TALKS TUPI OR NOT TUPI “Flesh of my leg! What’s up? What’s up?”
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“Flesh of my leg! What’s up? What’s up?”

Literary Translation and Wild Thinking

Upon reaching adulthood, the story goes that Macunaíma, playing at moving his family's house from a flooded bank of a river to the higher, fertile bank and from the fertile bank back to the flooded bank, is picked up by the waist by his mother and taken to a distant field where he can no longer grow. Expatriated and orphaned, the character then wanders for a whole week until he comes across the mythological figure of Curupira, roasting meat with his dog, Papamel. Hungry, Macunaíma asks Curupira for something to eat. The creature cuts and roasts a piece of its own leg and then offers it to the boy, who eats it and asks for the way back home. However, with the intention of devouring him, Curupira tells him a wrong route, which the hero ignores out of sheer laziness. Then the creature mounts its stag and begins chasing its prey, shouting for the piece of its leg, which was already in Macunaíma's belly and which responds again and again, “What’s up? What’s up?"

The episode belongs to one of the opening moments of Macunaíma: The hero without any character published by Brazilian writer Mário de Andrade in 1928. What today may seem like a nonsense or surrealist composition is part of a literary work composed of indigenous myths that the author brought together in the form of an undeniable rhapsody for Brazilian modernism. Read today, it amazes not only with its brutality, humor, and imagination, but also with a suggestive indication of the cultures in Brazil. Fleeing from the Curupira, which in folk tales often appears as a guardian of the forests capable of deceiving hunters due to its inverted feet (toes backwards and heels forward), with a trail that does not end at the place where the prey is, but where it began its path, the scene ends with Macunaíma vomiting the piece of meat from Curupira’s leg into a puddle of water, where it continues screaming for its body, while the hero finally manages to outwit none other than the devious demon.

Macunaíma’s family in the film “Macunaíma” (1969), Joaquim Pedro de Andrade

I mention this episode because it is what first strikes me when thinking about points of contact between translation and anthropophagy. And this episode, with its enigmatic fantasy, seems to me to remain little explored when it comes to commenting on the act of translation as an anthropophagic act. Reading it again, I wonder to what extent it does not function in its various twists and turns, as a complete self-referential act, or even as an illuminating reference for what I believe to be at the heart of the art of translation. Macunaíma not only finds himself on the threshold between adulthood and childhood, but also on the border of different worlds (human, animal, and mythological); he moves his own home from an arid bank to a fertile one and vice versa, and finally swallows part of another's body, but does not digest it, since his only way of escaping his tormentor is to regurgitate the flesh of his leg, whose voice betrays him. Even the figure of the cannibal that pursues him, Curupira, could be read as an incorporation of the textual practice of translation, as this entity is not only capable of call on the part of his body already separated from him, but also, through a morphological property, inscribing his tracks inversely in the language of the forest, thus moving the reader further and further away from the original.

Furthermore, translation is at the foundation of this work. It is known that the author used different texts in its composition. Not only the writings of the German ethnographer and Brazilianist Theodor Koch-Grünberg, but also the writings of the Brothers Grimm as well as renowned Brazilian ethnographers form the intertextual bases of this book. Both in the letters to his poet friend Manuel Bandeira, and in the copies present in the author's library, it is possible to read how the author of Macunaíma extracted, appropriated, translated, and incorporated writings from different origins in the creation of his rhapsody. In other words, translation not only seems evident to me as a metaphorical basis in the creation and composition of the motifs of this episode, but it can be (and was)  seen as an act of anthropophagic transgression. It is not a mere coincidence that Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropófago (manifesto on anthropophagy, 1928) composed of a similar method of collage, translation, transliteration, and displacement of European and Amerindian literature and philosophy, as well as an excerpt from Macunaíma, was published in the same year by the Revista de Antropofagia (the modernist Anthropophagy Magazine). In Andrade’s project for an “Anthropophagic Library,” Macunaíma was seen not only as a central work, but also as a gravitational body, around which all other literary works of the past, present, and future should orbit.

