Thursday, December 16, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 16, Thomas Mira y Lopez: José J. Veiga's "Professor Pulquério"

After José J. Veiga's "Professor Pulquério" & Alejandro Zambra's "Multiple Choice"

When I was a boy and lived in a 1) _____ in the interior, I watched 2) ______ strange episode involving a professor and his family. Although many years have passed since then, the details of what happened still live on in my memory, at least those details that made the strongest impression on me. As no one alive during that time seems to remember the events, and many even doubt that such things happened—the professor’s own daughter, for instance, whom I saw running around in 3) _____, crying and begging for help, looked at me in 4) _____ and swore she didn’t remember anything when I spoke to her about the subject two or three years ago—I’ve resolved to put into writing everything I remember, before my own memory begins to 5) _____ as well. If my testimony one day falls into the hands of some patient investigator, it’s possible that the occurrence, already so old and, in my view, so completely forgotten except by my 6) _____, will be disinterred, discussed, and at last 7) _____.

1)  a. town
     b. village
     c. city
     d. settlement

2)  a. an exceedingly
     b. a rather
     c. quite a
     d. a considerably

3)  a. _________
     b. ________________
     c. _____
     d. ____________

4)  a. 

5)  a. falter
     b. fade
     c. wane
     d. slip

6) Please rank the Narrator’s reliability on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “least reliable” and 5 is “most reliable”:

     < ---- 1 ---- 2 ---- 3 ---- 4 ---- 5 ---- >

7) Please circle what you think will happen in this story:

     a. The Professor will disappear down a well.
     b. The Professor will turn into a snake.
     c. The Professor will vanish into the air.
     d. The Professor will travel in time.
     e. The Narrator is the Professor.

On the translation:

The text above is a translation of the opening paragraph from “Professor Pulquério,” a short story by José J. Veiga, the 20th century Brazilian novelist and fiction writer. “Professor Pulquério” appears in Veiga’s first book, Os Cavalinhos de Platiplanto, a collection of stories published in 1959 when Veiga was 43. The translation, however, is modeled after Alejandro Zambra’s 2014 novel Multiple Choice, a text whose prose takes the structure of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, an exam used to determine university entrance. The omittance or inclusion of words from the translation—i.e. the blank spaces and corresponding questions—is not present in Veiga’s original story. The idea here is a translation that covers Veiga’s content and Zambra’s form.

In general, I love covers, and I’m tempted, as with the term essay, to call many things covers that aren’t strictly so. A translation is a cover. Or, a translation can function as a cover, and thus ask us to consider the distortions and influences a translation is subject to. When I say the translation above omits or includes certain words due to Zambra’s influence, I’m telling the truth but also furthering an illusion. Aside from the cognate professor, it would be more accurate for me to say that the translation omits every single word of Veiga’s Portuguese and that, instead, every single word included is the translation’s—is my—own. Of course, that’s not to say I thought of all those words on my own. And when I claim I modeled my translation after Zambra’s novel, what I really mean is that I modeled my translation after Megan McDowell’s translation of Zambra’s novel. And, what’s more, both the novel and its translation are based upon the author(s) of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, who are unknown. The plot of “Professor Pulquério” concerns a failed academic, who writes niche articles nobody reads and drives himself crazy looking for a treasure that most likely isn’t actually there.

By calling a translation a cover, I would like to give the reader a brief sense of decisions the translator faces. In a New Yorker interview with Deborah Treisman about Multiple Choice, Zambra said he believes his book “as a whole [argues] against the illusion of a single right answer,” while still being “about the wish for that answer, the naïve or visceral desire for there to be a truth.” This reads like a neat summation of the translator’s dilemma. Every word is different from the original, yet carried out so that the original’s spirit—whatever that means—remains the same. You need to get it right, yet you’re also supposed to pretend you’re not there. In providing the reader a choice around the translation, my hope is that we might consider the multiplicity of translation, while having, on our screens, multiple translations. Each of us will read the text in multiple ways, just as you and I right now are reading these words differently.

I also wanted the reader to develop their own sense of the text, leading them to their own decisions about how to read it. The above result, however, wasn’t what I expected. Multiple choice leads to less choice, in its way—for example, the reader is more likely to find the narrator unreliable in this version, precisely because of the imposed form’s implicit and explicit mentions of reliability. By the end of the text, the form becomes so intrusive the reader is not able to complete its reading on their own. The translator makes themselves known, yet perhaps only as a nuisance.

The answer, by the way, is a)—the Professor always disappears down a well.


Thomas Mira y Lopez is the author of The Book of Resting Places (Counterpoint Press). He has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona, and is pursuing an MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.

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