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On translating vernacular

During early 2023, I split a month between São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Boa Esperança do Sul. Reinaldo Moraes' Pornopopéia accompanied me, a cult classic from 2009. The recommendation came from Perry Anderson, though I imagine either Roberto Schwarz or André Singer further downstream. Zeca's decadent wanderings through São Paulo had the levity I needed, however, it was Moraes' dominion of vernacular Paulistano that shone brightest.

I was saddened at not being able to share this brilliance with friends back in the US. It would require not just fluency in Portuguese, but at least a half-dozen years spent in Brazil. The writing was steeped in local references and opted for stylized renditions of various words (e.g. emails as imeios, sites as çaites). To even attempt to translate the novel would be a task worth of a PhD thesis.

At the moment, I find myself drowning in discourse about language, text-as-interface, and philistine discussion of art. Despite the 20th century, STEMlords continue believing communication is a trivial transference of ideas. I try to heed my friends' advice and ignore it all. Instead, in homage to Moraes, I wrote a crônica about a Carioca evening at a choro circle, the first real literary writing I've done in Portuguese.

The experience was revelatory. Because I spent my adolescent years in Brazil, all of my serious writing is in college-inflected English. That is a problem: Without an adolescent ear for it, the writing comes out dry and flat. In Portuguese, I seemed to have re-encountered rhythm and play (remarks about the quality I'll leave to the reader). That being said, I was still frustrated at not being able to share the result.

Instead of painstakingly translating the piece, I thought to offer a computer translation (provided by GPT-4), along with commentary of what I deemed lost. The original, translation, and commentary are presented in triads of paragraphs. You'll notice that, when passed through the model, all that's left is a denotative bore that some people seem to call "storytelling".

De bermuda e chinelo

Wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops

  • Wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops: We start off poorly. "In shorts and flip-flops" would be closer, but flat. Drop the "Bermuda" reference. In Brazil, bermudas are just metonyms for shorts. The original title also folds in Antonio Candido's description of crônicas as literature "de bermuda e chinelo," a move that's ilegible in English.

PT: Desço na Nossa Senhora ao 800, ali onde a Dias da Rocha da de bunda com a avenida. Com o Cristo Redentor coberto pela névoa, já se sabe que a chuva vem, mas até o Zeca Ribeiro teria nojo de mais uma noite de decadência às avessas neste apartamento. Zero contribuição ao cômputo do PIB. Caminho em direção ao contínuo Domingo Ferreira—Aires Saldanha, uma planária enfiada entre o chorume urbano e a umidade do beira-mar. Terça-feira é choro, de música e dos céus.

EN: I get off at Nossa Senhora number 800, where Dias da Rocha meets the avenue. With Christ the Redeemer covered by fog, it's already known that rain is coming, but even Zeca Ribeiro would be disgusted by another night of reversed decadence in this apartment. Zero contribution to the GDP calculation. I walk towards the continuous Domingo Ferreira—Aires Saldanha, a flatworm lodged between the urban waste and the humidity of the seaside. Tuesday is for crying, both for music and from the skies.

  • get off: GPT-4's choice sounds like I'm getting off a bus. In fact, I'm coming down the elevator from an apartment.
  • meets the avenue: "dar de bunda" conjures a little spoon scooting up towards a big spoon. I was trying to reference the odd plaza generated by the dead-end of Dias da Rocha, a geographical peculiarity in Rio.
  • it's already known: In using "já se sabe", I'm trying to evoke general wisdom through the passive voice (using a partícula apassivadora). This just comes out awkward in English.
  • reversed: Huymans' À rebours is translated in Portuguese to Às avessas, a reference which is completely lost.
  • calculation: I used "cômputo" instead of "cálculo", computation rather than calculation, stolen directly from Moraes, but also pointing towards a distinctly mechanistic process.
  • continuous: continuum indicates that the street changes name, but I won't be turning any corners on my path towards Bip-bip. Continuous, as used, is superfluous and doesn't clarify the odd hyphenation that follows.
  • waste: "chorume" is technical verbiage to describe the liquid waste at the bottom of trash, but it's often used coloquially. The direct translation would be "leachate". It can be used to describe the last group of dancers at a party, eking out the night. I imagine its frequency in colloquial use is due to its appearance in national entrance exams. I was referencing the marginal spaces beyond the touristic waterfront, the home for a flatworm to live.
  • crying: Choro is a genre of popular Brazilian music. "Chorar" also means to cry. Even this adolescent double-entendre got lost.

PT: Os pléibas (ler: a mulecada do médio) já me disseram que passando o Cantagalo já não é mais zona sul. Foda... Esqueceram do Jorge Ben alojado no anexo do Copacabana Palace? Até tem um Belmont para eles se refugiarem dos perigos cariocas, nem pensar numa Pedra de Sal ou uma roda mangueirense. Meu destino não é nada disso, nem vou sair da zona sul. Só vou até ali, o largo do Alfredinho. (Nem falar de ir andando à noite. Gaslighting de classe.)