Rereading this episode once again, I repeat to myself the question of whether there is something here that goes beyond the anthropophagic metaphor associated with translation, something that would be updated upon rereading and could shed new light on my current practice as a translator. Because, if an anthropophagic poetics of translation still remains, because of my cultural background, incorporated into my work as a translator, it does not seem sufficient to explain what engages and attracts me to the art of translation today,the way I understand and practice this literary genre. The devouring of the original or the parricide of it, for example, seem to be gathering dust on the shelf of conceptual busts. They havelittle to do with the way I move through texts between different languages, cultures, and worlds. Perhaps because considering that the customary conception and interpretation of anthropophagy in reference to Brazilian Modernismo and its transfer to a translational process has closed in on itself and, in a contradictory obsession with overcoming the original, has become rigid in what it most wanted to avoid: a form of doctrinal elitism. Or perhaps - more likely - because I simply got involved with different ways of translating, moved from one culture to another, and expanded my translation horizons beyond the borders of a single aesthetic program.

Yes, maybe that's why I return to this episode of Macunaíma's coming of age. Because there, I see something that comes close to my initial and current desire as a translator, to what drove me to move my own home from its banks, to carry it to an open field, to a plain that is sometimes fertile, sometimes barren of senses, where the texts that I come across threaten to devour me, and from which I can only escape if I  find atranslation for them and for myself. At this moment, the moment of contact with the text to be translated, it is as though the only possible movement in this unsettling situation is to save or ruin the text from one language to another. And in this process it is as if I were echoing Argentine writer Jorges Luis Borges, or at least or prving him right once again when he doubts the stability of the original, saying that there is not one text or any definitive texts, only sketches, attempts, and more or less successful versions, all of which are valuable for the history of language and literature. I believe this is what interests me and seems to be the most enlightening in this episode of one of the best-known classics of Brazilian modernist literature:  not only the evident cannibalism, which isat the same time the reverse key to the image of man-eating coined by the European imagination – since here it is not the white man but the indigenous man who is in danger of being devoured. What moves me above all is moving my own home to other shores, and in doing so being banished and abandoned by my mother (tongue) in order to ingest a piece of what haunts me and wants to devour me.

Mulher Tapuia (1641), Albert Eckhout

Yes, that seems close to the art of translation that I think I am practicing. An art that, while also being a posture and a life in motion, is capable of avoiding castrations, is capable of jumping over its own shadow, and that does not deal with symbols, but with symptoms. When I think about my practice as a poetry translator, especially if I take into account everything that lies between desire and negotiation, from the moment I decide to translate a text until the moment I abandon my result for publication, I think about what Jack Spicer said, that words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on to, nothing more. They are as valuable in themselves as a rope with nothing to tie it to. In translation, I don’t see before me an anthropophagist, but a tightrope walker between two shores, one of which was once his home, but which ceased to be so from the moment he threw himself onto the tightropes of his language and that of the other.

It is on these ropes that I often find myself driven by the desire to find a form of resonance in the foreign work. A resonance of what the poem to be translated evokes. An echo of the voice that, as in the case of Macunaíma, I carry within me in fear. The voice of a piece of flesh from the leg of a poem. Because in this leg lies the greatest strangeness and at the same time familiarity of the entire episode. The disturbing thing about this indigestible leg is what allows me to take a step through the anthropophagic metaphor and reach something that for me would be more in the slippery region of the symptom, or better yet, a symptomatology of translation. For we are not just faced with a simple piece of leg, but a leg with its own voice, a piece of leg whose feet are inverted and that confuses us with its own footprints. In translation, would the leg be a symptom of the incorporation of a foreign text? Could its voice be the echo of the original call that continues to work in the translation? In Macunaíma, at least, this ingrained voice is also the one that locates the piece of flesh for the body that calls it and, in doing so, estranges it through the question, “What’s up? What’s up?" And in this case, this ingrained and strange question seems to function as a symptom of indigestion and a harbinger of the regurgitating of a language. A language that for me involves the greatest task and challenge of translation: understanding the form without alienating the tone, designating the mode and not just the designated . And all this without having to return to the original.

