Monday, December 14, 2020

The Indifference of the Dead

Machado de Assis:
In life, the watchful eye of public opinion, the conflict of interests, the struggle of greed against greed oblige a man to hide his old rags, to conceal the rips and patches, to withhold from the world the revelations that he makes to his own conscience; and the greatest reward comes when a man, in so deceiving others, manages at the same time to deceive himself, for in such a case he spares himself shame, which is a painful experience, and hypocrisy, which is a hideous vice. But in death, what a difference! what relief! what freedom! How glorious to throw away your cloak, to dump your spangles in a ditch, to unfold yourself, to strip off all your paint and ornaments, to confess plainly what you were and what you failed to be! For, after all, you have no neighbors, no friends, no enemies, no acquaintances, no strangers, no audience at all. The sharp and judicial eye of public opinion loses its power as soon as we enter the territory of death. I do not deny that it sometimes glances this way and examines and judges us, but we dead folk are not concerned about its judgment. You who still live, believe me, there is nothing in the world so monstrously vast as our indifference.
Epitaph of a Small Winner is the American publisher's title of the first translation of the most famous work of the Brazilian novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908). It was released in hardcover by Noonday Press in 1952 and in paperback four years later; the translator is William L. Grossman. The paperback cover shown above, which I rather like, is uncredited. (It doesn't look like the work of Shari Frisch, who provided a couple of dispensable line drawings to the interior of the book.) Later reprints of the same translation have different cover art and include a Foreword by Susan Sontag.

There have been at least four subsequent English versions, one of them published fairly obscurely in Brazil, and all of which make use of the book's actual Portuguese title, which translates as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Recent editions contain annotations and have been reviewed favorably, but the Grossman translation is perfectly adequate for most purposes. Why one short book, however enjoyable, would need five translations in sixty-eight years is a bit puzzling, given that there are comparable books that been translated only once (sometimes badly) or not at all, but the more the merrier.

Words Without Borders has a recent overview by Charles A. Perrone: "Machado de Assis Gains Different Voices in New Translations of Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas."

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

For years I’ve had a copy of Dom Casmurro waiting — I once read that Kenneth Koch loved it. Maybe after Proust. Or during. I’d have to find it first.