Basilio Losada: Literary mediator

First interpreter for Jorge Amado of Spain, philologist Basilio Losada translated close to 150 books in eight languages

Losada in front of the sculpture "Singularidade," by Alicia Martín, in Santiago de Compostela (2018)

Xermar District / Alberte Sánchez Regueiro

In the 1970s, when Brazilian literature was almost unknown in Spain, the Galician philologist Basilio Losada Castro knocked on the doors of the main publishing houses in Barcelona, the city where he lives to this day, to offer his translations for the books of Jorge Amado (1912–2001). Born in Láncara in 1930, the retired literary critic and professor of Galician and Portuguese language and literature at the University of Barcelona received successive no’s, until he found a Catalan publisher that was interested in his project and decided to publish the Brazilian author. Until this time, Amado had had some of his stories translated in the Spanish Revista de Cultura Brasileña (Brazilian culture magazine), launched in 1962 by the Spanish poet and translator Ángel Crespo (1926–1995) and by João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920–1999). Having also introduced the literature of José Saramago (1922–2010) in Spain, Losada translated almost 150 works in eight languages: Galician, German, Catalan, Spanish, English, French, and Russian, as well as Portuguese. He also published a number of volumes of literary critiques and poetry anthologies.  As a member of the Galician Royal Academy, in May 2018, he received the Eduardo Lourenço Award for establishing a “network of cultural mediation between different linguistic spaces along the Iberian peninsula.” This honor is bestowed every year by the Center for Iberian Studies, which was created in 2001 by the universities of Salamanca and Coimbra in the city of Guardam, Portugal. While he retired in 2000, he continues to give talks on Brazilian literature. Losada was interviewed by Pesquisa FAPESP, as follows.

How did translation enter your life?
At 12 years of age, I began to work as an assistant to a lawyer who had been a professor of the Free Institution of Education, a lay, private institution established in Madrid in 1876 to defend the freedom of professorship. My role was to receive visitors. At the time, I had no money to buy books, but he loaned me his books and we met on Fridays, after the workday was over, to discuss these readings. After two years, he introduced me to a friend who had an academia de bachillerato [school that offers short-term higher education]. There I began to work organizing the books of the library and, in exchange, I did not have to pay tuition. I was at the school for two years, during which time I prepared myself to enter university. I got a diploma in philosophy and languages, with a specialization in art history and philology. On the entrance exam for the university, the applicants were assessed by seven professors—and, the majority of the time, 80% did not pass. I got a 10 [out of 10] on all the assessments, with the exception of a 3 in mathematics, and I entered the university at 16 years of age. I began to translate because I needed the money. In 1975, at 45 years of age, I defended my doctorate in Galician philology with the thesis titled “Themes on Rosalía de Castro.” I was a poor student, but I always liked to read and to accumulate a lot of books. In 2003 and 2017, I donated many books to the Library of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, totaling close to 30,000 volumes. About 200 books in this library are part of my personal and professional history. Each time I go to the city, I pass by there to see my books again and remember my journey and the most important moments of my intellectual development.

In the 1960s, Brazilian literature was unknown in Spain. I did not even know any names of Brazilian authors

You have already translated into Spanish works written in seven different languages. How is this possible?
For me, translation is the best way to read a book in its depths. Whenever I begin to read something that interests me, I always think that I need to translate it. All of the languages I learned to translate, I began with reading something in this language—and not with the grammar. That is, I learned languages by opening a book, beginning to read and seeing what I was able to understand about that language. I think that, when a person is able to read five languages, he/she can read 15. For me, the languages I work with are languages to read. I know German well, for example, but every time I go to Germany, where I often go to speak at conferences, I am somewhat intimidated by having to speak with agility to large audiences.

Reproduction Covers of some titles by Brazilian authors translated by the Galician philologistReproduction

Brazilian literature began to circulate in Spain thanks to your efforts. How did this all come about?
In the 1960s, Brazilian literature was unknown in Spain. Even I did not know any names of Brazilian authors, but I was interested in the Portuguese language due to its similarity with Galician, my mother tongue. In 1964, I found a book about Jorge Amado, Os velhos marinheiros (The old mariners), at a used-books store. I began to read it on the bus, on the way to/from university, laughing all the way. I was curious to get to know this writer better, so then I bought Capitães da areia (Captains of sand). Initially, the edition by Brazilian authors in Spain was very difficult. I had good friendships and collaborations with close to 10 key publishers in Barcelona. Many of them had been my colleagues or students at the university. I would go from publisher to publisher, offering books by Brazilian and Portuguese authors and many told me that these writers would not have demand in Spanish. In the case of Jorge Amado, I heard that his name was close to that of a Spanish author who was lesser known. I even contacted Luis de Caralt [1917–1994], the Catalan publisher who published in Spanish. As an intellectual aligned with Francoism, he had a publishing house named after himself and was interested in publishing the Brazilian. That is how, in 1968, the first books by Jorge Amado were published in Spain. The other books by Amado that I later converted to Spanish include: Os pastores da noite (Shepherds of the night), Jubiabá, Seara vermelha (Red field), Os subterrâneos da liberdade (The bowels of liberty), O descobrimento da América pelos turcos (The discovery of America by the Turks) and Navegação de cabotagem (Coasting). At that time, I taught classes and spoke at conferences about Brazilian literature throughout the country, and I always started my talks saying how it was the most promising of any in the world.

