Bridging Guyanese and Brazilian Literature


Preserving our literary heritage

EXTRACT of an interview with Prof. Miguel Nenevé (Georgetown, Guyana, January 2010). Nenevé is assistant professor of English at the University of Rondonia, Brazil. He was visiting professor at the University of Texas, USA; visiting professor at York University, Canada, where he did his Ph.

Dr Miguel Nenevé (centre) with his Brazilian Association of Canadian Studies colleagues (from left) Luiz Miguel da Rocha; Rosa Berardo; Ana Rosa Neves Ramos; and Dilma M Mello
Dr Miguel Nenevé

D on Canadian Literature. He has to his credit two collections of short stories, and one collection of poems. At present, he is visiting professor at the University of Guyana, where he is working on a project titled, ‘Voices From The Border: Guyanese Literature From Post-Colonial Perspective’.

PP:The literature of Guyana started with the writings of the colonisers, missionaries, explorers, settlers, and this was the case for a long while, until around 1831, when the local voice was heard through poetry. Poetry ruled the roost, as it were, until the emergence of literary magazines that encouraged the writing of short fiction. There was an upsurge of local writing after the Second World War and the period leading up to the Independence of Guyana. The novel gained momentum with the publication of Edgar Mittelholzer’s first novel, ‘Corentyne Thunder’, in 1941. From then to now, the literature of Guyana has been transformed in a such a way that many of our writers have gained international recognition by way of winning prizes like the Commonwealth Prize, the Whitbread Prize, T S Elliot Prize, the Casa de las Americas Prize, and our literature is being studied by scholars far and wide.

Let’s retrace the history of Guyanese literature and see what we find: First, it was the empire writing out literature; then the emergence the local voice; followed by that voice writing back to the empire, as it were. Now, our literature has found a niche in world literature, adding to the flavour of world literature, and academics from abroad are delving into our literature; off the cuff, there are academics who have been, or are doing their Ph D dissertations on Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer etc.

Now, we take another look at our literature from a different perspective; we take a look at our literature from the Amazonian standpoint. And this is where Prof Miguel Nenevé comes in. From your background, it seems that you are looking at world or comparative literature, and that means you are studying various types of literature. What attracted you to Guyanese literature?

MN: That is a good question. In Brazil, when I started studying literature in the Department of English at the university, it was only English and American literature we studied. Somewhere along the line, I asked myself why; this was sort of triggered by my visit to Canada. Canadian literature was the first literature in English I studied, besides American and British Literature. Writing my dissertation on Margaret Laurence from the postcolonial perspective, I could and should read many postcolonial writers from the Caribbean, from Africa and India. I attended lectures by Dr. Frank Birbalsingh, a Guyanese teaching postcolonial literature at York University.

Dr. Birbalsingh was very important to me by directing my attention to Guyana´s literature.

Much later, I met Cyril Dabydeen at a ‘Postcolonial Education Conference’ in Ottawa. I still didn’t know he was from Guyana. I saw his books on the shelf, and what drew my attention was the title: ‘Born in the Amazonia’. At the beginning, I thought it was just another book written by travelwriters who want to condemn Brazilians for the burning of the forest, the destruction of life in the Amazon (books written from the perspective of ‘imperial eyes’). By reading the book, I saw it was a different book, poem written from other perspective, sometimes satirizing the colonial view of the Amazon. Then I talked to Dabydeen and found out that he was from here; from Guyana. So I thought this is good for us Brazilians that live in the Amazon. And it is written from a post-colonial perspective.

In my introduction, I said that our literature was first written by our colonial conquerors. With the opening of the Takatu Bridge, the peoples on both sides are looking or prospecting for various financial interests. There is a possibility that the literature of the two countries will not be featured in this upsurge of activities. We know the importance of literature; we know the role of literature in the all-round development of a nation. Having said that, the literatures of both countries will serve to open the cultures of each to the other, which will translate in enormous benefits in the longrun, and we the custodians of our respective literatures should ensure that our literatures are not neglected in this process….

MN: Yes; this is very important, because I think literature is a way of integrating much more than we think sometimes. If we want to start business, understanding of culture is important…There is a translation of Pauline Melville’s book, ‘The Ventriloquist’s Tale’, in Portuguese. So, Brazilians are reading Guyanese literature. So, translation of our respective literature is important.

Translation is an important bridge, too; translation of Guyanese literature into Portuguese, for example. I am, in fact, translating Dabydeen’s book, ‘Born in the Amazon’ into Portuguese.

Wow! That’s great news! This is indeed a great development! I know that there is a collection of poems by Martin Carter in Spanish, and some of Seymour’s poems are in Portuguese. This is an area we must explore… I neglected to say in my introduction that many of our books were/have been translated in other languages…

MN: I just remembered that Wilson Harris’s ‘Palace of the Peacock’ was translated into Portuguese. The translator had some difficulties in translating some expressions from the original ‘Palace of t
he Peacock’. The translator couldn’t reproduce some Guyanese terms and phrases into its context; it is necessary to know the context and the language in particular situations. For the mis-translation, the book was withdrawn from circulation.

Did the translator produce a glossary?
I think in this case, translators are advised to do so. He should have done, but he did not.

Still on the subject of translation, let’s turn our attention to Pauline Melville’s ‘The Ventriloquist’s Tale’ and its translation into Portuguese, ‘A História do Ventriloquo’.

