by Zoë Perry
If you were to ask me why you should read All Dogs are Blue, by Brazilian writer Rodrigo de Souza Leão, my immediate reply would be: because you’ve never read anything like it. Nothing from Latin America, nothing from Brazil, nor from anywhere else, and unlike any book I’ve ever read on mental illness. It’s a book that resists categorization and comparison, but that sits comfortably in its own unique skin. The author’s experimental use of language is an exercise in modernism, but a refreshingly successful exercise, not one that tries to be different just for its own sake.
Including All Dogs are Blue within the Creative Literary Studio’s current theme of South American writing, my first thought was that the book doesn’t feel particularly ‘Latin American’, at least not the way many English-speaking readers are lead to conceive of literature from that region. There are elements of surreal fantasy, but that’s not so much a nod to magical realism as a symptom of the narrator’s madness. The book takes place largely inside a Rio de Janeiro mental institution, but the images and experiences described within it originate from within the author’s head more than any particular geographical location. Rodrigo was also a prolific poet, and his writing in the novel often seems to exist somewhere between the borders of poetry and prose.
Translating All Dogs are Blue together with Stefan Tobler was a lot of fun, as well as a challenge. Apart from the twisted language used by Rodrigo, and a narrator prone to paranoia and hallucinations, the text also holds an amazing number of literary and cultural references. We had to be constantly on our toes to pick up these references, as many of them were deeply woven into the text. One of the many positive aspects of the co-translation process was that we were able to watch each other’s back, so to speak, and catch anything that might have slipped past the other. Funk Carioca song lyrics, 18th century French poetry, 20th century Peruvian poetry, and Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies were just some of the obstacles we faced. We generally handled these tricky parts by finding an equivalent that would transmit the same meaning to an English-speaking audience (keeping in mind our readership is based in several countries), or by explaining it, either in the text itself or in an endnote.
Although I’m not generally a fan of endnotes in a novel, I feel our limited use in All Dogs Are Blue allowed us to maintain the flow and rhythm of the text and still give important background information. Sometimes entire paragraphs of background information were contained in a single word or phrase. For example, our first and longest endnote was for ‘It’s only Tupi in Anhembi’. To break it down, let’s start with the word Tupi. The Tupi were one of the main ethnic groups of Brazilian indigenous people and inhabited most of the Brazilian coast when the Portuguese first arrived. Their language, also called Tupi (as well as other languages in the Tupi language family) has heavily influenced the Portuguese language spoken in Brazil today, primarily in names for flora and fauna, and place names. Anhembi is the name of a small town in the state of São Paulo, and is of Tupi derivation. The phrase itself is a nod to Brazilian poet and founder of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade. In one of his most important works, Cannibal Manifesto, he uses the iconic line ‘Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question.’ And I could go on and on. This is just one example of how deeply de Souza Leão could go in just a few words.
Sometimes, however, I was very happy when a nice, neat solution presented itself and no footnote was necessary. One example was a section where the author uses the image of a fictional and very obese character called Dona Redonda, who famously exploded on a popular, but somewhat surrealist, telenovela from the 1970s called Saramandaia (and which I discovered has been remade this year). Obese fictional character who explodes on film? Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life could hardly be more ideal. Here is an extract of the translated text:
Why are you crying, fatso? I cry for the fatsos of the world, for those who want to eat an apple pie, a chocolate truffle. But who don’t have the money to buy all the treats in the world. Me, I cry because I want to eat you. Oh, you bastard! Eat you roasted. I’d do like the cannibals and eat people. But I’d rather be less crazy and stick to sugar. Chocolate éclairs, napoleons, chocolate chip ice cream, coconut sweets, peanut brittle. I’d get so fat, I’d blow up like Mr Creosote.
All Dogs Are Blue packs an incredible amount of heart, soul, humour, and sadness, as well as tricky translation problems, into just a little over 100 pages. As translators, it tested our Portuguese language skills, our familiarity with Brazilian pop culture, and even our worldwide literary knowledge. In the end I was satisfied with our various solutions and hope that a little bit more of the world can enjoy Souza Leão’s incredible style and emotion.
© (Zoë Perry) 2013
Zoë Perry is a Canadian-American translator who grew up in rural southeastern Kentucky. She completed a BA in French and International Studies at Guilford College and an MA in Intercultural Communication at Anglia Ruskin University. After living and working in Brazil for four years, and briefer periods in Portugal, France, Spain and Russia, she is currently based in the UK. Her co-translation of Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s All Dogs are Blue with Stefan Tobler was published in 2013 by And Other Stories.