What other Brazilian authors have you presented to the Spanish?
In Spain, I translated the first book by Clarice Lispector [1920–1977], Perto do coração selvagem (Near to the wild heart). Until the mid-1990s, she was also unknown among Spanish readers, publishers, and critics. Today, here she is the most published and well-known author from the world of Brazilian literature. All of her works were translated by my daughter, Elena Losada, a tenured professor in the Department of Galician and Portuguese Language and Literature at the University of Barcelona. Besides translations of her work, other important translations I have done include Helena, by Machado de Assis [1839–1908]; As horas nuas (Naked hours), by Lygia Fagundes Telles; O quinze (The fifteen), by Rachel de Queiroz [1910–2003]; Quarup, by Antônio Callado [1917–1997]; O cobrador (The collector) and Secreções, excreções e desatinos (Secretions, excretions and senselessness), by Rubem Fonseca; the two volumes of O Continente (The continent), by Erico Verissimo [1905–1975]; as well as the works of Patrícia Melo and Autran Dourado [1926–2012].

How were the first translations of José Saramago received in your country?
I also bought at a used-books store the first book published by this Portuguese author, Terra do pecado (Land of Sin), from 1947. I was amazed and began to speak with Barcelona and Madrid publishers about the possibility of publishing the translation of two of his works: Memorial do convento (Memorial of the convent) and O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The year of the death of Ricardo Reis). Until the 1990s, Saramago was also not well known in Spain—it was a Catalan poet, Pere Gimferrer Torrens, who became interested in publishing his first work. At that time, Gimferrer led the publishing house Seix Barral, one of the most important in Spain. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa [1888–1935] was already circulating among the university audience, and I even taught a course about his poetry for five years. For this reason, the publisher decided to first release O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis [one of Pessoa’s alter egos]. The Spanish version of the book, which was published in 1984, was a publishing success and Gimferrer decided to translate the complete works of Pessoa. I met Saramago and translated 14 of his romance novels. In 1991, my translation of Memorial do convento received the National Translation Award by the Spanish government. Saramago helped to consolidate the vitality that Portuguese literature has today in Spain.

Covers of some titles by Brazilian authors translated by the Galician philologist

Are there unique aspects to translation from Portuguese to Spanish?
Being the first, my translations of Brazilian and Portuguese authors were, in the beginning, an editorial adventure, different from translations of French, for example, as many of these had already been done by other translators. I have already translated close to 100 Portuguese books and I have never had many difficulties with the language because Galician is not too different from Portuguese. Galician is like Portuguese spoken with a Spanish phonetic, that is, the key differences occur in the sounds. I have more difficulty when the author in question is African and speaks Portuguese with a different dialect, or even with Guimarães Rosa [1908–1967], who uses Portuguese in a very strange way. I consider Brazil as one of the most interesting places in the area of literary creation. I think that the best literature is created in countries that are less developed and, in the case of Brazil, there is a variety of ethnic matrices that work together in the authors’ creative process.

Have you been to Brazil?
I have been there six times and the first time was after a trip to Buenos Aires in 1968. I spent a month in Argentina speaking at conferences and there was an opportunity to visit Brazil before returning to Spain. I spent a week in Rio de Janeiro and was amazed. I spent the entire time going into bookstores, as I do to this day in the cities I visit, and spent all the money I had made at the conferences in Argentina buying books. I was here other times for book fairs and conferences, and I met some of the authors I’ve translated, such as Rubem Fonseca. I also began to distribute the works of Fonseca in Spain. I have a dream to return to Brazil before I die but, at this point, at almost 90 years of age, it seems difficult.

During the Franco regime, the government banned the use of Galician. What impact did this have in your life?
I arrived in Barcelona in 1939, at the end of the Civil War—I was 8 years old. I came with my family to visit my father, who had fought during the war and was in a military hospital with head wounds, which often caused him to forget who we were. He died in 1940. His story is a curious one and which was common during the Civil War. He was an anarchist, but in 1936, when the conflict exploded, he was invited to become a member of Franco’s army. He fought against his own anarchist friends and saw many of them die. That is, he fought the war alongside the Francoists and, because of them, he died, even though he opposed their ideals. At the beginning of the war, my father did not allow us to speak Galician, but we would speak the language with my mother when he was not at home. After he died, we settled in Barcelona and began to spend time with many other people who came from Galicia. We lived in a humble apartment, but on Sundays the Galician community of Barcelona would meet in our home. I thought that those people came to have my mother’s hot chocolate. Later, I realized that they came in order to speak Galician and to remember their motherland. Today, the Spanish government wants to exhume the body of Franco, which is buried in the mausoleum at the Valle de los Caidos, in the municipality of San Lorenzo del Escorial, near Madrid. The bodies of about 40,000 victims of the Civil War are also buried there in one of the largest mass graves in the world. I think this idea is wrong and that they should leave it where it is and distribute books that tell the story of why he is buried in this massive mausoleum. Exhuming his mortal remains means working against historical memory.