Hunger: The story that you need to read right now!

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Hunger: The story that you need to read right now!

Translation of Sergio Tavares's short fiction by Elton Uliana

Content Warning: Sexually explicit content and language.

Translated and published with the permission of the author

It happens every time my head hits the pillow and I feel the post-sex ache concealed in my stomach. A discharge of disgust and regret that flows through my body, a body impregnated with the smell of the man who breaths awkwardly behind my neck, any man that I have allowed to penetrate me and sour my mouth with bitter secretions.

Why can’t I control these urges?

I am fallible. The repetition of such a mistake provokes anger that causes any trace of decency to try and flee this carcass used as an instrument for gratification, and then tossed aside, preserving only the fingerprints. I perpetuate this sick routine every day. Prowling around bars filled with prostitutes like an animal with its legs wide open, seduced by the scent of alcohol, cigarette smoke, and after-shave. Constantly waiting for a flirtatious look, an invitation to bed – one, two, or even three cocks. I’m not a bitch in heat, I’m a dog attracted by its own appetite.

I know that I indulge in insatiable pleasure, but my obsession blinds me with its deceptive fantasies, making me addicted to this unspeakable compulsion. Virile men rising up through my thighs, making me wet, like a thirst quenched by a single glass, a spring with a single flower.

In these hours I am ashamed to be near my students. The stench of sex on my sweat-drenched clothes is like ether to me, it makes me rub my skin all over.

How many times has this happened at school?

An affliction that I have relieved between the legs of doormen, drivers, caretakers. All anonymous characters of a common cast, acting from a script in which the last scene always takes place in my bedroom. Using my place makes things easier.

Sometimes the men are so filthy that I have to get rid of the sheets.

They ask me if they can beat me up, suck my feet, spit in my face. Usually, the ones who are married take me from behind. They do to me what they cannot do to their wives. I have never intended to be better than a wife, but I know I provide moments of fulfilment that years of marriage will never achieve.

I don’t do this especially for them. It’s just that I cannot stop myself.

He walks through the door with a suspicious look: swollen eyeballs turning inside his slimy eyelids, lethargic, reluctant. He takes a short, uncertain step. He studies the room – the uniformity of the shiny rugs and of the furniture – he deciphers the situation from the perspective of a cowering animal. Then he moves forward.

I keep my distance. Although he seems docile and rather lifeless, I treat him cautiously. I gesture for him to come in, offering a welcoming look. He has a foul smell. A stench of urine and rubbish soaks through his grease body hair, impregnating even the useless piece of rope that he drags down the corridor, spreading filth.

With measured steps, I quickly leave the living room and signal him to come after me. He follows with difficulty. I watch his zombie-like walk. I wait. Patiently I slow down, passing through another corridor until I reach the main bedroom. As I push the door a breeze escapes, briefly dislodging the festering air. It’s a pleasant relief, if only momentary, but that’s fine. This is the scenario: the sun-splashed golden curtains, the bed, and the white sheets.

I go into the room and walk to the other side of the bed with my hand gently suspended, softly touching the sheets with my fingertips. He stops as if alerted by a distorted sense of danger. He seems stunned by the profusion of colours in the room and the matching furniture. He sniffs the scent of the perfumed candles, emblems of a sensation lost in his memory.

I sit on the edge of the bed. My legs aligned, my knees straight, facing the door. Standing in the doorway he gives me a sleazy look, seemingly lost in a blank expression, bloated.

Now there's a wait, it’s part of the game. The air is pregnant with desire as the two actors become infused with the temptation to collapse into obscene carelessness. But wait, not just yet.

Gently, I tease the strap of my top. The silk drops sensually onto my lap revealing one breast. He does not react. I repeat the gesture on the left side with a flirtatious movement. I take the gathered fabric and drag it over my head slowly and provocatively, brushing my elbows over my moist nipples, white skin, goosebumps, nakedness. Passively, he maintains a remote distance, trapped in his thoughts.

Perhaps this could be that inconceivable moment where I could, for the first time, interrupt the scene, get up, get dressed, and send him away. For once I could stop this hideous compulsion and preserve myself from the devastation that inescapably comes after the orgasm, without fear of aggravation or of any hostile reaction.

