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Boris Schnaiderman

Boris Schnaiderman: Memories of a former soldier

Literature professor, one of Brazil’s pioneers in the translation of Russian novels, and Army veteran releases book on his tour of duty in World War II

Entrevista Boris_01LÉO RAMOSIt is not unusual to find professor and translator Boris Schnaiderman, 98, tapping away at an Olivetti typewriter in his apartment in the capital city of São Paulo. True, he is no longer translating the Russian greats or preparing classes in Russian language and literature. Recently, Schnaiderman has been devoting himself more intensely to two topics that have stayed with him over the past 70 years. The first borders on an obsession: the ongoing revision of his own book translations in pursuit of the best semantic and literary solutions. The second is a more intimate concern born of a visceral experience: his tour of duty as a soldier in the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) during World War II. His recollections of the conflict prompted him to publish Caderno italiano (Italian notebook; Perspectiva publishing house), a memoir of those days, which still prompt disgust, indignation, and frustration in him.

Schnaiderman is known as one of the first Brazilian translators to render short stories, novels, and poems directly from Russian into Portuguese, starting in the 1940s. A Ukrainian Jew with a Russian education, he was born in 1917, the year of the Communist revolution, which gave rise to the Soviet Union. Unhappy with living conditions and prospects for the future in Eastern Europe, his family immigrated to Brazil in 1924 and settled in Rio de Janeiro. Young Boris had a real interest in literature but it was some time before he was able to devote himself solely to translating, writing essays, and teaching. First, he graduated and worked in the field of agronomy. He only did translations in his spare time and was rarely pleased with them. “My first texts have many flaws, and today I no longer approve of those renditions,” says Schnaiderman, renowned for his rigorous attitude toward his own work and for bringing into Portuguese works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov, Gorky, and Mayakovsky, among others.

His output grew steadier after 1960, the year he was hired by the University of São Paulo (USP), where he was one of the founders of the first free course in Russian. In 1964, Schnaiderman released his earliest book as an author in his own right, Guerra em surdina (Muted war, now published by Cosac Naify), a mix of memoir and fiction that is a contemplative perusal of his time in Italy, where he was responsible for calculating the trajectory of bombs so they would strike their targets. Seventy years after the end of the global conflict, Schnaiderman has gone back to the topic to reaffirm his viewpoint as a participant in the events of the period.

Russian language and literature
Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy from the National School of Agronomy; PhD in literature from the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP)
Scientific production
Author of eight books of essays, fiction, and autobiography and translator of dozens more

Since 1986, Schnaiderman has been married to Jerusa Pires Ferreira, professor and researcher in Communications and Semiotics at the Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo (PUC-SP). He has two children from his first marriage: Miriam, psychoanalyst and filmmaker, and Carlos, currently Secretary of Health for the city of Guarulhos, in Greater São Paulo. In the interview that follows, he shares his memories of World War II and talks about his career and the challenges of translation.

In Caderno italiano, you wrote that you feel frustrated about the persistent image of the Brazilian campaign in World War II, which is sometimes exaggerated as an edifying experience and other times stripped of any importance. What gives you this impression?
In the book, I tell how I ran into total ignorance in Brazil about what we went to do in Italy. Our participation in the war was rather odd. We came from Brazil, where there was a Fascist-leaning dictatorship, and went to fight in Europe to defend someone else’s democracy. Most of the soldiers had no desire to go into battle and didn’t understand why they were there. Yet they fought and did relatively well. I thought it was a very peculiar situation, a historical paradox. At one moment we were listening to the pro-Axis tirades of the Vargas government; the next, we had to placidly agree to go fight on the side of the Allies. I was an anti-militarist, but I kept up with the news and was very upset by what was happening in Europe, although we still didn’t know the dimensions of the Holocaust. That’s why I thought I had to go to war.

Your book also expresses a certain sadness that Brazilian soldiers weren’t recognized for their actions, as if you had all gone off on a pleasure trip.
Even though poorly prepared, the Brazilians fulfilled their role as best they could. They really fought, with drive and very often with true skill, acquired right on the battlefield. I was there and saw that. This is one of the things that continues to puzzle me today: those efficient fighters didn’t feel they had any ideal to fight for.

Why did you return to this topic 70 years after the war, and why do you feel helpless when it comes to the stories told about it?
I still have this need to show what really happened, according to what I saw. I want to remind people that Brazilians went to war and fought, even if most of them weren’t motivated to do so. I also can’t get over the fact that the prevalent interpretation of what takes place during war—when all notions of civilization and progress vanish—is not as bleak as mine. This is explored very nicely in War and Peace, when Tolstoy concludes that man creates his war myths and then, after every war, shapes the facts to fit them.

