We commonly assume language to be a translucent conveyor of our interior to the exterior world, to the human who is not us, who is other. We call it our tongue, a piece of our bodies nearly unimaginable to lose. We say we use it and think we can hone it into something we call our voice. Language, though, is more than us, and much more than a mere covering used to express thought. Language carries its own consequences and memories. It is both communal breath and historical compendium of tendencies and ruptures and cosmologies and traumas. As Antonio de Nebrija famously quipped in 1492 upon penning the first book of Castilian grammar, “language was always the partner of empire.” Language shapes us far more than we shape it. Linguist Antonio Benítez-Burraco, writing much later, put it this way: language is a “framer of perception and thought.” It focuses thought and attention in ways that can either blind or open us to other potentialities. How widely one tongue allows for the conjugation of verbs either restricts or expands the movement of thought through time, while the gendering of objects can impede our ability to see beyond dichotomies. Languages in which objects are described by their relationship to cardinal points ensure that their speakers virtually never find themselves lost, even in darkness. When one language dies by ceasing to be spoken or otherwise embodied, so too perishes an entirely singular way of being human. In the Americas, we have caused, witnessed, and experienced close to 2,000 such genocides. Today, over half of the 6,000 languages spoken worldwide are slated to die out within this century if no significant interventions are made.
So it might seem counterproductive, if one wanted to honor these varied ways of being, to translate one colonial language into another. But twenty of us wanted to test this notion, to see if we could decolonize these dominant tongues by reshaping the way we approached translation: collectively, polyphonically, decentering the authority of the native speaker, and foregrounding the strangeness that regularly invades non-dominant colonial languages in post-colonial territories—a strangeness not so common in the current lingua franca that is English. In July 2020, five months into a global pandemic and several social revolutions, tijuana founder Ana Luiza Fonseca put out a call for volunteer translators through the Biblioteca | Centro de Documentação e Pesquisa da Escola de Artes Visuais Parque Lage (Parque Lage School of Visual Arts Library & Center for Documentation and Research) in Rio de Janeiro. She had texted me a few weeks prior: would I like to be part of the Grupo de Leitura e Tradução she and Tanja Baudoin were forming? Absolutely. And could I think of any texts related to independent publishing that would be worth translating from Portuguese into English, or from Spanish or English into Portuguese? Absolutely. Fabio Morais’ Sabão. I had read par(ent)esis’ version two years prior and had been aching to translate it since. Written originally as a blog post, Sabão caught the attention of Regina Melim and Gabi Bresola, who published it as part of par(ent)esis’ URGENTE series in 2018 as both a printed booklet and free digital download.
In thirty-one pages, Morais lays down viciously, pointedly, playfully, and lovingly the case for considering independent book production in Brasil—what some call a history of “artist books,” though he balks at the Anglicized term—through the more organic and decolonized lens of Brasil’s own contested publishing history. (And, yes—Brasil with an “s.”) Rather than starting with Mallarmé or Ruscha, Morais urges Brasil to look to its own shores in 1798: to the Inconfidência Baiana, a radical movement for Bahian independence and the abolishment of slavery led by local elites and free Blacks that was widely supported by a hungry and exploited populace, in which Salvador, on August 12, “woke up covered in posters and pamphlets—called seditious bulletins—glued to well frequented sites all over the city and that, in a populace whose majority was unalphabetized, were being read aloud and passed from mouth to mouth.” (View some of the surviving bulletins in this virtual exhibition hosted by the Bahian State Public Archives, entitled Heróis Negros do Brasil) That the rebellion ultimately failed does not diminish its importance on multiple fronts. For Morais, it’s key to point out that the posters and pamphlets were handwritten because printing was still outlawed in Brasil in 1798. This event as foundational source of an artistic lineage, for our author, is quite different from the page-bound work of Mallarmé that is promoted worldwide as the origin of the discipline of livres d’artiste, which became known in English as artist books. Brasil’s history, according to Morais, also has nothing to do with Ed Ruscha and his cool democratization of the artist multiple in accordion book form. But handwritten posters and pamphlets aren’t artist books, you say? Morais will cure you of such imperialist thinking. Or, at least, he’ll clarify; it’s up to us to strip away the legacies we’ve internalized. For Morais, the practice of artist publishing—or simply publishing, as he prefers to term the activity—is more firmly rooted in itself in Brasil as an act, not an object. He asks us to consider the performativity of the Inconfidência Baiana and the importance of writing by hand, of orality, and a communal sharing of text. (Wait, why are you still reading my interpretation of Morais’ words? Just read Morais. We’ve translated him into English now and everything. Don’t trust your impulse to trust the gringa. Skip already to Soap.)
Morais goes on to highlight other key points in the genesis of artist publishing in Brasil, from Plínio Marco’s Navalha na Carne to Augusto de Campos and Júlio Plaza’s Caixa Preta. He asks his readers to consider the audacity of asking a North American to apply Brasilian anthropophagy as a guiding cultural reference the way Brazilians are expected to reference the democratization of publishing that underscored Ruscha’s early books. (You’re still here? Go, read his version.) For starters, most North Americans would miss the anthropophagy reference entirely, let alone entertain the idea that something that did not originate in the US or Europe should be a guiding principle in art.
