Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was a beloved Brazilian novelist whose contantly surprising, experimental prose was beloved by mid-century English-language writers like Elizabeth Bishop, but little known to general readers in the U.S. and U.K., due to the fact that, according to Lispector biographer Benjamin Moser, the published English translations do not give a good representation of the qualities of her work. But that is likely to change due to a series of new translations of many of her books published simultaneously by New Directions in the U.S. and Penguin Classics in the U.K., and edited by Moser.
Moser’s 2009 biography, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, was a kind of surprise hit, garnering lots of review attention and an NBCC award nomination. The interest for Moser’s book proved that there was an English-language readership for its subject. “I knew there were little cells of people that were into her here and there and that I could help her enter the bloodstream,” said Moser, who lives in the Netherlands and also speaks Portuguese. “The problem was the books were so badly translated--most of them, not all of them--were almost unreadable in English. I got all this attention for her. I had hoped that someone like Barbara [Epler, President and editor-in-chief of New Directions] would take it upon them to re-translate her, and that’s what happened.”
New Directions has been steadily reissuing titles from its storied backlist over the past few years, commissioning new introductions from contemporary writers and hip new covers. When Moser heard that New Directions was preparing to reissue Lispector’s last novel, The Hour of the Star in its original English translation by Giovanni Pontiero with a new introduction by Colm Toibin, he contacted Epler and insisted they do a new translation: “You can’t say no to that guy,” said Epler. “He finally just put a bag over my head and clubbed me and said he’d do the translation himself in two or three weeks.”
Moser had resisted the idea of translating Lispector himself, but finally decided to do it so as not to miss the chance to offer English readers a translation he felt worthy of Lispector’s legacy. According to Epler, the original translation “also has its qualities. Ben’s version is very different. It’s much more smooth in the Pontiero.” Moser insists Lispector is “incredibly difficult to translate, and to read at times. But she has this extremely distinctive voice. She’s inimitable. A translation is at some degree an imitation. You have to find out how to do that,” said Moser.
The resulting book is filled with jagged, jerky odd, and utterly compelling prose, which is how it should be according to Moser. After The Hour of the Star, New Directions will issue four other Lispector titles next May: Near to the Wild Heart, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and A Breath of Life, the last of which has never appeared in English before.