You also complain a bit about the Brazilian journalists who have written on the topic.
Not all of them. Rubem Braga and Joel Silveira had very valuable things to say about the period. But they failed to point out the basic contradiction: the fact that Brazilians were fighting for democracy as the envoys of a government of Fascist bent. And fighting without any conviction.  None of them talk about that. Rubem Braga comes close, at most. There are other authors—completely unknown—who fought in the war and wrote stronger, more visceral personal accounts. But there are few of us alive now to talk about it.

Guerra em surdina (Muted war), released in 1964, right at the outset of Brazil’s military dictatorship, addressed the same topic. Were you harassed at all for it?
That book lay somewhere between personal observations and fiction. It’s an account of the war written from an inner perspective, which expresses what was going on inside one individual during those moments. Hence the title Muted war. Italian notebook, on the other hand, looks at my memories of the period and offers an autobiographical narrative. There was no extreme reaction in 1964, although the book deviated from official FEB reports. I suffered later because of some protest stances I took during the military dictatorship.

Were you ever imprisoned?
I was detained four times. Like others, I was protesting because of the political situation and I took part in demonstrations inside and outside the university. Although I was a naturalized citizen, I felt completely Brazilian. I’d forget that I hadn’t been born here. One of those times, I was arrested inside a classroom. But I was never really jailed, nor did I suffer the violence that other professors did. I was “summoned” to do some explaining for several hours and then released. And I didn’t lose my political or civil rights under the military regime’s institutional acts.

Brazilians in Camaiore, Italy, occupied by the Brazilian Expeditionary Force

Personal Archive / Caderno Italiano Brazilians in Camaiore, Italy, occupied by the Brazilian Expeditionary ForcePersonal Archive / Caderno Italiano

Let’s talk a little more about your early life. Your family left Odessa when you were 8. Why did your parents choose Brazil?
I’m not from Odessa. We moved there when I was a year old. I was born in Uman, a medium-sized town in Ukraine. We had to leave because of the pogroms that took place shortly after the Russian revolution—massacres of Jews in some Eastern European cities. My early childhood was spent in Odessa and my education was completely Russian. When we wanted to emigrate, there weren’t many possible choices. You went wherever you managed to get a visa. A cousin had left some months earlier because he got very disgusted when he was excluded from the university since he didn’t come from a proletarian family. He snuck out through Vienna, made the rounds of a number of embassies, checking out where he might settle, and he was accepted by the Brazilian Embassy. He came to São Paulo and started working in construction as a mason. Later on, he got his engineering degree and held some important posts. His name was Pedro Pasternak. He’d write to us, saying how wonderful Brazil was.  We ended up coming here and living in Rio de Janeiro. Since my father was a salesman, he also lived in Porto Alegre for a time.

Why did you decide to study agronomy?
When I was about 13, for some reason I said I wanted to be an agronomist. A little while later, when I was 14 or 15, I went through a major identity crisis and I felt more Brazilian than before. At the same time, I started showing an interest in literature, which is what I enjoyed more. But for all intents and purposes, my family had already consigned me to agronomy and I took that as a major.

Did you ever work in that field?
Yes, I worked as an agronomist for several years. I attended the National School of Agronomy in Rio and graduated in 1940 at the age of 23. Right after that, I got my Brazilian citizenship, enlisted, and went to war. When I came back, I lived in São Paulo for some years and worked in Barbacena, a city in Minas Gerais.

And what made you give up your profession for good?
Agronomy was a way to make a living, although I did rather enjoy the work. I had already found a job before the war, in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio, at the Institute of Agricultural Ecology, which was later renamed the Institute of Agricultural Ecology and Experimentation. When the war was over, I stayed on just a short while there. I wanted to get into something more literary, something involving texts, and I ended up working at the Soviet news agency, TASS. I served as secretary for the TASS correspondent, Yuri Kalugin, for a little over a year, right after 1945.

So in a way, you worked in journalism. Did you like the field?
I enjoyed doing it, although it wasn’t my ideal.  I wrote up summaries and translated news that came out in the Brazilian papers. I assisted the Russian journalist, who did the writing. Things gradually grew very difficult for people who had come from the Soviet Union and worked at Soviet institutions. My father, who was a salesman and distributed Russian films in Brazil back then, said he needed my help. And I left TASS.

Schnaiderman two days after the war ended

Personal Archive / Caderno Italiano Schnaiderman two days after the war endedPersonal Archive / Caderno Italiano

After that, you went to Barbacena and in the 1950s settled in São Paulo. What brought you here?
I was in Minas Gerais from 1948 to 1953, heading up the Agricultural Center at the Barbacena Agrotechnical School. My first wife, Regina, had studied chemistry and later became a psychoanalyst. Her mother lived in São Paulo and got cancer. We moved here to help her, and I found myself without a job. One day, I read an ad in the paper looking for people who knew different languages. I took a chance and showed up there. I ended up being hired to work on writing an encyclopedia, Mérito, put out by the U.S. publisher Jackson. I was one of the editors and I must have written a few thousand entries. They had an office set up here in São Paulo, in a very odd situation.

