My flight to Rio got in late Friday, and my first interview, with the chef at Lasai, was scheduled for 8am the next day. Thanks to an incredible stroke of luck, Lasai happened to be about three blocks from the Airbnb I’d booked, so I didn’t have to get up quite as early as I’d expected. On Saturday, I walked down to the restaurant, met Rafa for the interview, took some pictures and was done with the reporting for that Q&A. The format sits way toward the easy end of the spectrum because you’re just basically having a conversation with one person (I record on my iPhone) and afterwards don’t really have to mess with any arduous writing or other reporting. I’d done some reading and thinking the day before so I came in the door with reasonable Qs that would hopefully generate compelling As (which really should be standard practice before any interview), but all in all, this was the Rio 2016 warmup.
Rafa and I started out in Portuguese but then switched to English, which made the transcription afterwards a lot faster and obviated translation issues in the final product. Translating quotes – a Q&A is basically a giant quote – is a new professional gray area I’ve been exploring for the past year, because it’s fundamentally at odds with the absolute-faithfulness-to-original implication of quotation marks in nonfiction writing. And since one of the main appeals of quoted material is how word choice and structure and etc. reveal things of the speaker, I’m philosophically uneasy that when I’m translating quotes, the revelatory aspects of the original quote in the purest sense of “this is exactly what this person said” are getting re-wrought and sullied and smudged with my own fingerprints.
There’s that inherent journalistic paradox about our work involving the pursuit and presentation of the whole, unbiased truth even as we recognize that we, the pursuers and presenters, are biased in all sorts of conscious and unconscious ways. But even despite this, original-language quotes theoretically offer opportunity for reader and speaker to encounter each other face to face, no longer playing the proverbial game of telephone with journalist as intermediary (acknowledging but leaving unaddressed here the biases involved in selecting quotes, or selecting whom to quote, or selecting the context in which journalist-intermediary presents selected quotes, and related warts on the face of journalism). But in translation, even quotes are suspect and nothing is pure, nothing is sacred.
But then let’s suppose that you’re speaking in English with someone whose English is entirely commendable and totally solid for purposes of everyday communication, but is also the slightly rough-edged ESL sort of English that drops the occasional preposition and colors outside the lines re: subject-verb agreement and syntax – the kind of stuff that slides right on by in conversation but looks ugly on the page, and would badly distract from the actual content of the interview, and would be cruel to faithfully reproduce, not to mention extremely bad karma for someone like me, who scribbles rather than just colors outside the lines when it comes to the niceties of Portuguese grammar. So be advised, the Q&A ultimately published included a tiny amount of linguistic housekeeping – and, as is standard in the format and indicated by the little “edited and condensed” disclaimer up top – did not include a whole bunch of stuff that would have made things way too long, not unlike this series of blog posts.
But publication of the Q&A is getting a little ahead of things, because I walked directly from the interview with Rafa to an organic farmers’ market in Botafogo where I thought I’d look for some specific direction on the general story idea about farmers’ markets in Rio. But the market was tiny and moribund and didn’t look promising re: story-grade material, so I hopped the metro straight north to Lapa, where the restaurant for the homeless had opened its doors several days before. (And I’d also told Rafa about my need for a good organic farmer story idea; he’d promised to connect me shortly with someone).
For the past several days, my fixer in Porto Alegre had been trying to get me an interview with the chefs who founded the place. As I was about to find out, stress levels and frenzy at the restaurant were in the red zone, a state of affairs that seemed to have rubbed off on the PR personnel with whom my fixer was trying to communicate, and suffice it to say that there was considerable confusion as to whether I had an 11:30am interview scheduled or not. So I, leather-shoed foreign correspondent at large in Rio de Janeiro, went.
It turned out that somehow they’d been expecting me at 1:30, but there I was and after getting a basic run-down from a PR person, I eventually scored a sit down at a cafe next door with the Italian chef who was one of the two main guys behind the whole affair. If this were a gossip column rather than a serious treatment of the freelance journalistic process in Brazil, I’d relate a colorful story or two about this little sit-down, conducted in English as I speak little Italian beyond pasta-related loan words. For now, just know it was colorful – and that’s a wonderful thing; no one likes boring interviews.
Next, I needed to chat with the Brazilian chef who was the other main player here. Things were getting truly frazzled by this point, the chef going a million miles an hour, handcuffed to his phone, constantly getting his sleeve tugged by someone or another with little issues that couldn’t wait, while I and a Telemundo news crew who had apparently also been promised interviews did our best to remain chipper and patient. One of the great things about being a freelancer is having more predictability and breathing room in a daily schedule than seems to be the case for those journalists on the payroll of big global papers who, in addition to planning out stories are more likely to have to scramble when, say, Ryan Lochte’s night on the town ends in ignominy. I had plenty to do in Rio, but also had the ability to just hang around the madhouse restaurant, biding my time and waiting to pounce.
We ended up going for a late lunch, this chef and I, at a spot around the corner that had a killer feijoada, and had a long and very interesting English-language talk about many things, a very small portion of which ended up in the story I wrote. Other bits got filed mentally away as potential future story ideas. Other bits were just that fun sort of bullshitting that happens when there’s decent chemistry to an interview and is one of the perks of the job. This chef also gave me contact info of an urban farmer of whom he spoke very highly. I was asking everyone I could who seemed like they’d be in the know, because I only had so much time and needed to find something soon.
I grabbed the metro and then a bus back to my Airbnb pad, arriving by late afternoon and setting up office in the hammock to transcribe the Rafa the Chef interview I’d done first thing in the morning. It took c. 2.5 hours to transcribe about the c. 1.25-hour interview, because I’m an extremist and transcribe every single word, whether or not at the time it seems relevant to my story, because more often than you might think, there’s good stuff in the irrelevant-at-first-glance passages and it’s actually easier to invest the time up front in transcribing it all, rather than picking and choosing and then realizing you don’t have this one passage that was really good and you’re certain that it happened but apparently you skipped over it and now have to go back through sections of the recording searching.
After a supper break and some pauses to watch Olympics highlights on TV, I had transcribed and edited/condensed and, by late Saturday evening, filed the Q&A, my first Rio 2016 story. I'd also knocked out the reporting on the homeless restaurant, and had put out good feelers for the fourth story, and all in all, was feeling off to a good start.