EN: The plebs (read: the average young people) have already told me that passing Cantagalo is no longer the south zone. Damn... Did they forget about Jorge Ben staying in the annex of Copacabana Palace? There's even a Belmont for them to take refuge from the dangers of Rio, not to mention a Pedra de Sal or a Mangueirense wheel. My destination isn't any of that, nor am I leaving the south zone. I'm just going over there, to Alfredinho's square. (Not to mention walking at night. Class gaslighting.)

  • plebs: An oral rendering of "playboy" (→ pleiboy → pléiba). It is, in fact, the exact opposite of a pleb—a member of the financial elite.
  • read: average young people: "mulecada do médio" is a rendering of "molecada do ensino médio", i.e. the boys from high school. The parenthetical situates myself within this playboy milieu, while using "ler" implies self-deprecating sarcasm. This is lost with "read".
  • south zone: "Zona sul" is the wealthiest corner of Rio de Janeiro, from Flamengo to Leblon. You can't transliterate a proper noun.
  • wheel: A "roda de samba" constitutes a group of musicians, often sitting in a circle, playing samba. "Roda" also means wheel, but that's besides the point.
  • isn't any of that: I used "não é nada disso" to downplay the adventurousness of the evening. I'm not even leaving Zona Sul. The transliteration just sounds wrong.
  • I'm just going over there: Complete loss of the oral dimension of the writing. "Só vou até alí" is a kind of sleight-of-hand you'd use to go past a legal barrier, but only just a bit. It's the jeitinho brasileiro.
  • Class gaslighting: I can't render this in a pithy cutting phrase in English, necessary to avoid sounding like an asshole. The intention was to critique the pléibas in their relegation of distinctly middle-class areas of Rio as dangerous. It's a kind of social class gaslighting.

This is getting tiring for you isn't it... You can read the rest if you want, but I'm tired too. It seems that even adolescent attempts at literary writing are lost in the blur of statistical learning. Technology will continue to commoditize the core, but art operates in the periphery, among the glitches of language. Even if constantly de-valued, it's safe.

PT: Virando na Almirante Gonçalves, a premonição do Cristo se concretiza. O toldo da Karoline Coiffeur Unissex abriga um grupo de flamenguistas do torrencial. Uma roda de cadeiras de botequim rodeia a vitrine fechada, através da qual se espia a televisão. É final da Recopa Sul-Americana. Independiente do Ecuador já marcou 1x0 e a enrolação no campo é recebida com um "demora... demora filho da puta" dirigido às telas. A flauta vindo de duas casas à direita irrita os espectadores. Cultura popular dividida.

EN: Turning onto Almirante Gonçalves, Christ's premonition comes true. The awning of Karoline Coiffeur Unissex shelters a group of Flamengo fans from the downpour. A circle of bar chairs surrounds the closed storefront, through which they spy on the television. It's the South American Recopa final. Ecuador's Independiente has already scored 1x0, and the delay on the field is met with a "slow down... slow down, you son of a bitch" directed at the screens. The flute coming from two houses to the right irritates the viewers. Divided popular culture.

PT: Lá, o Bip Bip está lotado. São três mesas de boteco, cobertas por toalhas de plástico quadriculadas e uma breja para cada um da dúzia de músicos. Fintando e driblando com seu pandeiro, um ruivo calvo mantém a base. À direita está a velha guarda: dois violão e o senhor mais velho com uma tabuinha de percussão de vinte por dez centímetros, batendo inaudível com mini-baquetas. No fundo, os jovens: duas flautas e um trombone. À esquerda, um casal de meia-idade com flauta e clarinete. Pelo respeito palpável nas olhadas, parece que o convidado especial está no cavaquinho. O percussionista back-up é que tá no reco-reco. K-Ximbinho pede sossego enquanto ressoa um "vai, é tua porra" dos vizinhos.

EN: There, Bip Bip is packed. There are three bar tables, covered with checkered plastic tablecloths and a beer for each of the dozen musicians. Feinting and dribbling with his tambourine, a bald redhead keeps the base. To the right is the old guard: two guitars and the oldest man with a percussion board of twenty by ten centimeters, tapping inaudibly with mini-drumsticks. In the back, the youngsters: two flutes and a trombone. To the left, a middle-aged couple with a flute and clarinet. From the palpable respect in their glances, it seems that the special guest is on the cavaquinho. The back-up percussionist is on the reco-reco. K-Ximbinho asks for quiet while a "go, it's your turn, damn it" resonates from the neighbors.

PT: Sobre a calçada portuguesa um gordinho senta na única cadeirinha fora do bar, pés alpargatados cruzados no tornozelo. Ele vigia as entradas e saídas e pede para abaixarem a voz e que deixem de fumar embaixo do toldo. É a força moderadora aplicando as placas grudadas nas paredes: "Não fique aqui! Atrapalha", "Rio sem fumo", e "Perfume não combina com Bip Bip, Alfredinho é alérgico." Os espectadores ficam em pé do lado de fora, espiando o improviso de dentro, espelhando os torcedores e sua vitrine. Sobra só um corredorzinho à esquerda do conjunto que leva às duas geladeiras do fundo.

