Flakes

Original by Ana Maria Machado
Translated, from the Portuguese, by Elton Uliana

 

She didn’t sleep well. She woke up very early, in a sweat.  The air conditioning wasn’t working. It would make a loud noise but nothing of fresh air. Twice the technician had promised to come and fix it but never turned up. Just as the joiner had assured her that he would come and have a look at the cupboard’s door and finally put an end to that horrible creaking noise that it made every time that it was opened. Did anyone come? Not a soul. We rely on people, we wait, the time passes, and no one ever shows up. They’re all flakes. Incapable of sticking to their word.

A short while later she was ready to get up. She had struggled to find a comfortable position, tossing and turning from one side of the bed to the other and had been doing so even before the birds had begun singing their morning song. She thought of her granddaughter and smiled in the darkness. She remembered how the little girl had once told her how much she enjoyed staying at grandma’s house because if she awoke before everyone else, she would hear lots of birds singing in the garden. On hearing their song, she could be sure that it would soon lighten up outside as their melody was a sign that dawn was already upon them. In her own house, she never knew if dawn had already broken or whether she would have to wait a while longer for the birds to arise as it was still the early hours.

Well, on that very day, grandma had woken up in the early hours, before dawn. And she was sick and tired of lying in bed doing nothing. She decided to read for a while. She turned on the lamp which lay on the bedside table, picked up the Bible and opened it randomly, as she often did. She made sure to open it somewhere near the beginning of the book. She found the Old Testament more entertaining, and spent lots of time reading those lively stories brimming with mischief and treachery, when she finally realised that a good amount of time had passed.  The tempting fragrance of the meal that Herminia was preparing in the kitchen wafted in. The aroma of the fresh coffee that evaporated from the filter paper as the liquid dripped into the thermos. The perfume of the freshly squeezed oranges, that would later be left to chill in the fridge. And the tempting scents of bacon sizzling in the frying pan, all awaiting Lydia’s morning call which was generally the go-ahead for her two eggs to be fried. Eggs with bacon, cholesterol on a plate. For so many years Lydia had deprived herself of them. Now, from time to time she left a note to the maid the day before so that she could enjoy the indulgent treat. What would it matter at this point? She knew full well that nothing would make a difference.

She got up and went to wash her face. Soon she would dip the crunchy French bread fresh from the bakery into the sunny yolk. 

Before sitting down at the table, she put on her glasses, chose a CD (today it was Mozart), and glanced over the front page of the newspaper. Like always. But this time she brought the newspaper to the table. She liked to read the opinion articles, following one journalist or another. When Ernest was alive, the two would discuss the daily news over the breakfast that she used to prepare for them. Now the conversation was a silent dialogue with some journalist whom she had never even met. But now at least she didn’t have to make the meal herself. It was already on the table waiting for her. All ready. With a nice slice of seedless papaya. With butter, jam and honey for the bread. And a handful of pills, the first dose of the day to remember all that couldn’t be forgotten. 

Her reading surpassed breakfast time. She continued reading on the chair on the veranda, under the mild heat of the morning sun. The future of the country worried her. There was no way out, she couldn’t manage to detach herself from the events taking place in the country even though she herself had enough on her plate. She ended up taking longer than expected to read the paper. After that she went for a walk in the back garden. She knew that she was lucky to still live in that same house in which she had raised her children and where she had lived to see each plant grow. She would not miss out on the pleasure of enjoying it. Soon when she would be dead and gone, the inheritors would sell it and share the money amongst themselves. Perhaps that was the only way that she could continue to support them. 

She turned the tap on, adjusted the force of the jet that came out of the hose. She reduced the strength of the water to a light drizzle that barely dampened the leaves. She noticed that the bed of marigolds and daffodils had returned to their golden yellow colour like they always did. That vibrant reds had exploded in the geranium pot. That the touch-me-nots in the shaded corner by the wall did justice to their profuse nature, growing wildly throughout the foliage.

She checked the jasmines that had fallen during the night; yesterday the kiss-me-quicks were purple, today they were lilac and tomorrow they would be white. To her pleasant surprise she saw that both bushes still had their buds, a sign of rejuvenation yet to come in the scented corner that enchanted her at night.

In the vegetable patch the shoulders of the carrots had begun to show, sprouting from the ground surrounded by grass that looked like green hair. In the newest bed of lettuce, a few gems were almost ready to be picked already, perhaps helped by the dim shade provided by the sugar-apple bush, where two premature ones were covered by a little cloth bag which she herself had made, a skill taught to her by her grandmother, to deter any pest from affecting the perfect form and the sweetness of its taste. 

–   Madam, the children have just arrived – Herminia called. 

She stopped watering the plants and went to the veranda where the children had come to find her, full of beans waiting to receive their morning hugs. They all sat down. 