However, despite his indifference, his visible weaknesses, and all the rational warnings, I can’t help it. I twist my body and pull the zipper of my skirt, sliding it open with my teeth. I lean forward and lift my legs one by one through the opening at the waist, crossing them perversely. I’m not wearing panties.

In abstinence, my body begins to react. A rage explodes in spurts of boiling blood through my tense muscles, destroying everything that holds back this voracious, thirsty, insatiable animal. I’m throbbing between my legs and I can no longer keep them closed. He remains in the doorway, exactly where I want him, debilitated, with his sloppy, rotten secretions all stained with drops of iodine.

I look into his eyes and slowly open my legs revealing my damp sex – a rose in flames. I expose myself to him like a bitch rolling over when in heat. At first, he remains still, pathetic, numbed. But it’s too late to stop, I will have to be satisfied. Slowly his face begins to change, it becomes disturbing. In any other situation that face would have frightened me.

Gradually a smirk appears in the middle of his haggard face dishevelled by the excessively long and filthy beard, a sordid imitation of a smile that reveals pieces of rotten tooth stuffed into dark gums. He ignores the wounds for a few minutes, paralysed, emitting a wretched, monotone shudder, then drags himself into the room. For a moment his reaction confuses me but soon I begin to feel euphoric. Wearing just my red high heels I jump out of bed and go towards him.

I get closer to him unafraid now. My eyes stare at his obsessively, seditiously, anxiously waiting for a word of permission. He responds only with the same empty expression, offering no reaction when I start to undress him. I strip him of his shabby clothes, from top to bottom – all threadbare pieces smothered in putrefied, excremental odours – except for the bandage covering a wound in one of his feet, reeking of iodine.

A dark layer of filth covers his entire body, it's virtually impossible to be next to him. A dizziness begins to envelop me. This scene, this stranger that I brought from the rubbish dump near the school is perhaps an unconscious form of self-punishment – but there’s nothing I can do about it. I am all wet and need to be satisfied. I move closer to him.

I brush my skin against his chest, intertwine my legs with his, smearing myself with that dark sticky mess, feeling his rough beard scratching my face and releasing rotten bits all over me. Up close, his mouth has a strong smell of alcohol – perhaps that explains his sluggishness. I rub my breasts against him, wrap my arms around him, crouch down between his knees and, in an inexplicable way, the whole combination of foul smells, weirdness, and perversion gets me even more excited, breathless, possessed, consumed with desire.

I take his hands and put them on my arse. He does not react, there’s no attempt to spread it open or to dig his fingers in. His hands remain where I left them, unmoved. Perhaps he needs time to extract some kind of sexual drive from a body which has been weakened by street living and wounded limbs – but I can no longer contain myself and I grab his crotch. It begins to harden, to swell, to pulse between my fingers like a throbbing eel. It contracts at my touch. However, this is not due to a sensitivity to pleasure, but rather to pain. His sex is covered in boils and open sores from which gushes a yellowish secretion.

In such a state he is unable to get completely hard. Perhaps if I ... but I realize that the frailty caused by the diseases and years of homelessness prevents him from having enough energy for a full erection. I take him gently by the arm and lay him on the bed. His back stains the white sheets with the exact impression of his anatomy. I need to satisfy my urge and it will have to be under my own steam.

I climb on top of his body pressing my hands into his chest and sit between his legs. His skin is loose, cold, and sticky like an amphibian – my fingers sink through the gaps between his ribs. He moans under my light weight. So close, I can see that his eyes are as dark as coal, beautiful, but still blurred – maybe it's a stain that hides his true eyes – but now I need what is real and I take his cock underneath me and let myself be penetrated. He moans louder with the movement, almost a roar. And so do I.

I ride on him furiously, I know it won’t last long. I ride on him and fill myself up. I pump my body frenetically with all the sweet, warm, numbing sensations. The thrills of pleasure, contractions, and tremors radiate in my belly from the inside of my thighs. I go up and down forcefully pleasuring him, feeling the mismatch of our breaths, the profusion of saliva and tears, the heart beating fast in all of the deviations and depths of my body. Of his body.

I sink my fingers into the thin skin of his chest and feel his heart, a feverish muscle resurfacing in the palm of my hand. I press down on him as if giving life support, crushing his bones, stimulating life-force, desire, pushing him. Feeling his muscles accelerate he starts to gasp, a rhythmic noise, tears in his eyes. He pants and his heartbeat races like a madman trapped within his own bones, I ride.