EN: On the Portuguese sidewalk, a chubby guy sits in the only chair outside the bar, espadrille-clad feet crossed at the ankle. He monitors the entrances and exits and asks people to lower their voices and to stop smoking under the awning. He is the moderating force applying the signs stuck on the walls: "Don't stay here! You're in the way," "Smoke-free Rio," and "Perfume doesn't mix with Bip Bip, Alfredinho is allergic." The spectators stand outside, peeking at the improvisation from within, mirroring the fans and their storefront. There's only a small corridor left to the left of the ensemble that leads to the two refrigerators in the back.

PT: Um cara me explica o esquema: "só pegar lá no fundo e avisar ele aqui ó." Voltando com uma latinha de Heineken, noto o papel quadriculado, sistema de "resource management". Meu nome vai na coluna da esquerda, com um palitinho ao lado, iniciando a contagem em quadradinhos de seis (os lados e as diagonais). Ao lado de uma pilha de CDs à venda, uma babushka de pratos fundos serve como caixa; notas de 5, 10, 20, e 50 escondidas entre cada matryoshka. Pergunto seu nome: "Matias." "Ah! Argentino?" Ele confirma o que a alpargata no pé e penteado grisalho já implica. Junto ao Arlt, somos três argentinos cativos da dulzura espesa, lenta, sabrosa carioca.

EN: A guy explains the scheme to me: "just grab it in the back and let him know here." Returning with a Heineken can, I notice the checkered paper, a "resource management" system. My name goes in the left column, with a little stick next to it, starting the count in squares of six (the sides and the diagonals). Next to a stack of CDs for sale, a babushka of deep plates serves as a cash register; 5, 10, 20, and 50 bills hidden between each matryoshka. I ask his name: "Matias." "Ah! Argentine?" He confirms what the espadrille on his foot and grayish hairstyle already imply. Along with Arlt, we are three Argentines captivated by the thick, slow, flavorful charm of Rio.

PT: As três horinhas de choro que eu acompanho só são rompidas pelos gritos e fogos do gol do Arrascaeta ao 90+6' para empatar no agregado. "Vamos, caralho!" A música de fato para, não tem como ignorar o som da cidade. "Falei que ia ser gol" resmunga o voyeur trans-cultural ao meu lado. Meia-hora depois, após o pênalti perdido do mesmo Arrascaeta, um berro tricolor apenas acentua o choro. Vejo uma barata escalando o trilho do portão.

EN: The three hours of choro music I follow are only interrupted by the shouts and fireworks of Arrascaeta's goal at the 90+6' to tie the aggregate. "Come on, damn it!" The music actually stops, there's no way to ignore the sound of the city. "I told you it was going to be a goal," grumbles the cross-cultural voyeur beside me. Half an hour later, after the missed penalty by the same Arrascaeta, a tricolor scream only accentuates the crying. I see a cockroach climbing the gate rail.

PT: Entro de novo pelo corredor, aproveitando para me encaixar em um cantinho livre ao lado dos músicos. As paredes estão repletas de imagens: Um pôster de metro por metro do Alfredo com o Lula, legendado "sem medo de ser feliz." Ao lado, uma garrafa Red Label fantasiada de fantoche com a faixa presidencial, uma estrela vermelha, e a barba característica. Continuando pelo salão, uma bandeira del Che com o logo do MST. Uma foto do Pepe Mujica, assinada: "Por pátria para todos los latino-americanos." Outro pôster: um grupo de ushanka segurando uma bandeira escrita "Brasileiros saúdam a Revolução Bolchevique."

EN: I enter again through the corridor, taking the opportunity to fit into a small free corner next to the musicians. The walls are filled with images: A poster of Alfredo with Lula, captioned "unafraid to be happy." Beside it, a Red Label bottle dressed as a puppet with the presidential sash, a red star, and the characteristic beard. Continuing through the hall, a flag of Che with the MST logo. A photo of Pepe Mujica, signed: "For a homeland for all Latin Americans." Another poster: a group in ushankas holding a flag that reads "Brazilians salute the Bolshevik Revolution."

PT: Uma onda passa pela roda, cadeiras se mexendo, músicos levantando as bundas mas sem parar de tocar. Espio a barata de novo, já na parede do fundo ao lado da flautista. Ela parece ter fobia mesmo. Puxo a Havaianas do pé e com um sshhtack contra um armário metálico, dou minha única contribuição musical da noite, a última nota do choro. Todo mundo ri. O ócio digno continua.

EN: A wave passes through the circle, chairs moving, musicians lifting their butts but not stopping playing. I spy the cockroach again, already on the back wall next to the flutist. She seems to have a real phobia. I pull off my Havaianas and with a sshhtack against a metal cabinet, I give my only musical contribution of the night, the last note of the choro. Everyone laughs. The dignified idleness continues.

Cristóbal Sciutto, Abril 2023.