Johnny Lorenz has been shortlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize for translating Itamar Vieira Junior’s novel Crooked Plow from the Portuguese.

Set deep in Brazil’s neglected Bahia hinterland, two sisters find an ancient knife beneath their grandmother’s bed and, momentarily mystified by its power, decide to taste its metal. The shuddering violence that follows marks their lives and binds them together forever.

The jury said the novel is “an aching yet tender story of our origins of violence, of how we spend our lives trying to bloom love and care from them, and of the language and silence we need to fuel our tending.”

Lorenz, the son of Brazilian immigrants to the United States, is a translator, poet and literary critic. He has a doctorate in English from the University of Texas at Austin and is a professor at Montclair State University. His translation of Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and his translation of Lispector’s The Besieged City was listed as one of the Best Books of 2019 by Vanity Fair.

In an interview, he spoke about choosing literature as a profession, the translator's "destiny", and the nuances of the Portuguese language.

When and how did you develop an interest in literature?
So I grew up in Miami Beach in the United States. An absurd place to grow up. Ridiculous place to grow up. My parents are Brazilian immigrants and I went to a Catholic school as a child. A lot of magical stories were taught to me as part of my education, but it really wasn’t until I went to public high school that I had a literature teacher who was very cruel and almost fascist in the classroom, but it changed my life.

I should be more careful with that word these days. I should say that he was unforgiving but that course changed my life because he introduced me to literature that I think was very ambitious. In his class, we were treated as young adults reading Shakespeare and TS Eliot and absurdist theatre and existential modernist novels. You just had no choice but to raise your level to what the teacher expected. I think that opened up this world that to me – an almost secret world of literature. And I think that’s when things probably began to change for me.

And when did you decide to pursue literature as a career?
My parents were hoping that I would go into something like ophthalmology. My family isn’t particularly interested in literature. They must have felt I was extraterrestrial when I told them what I wanted my career to be.

It made no sense to them, and to me too, at that point. But I was still interested in this new world that opened up to me in high school, especially when I took some creative writing classes.

I really wanted to somehow make it a part of my future and my career. I went on to pursue a PhD in literature at the University of Texas at Austin. In retrospect, I couldn’t think of anything better than staying in the classroom.

I wonder if, in some sense, that was a lack. I like to think it was some imaginative faculty on my part, some imaginative power that I had that brought me into the literature and translation, but it might’ve been the lack of imagination. I couldn’t think of anything that would take me away from the classroom.

And so I wanted to stay in a classroom arguing about an interpretation of a literary text and that was so exciting to me that I wanted to turn it into a career. In terms of translation, I would go to Brazil with my mother to visit family and my grandmother suspected that I did not know the language very well. She liked to read and she liked to share things with me. She gave me my first book in Portuguese and it was a book of poems by Mario Quintana.

It made me realise there was nothing in English by this poet, nothing had been translated. And so I just decided to do it. If I want to read his poetry in English then I’d have to translate it. Somehow the Fulbright committee agreed, so I was given a scholarship in 2003. That’s how I translated the poems.

I lived in Brazil for six months and completed the translation. That was my first real step towards literary translation.

How did the Clarice Lispector translation come to be?
You think of something as a failure and it turns out to actually be very fruitful And I think that’s what happened here.

I shared a sample of my translation with an editor of a publishing house and she said, no, it’s interesting but not quite right for our press. The kind of thing that we keep hearing in our profession. It’s wonderful, but it’s not quite right. Until eventually, another translator convinced someone else to publish their translation of the book.

Naturally, I was disappointed, but what happened in that situation was that the editor remembered me. And even though she didn’t sign on to the project, she remembered my translation and she remembered what I was capable of doing.

And so when Benjamin Moser, the series editor for New Directions for Clarice Lispector was looking for a translator, he asked this particular editor if she knew anyone and she mentioned me. She mentioned my enthusiasm and that she thought I’d be right for it.

At one point I thought I had failed but looking back I realise that sometimes failure leads to success.