Carne de Mi Pierna (2019), Roberto Ochoa. Marker on cigarette wrapper.

In 1923, not far from Macunaíma in time, Walter Benjamin differentiated translation and literary creation through the image of a mountain forest in the preface to his translation of Tableaux parisiens by Charles Baudelaire,. According to Benjamin, literary creation operates within this forest of language, while translation is at its margins, calling the original to enter the only place in which the echo of a work in a foreign language can be reproduced in one’s own language. But the frequently used German term to designate a forest on a mountain or even on a steep slope, is translated into Brazilian and Lusitanian Portuguese only as “floresta” and “mata.” Thus removed from its topographic particularity, the translation omits not only the link between this forest and Baudelaire's poem, “Correspondences,” but also the author's attitude towards the translation theory and practice of his opposite Stefan George. In this preface, it is precisely George, recognized for his translations of Baudelaire and Dante, that Benjamin seeks to distance himself from diametrically. For the philosopher, George's translations enter the forest of language, thus Germanizing the Divine Comedy, whereas the the translator should be found on its margins. Only in this way, Benjamin writes, can the translator have a general and distanced view, or rather, a view of the entire forest of language. Only in the distance from one’s own language,  as in the distance between languages, would it be possible for Benjamin to integrate languages in translation.

What interests me in this passage is that by using this wild image, Benjamin establishes a clear distinction between the work of the translator and the poet. And this distinction not only seems valid and healthy in the literary field, but it also gives translation the status ofa textual genre in its own right, capable of shaking the foundations of language and distancing itself from any nationalist project or aesthetic. Because it is precisely the distance from language itself, culture itself, and the world itself that translation is capable of providing. Combining this postulate with the Macunaíma scene, I believe it is still possible to derive an anthropophagy of translation that returns to the anti-narcissistic gesture postulated by Oswaldian Antropofagismo. An anthropophagy made up not only of poet-translators or translator-poets, but also of translators in translation, for whom the incorporation of the other does not imply getting lost in the depths of one's own language, but finding a way out into the language of others, distancing itself from domesticated digestion with toes back and heels forward.

And perhaps a path towards an anthropophagic poetics of translation is to consider it, as Oswald de Andrade did in his literary work, a form of wild thought. For not only the poet is able to see forms of literary creation in thoughts in their wild state, that is, human thought in its free exercise..The translator, that person who is constantly between languages, also works as a bricoleur in an untamed practice, with a view to obtaining a yield of language. Just as the bricoleur continually and without any prior planning complements his accumulated materials with residues, spoils, and leftovers arising from previous constructions and deconstructions of language, the work resulting from the translator's bricolage is also composed of debris and fragments, or, in the words of Lévi-Strauss, of fossilized testimonies of the history of a subject, a society and, I would add, of its language, which, like monumental constructions, carries within itself, in addition to the nature of a deconstructed work, the signs of the next reconstruction, or rather, an unsettling “what’s up?” of poems which, in translation, are difficult to digest.

Puddle with vomited piece of Curupira's leg in the film “Macunaíma” (1969), Joaquim Pedro de Andrade


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Douglas Pompeu is a translator and author living in Berlin. In 2022 he published  habeas corpus. 12 Sonetten und eine öffentliche Ode. He is currently working on his poetry collection fiktionsbescheinigung, which will be published in 2024. He has been on the editorial team of the literary journal alba.lateinamerika lesen. He has translated work by Jan Wagner, Marcel Beyer, Arno Holz and Kurz Schwitters into brazilian Portuguese. One of his short stories is published in  Lingua Franca (Art In Flow, 2019).

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