Mercilessly I thrust down on him, grazing our skins, making him splatter his beard with mucus and bubbling saliva, he chokes. I go deep down on him, scratching against his body hair, scrubbing myself on him, lasciviously dripping one into the other – a single sticky being breathing in the same tempo, beating as a single heart.

We are one and I feel somewhat amorphous. The animal and its rider entwined, advancing, propelled by a dizzying energy that is about to explode, growing stronger, urging, coming, coming, coming, and bursting into a warm stream that smears my thighs, spilling between the folds of the sheets, slimy and deliciously dirty.

I collapse on top of him and softly slide through the sludge that covers his chest, falling beside him, out of breath, releasing a miserable moan, almost a childish cry. For a while we are just like this, motionless. Ecstatic with the hallucinatory post-sex effect, floating in the middle of rearranged bodies, ethereal spasms cut by the orgasm.

I know I have to make the most of this moment because soon this theatre, this fading fantasy will be wrecked by remorse and revulsion. When he is still lying down trying to understand what has just happened, I will be dying again. But suddenly, he gets up.

He gets up and his unexpected reaction instantly takes me out of my trance. I see him take off the sheet and drag himself with his wounded feet to the door, revealing his nakedness and disappearing down the corridor. He walks through the house with no apparent purpose, indifferent to me, and to what just we have just done. I know exactly where he is, I can hear the sound of his heavy steps and of his bandages dragging on the carpet. He is heading towards the living room. He uses the wall for support, dislodging the paintings, fumbling against the furniture in an attempt to force a rhythm which is incompatible with his physical condition.

Soon he reaches the end of the corridor. I know because the dragging sound is replaced by the thud of a wooden floor. He advances to the center of the room balancing with his hands on the dining table and on the squeaking chairs, dragging his feet on the floor.

Then there is a bang. A loud noise accompanied by a symphony of crockery, glasses and glass bowls – all reverberating in waves with a crash against the kitchen cupboard. I hear the vibration fade and then nothing, only silence. I strain my ears and his distant presence is no longer there. No more steps, no more creaking furniture, only silence.

I start to worry, suspecting that he might be unconscious or hurt. Even worse, he might be secretly trying to escape and expose my addiction to the world. I disentangle myself from the sheet and jump off the bed when, suddenly, I hear the sound of the fridge door opening, followed by the electric click of the lamp.

He attacks my food furiously. Things start to break open – plastic containers, bottles – and cans start to fall and roll. He goes through my pots throwing them on the floor, he smashes the cabinets. I hear plastic wrappings being ripped, cans being opened, all in a voracious cacophony. He chews everything with eagerness, devours all that is within his reach, satiating his hunger.

Mine remains the same.

Translator's Note:

In Short: Translation Transforms Everything

Sérgio Tavares’ fearless exploration of sexual politics in Hunger portrays the life of a schoolteacher who is both liberated and imprisoned by her own animalistic desire, trapped in an ambivalent cross-play of rationality and instinct, satisfaction and guilt, sensuality and regret. The protagonist’s compulsive behavior impregnates her language with strikingly visual metaphors and disturbingly graphic, yet poetic depictions of the body. There is a collision throughout the text between the unorthodox perversity of the subject and the verbal opulence with which it is treated. As a male author, Tavares gives expression and freedom to unspoken aspects of female sexuality and raises an important point about men’s ideas of women’s sexual behaviour in the very act of expressing it.

My overall translation approach can be conceived mostly as ‘domestication’ in syntactical terms (Venuti: p.181-5). If Sérgio Tavares’ powerful story of extreme female sexual desire is to achieve its full impact on the English audience, it should retain both the meticulously descriptive and the sumptuously poetic quality of his Portuguese prose, whilst at the same time hold on to the irregular sway and flow of its rhythm. These characteristics, amongst other stylistic and thematic ones, are what make Tavares’ work so brilliantly unique and so interesting to translate. If my aim is to achieve a high level of fluency and naturalness in expression, I also strive to maintain ‘formal’ and ‘stylistic approximation’ to Tavares’ original text (Baker: p.31).