–   Do you want a massage, grandma? – her grandson asked, as he always did, knowing that the response would always be affirmative. 

 –  I’ll go and find the flaky-skin lotion – the little girl announced. 

In a snap of fingers she was on her way back, bottle of lotion in hand. Lydia laid down on the hammock, she stretched out her legs, as the children sat on either side of her, and each took a leg between their hands. She closed her eyes and begun to feel the little hands of the children rubbing the lotion into her legs. She smelt the faint aroma of lavender. Once again, she felt the tender touch of the children’s fingers around her legs. Gentle, but capable of provoking a deep pleasure, every touch was full of affection, tender yet vigorous. Life in its plenitude. I wish it would never end.

–  Today we can stay longer. There’s no school, it’s teacher’s training day – said the boy, as if he could guess her thoughts.  – We can stay all day.

A full day with the grandchildren. What a gift! Lydia remembered the magazine she used to read on the plane when she accompanied Ernest on his business trips. There was a section called ‘A Whole Day’ which detailed the schedule for a full-on 24 hours of activities, making the most of everything the city had to offer, a new adventure in each edition. 

–  Excellent! – she said to the children. We can play games and do interesting things all day. 

–  Great! But only after we finish rubbing this lotion on your flaky skin.  – said the girl, as she smoothed the scented lotion onto her grandma’s ankles. 

Lydia wasn’t in a rush to go anywhere. She wanted to fit all the time in the world into that one day. With every stroke, she allowed herself to be transported to another dimension, with her eyes closed, listening to the kids talk amongst themselves, and answering them from time to time. After that, she would arrange a special lunch, full of the simple things that kids enjoyed. With fried bananas and ice-cream for afters. 

While they waited, the children played in the garden. Digging the soil, sowing some seeds, and tidying up.  They inspected earthworms and even a snail. After all that, a good wash was in order. They sat in front of the TV watching cartoons until lunch was ready.

Their bellies full, sure enough, they all felt lazy. Lydia was just about doze off for a nap and suggested that the kids carried on playing. But she couldn’t resist her granddaughter’s request

–  Tell us a story grandma…

They all got cosy in the hammock on the patio with grandma in the middle, all nice and snug. As she talked about princes and princesses, remembering from the stories that her own grandmother had told her, the children began to doze off. It didn’t take long before they were fast asleep. Lydia stroked their hair, gave each a cuddle and ended up falling asleep herself. 

When she woke up it was already late, her daughter was standing in front of her. She had come to collect the children.

–  What did you guys do all day? – She asked.

 ‘We made memories’ could have been the answer that Lydia didn’t get to say, because her grandson jumped in saying:  

–  We played games and looked after each other all day. 

–  Grandma treated us to stories and we treated Grandma to a foot massage – explained the granddaughter.

The two women smiled.

–    They even rubbed moisturizing lotion into my flaky feet and everything – said grandma.

The daughter sat in the wicker chair holding her mother’s hand, and they chatted for a while. Since being a little girl, she had never felt so close to her mum as she had in the last few days.

–  How does it end, grandma? Asked the girl suddenly. I fell asleep before the end of the story. 

–  In that case I will tell you, so that you can learn and tell your granddaughter one day, just as I learned this story with my grandmother. 

And she did, weaving the words while the afternoon faded, and the night came, in a story that would last much longer then she herself. And one day, who knows, perhaps it would be told in the form of a farewell, to a little girl by an older woman who would recall this perfect day whilst she could still remember it. 

Translator’s Commentary 

Ana Maria Machado is a prolific journalist and one of the most celebrated children’s writers in Brazil and her stories for adults have captivated generations of readers. Her career spans from the mid-seventies until now with over forty publications translated in a variety of languages. During the years of 2013 and 2014, Machado presided the Brazilian Academy of Letters, of which she is an elected member since 2003. Contos Inéditos is Machado’s first short story book for adults which I am honoured with the task of translating.  

My overall approach can be thought of in a general manner as ‘domestication’ (Venuti 2013).  If Machado’s magnificent story of memory, family relations and death is to have any impact on the English audience and attract the attention of the Anglophone publishing industry, it must display perfect fluency and cohesion in English whilst retaining both the meticulously descriptive and poetically elusive quality of Machado’s prose. These characteristics are, amongst others, what make Machado’s work so brilliantly unique. My ‘discursive strategy’ (Baker: 31) aims at naturalness of expression and fluency whilst maintaining formal and stylistic approximation to Machado’s original text.  Paradoxically, because Portuguese is an inflected language and English is not, I felt justifiable to indulge at times in some kind of ‘creative infidelity’ (Costa: 167) not only to Portuguese but also to English linguistic conventions, hopefully not beyond the supposed restrictions on lexicon and syntax generally allowed to translators. I recognise that in order to maintain the elusive, melancholic, philosophical character of Machado’s text, some adjustments of this kind should be implemented.  

