Translating indigenous verbal art: Kelly Lincoln interviews Malcolm McNee

Malcolm McNee is an Associate Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Smith College.   He is the author of The Environmental Imaginary in Brazilian Poetry and Art, and and the translator of Eden-Brazil by Moacyr Scliar. He is currently working on an anthology of Brazilian environmental writing in translation.

When did you feel qualified to translate, and especially when did you feel qualified to translate professionally?

That’s a good question. I still don’t know that I feel qualified. I feel like I can read closely; I feel like I’ve been working with the language and traveling in Brazil and in the language, and I’ve been reading widely for over 20 years, and so in those senses I felt qualified. In translation theory, in some of the mechanics and decisions that if you do translation studies you think about – totally unqualified.

When and how do you know if a student is ready to translate?

I don’t have a good answer to that. I think that it really depends on the student, and it has to do with interest and motivation to a certain extent. I think a lot of it has to do with how strong of a writer they are, in English, and also developing those close reading skills. They need to recognize when they are uncertain, and then have a sort of openness to figuring out what to do with that uncertainty. So I think that comes as an individual thing.

Lots of people have metaphors around how they view translation; how you feel about the process of translation?

I find the process can be extremely gratifying in the sense that translation has a tempo that is disruptive of the typical tempo in which we tend to operate. In some ways, translation forces me to read in a way that I often don’t feel like I can read as much as I would like to; it compels a sort of close reading. If I had to give a metaphor for it, translation is one access to a meditative state within my work. That flow state. When it’s good, it’s fully absorbing and you lose that dominant sense of temporality.

How do you know if a translation is done?

Hmmmm. As related to the anthology project [my     current work, being done in partnership with Rex Nielson of BYU], this is going to be a hard question. Because I can make a decision about when my own translation is done, but when it comes to somebody else’s translation work, and where I’m going to restrain myself from imposing choices that I would have made that they didn’t make, that’s going to be tricky. But with my own work, I do have a sense of; if I go through it, what are the decisions that I’m uncertain about? It’s done when I’ve come to a certainty about the decisions or else I understand the limitations of my decision, like in the case that there isn’t a better option. I’m not going to discover a better option. You can read through and tinker, but it’s done and ready for final copy editing when I’ve solved those problems for myself in the text.

Do you ever find yourself, after your work has been published, still wishing you could change things?

Yeah. Within my scholarly book, there was a lot of translation involved because the book was written in English but about, at least in part, on Portuguese language poets. In citing their work, I would include my translations for those passages. So as I went back to some of those poets to think about translating them for the anthology I’m now working on, I made a fair amount of changes to those translations and found stuff where, knowing what I know now or just looking at it again, I would make this change and come up with a different version of it.

Is that frustrating or exciting that you can continue to look at it and still find new things?

I think it’s both. I think sometimes it’s like oh bummer, I shouldn’t have made that mistake, or like wow, what was I thinking. But I think it’s also kind of exciting that it depends to a certain extent upon the purpose of your translation. For the translation within the context of critical commentary, I needed to do it in some way so as to tie it with that commentary. Because the translation is more illustrative of my own argument, which maybe is putting things backwards, but I think it’s to a certain extent inevitable. That’s driving your translation, because a translation in that sense is very tied to interpretation. Redoing those for a different context, I might not want to be making so directly a critical argument with my translation. I want to be a little more attentive or sensitive to other possibilities, about sound or some other aspect. So that’s exciting, but also sometimes as I think about that, I get a little uncomfortable about that authorship of the translation. I know that in translation studies theory, there is the ad absurdum “there is no bad translation.” I don’t really buy that, for myself. There are mistranslations. I have a bit of healthy skepticism about that, I can do whatever I want with this text; it’s serving whatever interest I have at the moment. There is that bit of caution or anxiety or discomfort with that fact, but also I think that it is exciting just to understand that the translation can be done in different ways because it serves different purposes.

How do you hope your work will progress? How do you want to change as a translator? How has it progressed over time?

I guess it’s progressed as my proficiency with Portuguese has progressed. I feel like translation pushes you into new realms of the language. There are always these new lexicons that you’re having to grapple with, that help you start to become aware of your limits in the language. So from the beginning of my practice with translation, it’s been tied to a desire to push my proficiency in Portuguese into new realms. A desire for the future. I don’t see that as a transformation, but just a continued unfolding in that relationship between translation practice and continuing to deepen and broaden my proficiencies in Portuguese. I guess the other question- this is a little more concrete- would be with a subset of translation that’s related to the anthology, which has to do with the translation from pivot language translations. ( A pivot language is a third or intermediary language used to assist translation between two or more other languages.) I have a concrete problem to figure out involving the translation of Indigenous-language verbal texts for inclusion in the anthology.  I’m translated from Portuguese-language translations, which themselves use a combination of existing translations (in Spanish or Portuguese) and original language transcriptions. So, the issues involve source text attribution and permissions.  They also include the question as to whether to base my own translations on single source texts and their approaches and decisions, or to reach beyond them in order to do translations that may somehow better fit some aspects of the vision of the anthology (recovering some socio-ecologically specific terminology or references, for example). We want to include translations of selections of Indigenous verbal arts in the anthology, but in order to do so, we will have to successfully address the above challenges, including, fundamentally, the issue of permissions, so that’s something that I hope to figure out and continue to engage with others who are thinking about those questions.


Kelly Lincoln ’20 is a senior at Smith College, double-majoring in Spanish & Portuguese and Comparative Literature with a concentration in translation. She is a student fellow at the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute for the project TranslationS, where she is researching dance and translation.

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