A Whirring Blender of Colors: Paulo Scott’s “Phenotypes,” Translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

By Lúcia Collischonn

Paulo Scott’s tale of two brothers growing up amidst tensions in the racial non-democracy of Brazil comes to English-language readers in Daniel Hahn’s apt and respectful translation. The book’s original title in Portuguese, Marrom e Amarelo (literally, Brown and Yellow), refers to the different phenotypes of the two brothers Lourenco and Federico. In his postface, Hahn explains why translating the title as Brown and Yellow would raise other racial implications and references in English that are not the focus of Scott’s novel: “Both of those adjectives are used in the English-speaking world as racial descriptors” (222), whereas in the Brazilian title they refer to Brown and Yellow as the brothers’ respective nicknames. The more phenotypically white of the brothers, Federico, is the more activist of the two brothers, perhaps because of his guilt for being white-passing, The narrator, Federico, recounts key moments in the brothers’ upbringing in Porto Alegre in the 1980s that unveil a complex story of rights and wrongs, black and whites and everything in between. 

The novel focuses on Federico, a middle-aged man from Porto Alegre, who studied law in the public university and is now an important name in social activism, especially in regard to race in Brazil. Federico is invited to a government commission on affirmative action which aims to develop a better system to define who gets to claim a space in the public universities as a black person. The first part of the novel moves between the present in Brasilia, the country’s capital where the commission meetings take place, and a series of events that took place in Porto Alegre in 1984 and that affect the plot.

At the centre of the narrative is a smoking gun, hidden by Federico and his brother Lourenco in 1984 to protect a friend. Although they are brothers, Federico looks whiter, Lourenco is more phenotypically black. Their family is mixed race: the father black, the mother white. Their father is an important police officer, making the fact that the brothers hid the gun in their house even more complicated. Years later, in the present, a family emergency calls Federico back to Porto Alegre: his niece, and Lourenco’s daughter, Roberta, is stopped at a Blitz, and has her car checked. The police find the gun in the car and Roberta is arrested. In tracing the ensuing legal procedures, Scott expertly weaves in the intricate Brazilian legal system, the different levels of policing–military and civil, and scenes from Federico’s past that influence the case in question. Different events of racial injustice witnessed by Federico culminate into an occurrence that bears upon the situation with Federico’s niece.

Scott’s prose, almost completely untainted by periods and brimming with commas, engulfs the reader in the mind of Federico, tracing in quick succession memories and dialogues that build on each other to form this kaleidoscopic narrative. 

And then I felt ready to give at least a partial airing to the ghosts occupying my thoughts, ghosts that had also been those times when I felt uncomfortable being who I was, raised on the idea of being from a Black family, an idea that became my identity, but moulded into a phenotype that jarred brutally with that identity, two factors that, when combined, expelled me forever from the generalisations of the game of he’s Black and he’s white, giving me a huge non-place to manage, ghosts that made me, even according to the astonishing short-sightedness of the new government, simply the most convenient person to be there. (20)

As a portoalegrense myself, reading Phenotypes I had the first experience ever of encountering my hometown in English translation. It is obviously not the first time Porto Alegre has been the setting of a Brazilian book, and not the first one translated into English, but Scott’s narrative is the first one I have read in English that is so overtly portoalegrense: I was transported back to all of the streets and foods mentioned, the complex social system and geographical stratification of the city, and to a criticism of social and racial differences in the southern capital. Even though the narrative jumps back and forth between Brasilia and Porto Alegre, the latter, and more specifically, the neighbourhood of Partenon, is the geographical focus of the novel. I would argue as well that it is where its soul is located. As Scott himself puts it in the acknowledgements:

Partenon is a neighbourhood occupied, for the most part, by black people, it is the place where I grew up, where I lived until I was twenty-two and which – in spite of my having lived in other neighbourhoods in that city, in other cities in Brazil and abroad – in many ways, I have never left. (215)

