An All-New 'Epitaph' -- Two, In Fact

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-02-02 16:00:00-05:00 No comments

Purchase on Amazon
Purchase on Amazon

Somehow, when my back was turned, two new translations appeared of one of my favorite novels, Machado de Asssis's Epitaph Of A Small Winner a/k/a The Posthumous Memoirs Of Bras Cubas. One is from Penguin; the other from Liveright. That brings the total translations in English of this singular piece of work to four. I cut my teeth on the original, from the 1950s, and I've read the 2nd one (which is more for scholarly interest than literary quality), but I'm now making a near-term project of reading the others and seeing how they shape up.

De Assis is one of those talents that just seems to come out of nowhere, and who has almost no followers because he could not have been said to embody any particular school. He was singular, and singular talents are what draw my attention most, both for good reasons and bad. I know by now that any singular talent is not worth trying to emulate, but that doesn't mean they aren't someone you can learn from.

The difference between those two things is worth talking about in de Assis's case. I don't think it makes sense to "write like that", or to create what would amount to modern-day clones of his work. Even if his work is pretty much timeless at this point, and updating it wouldn't be difficult, it would miss the point — which is to learn why he took the approach he did to his material, and to what end. That's something you can apply outwardly to any number of different things that don't even come close to resembling de Assis's work.

The whole point of reading as widely as you can is to find out what else is possible, especially when it comes to reading what comes from a time and place removed from your own. Different circumstances of different creators force different needs. Ousmane Sembène taught me things Machado de Assis could not and did not, and vice versa.

One last thing, and the one I'm most curious about with these two new products, is how the translations measure up against each other and their predecessors. The linked New York Times article has some notes to that effect: the Liveright version's more readable, the Penguin version's more scholarly, both in line with previous experience with both imprints. I wasn't terribly happy with Penguin's new version of Sōseki Natsume's Kokoro, for instance; the old McClellan translation still does it for me, although I like having the new one for the sake of contrast.

Tags: Machado De Assis Portuguese fiction literature translation