On becoming a professional translator

Recently I had to fill out a form for a company looking for Portuguese –to-English translators. One of the questions was something like: “How long have you been translating professionally?” That set me to thinking. Since a good part of my job as a correspondent for The Associated Press in Brazil in the 1960s involved translating—for which I was paid, of course—I could have said since 1961. But the translating and interpreting I did then was not my real work, but an incidental part of it. So I thought further ahead. And therein lies a tale.

During the military coup d’etat in Brazil in 1964, I was taken into custody by a squad of soldiers that invaded our offices on Avenida Rio Branco in the “clean-up” phase of hunting “communists” that followed the coup. I had managed to call a good friend, Alfredo Machado, to let him know what was happening.

Alfredo, at the time, Brazil’s leading publisher and distributor of books, was also a close confidant of Carlos Lacerda, the governor of Guanabara (as it was called then) state and a key player in the conspiracy to overthrow the presidency of João “Jango” Goulart. Alfredo got an army general to come with him to the AP offices to secure my release.

After having spent a couple of hours inside a stinking police paddy wagon while the driver stopped to have a few shots of booze on the way to the Political Police Headquarters, I was not a happy camper. So when I was brought back to the office, I gave the general and the captain who had ordered my arrest a piece of my mind—in very fluent, street-savvy Portuguese.

Alfredo grabbed me by the arm and started pulling me out of the room.

“General,” he said, “the only way to end this is just to end it now.” With that he jerked me into the hallway. “If you don’t shut up,” he admonished, “we’re both going to wind up in jail.”

I had known Alfredo well since I first arrived in Brazil. He spoke almost perfect English, so in the early days it was easier for me to talk to him in English. He had never before heard me speak Portuguese.

Fast forward three years: I had returned to the States and was working in Washington as press secretary for Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. I got a call from Alfredo asking me if I was interested in doing some translating. I said yes. The next call was from Alfred A. Knopf, the iconic New York publisher whose eponymous brand was synonymous with quality literature. He asked me to read a Brazilian novel and tell him whether I thought it was worth publishing. After reading my critique, he decided to publish the novel, Uma vida em segredo, by Autran Dourado. I did, and the English version, A Hidden Life, turned out to be a critical, if not commercial, success, and that started a close relationship between me and Knopf and his company.

Knopf had a volatile personality and our relationship ended abruptly a few years later. But that’s a story for another day.

I should point out that from those early translations to the present, my best resource has been Ghislaine, my Brazilian-born wife. She proofs my work and corrects my mistakes—in both languages.

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