Manuel Tiago’s ‘Border Crossings’: People’s World interviews the translator
Photos: AP / Collage: PW

Once more, People’s World is back to talk with Eric Gordon, the English-language translator of the novels of Portuguese writer Álvaro Cunhal, late leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, who wrote under the literary name of Manuel Tiago. Eric previously talked with us about the first three volumes published in the multi-book series: Five Days, Five NightsThe Six-Pointed Star, and The 3rd Floor and Other Stories of the Portuguese Resistance. In this interview, we discuss Border Crossings, just released by International Publishers.

C.J. Atkins: Another book by Manuel Tiago, another chance to learn a bit more about it from the translator. International Publishers is releasing all nine fictional titles by Manuel Tiago, pen name for Portuguese writer, Álvaro Cunhal, the late leader of the Portuguese Communist Party. And you’re translating them all—a pretty amazing feat!

Eric A. Gordon: Aw, shucks. No, really, no false modesty here: It is a huge project, and I feel privileged to be the only person in the world, ever since these books started coming out in Lisbon in the 1970s, to take them seriously enough as literature to care to bring them to the attention of the English reader.

Atkins: So how’s the project going now?

Gordon: Well, just a few weeks ago I finished my first draft of the very last book in the series, the longest one, Until Tomorrow, Comrades, clocking in at over 170,000 words! It’s now in the hands of my very generous, dedicated proofreaders, trusted friends of mine with exceptionally astute eyes who will save me from egregious typos—or worse, from sentences that sound too much like they’re translated from another language.

After that’s done, and I do my little fixes, I then send it off to José Oliveira, connected with Edições Avante! in Lisbon, Tiago’s publisher. José goes over my manuscript with a fine-tooth comb not so much for the English but to see that I’ve rendered the work faithfully from the Portuguese. Occasionally there’s a nuance of a word, or some historical background, that he suggests I could improve, and of course I am grateful for that input. He’s a bit of a mystery man to me, actually: Though I’ve asked him more than once how he acquired his excellent English, he evades my questions. I sometimes wonder if he might have done a few “interesting” border crossings himself that he doesn’t wish to talk about. But I’m just fantasizing. So the heavy lifting is all done now except for the production work involved of book design and printing.

Atkins: So far your work seems to have been received well. The review we published here of your last book, The 3rd Floor and Other Stories of the Portuguese Resistance, really homed in on the art of translation itself. “I urge readers to occasionally pause with due reverence for Gordon’s having made the grueling work of literary translation seem as if were a trifle,” Eric Vogt wrote. “Producing a great translation may be compared to the work of a master chef: The hard work in the kitchen is not witnessed by the guests. They see and enjoy that work when the plates are served.”

Gordon: Yes, that was extremely kind of him, and humbling. You know, of course, that in almost every generation someone comes along and wants to produce a new translation of Dostoyevsky or Cervantes or Homer or the Greek plays, feeling that earlier translations were inadequate—either they were incomplete, or they cleaned up the author’s harsh language, or they were just too much a product of their own times, with idioms and sentence constructions we just don’t use any more. So on the assumption that Tiago’s works may never find another English translator, I’m trying to make my work readable, fluent—and accurate, naturally—but not overly identified with the slang or style of this particular moment.

Atkins: I recall when I interviewed you last, you had a lot of spirited things to say about this next book: “I think every reader who picks up Border Crossings will love it—thirteen different stories, all drawn from Cunhal’s personal experiences, and those of his friends and comrades, involving clandestine border-jumping during the fascist era, on foot, by train, plane, or ship, with disguises, false papers, Nazis, undercover men, jewel smugglers, fur stoles, storms at sea, hikes over perilous mountain ranges, and so forth. Fun stuff.”

Alvaro Cunhal, who led Portugal’s Communist Party for half a century and became a national hero after the overthrow of the country’s fascist dictatorship smiles in this December 19, 1996, file photo. Cunhal spent nearly 35 years underground or in jail for his role in building the Communists into the only well-organized opposition to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar and then Marcelo Caetano. He was also, unbeknownst to many, a writer of fiction during all those years. | Ana Baiao / AP

Gordon: Yeah, I think this one, and curiously his otherwise rather grim novel about a maximum security prison, The Six-Pointed Star, contain most of the humor in his writing. He was a pretty serious fellow. Anyone who’s traveled always comes back with funny stories about their trips—misunderstandings, missed connections, odd people encountered along the way—and this book is full of such adventures, all while his characters are trying to further the resistance to fascism in Portugal. People are either escaping the country or returning, and getting into all kinds of awkward situations.

At the same time, he rises to perhaps his most lyrical writing here, describing landscapes, the force of nature, and starry skies. Yet he never loses sight of the humans at the heart of the story. The longest story in the book, “From Gascony to Portugal,” is so beautiful in the way he links up the resistance to fascism in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal through the backstories of his vivid characters, and in the loving way he treats people who have been so emotionally and mentally damaged by history.

In one story, “Comrade and Gentleman,” Tiago gets pretty sexy, which is a departure for him. Considering the times he was writing in, this book has more agency and character for women than in most of the others.

Atkins: I take it that most of your work was done under COVID-19 lockdown.

Gordon: You’re right. The whole project began in late 2019, before COVID existed, but then most of 2020 and all of 2021—well, everyone knows what those years have been like, and in many ways we’re still living with COVID.

Atkins: And dying…. We just passed the U.S. milestone of 800,000!

Gordon: Oh, yes. In fact, I lost my own husband to it, as you already know, but many of our readers may not. We married in 2019, in Mexico, where he was living, and he got through 2020 OK. Then in the early spring of 2021, he got COVID, but recovered under the care of his sister Silvia, a medical doctor. He got the Sinovac vaccines as soon as he could. I spent some time with him on vacation last summer, and he seemed better, but when he got pneumonia again in early November it turned out that his lungs had been profoundly compromised by COVID and this time he didn’t make it. He died November 10th.

Atkins: We were all so shocked by his death. A few of our staff had actually met him when he was still in Los Angeles with you. I know you took it hard.

Gordon: Well, getting back to Border Crossings, as I finished each of the stories I’d read it to him on our nightly Facetime calls, and I’m dedicating this book to him, who made so many clandestine crossings himself. I hope his name continues to live on, at least a little, in this book. His name was Juan José Guerrero Ibarra, or Ruben Parga as he was known in the United States. So for many reasons, this one is very close to my heart.

Atkins: Thank you, Eric, for being so candid with us and sharing this story. I hope this new book gets the wide readership it deserves.

Gordon: Me too! And thank you.

Manuel Tiago
Border Crossings
Translated and with a foreword by Eric A. Gordon
New York, 2021

Order copies here: International Publishers


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.