     ‘Tratantes’ pose a particular challenge for translators for a number of interesting reasons: 

  1. There is a significant amount of play-on-words, puns and cultural items – to start with the title, the word tratante(s) appears in the text with three distinctive semantic functions and represent a complex web of puns or play-on-words so perceptively crafted by the author, one which is practically impossible to be reproduced in English or any other language.  In the first instance tratante means somebody who is unreliable, undependable, or in a more contemporary slang, a ‘flaky’ person or ‘flake’. The second occurrence of the word refers to a child’s mispronunciation of the word hidratante (‘hydration’- as in ‘moisturizing’ cream). And finally, when the boy repeats the word in the end of the story, the character uses it in the sense of ‘looking after’ or ‘taking care’ of each other. Since the layers of meaning elicited by the word ‘tratante’ is a crucially important to the whole design of the text, suggesting, as they do that there is a shapeliness and symmetry to the fictional world of the story, I have decided to recreate in English two of the three analogies of the original by: (a) using ‘flakes’ as the story’s title, addressing the first semiotic situation in the text (unreliable/undependable people). In order to refer to the word again later in the text, creating an ‘artificial symmetry’ (Wright: 13) which verbally suggests, or at least insinuates the textual situation concerning the moisturizing lotion (tratante) which is humorously present in the ST , I have added the expression ‘flaky skin’, so that an allusion not only to the tittle and its signification can be made but also, tangentially, to the idea of death itself. It is conceivable, in my view, that the image of Lydia’s skin which is flaking off and which is being tenderly rubbed by the grandchildren, can in some ways allude to the main theme of the story which is the protagonist’s death. Pressing a lexical item into a ‘presumed equivalence’ (Levine: 67) in this manner might not be the ideal procedure in original writing, however, during a translation process one will inevitably loose in lyricism, semantic aura or imagery but nevertheless there is always the possibility of incorporating different nuances and layers of meaning in the text which may or may not be present originally. To compensate for the third meaning of tratante, I have included the expression ‘looked after each other’, which, in my view, is a sweet way of inscribing similar idea in the TT, even if loosing slightly the playfulness of the concept. In any case, I hope to have re-stablished instead the sense of reciprocity so tenderly suggested by the author. 
  2. The second complex aspect of Machado’s prose in the constant ‘shift in voice’ (Eagleton: 73) and the sophisticated use of free indirect speech (Wood: 57). I felt compelled at times to re-instate the character’s name or denomination more often than in the ST for clarity of expression, particular where the subject is occult in the verb, a feature which is not available in the English grammar.  
  3. I have ‘anglicised’ (Wright: 149) the name of the protagonist Lídia (Lydia) and have changed the name of her deceased husband Ernane to Ernest. It is appropriate, in my view and this specific case, that such a proper noun should not call attention to itself as being of a foreign language in the context of my translation strategies. My main reason for this change is that that an English reader would pronounce the ‘a’ of Ernane not as a Latin vowel but as an English one, a factor that would bring an odd character to a text that could be set in any unspecified place in the world, and not specifically in a romance language country. 
  4. A number of phrase and sentence structure change were implemented (Chesterman: 105) – 
  5. Substitution of Brazilian plant names by English ones which have similar etymological situation – names that colloquially describe the actual plant or flower in one way or another.

Bibliography

  • Baker, Mona. 2012. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation (London: Roultedge)
  • Chesterman, Andrew. 1997. Memes of Translation (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing)
  • Costa, Margaret Jull. 2007. ‘Mind the Gap: Translating the “untranslatable”’ from
  • Anderman,G., Voices in Translation: Bridging Cultural Divides (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters)
  • Eagleton, Terry. 2012. The Event of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press)
  • Levine, Suzanne Jill. 1995. The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Minnesota: Saint Paul)
  • Munday, Jeremy. 2016. Introduction to Translation Studies: Theories and Applications, 4 rd Edition (London: Routledge)
  • Venuti, Lawrence. 2013. Translation Changes Everything (Abingdon: Routledge)
  • Wood, James. 2008. How Fiction Works (New York: Picador)
  • Wright, Chantal. 2016. Literary Translation (London: Routledge)

Ana Maria Machado is a prolific journalist and one of the most celebrated children’s writers in Brazil and her stories for adults have captivated generations of readers. Her career spans from the mid-seventies until now with over forty publications translated in a variety of languages. During the years of 2013 and 2014, Machado presided the Brazilian Academy of Letters, of which she is an elected member since 2003.

Elton Uliana is a translator affiliated with the Centre for Translation Studies at University College London and the British Translators Association.

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