Paradoxically though, because Portuguese is a highly inflected language and English is not, I felt justifiable to indulge sometimes in some kind of ‘creative infidelity’ not only to Portuguese but also to English linguistic conventions (Costa: p.167). I recognise that in order to preserve the richly descriptive imagery, the graphicly sexualised language and the orgasmic rhythm of the piece, some adjustments in diction (choice of words) and syntax should be implemented. Nevertheless, it is possible to feel in my translation a back and forth movement, moving away from the Portuguese formulations and then occasionally back towards them. The desired effect of this strategy is to give the reader a sense of the exoticism of the place as well the sexually charged atmosphere contained in the Portuguese language used by Tavares. In this sense, the text is decidedly un-British.

Translation inevitably involves making substantial changes to the Source Text (ST) and Hunger poses a particular challenge for translators for a number of interesting reasons:

· There is a significant amount of sexual terms and descriptions of the body that do not translate straightforwardly and can sound detrimental or too rudimentary in English. The challenge is how to maintain the eroticism of the scenes adhering to the sexual pace of the story without allowing the language to fall flat or to become overtly blatant. This is particularly complex as Tavares’ first-person narration keeps shifting in voice and returning to the protagonist’s psyche, consciousness, and reason (‘Perhaps this could be that inconceivable moment where I could, for the first time, interrupt the scene’). I have tried to reconstruct some of the aural and rhythmic devices like alliterations and internal rhymes whenever possible (‘a rage explodes in spurts of boiling blood’ / ‘obsessively, seditiously, anxiously’ / ‘I watch his zombie-like walk. I wait.’). In addition, I have used synonyms (‘crotch’, ‘sex’, ‘cock’) or near-synonyms (‘throbbing’, ‘shudder’) as a way of adding semantic nuances to the text and to reinforce the constantly shifting rhythmic patterns with its orgasmic peaks and deflations.

· Since Tavares relies frequently on imagery and figures of speech such as metaphors, similes and antithesis, I have recreated similar kinds of rhetorical figures specific to the English language and culture to render certain expressions and phrases. An example is ‘embotado’ [figuratively somebody that lost all energy] which I translated to ‘rather lifeless’; this in isolation may seem a weak option, as opposed to ‘deflated’, for instance, but in the context of the sentence it becomes a more compelling match (‘Although he seems docile and rather lifeless, I treat him cautiously’).

· Some sections of the text which are heavily reliant on subordinate clauses had to be resolved at coherence level by using translation strategies such as ‘sentence structure change’ or ‘sentence reversal’ (‘Gradually a smirk appears in the middle of his haggard face’) as well as ‘explicitness change’ (‘dishevelled by the excessively long and filthy beard’) and other similar strategies (Chesterman: p.94-97).It is true that some of the potential syntactical awkwardness was removed at the expense of substantial squeezing, even so I have tried to create artful solutions to keep relative clauses and their referents adjacent (‘Patiently I slow down, passing through another corridor until I reach the main bedroom. As I push the door a breeze escapes, briefly dislodging the festering air’). I believe that these strategies have an effect of making the imagery more prominently visible and the relation between subject and object more direct, as well as allowing the sentence to flow better in English.

· A number of lexical changes, cultural filtering, additions, and omissions had to be implemented: an example is the expression ‘aventados passos’ [steps as quick as the wind] simply translated as ‘quickly’.

Finally, this publication is designed in a bi-lingual format which makes it easier to locate in my translation a number of other important interventions. I have tried to elaborate my own solutions for the fascinating complexities of Hunger and I hope that my translation demonstrates my affinity with Tavares’ original tale, a text which stretches language to its creative limits.

Elton Uliana


Sérgio Tavares is a Brazilian writer, journalist, literary critic, and editor born in 1978. His debut book of short stories Cavala (2010), from which ‘Hunger’ was extracted, won the SESC Literary Prize in 2010, one of the most prestigious prizes in Brazil. His work has been translating in five languages.

Elton Uliana has a master’s degree in Translation Studies from University College London (UCL). He is affiliated to the Translators Association UK and member of Out of the Wings Collective, a research-led project on Theatre Translation at King’s College London. Elton is a guest translator and co-editor of the Brazilian Translation Club at UCL. His published work includes research papers in Translation Theory, short stories, poetry, and an upcoming Portuguese translation of three plays by the British dramatist Howard Barker.

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