Why was it odd?
For a long time, the encyclopedia didn’t move beyond the beginning of the letter ‘a’; it seemed like nothing was working. It was obvious that the US headquarters wasn’t going to let this go on much longer. There was an advisor for Latin America, who was Colombian, and he came around only once in a while. Until one day they made a major overhaul, firing almost everyone, and I was one of those who stayed on, along with two or three other editors. I worked there seven years. I didn’t stay through the end because I was selected to start up Russian classes at USP in 1960. And later I was made responsible for USP’s course in Russian language and literature.

You had a degree in agronomy and no background in language and literature. How did you come to be hired?
My translations directly from Russian to Portuguese were well known by then and were good enough as bona fides. But I had to teach myself language and literature.

Your editor at Perspectiva, Jacó Guinsburg—likewise self-taught—has said that teaching yourself can come at a steep price. Do you agree with that?
Completely. An auto-didact has the advantage of learning freely, but he suffers a lot more in finding the best paths by himself, and this ends up taking much longer than it does in formal education. I ended up finding these paths at USP. I already had earlier experience as an instructor at the Barbacena Agrotechnical School, although USP was completely different. I did well in the São Paulo university environment. After some years, I did my doctorate.

Who was your advisor?
Antonio Candido. He agreed to serve as my advisor but said he wouldn’t really be advising me. He said I’d be able to defend myself on my own at that point and that he’d just sign my dissertation. He gave me total freedom and his utmost trust. When I was done, I took it to him, he read it, and he approved very highly of it. I defended my dissertation in 1971. The title was “A poética de Maiakóvski através de sua prosa” (Mayakovsky’s poetry through his prose), which led to a book, published by Perspectiva.

So it was before this, in the early 1960s, that you got to know the concrete poets Haroldo and Augusto de Campos and began your collaboration with them, which included translating Mayakovsky, correct?
Correct. My contact with them, our exchanges, and our work together went very well. I still have a close relationship with Augusto [Haroldo de Campos died in 2003]. I didn’t care for concrete poetry at the time, but they were exemplary as translators. Augusto still is. I tutored Haroldo in Russian, while Augusto enrolled in the course at USP and stayed through the end of the second year. In actuality, I taught both of them. Haroldo had an incredible facility and aptitude for languages. They were both able to do free translations that were at the same time faithful, which is never easy.

In Tradução, ato desmedido (Translation,  an inordinate act), you wrote: “Audacity, daring, and flights of the imagination are as necessary in translation as fidelity to the original—better put, true fidelity is only achieved by approaching texts with this dose of freedom.” Yet when you began doing translations, you signed as Boris Solomonov, and today you criticize your work from that era. You’ve said the texts were a bit staid…
The book you’re citing is from 2011 and by then I’d learned the trade. I began translating in the early 1940s. The texts were very formal, especially because of the editing. At Vecchi publishing house, in Rio, where I began publishing, the editor wanted everything in very classic language. If the novelist used colloquial language, like Dostoevsky’s, the editor would replace it with more formal, antiquated Portuguese. The translator didn’t even see this process happening and didn’t have the power to contest it back then.

Why did you use a pseudonym when you first began translating?
I started out translating during my spare time at a job I had with the Ministry of Agriculture. At the time, I was reading a lot in Russian, still grappling with the problem of bilingualism, and I couldn’t express myself satisfactorily in Portuguese. I did a number of translations without feeling very sure about them, and that’s why I signed “Boris Solomonov,” an abbreviation of Solomonovitch, my Russian patronymic [obligatory Russian middle name derived from the father’s name or from a paternal ancestor; Solomonovitch means “son of Solomon,” or “Solomon, father of Boris”]. It wasn’t exactly a pseudonym, because although it wasn’t a name I usually used, it was my middle name. There weren’t even any Russian-Portuguese dictionaries in Brazil and I had to go to the National Library to look up words and terms that I didn’t know in Russian-French and Russian-English dictionaries. I didn’t have enough education or experience in translation yet and I didn’t know anyone who could critique and caution me. I later learned that no translation can be considered finished unless it has been compared with the original by reading the translated text out loud. Even so, in the 1940s, Vecchi publishing house accepted my work. I’ve been told that it was important to publish mass market editions of the great Russian authors back then, like Vecchi did. But I don’t agree. There were lots of problems with the translations.

