Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Translation Issue—Issue 51, March 2015)

River to the Sea: a commentary by Erín Moure

This excerpt is from a translation of Mar Paraguayo by the late Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno, a book whose original irrepressibly, irrigorously and reverently does not comply with Immigration regulations. It is in Portunhol or Portuñol, a border mixture of Spanish and Portuguese from a place where Brazil and Argentina touch Paraguay, mixed with Guaraní, a language that long precedes colonial borders. Key to the book is the relation of these three languages and their maleabilities, tensions and temptations, their tensilities, and the rhythms that bind them. A translation must not only attend to semantic values, but to this rhythmic binding, through which the “meaning” or meaning effects of Bueno’s text are conducted.

The book is a sublime love story, a story that moves in gender traversals, travestias. It is a homage to life, a story of the fact of being embodied. Who is this narrating woman who has loved two men, both old and young? Is the narrator really a woman, or a gay man calling himself a woman in that old-fashioned way of gay men? The whole book is a mar paraguayo, not a still body of endless horizon, but a moving Paraguayan river-to-the-sea of identities and shifts of phonic marphonics on a hot day in December or cold day in June on a Brazilian-Atlantic shore. It is a story worth reading in English for its rhythms and undulations, its vascularity and mimesis and shiftings, its impossibility of being pinned down. Except to say: we only thrive through love.

Twelve years ago, in 2003, I translated two small excerpts for the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009), turning Bueno’s Portunhol infused with Guaraní into “Franglawk,” combining English, French and Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), the main languages in the place where I did the translation (Montreal). Though Bueno and others urged me to continue, I was able to sustain the cadence only for a few pages. I did not have the resources to help with Kanien’kehá:ka, and online dictionaries were then minimal; I did not want to appropriate this language foolishly, from outside, to “stand in” for the Guaraní.

In attending to the tensilities and rhythms between the trio of languages, I wanted a northern version of Paraguayan Sea that would be trilingual/admixtured but still readable in English. My invented Frenglish, an English containing French, is inspired by Quebec English, but intensified. It’s not really readable in French, just in English, whereas Bueno’s Portunhol is quite readable in Spanish and fairly readable in Portuguese. The indigenous language proved more difficult. Guaraní is co-official in Paraguay, and alive in the area where Portunhol is spoken, primarily where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. The language has a closer relationship or cohabitation to Portuguese and Spanish speakers there than do any of the indigenous languages of Canada with French and English speakers in our day. In the past, such relationships did exist, and English and French—until the early 20th century—absorbed words of Cree and Anishinaabe, Nsilxcín and Dane-zaa, Siksika and other languages as people dealt, separately and together, with the specificities of the lands of Turtle Island, what we know as America. But the forced removal, throughout much of the twentieth century, of First Nations children to residential schools, where they were starved and beaten into “assimilation,” acted to break generational transmission of language. A minor effect of this was that direct and equal contacts between indigenous languages and English/French were also severed.

Now, post-residential-school and post-government-apology-for-residential-schools, there is a lot of catching up to do just so that people can rebuild the generational transmission of their languages. Because of this, use of an indigenous language in a literary project that belongs to a European/colonial tradition is a fraught issue, and cannot simply and blindly be assumed. Languages are not there for us to simply use, at times. Why should a threatened language of Canadian spaces want to be in an unusual mixture of a confessional novel by a Brazilian from Paraná, translated by a Galician-Ukrainian-Canadian poet from Quebec? What is serving whom here? Whose identity is here spaced, spaced out, interspaced?

I decided to trust Bueno’s own admonition that Guaraní is essential to the text, and with his Guaraní and my Frenglish, I worked to respect the beautiful undulations of Bueno’s poetic prose, and create a text that allows a Canadian English speaker, I hope, to read the beauty and radicality of what Wilson Bueno did. As for other English speakers, they’ll find it a bit more mysterious, but will fall into its rhythms too, I think.

Even so, my translation does oblige English-speaking readers of Paraguayan Sea to confront unreadability in a way that the Portunharaní original does not. Spanish and Portuguese, in their close linguistic proximity, work, in Bueno’s text, synchronically, alongside each other, keeping time moving in the same direction, while Guaraní interrupts rhythmically, and also sends readers to the dictionary at the back (making the book a “page turner,” a sculpture) to grasp meanings. The book has to be held in the hands, moved: the body interrupts the narrative by turning pages to reach the dictionary, over and over again. In Paraguayan Sea, however, because English and French are less proximate, they don’t operate synchronically in the text, but diachronically, breaking up the movement of time, and the rhythm as well.

Paraguayan Sea, I hope, provides one answer to the question of how to create in the “no traducir,” in the “ne pas traducir,” to create, alive with translation’s mise en abyme or entre-lugar, which are one with its possibility. To quote Nelson Perlongher on Wilson Bueno: “How to create a minor language (in the Deleuzian sense) that mines the imposturous majesty of major languages?” Inscribing the risk directly into the structure, as Wilson Bueno did, to make us aware of the fragility of all languages, all beings, all hearts.