It is, however, important to point out that Partenon is not a favela; the urbanisation of Porto Alegre is different from that of Rio. Nonetheless, for many Anglophone readers the neighborhood might evoke more stereotypical Brazilian contexts. Why is this important? Partenon is a working-class neighborhood of predominantly black residents, but it is enclaved between urban zones, officially in the East Zone, close to the private Catholic university and bordered by arterial avenues served by bus lines to the different parts of the city. It is in this boiling pot that the story is set. Or rather, as the narrator puts it “the whirring blender that is Porto Alegre” (156). The characters go into other areas of the city such as Moinhos de Vento, an affluent neighbourhood where even I, a white Brazilian, feel unwelcome, or the historical centre where some of the political action happens, but Partenon remains the novel’s epicentre.

Phenotypes was nominated for the 2022 International Booker Prize, in the expertly crafted translation by Daniel Hahn, which in several points refuses to domesticate the reading experience. As a portoalegrense, I am thankful for the careful consideration taken with every Porto Alegre reference, from streets to food, even to local idioms. I am biased, but the novel becomes richer through it, and I believe does not lose its readers in this forest of local references. In English the book reads as tormented and complex as it does in Portuguese. So much so that the experience of feeling breathless while reading was the same in both versions. 

With the tormented yet charismatic Federico, Scott paints a portrait of the difficult status of race in Brazil, a country made up of a majority 55% black population, the biggest in the world after Nigeria. And the other 45% are not white, necessarily. Brazil’s racial stratification is largely based on phenotypes, making the title of this translation even more adequate. For the two brothers who are both mixed race but present different phenotypes, the differences go beyond skin color and passing. Federico’s guilt for being white passing and his rage at witnessing racism around his brother and others is what fuels his successful career helping disadvantaged black youth in Brazil, and is what ultimately got him to be invited as an expert to the commission. 

There’s no way you can create a colour-spectrum metric, a negrometer, an official racial scale that you can just plug into a computer program. (…) he said  I had a look at the Suvinil Paints page just to check what names they apply to the range of colours they sell, and I jotted some of them down, only a few, the ones that could be variations of what you call light-skinned brown, medium brown and dark-skinned brown, he picked up the notepad, The intermediate light tones are, he straightened his glasses on his nose, Cream, Marshmallow, Lychee Cocktail, Lemon Sorbet, Light Almond, Fair Skin, Sunbeam, Créme Caramel, Maranhão Sand, Old straw, Egg Custard, And the medium and darker ones, Earth Track, Cashew, Tanned Skin, Banana with Cinnamon, Walnut, Chestnut, Bronze, Cane Sugar, Firewood, Clay, Brick, Aged Silver, Raw Sugar, Caramel, Brazil Nut, Natural Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove, Mahogany, Máte Gourd, semi-bitter Chocolate. (page 40)

And what does Phenotypes add to World Literature? In the question of race, we often look to the United States and the racial structures in its society to think about race in other parts of the world. The questions of racial stereotypes, of phenotypes and institutional racism in Brazil, are issues still to be made visible and interrogated. Works such as Paulo Scott’s help shed light on the specificity of Brazilian racial politics while also not being stereotypical, and not feeling didactic. Phenotypes also shows a different Brazil, both in color and in place, than the one usually portrayed in works of Brazilian literature, especially those read abroad. It is an entrancing read for anyone, from Bom Fim to Brooklyn, from Porto Alegre to Paris.

Lúcia Collischonn is a Brazilian-German translator and PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick. She is interested in Exophony in creative writing and translation, that is, writing literature in a foreign language and translation into and out of one’s mother tongue. Exophony was the theme of both her Master’s dissertation and her current PhD research. She has translated Yoko Tawada’s novel Etüden im Schnee (2016) which was published in Brazil in May 2019. Research interests include: translation theory and practice, multilingualism, postcolonialism, contemporary and world literature, Portuguese-language literatures, German-language literatures, transnational literature and adaptation studies.

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