But this incendiary call is precisely why Sabão needed to be translated into English, and to be published and distributed in a US American context. United Statesians should, in fact, be looking at the nuanced decolonization that Brazilian artists have been engaging with and exploding for the past century. We have much to learn from the poets and publishers and activists and artists in countries we so readily dismiss for speaking Portuguese or Spanish—not to even mention places dominated by Quechua, Guaraní, Diné, or any of the Indigenous languages of this continent. Our continual colonizing gaze is inward, though not even entirely so, for it is often locked in glances back toward Europe, and this tendency does nothing to awaken us to the realities here on this contested land. We are overdue for a reckoning of our dearest references. So read Fabio Morais’ Sabão. Read Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) first. Read Katrina Dodson’s translation of Macunaíma. Hell, read Cheesquatalawny’s (as in Yellow Bird’s, as in John Rollin Ridge’s, as in California’s first novelist’s) The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (bonus: it’s the underappreciated origin of both Zorro and Batman), then read Alurista’s Yo Soy Joaquín, then Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Octavia Butler’s Kindred and John Keene’s Counternarratives to see what “we,” in fact, are, first. Consider how The Wall of Respect or Chicanx poster art could be truer starting points for US artist book culture than Ruscha’s gas station homage if our history did not exclude what many consider to be its marginalia. See how far behind the United States is in this process of seeing itself, of decolonization. Our history is our margins.
Do not trust this gringa, though, I told you. Read Morais for yourself, and engage the hundreds of other artists who have been reshaping the self-imposed isolation of our colonizing and colonized selves for generations. Do not trust the voice that brings you these ideas in polished English.
But that is the thing, isn’t it? The way polished English passes into your pulse, your breath, and leaves your thinking unchallenged, unquestioned. Question it. Do not trust the native speaker. Challenge yourself to read the textures of other englishes. Uncapitalize the “E.” Make english plural. Notice how the textures of Morais’ translated text—the one was born of the other, after all— undoes tiny pieces of the you that you’ve constructed and allows other parts to open. Magic is found in the space between languages, in the grooves where we notice the scaffolding of our worldview and how it can be moved, disassembled, reconsidered.
Twenty-nine people applied to Fonseca and Baudoin’s call for a proposed collaborative translation experiment. The final selection was whittled to sixteen, then to thirteen. In the end, seventeen of us, including Gabriela Araújo, Bruna Castra, Dani Castro, Ana Carolina Incerti, Larissa Martina, Sergio Augusto Medeiros, Anna Thereza de Menezes, Indianara Niebieski, Iago Passos, Levi S. Porto, Marcelo Terça-Nada, and Larissa Vaz, came together from all across Brasil, from the US, and from the Netherlands to joyfully offer our time and talents and care to both the text and to one another. Near the end of our six weeks together, Regina Melim and Pedro Franz of par(ent)esis joined the mix to help us conceptualize how the English version could be designed and distributed as a free, downloadable e-publication, and they took over the layout from there. But I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the translation.
We began with a Q&A session with the author, introduced ourselves, then decided to slice up the text into a patchwork of sections. Each participant, most of whom had never translated from their native tongue into a non-native one before, tried their hand at moving Morais’ snappy narrative into Englishes (switching back to big “E” to redistribute respect) that carried varying degrees of comfort. We met weekly in the evenings via video to read excerpts aloud together, to discuss troubled areas and “untranslatable” words in three or four sections at a time.
All of us ended up staying together well past the allotted time most nights and our conversations ended up leading to a lower case “e” for english and retaining the “s” in Brasil. Seventeen humans a disembodied mosaic in Zoom, our attention turned mid-encounter to a theoretical consideration of which words, which phrases to leave in portuguese and which to translate into the world’s current colonizing tongue. Of which references necessitate a footnote and which should be left alone. Of which to explain and which to leave for the gringx to ponder or search. Of what meaning an image search of this or that term would render. Will a gringx make any effort, in fact, to search when everything always comes prepackaged, prepared, explained? Power, after all, reveals itself in who is burdened to explain.
This collaboration turned, too, toward a preference for more literal translations in exchange for the ones that reach too closely into the ways Anglophones already hear. Let’s leave “floor cloth complex” as “floor cloth complex” and not shape it into “kitchen rag complex.” The former does not offer the quick consonance of twin kuh sounds, but challenges its reader to roll awkwardly over several OHs and the varying ways they force the mouth to open. The more awkward term also requires we do a bit more stretching to find an image that fits into a worldview that might not be our own. It does not comfort us with the already familiarly termed, and this is precisely the gift: to inhabit our native tongue in ways that open us to new ways of seeing and understanding.
We also settled on the choice to not italicize certain untranslatable words. Because Brasilians are so accustomed to integrating English words into everyday Portuguese, the choice was not controversial. It felt organic to everyone who’d lived their life in a mother tongue that is consistently invaded by Hollywood English and technology English and global franchise English. If you, United Statesian, have never encountered a text with words that you think, upon first glance, should be italicized because they are foreign, you have not read enough Chicanx or Latinx literature. You have not read enough American literature, period. Like I said: see how far behind the United States is in this process of seeing itself, of decolonization? What you might consider our marginalia is our culture, and it speaks more about us than the main text block we strive to promote and protect. Quick, educate yourself. Go read Alurista or Lorna Dee or José Montoya or Ana Castillo or Jaquira Díaz. Read Anzaldúa. Then, come back. Didn’t understand the words in Castilian, Caló, Nahuatl? (I didn’t mention Spanish? That’s because Spanish isn’t a language. Castilian is, and it’s only one of the six official languages of Spain, and most of those are rooted in Arabic, anyway.) Not to worry if you missed any of the content for lack of translation; the discomfort is what’s important here. It’s the discomfort that keeps us limber, our thinking supple, our assumptions tentative, our worldviews nondominant. I know, I know, it’s also the discomfort that is so hard to stand. But only at first. You’ll get used to it. You can trust this gringa on that.
Ready? Good. Let’s wring out this floor cloth all together now.
Stephanie Sauer is an interdisciplinary artist and author of Almonds Are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press) and The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force (University of Texas Press). She is a co-founding editor of A Bolha Editora in Brazil and helped to bring the works of Hilda Hilst into English for the first time. She currently teaches writing in Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas program.