David Brookshaw: A word from the translator
David Brookshaw, translator of Mia Couto's Confession of the Lioness, a 2015 Man Booker International finalist, tells us about his experience of translating this poetic novel, inspired by true events.
Tandi is buried early in the morning. There aren’t many people at her funeral. Most of them are women. The administrator puts in an appearance, accompanied by his wife. The deceased was, after all, their maid. The absence of her boss would provoke suspicion in the village. In contrast to her hisband, Naftalinda looks shattered. At one point she tried to make a speech. But her sobs prevent her from speaking. She composes herself, wipes away her tears, and gradually assumes a pose of majestic grandeur:
The lions are besieging the village and the men continue to send the women out to look after the allotments, continue to send their daughters and wives to collect firewood and water in the early morning. When are we going to say no? When there are none of us left?
Extract from Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Harvill Secker, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw.
Interview by Georgina Jeronymides-Norie.
1) You have translated a number of books by Mia Couto. Do you work closely with the author or do you prefer to work independently? What was the translation process for Confession of the Lioness?
The process for translating Confession of the Lioness was the same as that followed for translating Mia Couto's other fiction. During the first draft, I made a list of doubts and queries I had, and e-mailed them to Mia. He clarified these in Portuguese and occasionally expressed a preference for one of the English options I had tentatively suggested. Mia has always been very supportive and prompt in replying to my questions, and he seems to trust me in my efforts to convey his writing to an English-speaking readership, so I'd like to think we have developed a good working relationship.
2) The novel has been praised for its particularly poetic use of language and phrasing. What challenges were you faced with in terms of translating and portraying the musicality of the Portuguese language into English?
I don't think that the challenges I faced when translating Confession of the Lioness were any greater than when translating previous novels and short stories by Mia Couto. His linguistic playfulness, often expressed through neologisms, puns and other plays on words, is what fascinated his Portuguese readers from the start. Translating these into English is not always easy and has to be done sometimes in such a way that the spirit of the original is translated rather than the original Portuguese per se. His turn of phrase is also sometimes slightly quirky, and one has to try and capture that in English. But it's probably true to say that while he still occasionally indulges his readers in his unorthodox use of Portuguese, he doesn't do it as much as he used to, at least in his longer fiction. What is a constant in Couto's novels is his poetic imagery – we mustn't forget that his first published work was poetry, and he continues to publish in this genre. For me, some of his most poetic evocations are of the landscapes and seascapes of the country he knows so well, and which clearly mean a great deal to him. In translating these, I try to give these evocations a similar poetic charge in English by subliminally thinking of landscapes and seascapes that mean a lot to me.
3) Set in Mozambique, a country at war with itself for three decades, Confession of the Lioness is inspired by true events and touches on many issues, including the societal effects of violence and the subjugation of women. What message do you personally take away from the book?
In Confession of the Lioness, as well as in his previous novel, The Tuner of Silences, Mia has given particular focus to the subjugation of women and men's violence towards them. But it's true to say, that has always been an issue that has featured in his work, even in Voices Made Night, his first short stories to appear in English over twenty years ago. In his fiction, women are the nurturers, men are responsible for the destruction that occurs in war, for brutality and greed. For me, the message that emerges from this novel is that nothing in the world is exclusive to itself, by which I mean that all living things are mutually dependent on one another.
4) During the novel, we hear from three different voices: Mariamar Mpepe, imprisoned at home by her father after her sister is killed by lions, Archangel Bullseye, the man hired to hunt the lions, and we even hear from the lioness herself. Which of these voices was your favourite, either to translate or in general?
The first thing to say is that translating is a kind of hybrid activity. Like a reader, the translator engages with the text critically, but like a writer, he or she must try and enter the minds of the different characters through the craft of translation. So I think it would be wrong for me to declare any favouritism! In some ways, the most complete voice is Bullseye's in that we know about his past, and the fact that he eventually appears to have found love, gives his experience in the narrative a sense of closure from past suffering, and a new sense of harmony. The same goes for the administrator and his wife, who redeem themselves morally, and regain love. Even the maternal instincts of Mariamar's mother re-emerge in the end. But Mariamar's voice is more tentative and ultimately silenced because she is a young woman whose only experience of affection was that shown by her grandfather, and her only hope for love that which had once been invested in Bullseye. We are left far less certain in the end whether her departure from the village in which she has spent her whole life, is going to restore any sort of harmony to her life, because in so many ways she has only ever been a victim. She is a lost soul, and as both reader and translator of her voice, I am more troubled by her.
5) Describe the book in three words.
I can't describe it in three words. It's a laconic tale of reconciliation between past and present, nostalgia and need for change.
About the translator
David Brookshaw was born in London. He is Professor of Luso-Brazilian Studies at Bristol University, with a specialist interest in postcolonial literatures in Portuguese, comparative literature,and literary translation. He has translated a number of books by Mia Couto, including Sleepwalking Land and A River Called Time. He has also compiled an anthology of stories by the Portuguese writer José Rodrigues Miguéis, The Polyhedric Mirror: Tales of American Life, as well as translating stories of immigrant life in North America by the Portuguese/Azorean/New England writer Onésimo Almeida, Tales from the Tenth Island.