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Inseparable, A Correspondence with Margaret Jull Costa

Annie McDermott is the translator of Graciliano Ramos’s short story “Inseparable.” The story is featured among our Two Lines 25 Online Exclusives. Read “Inseparable” here.

The title “Inseparable” is the result of a twelve-email exchange between me and the translator Margaret Jull Costa.

I was lucky enough to work on the story as part of a six-month translation mentorship with Margaret, and one of the things we discussed as we sent my drafts back and forth between us was the question of what it should be called.

The title in Portuguese is “Dois dedos,” or “two fingers,” after the two fingers that the main character, a shabby suburban doctor, holds up to demonstrate how close he used to be to his childhood best friend. (“See? We were inseparable. Like this,” he says proudly to his wife.) You can see the problem with translating that title, though: in English it suggests indecent hand gestures more than it suggests brotherly love. I wrote to Margaret:

“Two Fingers”—provisional title. I’ll need to think of something else that doesn’t imply sticking two fingers up at someone! Maybe adding another word would get around the suggestion of swearing, e.g., “The Two Fingers,” “Like Two Fingers,” though I’m not sure either of those quite does the trick…

There’s another finger image in the original story as well. On a few occasions the doctor says that he and his friend used to be “como unha e carne,” or “like fingernail and flesh”—a commonly used phrase in Portuguese meaning “inseparable.”

Margaret: Do you think “Fingernail and Flesh” would work as a title? Maybe not.

Me: I thought about something like “Fingernail and Flesh” as well, though I’m still not sure. The word “flesh” always sounds so extreme!

Margaret: Nail and finger?

The title “Finger and Nail” then became the front-runner. Although “like finger and nail” isn’t something we say in English, I liked how strange and vivid it sounded. Margaret was less convinced (Dear Annie, I’m still uncertain about the finger and nail business…)—should it sound strange and vivid when the doctor fondly reminisces about his old friend, or should it sound natural and everyday?

For a while I decided to ignore the issue.

Dear Margaret,
Thanks very much for your comments on The Story With No Name…

Then Margaret made the radical suggestion of removing the “finger and nail” image from the story altogether (I know this is revolutionary talk, but…) and we reached the solution of calling the story “Inseparable.”

Dear Margaret,
At first I was a bit wistful about losing the finger and nail, but I agree the story is stronger with just the one finger-related image running through it.

Dear Annie,
I hope you have recovered from the loss of the “finger and nail” image…

“Inseparable” is a deeply sad story, and I liked how this new title, like the title in Portuguese, makes it all the sadder when it’s revealed to be inaccurate. “We were inseparable,” the doctor says fondly of his old friend, combing his hair and putting on his best clothes as he gets ready to visit him for the first time in decades, and yet, when they’re finally reunited, he doesn’t get quite the welcome he’s hoping for.

And so, the title decided, we moved on to the simple matter of translating the story itself. I won’t tell you how many emails that involved.