Crooked Plow is Itamar Vieira Junior’s first novel, but I believe he has written some short stories earlier. Interestingly, he’s an ethnographer too. Tell us more about him.
Itamar did something pretty sensational. His second novel has now been published in Brazil. I’ll also be translating it. Anyway, Crooked Plow is called Torto Arado in Portuguese.

He sent it to a competition in Portugal. He sent it from Brazil and if won, he would get a cash prize and assurance of publication. There was another competition where you had to send in the physical manuscript – around 200 pages to be sent across the Atlantic. That’s an expensive affair. He thought to himself maybe I shouldn’t send it. Can you imagine in another reality, he would’ve just walked back home and said, the postage is too expensive? Then none of this would have happened! Anyway, he posted it after all, won the prize, and the book came out in Portugal.

It was then published in Brazil. It won the Jabuji Prize there and the Oceanus Prize for the Best International Novel.

He’s educated as an ethnographer. He has worked for a federal agency that’s interested in land reform. And during fieldwork, he was basically living with peasants and rural communities who were very impoverished, but very proud and hardworking. Studying their relationship to the land, their social relationships with each other and structures of power – all of this became information that he would use to create this beautiful novel.

Johnny, you’re a literary critic too. What was your reaction when you read this novel for the first time in Portuguese?
I have to admit that I read it on my phone. I usually give my students a hard time about reading on their phones – I must sound to them like someone from 300 years ago! But the reason why I read on my phone was because it had not yet been published in Brazil. But I was able to get hold of the digital version.

I wish I remembered how I got to know about it. I think someone online must have recommended it and I think I was just looking for something to read. Anyway, I downloaded it. Read it. And I immediately said to myself, I want to translate this book.

I right away got in touch with Itamar. I sent a sample to the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives a nice grant to translation projects. As fate would have it, I received the grant from the National Endowment the same week that Itamar received the Best Novel of the Year ward. It felt like destiny.

Would you say it’s historical fiction?
You’re touching on a tricky question in the book. I don’t want to be too specific, but I would say the second half of the 20th century.

I’m saying that because there are so many flashbacks and all sorts of memories of the old timers that show up, grandparents and whatnot. We go back to the early 20th century. We go back to a period just after the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. But the two women, the two sisters at the heart of the novel are products of the middle of the 20th century going into I think going all the way into the 1980s, I would say.

That’s one of the reasons why some readers are a little unsure about when the novel takes place and I think that’s intentional. I think the book wants to be a little bit ambiguous about the questions of when.

Because part of the argument of the novel is that for these farmers, it still feels a lot like the 19th century. And I’m sure you can speak to this as well. There are some places in the world where in town, people have running water, but in the fields or outside of town, women, usually the women who have to tend the garden, let’s say, and feed the children have to go to the river or to a well and bring the water back home.

So it’s almost like you have simultaneous times coexisting. For instance, the sisters are wounded and they have to go to the hospital. They’re driven to it in a car and for the first time they’ve seen anything outside of their community. Asphalt roads and buildings and a hospital – it’s like going to another planet.

How would you introduce the novel to a reader?
The story is told from the point of view of two sisters who have experienced terrible wounding, both of them in a very literal way, but also in a psychological way. They’re brought closer together because of it – one of them becomes the voice of the other.

So in the first section, the narration is from the point of view of one sister, Bibiana. The second section of the book is from the point of view of the other sister, Belonesia. And the third section is from the point of view of I’m not going to tell you who because it’s a secret, but let me just say that when that third voice enters the novel shifts in a very powerful and remarkable way.

What is very telling for me is when one girl loses her voice, the other girl, gives her the voice. The one who loses her voice, remains in the village with all its oppressive structures and the one who goes to the town gets a voice. She comes back and literally starts giving voice to the whole community.
That’s right. And I think that in, in some ways we can see this tension between the sister who goes to get educated and the sister who stays behind to keep farming the land and to do the household chores. In some sense, the sister who goes off into the world, gets educated, becomes part of the labour movement and fights for social justice. The other sister, it would be easy to say that she’s the one who’s not the feminist, who is not, shall we say, progressive, but the book doesn’t allow us to be dismissive of her.

We might even say that she is the stronger of the two.

