By Saskia Vogel
Since the Brazilian Ministry of Culture/Brazilian National Library revamped their incentive program for internationalizing their literature in 2011, we’ve seen Brazil be the guest of honor at Frankfurt, Bologna and be highlighted by Granta magazine in their 2012 Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue. But how is it going? What challenges are they still facing? Publishing Perspectives caught up with the Ministry of Culture at the 30th annual Göteborg Book Fair, and three of the twenty-five visiting Brazilian novelists.
In a presentation at the fair on Sunday, September 28 at the Brazilian stand Renato Lessa, President of the Brazilian National Library (BNL), and Moema Salgado, Coordinator at the BNL, presented the successes and challenges of the incentive programs for the translation of Brazilian literature and its internationalization through exchange programs and residencies.
Lasso asserted the soft diplomatic function of spreading Brazilian literature, which “was always a window we used to observe what the country is like” and that literature was the best way to get to know the Brazilian mindset. The ultimate outcome of the programs, according to Lasso is when a Brazilian novel becomes de-nationalized. He gave the example of James Joyce: that he is not read because we want to primarily learn about Ireland, but because the novel is part of a global cultural conversation. “You can compare it to listening to bossa nova while drinking sake in Tokyo. It feels natural and no one questions it.”
Since 1991, 710 translation grants have been awarded for literature, humanities-related books and children’s books. Salgado noted that though there has been an increase in translations—77% percent of grants awarded have been awarded between 2010 and today—their main challenge is helping the global publishing industry to understand and embrace the complexity and diversity of Brazilian literature and moving beyond stereotypical stories of urban violence, favelas, carnival and Amazonia. This limited understanding is one of the challenges in effectively promoting Brazilian lit abroad. Since 2010 and in descending order, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, the US, Romania, Mexico, the UK and Sweden have received the most translation grants. Another remit is to spread Brazilian literature to other Portuguese-speaking countries. Ten grants were awarded in 2012 for this program. “Our role is to enable, facilitate and contribute to promoting Brazilian intellectual activity abroad without interfering with the market,” Salgado said.
But what do these programs look like from the writer’s perspective? We asked three novelists who’ve been touring the international circuit at least since the Granta Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue how the international attention has impacted their writing lives and the most surprising outcome of their internationalization has been.
Diario da Queda, novel, sold to eleven countries. Journalist.
Cultural importance comes after economic and political importance. It’s natural that Brazil tries to put itself in a more important global position, something that I support as a writer and as a citizen. But in individual, artistic terms, it is different. Of course it’s very nice to be translated and to read/listen what people from other countries have to say about my work, but in certain way these are all external stuff. The writing itself remain the same: me in front of the computer trying to express myself in a way that doesn’t have to do with market or other people’s expectations. I like this all because it’s a kind of radical freedom that I will always have.[The most surprising development is] the translations of my book. The foreign editions were published mostly during the last year, so I face different reactions for my work that the ones I was used to. This is fantastic. But again: it’s something external, that comes after the work itself.
Noites de Alface, novel, sold in five countries. Journalist, translator.
I’ve managed to work for The New York Times because of Granta. Last year, one of the op-ed editors of the NYT was looking for a young local writer to talk about June protests and street rallies in Brazil—they read Granta‘s issue, they liked my short story and invited me to try something for them. It worked. Later they launched The International New York Times and I was called to write another piece as a test. It was also well received, so they invited me for the team of contributing writers. I now write a monthly piece on Brazilian (or turtle) issues. I guess this is the most surprising thing for me, since I’ve always said to my friends I would never live abroad, at least for more than a year, since I write in Portuguese—then I had to begin writing in English, which is a really unexpected and almost impossible thing for me.
Also Noites de Alface is being translated in five languages: French, German, Italian, Czech and Swedish.
Blood-Drenched Beard, novel, sold in ten countries. Translator, columnist.
I think the effort is paying off. In the last few years, besides being invited to all sorts of literary events worldwide, you can see a lot of Brazilian writers getting translated and reviewed in several countries. In my opinion the translation grants intensified by the government were the most important factor, aside from the fact the the country attracted foreign attention for political and economic reasons, and also because of the World Cup. But this effort must be continued after Brazil is out of the headlights, otherwise the progress can be lost. Many writers from different demographics and literary trends were not represented in Granta and the Frankfurt fair, and they should be able to benefit from this momentum, too. One great difference, I guess, is that now translated Brazilian fiction is no longer limited to its exotic or violent appeal, with all those stereotypes related to football, samba, favelas, tropical settings. Now the interested foreign reader can see beyond this, finding unexpected places and cultural elements, as well as the personal, social and political conflicts of a globalized nation still struggling to be truly modern.
I can now make a living from my own writing. That´s wonderful and unexpected enough.
Saskia Vogel is a translator and co-founder of Dialogue Berlin, a collective of communication strategists.