What was your first published book translation?
I started off with Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It was published in 1944 and was actually well received by the critics. But it was also foolhardiness. If I’d already been familiar with the book, I wouldn’t have done it. The translation is full of flaws and I no longer approve of it.

Jeep from the Brazilian Fire Direction Center, transporting soldiers across the Panaro River in Italy

Personal Archive / Caderno Italiano Jeep from the Brazilian Fire Direction Center, transporting soldiers across the Panaro River in ItalyPersonal Archive / Caderno Italiano

When did you start using the name Boris Schnaiderman?
Only in 1959. I published Contos (Short stories), a collection of Chekhov that I selected and translated and for which I wrote the foreword and notes, for Civilização Brasileira publishing house in Rio. I thought I was mature enough by then, but I was horrified when I saw it in print, because I found a series of gaps and inaccuracies. Nonetheless, Otto Maria Carpeaux praised it highly, in what was then the literary supplement of the newspaper Estadão. I promised myself I’d do a new, improved translation, which I was only able to get to in 1985, when the publisher Max Limonad released it under another title: A dama do cachorrinho e outros contos (The lady with the dog and other stories). I was still dissatisfied with some of the stories, and in 1999 I was able to publish the same book through Editora 34, with better solutions. In the 1960s, I did a great deal of translating. After Chekhov’s Contos, I adopted a new technique: I had someone else read me the text that I had translated into Portuguese aloud, while I followed along in Russian. It took me several years to discover how important this basic practice is.

Did this take care of the problems with the translations?
In large part, yes. I managed to eliminate many semantic mistakes using this technique, but I still find the overly formal language I used during that period to be jarring. It might work with some writers. But with Tolstoy and his anti-literary rebelliousness, or Dostoevsky and his “sloppy” writing, it didn’t work; it was bad.

This never-ending dissatisfaction with your own translations and your habit of constantly redoing them must be distressing. Is that why you classify translation as an “inordinate act”?
I have no doubt about it. “Inordinate” because it is an act of violence to take a work by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and translate it. I’m not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, and yet I try to transpose into Portuguese what they said in Russian within the context of the Russian culture. I’ve translated great authors, like Pushkin, Chekhov, Gorky, Mayakovsky. The expression “inordinate act” holds true for all of them. I translated Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad for the first time in 1949 and since then I’ve done four different translations of the same book in order to improve it and reduce what I call “violence.” The last of these was published by Cosac Naify in 2010. This has been the case with many other books as well.

Who did you most enjoy translating?
Chekhov sparked my greatest enthusiasm. He died young, at 44, and left a vast oeuvre. He earned acclaim for his short stories, although he wrote everything.

What were translations from Russian to Portuguese like before you started doing them?
Most of them were based on French translations. As far as I know, the first translations directly from Russian into Portuguese came in early 1930. Some of my parents’ friends were from Riga, in Latvia, and had Russian educations. These people had left the Soviet Union during or shortly after the revolution and gone to neighboring countries, until they managed to emigrate again. One of them, Iúri Zeltzóv, came to Brazil in late 1920 and founded the Library of Russian Authors here. He had his own way of working. Since he knew the language poorly, he translated Russian texts out loud. Two writers who were just starting their careers, Brito Broca and Orígenes Lessa, would listen to the translation and write it down in good Portuguese. Even Orígenes’ wife, Elsie Lessa, translated at least one book together with Zeltzóv. The translation bore his name only—he signed it George Selzoff—although the work had been done jointly. He translated, printed, and sold it. This didn’t last long, and I couldn’t tell you whether anyone else had translated directly from Russian before this.

You’re a contemporary of Tatiana Belinky (1919-2013), a Russian who became a Brazilian citizen. In addition to her importance to children’s literature in Brazil, she was also one of the pioneers in translating books directly from Russian. Did you like her translations?
Very much so. I have the utmost respect for Tatiana’s work. Her translation of Gogol’s Dead Souls is absolutely admirable. She translated a good deal from Russian as well as from other languages.

What do you think about Russian literature in Brazil today?
Starting in the early 20th century, there was a great deal of interest in Russia and Russian topics in Brazil. In the 1950s, for ideological reasons, this interest declined. Later, in the closing decades of the 20th century, it started growing again. I see substantial demand for this literature today, with the release of a vast array of authors and good translations.

How about the other way around? Do you think Brazilian authors would be appreciated by Russians?
Brazilian literature is not very well known in Russia. If good translations were done and publicized, I think there’d be an audience. When Jorge Amado was translated there, a good time ago, he was a success and had a large audience.

At the age of 98, are you still translating?
I’m not doing any new translations now. I just improve on the old ones. So long as my mind is up to it, I’ll keep going.