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Alison Entrekin

Alison Entrekin: A word from the translator - 'heartfelt, haunting, sensual'

Alison Entrekin talks to English PEN about translating The House in Smyrna - a startling and powerful novella from one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists, Tatiana Salem Levy, which explores the idea of returning to one’s origins in order to move forward.

I have no idea what awaits me on this path I have chosen. Nor do I know if I'm doing the right thing - much less if there is any logic in the undertaking, an acceptable explanation for it. But I am looking for a purpose, a name, a body. And for this reason I'll make the journey back, to see if I haven't lost them somewhere - some place I have yet to know. 

Extract from The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy (Scribe Publications, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin.

Interview by Georgina Jeronymides-Norie.


1) The narrator negatively describes the circumstances in which she was born (her parents exiled in Portugal), a heavy and unhappy tale, which the reader presumes is the truth. That is until her mother, who is deceased, corrects her: ‘That isn’t what I told you’, and then describes happier circumstances. This exchange raises two questions; the first concerns the translation of truth, whether it’s possible to maintain the purity of a story when the words through which it is told change. The second concerns the interpretation of what one hears or reads – even if the truth is passed on in its purest form, are we able to interpret that truth as it was intended to be? With that in mind, to what extent is your translation of The House in Smyrna a reflection of personal interpretations?

I’m not sure that there is a single objective truth to be found here. I think that memory and family history are deceptive things that can be reread and recast in different ways over the course of one’s lifetime. When I first read A chave de casa (the title in Portuguese, which literally means 'the key to home'), I wasn’t particularly concerned with the gulf between the narrator’s and the mother’s takes on things. I think they have different truths, and at this point in the narrator’s life, the facts of her heritage are painful. She is young, and questions of nation and identity can be confusing for anyone at this age, let alone someone with such a long family history of displacement. 

I don’t think personal interpretation really came into play in the translation – at least I hope it didn’t! I mean, if the narrator says 'ABC' and the mother says 'XYZ', then in the translation the narrator should say 'ABC' and the mother, 'XYZ'. Semantically speaking, things are what they are and I saw no reason to tamper with them.

2) Do you find that each book you translate brings with it a new set of unique challenges and rewards? If so, what challenges did you encounter while translating The House in Smyrna and what did you find particularly rewarding? 

Absolutely. Each book brings with it a vastly different set of challenges, but I find that more often than not they are stylistic in nature. I find it fascinating to see how cultural conditioning and aesthetic expectations come to bear on the way a translation is received. In fact, I am more and more convinced that Lusophones and Anglophones have quite different sets of literary aesthetics.

For example (and there are, of course, exceptions), sentences in Portuguese are often longer than sentences in English. A witty or clever passage in Portuguese can sometimes come across as wordy or pedantic in English (and, by the same token, what is clear and to-the-point in English can often feel somewhat simplistic in Portuguese). I also think that Brazilians are more at home with overt displays of emotion than we are; we Anglophones are more at ease with restraint.

All of these things come to play in the way translations are read – and they are thus the things I most fret over as I work. I will often recast sentences, break them up, join them, rework noun-based phrases into verb-driven ones and make tiny – though significant – adjustments to punctuation in an effort to recreate the overall atmosphere of the original. I firmly believe that a work of literature is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a synergistic experience, and I want readers of my translation to have as similar an experience as possible to that of readers of the original. 

I am careful not to alter the meaning itself, though I may tweak the delivery, so to speak. For example, if a Brazilian writer uses a lot of commas where we would use full stops (and it is jarring in English because it makes readers stop and try to get their bearings, whereas it reads fluidly for Brazilians), I make adjustments to the punctuation in order to keep it flowing. Or if a beautiful, emotive sentence in Portuguese seems maudlin in a direct translation into English, I might rein it in slightly so that the end result has the same impact as the sentence in the original. 

Although Tatiana Salem Levy’s work is easy enough for Brazilians to read in the original, I found myself musing over all these things as I translated The House in Smyrna. Tatiana has a distinctive writing style that spills across the page in Portuguese, with emotionally (and sexually) charged passages that ooze around vivid imagery, and it took me a while to find the right balance for those same passages in English. I revised some of them literally dozens of times! 

3) The House in Smyrna is consistently narrated by an unnamed young woman, however, the story is told in fragments, alternating between time, place and character, sometimes several times in the space of just a few pages. Particularly emotionally jarring for the reader are the switches between intimate memories of the narrator’s last days with her terminally ill mother, to graphic sex scenes with the narrator’s (violent) lover. Is this contrast equally as shocking in the original Brazilian-Portuguese?

Yes, it is, although this kind of fragmented narrative is something you see a bit more in Portuguese, which may make it somewhat more natural for readers of the original.

4) This small but complex novella explores many themes including migration, displacement, home, identity and love. In your opinion, does this book offer an answer as to whether an individual’s sense of belonging, in this case a third generation descendant of Turkey, lies in external factors such as place and language, or internal factors such as understanding and making peace with one’s heritage and self?

I think the upheavals and losses that come with migration (whether to avoid religious or political persecution or to seek a better life – all scenarios depicted in this novel) are often felt several generations down the line, more strongly by some family members than others. There is even some fascinating new research that suggests that epigenetic memory can be passed from parents to children: that is, things like fear and traumatic experiences can be transmitted across generations through DNA markers that are switched on or off by an individual’s experiences. If this is true, it might even lend scientific validity to the fact that the narrator feels her family’s displacement as a debilitating physical condition at the beginning of the book.

Retracing her family’s footsteps from Brazil to Turkey, and Turkey to Portugal, she not only discovers that she has a Turkish face, but that her family is descended from Sephardi Jews, who took up residence in Turkey when they were banished from the Iberian Peninsula centuries earlier. They still speak Ladino, a Romance language derived from old Spanish, which bears many similarities to the narrator’s native Portuguese. In other words, her family history is one long story of displacement. But just because your ancestors are from a place doesn’t mean you necessary belong there. The narrator identifies with the culture in many ways, and feels like an outsider in others. Her journey reveals just how multi-faceted her heritage really is. Also, as anyone who has travelled extensively knows, distance can put a lot of things in perspective. I think she eventually returns to Brazil a happier person.

5) Describe the book in three words.
Heartfelt, haunting, sensual.


About the translator

Alison Entrekin has translated a number of works by Brazilian and Portuguese authors into English, including City of God by Paulo Lins and Budapest by Chico Buarque, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the United Kingdom. Originally from Australia, she now lives in Brazil.

Read more about The House in Smryna and vote for it to win on the World Bookshelf.

Find out more about PEN-supported authors, including Tatiana Salem Levy, on the World Bookshelf.

Posted by Georgina Norie, Tuesday 15th September, 2015

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