Campus doctoral graduate wins PEN prize for translation

Jennifer Tanji/Staff

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A campus doctoral graduate Katrina Dodson has unanimously won the 2016 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s “The Complete Stories.”

The prestigious PEN prize is awarded annually to a new translation of any language into English and draws submissions from the best translations across the country, according to Sarah Edkins, deputy director for communications at PEN.

”You have to be a kind of poet in your own right … to be able to enter the life of another person but also enter their language and to find equivalence,” campus Spanish and Portuguese professor Candace Slater said.

The PEN judges described Dodson’s translation as “a thoroughly impressive feat of literary translation” in their citation. The sheer length of the volume — 640 pages — makes the accomplishment amazing, said UCLA professor of Brazilian literature and former campus professor Jose Luiz Passos.

Without translators, campus English professor Scott Saul said, English readers would “remain trapped in our English-speaking world and have no sense of the great variety blooming all around us.

Saul said Lispector is “one of the brightest stars” in Brazilian literature, and until Dodson’s translation, Lispector’s short stories were often talked about but infrequently read.

“You have the dictionary definition of words, but there’s so many ways that words can communicate beyond just their definition,” Dodson said.

“The Complete Stories,” a collection of all 85 short stories Lispector wrote over the course of her life, encompasses stories about precocious young girls, mothers and elderly widows, as well as others.

“They’re tricky because they are stories that seem to be about everyday life, and yet, they also are very philosophical,” Dodson said.

Dodson worked solely on the translation of “The Complete Stories” for two years before its 2015 release.

“It was such a solitary process, me in my room just translating,” Dodson said. “To have this kind of recognition for my work and for her work is incredible.”

Dodson studied English at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and as a doctoral candidate, spending four years in Brazil in between. She learned Portuguese on her own after graduating by listening to cassette tapes on her walkman, later moving to Brazil to teach English and take classes on a Fulbright scholarship.

“I just fell in love with Portuguese and Brazilian culture and literature,” Dodson said. “By the time I came back in 2004, I wanted to study comparative literature so that I could combine my love of foreign language and literature with my knowledge of literature in English.”

Lispector’s nonstandard punctuation creates irregularities, contributing to a rhythm of reading and unique cadence. While previous translators smoothed over these irregularities, Dodson said she chose to include them.

“She’s one of the most important writers in Brazil, and the stakes were very high, and I felt a lot of responsibility to get it right,” Dodson said.

Dodson has been reading Lispector’s work for more than 12 years, and her favorite line coming from the opening line one of Lispector’s novels “The Hour of the Star”:All the world began with a yes.”

One of Dodson’s favorite stories she translated is one about an egg and a chicken. The story begins with a woman looking at an egg in the kitchen, but the story delves into the nature of perception and perfection.

Past winners of the award associated with UC Berkeley include Zack Rogow, who co-founded the Lunch Poem Reading Series on campus, and former visiting lecturer Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet.

Dodson is currently pursuing freelance writing and translation, as well as working on several translations, essays and book reviews.

“Right now, I have this momentum in translating and writing that I’m hoping to pursue,” Dodson said.

Michelle Leung covers student life. Contact her at [email protected].