Lockdown literature: Translating the first Coronavirus pandemic novel

Friday, 29 May 2020

A group of more than 40 Portuguese writers hit the headlines recently after volunteering to jointly author a story, taking turns to publish a new chapter daily, after being challenged by award-winning author Ana Margarida de Carvalho.

The group was joined first by over 40 visual artists, and then by 6 teams of over 40 translators, including Dr Mark Sabine, Associate Professor in Lusophone Studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Sabine translated the penultimate chapter of the series into English, which you can read here, and writes below about the experience of translating a chapter of a serial novel in lockdown.

The COVID-19 emergency has prompted countless novel strategies for using the creative arts to address the psychological impact of a global pandemic. Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4, for example, has united the general public, Turner Prize nominees and celebrities alike in using painting and sculpture to explore the weirdness and anxiety of lockdown, and to provide solace and solidarity to those in isolation.

A similar collaborative spirit has guided the first publication of a novel inspired by the virus crisis, coincidentally (or not) in the country that produced the stand-out ‘plague novel’ of recent times, José Saramago’s Blindness (1995). Bode Inspiratório (in English, Escape Goat) took shape when Portuguese writer Ana Margarida Carvalho convinced 45 fellow authors to each contribute a chapter, each penned within 24 hours of the preceding one, to a ‘serial’ novel published on-line at daily intervals. As the novel gathered readers and international interest, corresponding teams of 46 translators were recruited to produce versions in Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, English, and, most recently, German. For me, as a scholar of Portuguese literature but only very ‘occasional’ translator, it’s been a privilege to collaborate with many of Portugal’s finest writers, and some of the world’s most acclaimed literary translators, notably the University of Nottingham’s Honorary Professor of Translation Studies, Margaret Jull Costa O.B.E.

In contrast to Saramago’s brutal and excremental dystopia (best known through its 2008 cinema adaptation by Fernando Meirelles), Escape Goat’s vision of a lethal pandemic is darkly comic, with screwball plot twists enabled by flights of sci-fi fancy and protagonised by megalomaniac professors and conscience-stricken cyborgs. Notwithstanding its comedy set-pieces, it frequently captures the suspicion, fear, and sundry privations – sensory, emotional and sexual – of life under siege from contagion, while skewering the zealotry of conspiracy theorists and the despotism and opportunism of cynical leaders outwitted by a virus. No-one in Escape Goat actually advocates injecting bleach, or torching telecoms masts, but the references to our recent experiences are clear. As treated by some of Portugal’s finest storytellers and their translators, they offer both piquant social commentary, and a reminder of the therapeutic power of imagination, as we all confront new threats, frustrations and challenges to everyday life.

Escape Goat can be read at

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