with. (I assume many contemporary readers would be less familiar with these as well, this book having been published in 1959.) Thus, I find myself continually attending to how to render the expressions, idioms, and vernacular networks in Veiga’s work, without exotifying them or overly smoothing them over so that they read as familiar to a contemporary readership. My approach to these phrases also determines how much the translation chooses to rationalize, clarify, or expand upon what might be unclear in the original.
Where is the unusual or jargony language in this passage? When Abel returns with his news, the two brothers are described as helping “bater feijão.” This translates literally into “beating beans.” What does that mean? According to YouTube, “bater feijão” refers to separating beans from bean pods by thwacking them with sticks; in the videos I’ve watched, men move in a rhythmic circle around the pile of beans. While doing so, they sing as a way to mark time for their thwacks. In my first translation, I translated “bater feijão” as threshing beans, since it gives the sense of separating bean from pod and provides an easier gloss. In a later version, I kept the more literal but unusual sounding “beating beans.” I did this in part to hew closer to the vernacular and in part to give a more accurate sense of the action—both the hitting of beans with a literal stick and the indication of a rhythm or tempo in “beat.” I also wanted to give a sense of the brothers’ connection in this passage (even though the narrator’s brother Benício is not mentioned by name here). The story’s plot hinges on the narrator believing what his brother believes—that is, the two of them are in sync and this synchronicity seems in part due to the closeness with which they co-exist on their family’s farm. In this case, a verb that stresses that rhythmic link—i.e. “beat”—seems valuable. However, you could argue that the verb’s strangeness overwhelms the reader’s intuition of the action described and understanding of the brothers’ closeness. Yet “beating beans” also can’t help but sound euphemistic and might lead to unwanted associations or connotations.
Ultimately, I chose to go with the more rationalized though perhaps inaccurate “threshing beans,” which is where the idea for my summer project comes in. What if there were a way to present the reader with the context and significance of a certain phrase without slowing down the reader’s experience? What if readers themselves could have some agency in the way they choose to proceed with the passage—whether they opt for “beating” or “threshing”—in a way that mirrors some of the decision-making process that the translator encounters? Could that provide a more immersive or educational reading experience, or would it prove excessively mediated and tedious? These are the questions I’m still trying to figure out.