She stays behind and takes up the fight.
Yes, and in a different way. The men of the community almost can’t believe that she is able to farm the way that she does because she is physically very strong and more capable than many of the men in her community.

She learns to listen to the earth. She learns what her father teaches her about the herbs and about pests in the field. And that’s her classroom. Her classroom was.

What was the experience of translating the novel like?
I suppose there is something a little bit tricky about translating descriptions, representations of sacred rituals and perhaps rituals that are not necessarily part of your own personal belief system. I should know that because I’ve been to Salvador in Bahia, which is not exactly where the book is set, but I have been to the kind of rituals that we see depicted in the novel.

You will hear the drumming and particular rhythms, these are ways of calling down divinities. I’ve seen people possessed by divinity. I needed to make sure that I could translate in a way that was most accurate to what I had seen.

With the Itamar, I didn’t have many questions about Jaré, the ritual. I will say though that I did do some reading about Jaré that I felt was very illuminating. I’m not sure how much it really affected my translation, per se, but it made me feel more confident about understanding what was happening around the page in a way or around the language.

So there’s a book by Gabriel Banagia called As Forças do Jaré, The Powers of Jaré. And in some of the scenes in the book, the descriptions are very similar to this kind of ethnographic description that I was reading about in terms of the healer, in terms of the rhythms, the processions that took place.

That was something I had to pay particular attention to, to make sure that I got some of those details right. A lot of people ask me about translating these abstract concepts that you find in the Portuguese language. I think a lot of the difficulty is in the tissue of a language, that, it’s the little words that people don’t really pay attention to. For instance, in English, the preposition works this way, or the pronoun works that way. But in Portuguese, there’s some ambiguity. And now, in English, I have to be more precise, but I could be precise in the wrong direction.

I’ll give you a quick example. In English, pronouns reveal the gender of the person, whereas in Portuguese the pronoun refers to the gender of the object, not the gender of the person to whom the object belongs. So if I say his car, that’s very specific about whose car it belongs to versus her car or their car. But in Portuguese, if I say seu carro, you don’t know if it’s a man or a woman who owns that car. It’s ambiguous. It might not seem like a big deal, but for a translator, it can cause headaches because there are certain scenes where the language is very ambiguous.

In Portuguese, the word in and the word on are one and the same. So that can also be ambiguous. If you are in something or on something, it can be an important distinction. But in Portuguese, if they feel like it’s important, then there’ll be some more language around it. But sometimes it’s left kind of ambiguous, and you have to wrestle with that.

These might seem like small technical issues but the translators can get a read headache trying to figure them out.

I believe sometimes authors want to create ambiguity…
I would say that you have to show restraint as a translator because sometimes your first instinct is to interpret the text and you’re reading. You might really feel the itch to interpret it.

But when you’re asked to translate something, you have to show restraint because you don’t want to colour your translation with your sense of what’s going on between the lines because you might end up revealing too much. The reader must be allowed to make their own interpretations.

You’re a poet, literary critic, translator, teacher. How does one role influence the other?
One of the things that I think poetry has taught me is that poets are very interested in what is not said. And I think that has helped me as a translator because you have to, in some sense, translate the silence and be respectful of the silence.

And sometimes that means not filling in the silence, holding back on that urge to fill the silence when the text wants that silence to be present. I think sometimes my literary critic tendency is that I also read like a critic. I’m thinking about arguments that I want to make about the book, but I have to rein in this desire.

But I would still say that all of those hats that I wear allow me to keep shifting gears in a sense, and that is actually makes my work so much more fun, especially the teaching part, you’re always thinking about your audience when you’re a teacher. You’re always thinking about what they hear. That makes me think about literature as not just this sort of quiet, lonely practice of reading, but as an exercise in listening. Reading can also be a very visual experience.

One of my friends, when I mentioned about this novel to him, he was saying even in Greek mythology, there is a very similar incident where one of the Greek gods loses a tongue.
That’s Philomela. She finds a way to speak through her art. She tells stories through tapestry. In some ways, I like to think that, one of the key images in the book is a knife. And in some way one of the characters learns to speak with a knife.

Listen to the interview here.

Harshaneeyam’s podcast focuses on translated literary fiction from around the world.