Making Room for Possibilities: Translating Carla Diacov

By: Annie McDermott,

The Uruguayan author Mario Levrero’s ‘non-methodical method’ for teaching creative writing includes the following exercise: choose an object that’s fairly complicated but not very large; sit down somewhere comfortable to handle that object, familiarising yourself with it by touch and paying no attention to what it looks like; and then write a description of the object based on those tactile impressions.

I was reminded of this experience when I came to reflect on the role of a bridge translator in PTC workshops: as well as producing the bridge translation itself, your role is to help people feel their way to a precise understanding of words they have perhaps never heard before in their lives, so that they can pick words in English to match them.

Having to feel your way around the contours of words rather than understanding them immediately can lead to interesting discoveries. Take the ending of the poem ‘lap’ by the Brazilian poet Carla Diacov, which we translated in a workshop last September: ‘… e tudo que escuto é o rasgo nesse nosso manso idioma’ (‘… and all I hear is the tear in this our gentle language’ in the final translation). During a discussion about the word ‘manso’, which we eventually translated as ‘gentle’, one Brazilian speaker said it reminded her of a calm sea, and another said it made her think of pets: if you arrive at someone’s house and an overexcited dog comes bounding towards you, its owner might say: ‘Don’t worry, he’s manso’ – tame, harmless. Thinking of language as part peaceful ocean and part bumbling German shepherd whose bark is worse than his bite really brought the last line of the poem to life, and we tried to make room for both possibilities in our translation.

As I sat in my bedroom running my fingers over a small ceramic jug in the shape of an elephant, as per Levrero’s instructions, I was as aware of its smooth, cold surface as I was of its tusks, big ears and trunk. Similarly, reading (and translating) a poem in a language you don’t speak means experiencing it in a new way – and this is just what Carla Diacov wants for her poems. Indeed, even reading her oblique, visceral poetry in Portuguese is a little like holding words in your hands with your eyes shut, making new discoveries about their texture and temperature and what meanings they might contain.

In a recent interview, Carla describes how she likes to make Google Translate read her poems back to her in foreign languages in order to feel their strangeness in new ways. She explains that she’s not afraid of not being understood, and that, on the contrary, it opens up space for what she considers most important in art: dialogue. PTC workshops do the same, and I look forward to working on more of Carla’s poetry in the upcoming workshop this March.

You can book a place for Annie's upcoming Carla Diacov workshop on March 12th 2019 here.