Clarice Lispector: the translation journey

clarice lispector

Clarice Lispector’s exploration of language, both as a writer and a translator, reflects her profound understanding of the transformative power of words. Through her translations, she facilitated an exchange of ideas, inviting readers into the intellectual realms of de Beauvoir, Christie, and others.

Born on December 10, 1920, in Ukraine, Clarice Lispector emerged as one of Brazil’s most celebrated literary figures. At the tender age of one, she moved to Brazil with her family, fleeing the aftermath of World War I.

Raised in a vibrant, multicultural environment, Lispector cultivated a deep appreciation for language and its nuances. In her formative years, she studied law and philosophy, a foundation that would later infuse her writing with philosophical depth and intellectual richness.


 A literary prodigy

Clarice Lispector is revered for her profound contributions to Brazilian literature. Her literary debut, Perto do Coração Selvagem (Near to the Wild Heart), published in 1943 when she was just 23, marked the arrival of a distinct voice.

In it, Joana, a young woman very much in the mode of existential contemporaries like Camus and Sartre, ponders the meaning of life, the freedom to be oneself, and the purpose of existence.

Lispector’s narrative style was often characterized by introspection, existential inquiry, and a poetic prose that transcended conventional storytelling. Her exploration of the human psyche and existential questions earned her a unique place in the literary canon.


 A translation journey

While Clarice Lispector’s reputation primarily rests on her prowess as a novelist, her lesser known but equally significant role as a translator merits exploration. Her linguistic dexterity allowed her to translate important works from French, Spanish and English into Portuguese, showcasing her ability to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps.

At the age of 19, Lispector was already translating scientific texts written in English, and after that, a particular important rendition was the masterpiece The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.

On 6 June 1952, Lispector published a passage translated from this book in a column entitled “Aprender a Viver” (Learning to Live). The chosen excerpt tells the story of a woman disappointed with her marital relationship and with the ageing process. The choice of these extracts confirms the idea that translation is an intentional, highly flexible, opportunistic act that is fundamentally social, historical, and personal, dependent on context.

Another column, titled “Entre mulheres” (Among women), was a space where she would publicise the ideas that she brought back from Europe, and it had the deliberate purpose of founding a consciousness-raising, cathartic, psychotherapeutic and educational space, by presenting cases or narratives of how women should behave.

This awareness seems to come from a reflection influenced by readings and experiences accessed during the period in which Lispector, together with her husband, lived in Italy, Switzerland, England and the United States, and was focused on the difficulties of women in the social group to which she belonged: white women from a middle-class economic background who, in many cases, had a high level of education, but did not have access to jobs compatible with their education.


 Translating without betraying

“I do translate, but I am afraid of reading translations of my books. I’m also having a lot of nausea from rereading my books; I am afraid of what the translator might have done with my text.”

From the chronicle “Traduzindo procurando não trair”


After being divorced from her husband for four years in 1963, Clarice Lispector, then forty-three, had to start over financially. Why not translate then?

Over the next few years, until the end of her life, she would translate novels, short stories, children’s literature, and theatre plays.

Amidst a somewhat forced relaunch in 1967 (she had not translated for over 20 years), the author experienced an awful injury in a fire in 1967 that nearly cost her her right hand, seemingly signaling the challenges that would define the next ten years of her life.

In the 1970s, new financial trouble demanded more and more translations. Lispector would translate everything, from Agatha Christie to Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Jack London and Oscar Wilde.


 Living life on her own terms

After being fired from O Jornal do Brasil in in 1974, she commented the following in an interview regarding her translation activity:

“It’s my livelihood. I respect the authors I translate, of course, but I try to connect myself more with the sense than with the words. These are mine, they’re the ones I choose. I don’t like being pushed, dragged to a corner, having things demanded of me. That’s why I felt a great relief when I was fired from a newspaper recently. Now I only write when I want to.”

Clarice Lispector’s journey into translation was not merely a professional sideline; it was an extension of her passion for language and her commitment to fostering a diverse and intellectually vibrant literary landscape.

Her translations were not mechanical reproductions, but rather artistic endeavors that sought to preserve the spirit of the original works while making them accessible to a wider audience.

Clarice Lispector passed away on December 9, 1977, due to ovarian cancer. Her death marked the end of a remarkable literary career, leaving behind a heritage that continues to influence and inspire readers and writers alike.

In this, the author’s legacy as a translator is intertwined with her legacy as a literary prodigy. It endures not only in her own groundbreaking novels but also in the echoes of translated works that continue to resonate in the Portuguese language.

Her contributions to the world of translation stand as a testament to the idea that linguistic bridges, when built with care and artistry, can connect cultures, ideas, and hearts across time and space.

Did you like learning more about Clarice Lispector’s work as a translator in the literary world? Keep an eye on Traducta’s blog for more articles like this!


Bibliographical references:

Book Center Brazil. (2022, January 18). Clarice Lispector: Author and translator.,an%20excellent%20and%20prolific%20translator.&text=At%20the%20age%20of%2017,starts%20to%20attend%20Cultura%20Inglesa.

Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies. (2021, August 14). Literature: Rediscovering Clarice through translation.

Silva, R. K. M. (2022). Lispector’s translations and the dissemination of feminist criticism in Brazil. TradTerm, São Paulo, 41, 155–171.