MN: This is interesting. I went to Lisbon on a conference, and presented a paper on translation, mis-translation, and failure of translation. Melville´s ‘The Ventriloquist´s Tale’ is a rewriting of the Brazilian work, ‘Macunaima’. However, Melville read ‘Macunaima’ in English; not in the original Portuguese. So, she had to use the (mis)translated text. And it is interesting that the Brazilian translator of the ‘The Ventriloquist´s Tale’ seems to ignore that ‘The Ventriloquist´s Tale’ is somehow based on a Brazilian work…. Melville, one can say, rewrote ‘Macunaima’ in a postmodern way. The narrator of the novel, for example, is saying: ‘I am a liar, so don’t trust me.’ Or, quoting: ‘We, in this part of the world, have special veneration for the lie, and all its consequences and ramifications. We treat lie seriously …’ Besides, the narrator says that his camouflage is a required skill for the Amerindian. So, it is like saying, do not trust what you hear, or what I tell you. It is a translation of a translation … or is it camouflage?

I think Melville covered that in the prologue…
MN: Yes! And we can say that, thinking in this way, Melville´s work is a translation of a translation… Because, she read Mário de Andrade in translation, done by E A Goodland. (And Mário de Andrade himself translated Koch-Grunberg´s book on the Pemon culture and the myth of Makonaima.)

So, the translator [Goodland] lived for a long time in Guyana?
MN: Yes! As far as I know, E A Goodland, he was working for a company in Guyana when he got acquainted with, and later translated, Mário de Andrade´s work. It is funny, for example, that the expression, repeated many times in the original, ‘Ai! Que preguiça!’, which could be translated as ‘Aw! Such a laziness!’ or ‘Oh! I am lazy!’ was translated into English as ‘What a f—— life!’ And Melville keeps this expression, ‘What a f—— life!’ More interesting than this is that the Brazilian translator of Melville translated as ‘Ah! Que saco de vida!’ which is very far from ‘Ai!Que preguiça!’ So, the Brazilian translator just ignored the connection between ‘Macunaima’ and ‘The Ventriloquist´s Tale’.

This came out in the Prologue of ‘The Ventriloquist’s Tale’.
MN: What a f—— life! Melville took the translation. We can say that Mário de Andrade´s translator was thinking about Guyana, as we can see in another example: In Portuguese, we have ‘Port wine from Minas Gerais’. Minas Gerais is a state in northeastern Brazil. But in the English version, one reads: ‘Correia genuine Spanish port from Georgetown’. Why he translated Minas Gerais into Georgetown, and why he inserted Correia, are very good questions.

So, he translated with a Guyanese audience in mind.
MN: Exactly. And he dedicated the translation to Edwina Melville, a relative of Pauline Melville.

What about the missing pieces of Makonaima, from the original German by Koch- Grunsburg?
MN: I have not read the whole book by Theodor Koch-Grunberg (‘Von Roraima Zum Orinoco’, published in 1924). It is interesting that this German ethnologist or anthropologist is considered a good contributor to study of South America’s indigenous people, in particular the Pemon people in the Amazon region (Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana). However, he also depended on translators to write his book. And Mário de Andrade, in his turn, translated only what was of his interest.

We should ask Pauline [Melville] if she had seen those missing pieces. But this doesn’t take away… this translation of a translation, this does not take away from Melville’s effort, her perspective, her arrangement …

I think the book is excellent. The book in fact warns the reader about (mis) translation or failure in translation. The boy, ‘Bla-Bla’ (a character in ‘The Ventriloquist´s Tale’), for example, dies because of a failure in translation. The American working for an oil company in Guyana said ‘Chofoye!’ trying to warn the boy against explosion. He thought it was the word for explosion. As the narrator of the novel says, ‘the stupid Americans didn´t even realise the boy spoke English, and that we have different languages anyway (343-44).’ So, Melville´s book is a little about that too; it carries the message: Don´t trust the teller; don´t trust the translator… But she tells a very nice story, from the Amerindian perspective, in fact, revealing many perspectives from which one can tell the story.…

In oral literature, this is what happens… a story can be enhanced, embellished with each telling, perhaps to suit the audience, the time, and place… as long as the story remains in orality. It is true, but the moment it is written down, it becomes fiction. Remember that part?

Yes! And the narrator (of ‘The Ventriloquiat´s Tale’) says that his grandmother did not like the writing; she trusted the oral, not the written story. The narrator´s mother says that ‘all writing is fiction.’

Despite it all, we are happy now that we have the original (of Makonaima myth) in German… then the translation in Portuguese… and then from Portuguese to English. And now the story is extended by Melville….

MN: Yes. Melville, in a postmodern way, she reveals that there are many positions from which one can interpret a story. Even the myth of Makonaima is retold from many views.

So, we must thank our literary ancestors (Koch-Grunberg, Mário de An
drade, E A Goodland) for making this nexus between Brazilian and Guyanese literature. You need to come again to talk about translation, mis-translation and failure of translation…

Yes. Thank you. It is a pleasure for me to discuss this connection between Guyana and Brazil in literature.
I hope your stay here is very rewarding.
Thank you. It is really rewarding.
(To respond to this author, either call him on (592) 226-0065 or send him an email:

• Look out for the second novel by Brenda Do Harris, ‘Calabash Parkway’ and the third collection of poems by Janet Naidu, ‘Sacred Silence’.