Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
Readers familiar with the lyrical style of Clarice Lispector will appreciate the difficulty of translating her. Nevertheless, Lispector’s posthumously published novel, Um Sopro de vida, or A Breath of Life in English, arguably presents the translator with an even greater challenge. Fortunately for Anglophone readers, Johnny Lorenz, in this recent introduction from New Directions, tackled the fragmentary and intensely personal work, giving us further insight into the worldview of one of modernity’s most important writers. The result is a soaring and tensely felt translation, which succeeds in capturing the singular musicality, the poetry, of Lispector’s prose.
Lispector (1920-1977), often included among the twentieth century’s greatest and most innovative writers, was born in Ukraine of Jewish parents but was raised almost entirely in Brazil, after her family fled persecution. Although her novels and stories have achieved international renown, often provoking comparisons to the interior style of Virginia Woolf, within Brazil her oeuvre has become part of the cultural lexicon, her influence felt throughout the arts, in works of film, music and literature. Lispector was also a journalist, translator and author of several children’s books.
To fully grasp the significance of A Breath of Life, it is necessary to note that this novel was written in Lispector’s last days, while the author was dying of cancer, and that it was her close friend, Olga Borelli, who undertook the task of assembling the final, unfinished manuscript. Perhaps, then, the edition would have better served the reader – particularly those for whom this book is an introduction to Lispector and her work – if it had included the translator’s note before the novel, rather than after. As it is, the editor’s introduction, presented as an epistolary exchange with filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, alludes to this context. But a full awareness of how the work came into being would further aid readers in recognizing how deeply intertwined the story is with the authorial self. While I am normally hesitant to make too close a connection between the two, and indeed, Lispector as well as her author protagonist cautions against an autobiographical reading, in this case the text seems to reach such an affecting conclusion entirely of its own accord, without the necessity to read more into it than what is there. In citing Borelli’s remarks upon the decisions she made, Lorenz prepares us for a more textured understanding of the work in its manifold implications.
But beyond the intensely personal resonance which aligns this work so poignantly with the persona of the author herself, A Breath of Life is, above all, a meditation upon the transcendent process of creation, and it is here where the work achieves its mystical resonance. It quite unconventionally depicts an author and the character he created, Angela Pralini, and unfolds almost as a duel between the two as they write independent but intertwined “novels” – or streams of reflection upon their worlds, identity, writing, life and death. As the author character, in the first few pages, describes this work he is about to write: “This I suppose will be a book apparently made out of shards of a book” (10). Still, despite the absence of a traditional plot structure, this novel portrays a metaphysical journey that, like the thread of musical and sonorous imagery running through it, swells to a powerful, heartbreaking climax then reverberates long after you have put the book down.
Indeed, except for a few isolated spots in which I felt the translation stumbled a bit over the knotty clauses of the Portuguese, A Breath of Life reads like beautiful music. I would go so far as to suggest reading passages aloud just to revel in their lyricism. Passages such as, “But the bottomlessness of the sea blossoms inside me with the scare of a scarecrow” (117), or “Roots tangled and angled” (60), together create a varying melody, sometimes playful and sing-song, other times slow and dreamlike, and still other times flooded with a depth of feeling, thereby matching the arc of the narrative’s symphony. Such a successful rendering of this musicality in English is the translator’s great triumph. The novel almost seems to come alive through the sound of its language, which is surely the effect Lispector hoped to achieve in describing a character engendered from and through the author, becoming flesh even as we, who doubt our own existence in the “real” world, come alive through the act of creation.
For as much as A Breath of Life resists translation by pushing the limits of language, it is, paradoxically, a work which most lends itself to translation; that is, it embodies the very essence of translation. The book, as the Author announces at the outset, is a questioning. And one of the more persistent subjects of inquiry is the relationship between words and the world they represent. (This is particularly apparent in a stand-out chapter during which Angela obsessively lists worldly “things,” becoming freer and freer with language to the point of creating neologisms and strange metaphors.) Often while reading it, I was reminded of a discussion in George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, of the horrors of the modern age which ultimately led its writers to reject the power of the word. As Steiner concludes, “No writer can arrive at a more desolate conclusion” (194). Certainly one wonders if Lispector, writing, as she was, at the end of her life, had perhaps reached this painful revelation. The constant alternation of metaphors of silence and sound, the inventive use of synesthesia, even scattered references to the invading voice of the Author’s readers, suggest a dual awareness that writing can both wring language of meaning and suffuse it with new brilliance, shine it like a gem, by inventing new ways of looking at the world.
This is, consequently, the tightrope walked by the translator, who, in penetrating to the very core of language risks shattering it. But in this translation, the spark of Lispector’s brilliance, of her magical style, passes undimmed into English, illuminating the mysteries of existence which the author sought to interrogate.
Lispector, Clarice. A Breath of Life (Pulsations). Trans. Johnny Lorenz. New York: New Directions, 2012.
Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Thank you for this very well written piece, Amanda Sarasien. It gives glimpses of your intimate knowledge of what the translation process entails and, as such, is beautiful.