As a translator from Portuguese to English, I am eternally fascinated by how culture comes to bear on the way a translation is received. That is, while there might be an exact translation for something, linguistically speaking, that exact translation falls flat if left untampered, because the way it is read depends so heavily on our cultural conditioning and aesthetic expectations.
For example (and there are of course exceptions), sentences in Portuguese tend to be longer than sentences in English. What is witty or clever in Portuguese can sometimes come across as wordy or pedantic in English; and, by the same token, what is clear and to-the-point in English can often feel a little simplistic in Portuguese. Sentences in Portuguese tend to be fuelled by nouns, whereas sentences in English come alive with verbs. Brazilians are, on the whole, more at home with emotions than we are; we are more at ease with restraint.
All of these things come to play in the way translations are read and are thus the things I most fret over as I work. I will often recast sentences, break them up, put them together, rework noun-based phrases into verb-driven ones and make tiny, though significant, adjustments to punctuation in an effort to recreate the overall atmosphere of the original, because I firmly believe that the sum total of a work of literature is more than its individual parts. It is not just a story, not just words on paper. It is a whole metaphysical journey that one undertakes, and I want readers of my translation to have as similar a journey as possible to that of readers of the original.
If a beautiful, emotive sentence in Portuguese seems maudlin in a direct translation into English, I might rein it in slightly so that the end result has the same impact as the sentence in the original. If a Brazilian writer uses a lot of commas where we would use full stops, and it is jarring in English because it makes readers stop and look for their bearings, whereas it flows fluidly for readers of Portuguese, I make adjustments to the punctuation in order to smooth out the bumps.
Strangely, although Tatiana Salem Levy is very easy to read in the original, I found myself musing over a lot of these things as I translated her debut novel The House in Smyrna. I had previously translated her short story "Blazing Sun", published in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists in 2012, and it is one of the translations that I am most proud of, firstly because the piece itself is gorgeous, and secondly because it was very hard to pitch right. Tatiana has a distinctive writing style that spills across the page in Portuguese, with emotionally (and sexually) charged passages that ooze around vivid imagery, and it took me a while to find the right balance for those same passages in English. I revised some of them literally dozens of times! Luckily, Tatiana is a delight to work with and I am confident that we did eventually find a formula that does justice to the incredible original.