Translation: A Complex Universe of Music


Na ilha parada
O menino-do-mar
Que sou e hei sido,
E vela molhada
Num ar de resdoma,
Envolto e pesado:
–Não passa de si!…
Persiste quem é
O menino-de-mar
Que tenho de ser,
A nuvem não pode
Ao vento que sopra:
–Desfaz-se é perdida
A vida fundada
no mar retraido
de um sonho incontido!
E o menino-do-mar
Que sempre eu serei
Ficou-se passado
E há-de morrer
Pelo dom de saber
Que a rua sem onde
Não força ou deslinda
O firme poder
De ser sem querer.
~João Afonso
On the motionless island
The child-of-the-sea
That I am and have been,
Like a wet sail,
Wrapped and heavy,
In the air of a bell jar
–Never to be other in itself.
He stays as he is,
The child-of-the-sea
That I have to be,
The cloud that cannot take
The wind that blows
–It dissolves and is lost,
A life rooted
In the withdrawn sea
Of an incontinent dream.
And the child-of-the-sea
I shall always be
Was left behind
And must die
From the gift of knowing
That the road nowhere
Neither compels nor clarifies
The stern power of being
Without wanting to be.

“No Pego do Mar,” along with its English translation, is taken from The Sea Within published by Gávea-Brown in 1983. The book is a collection of poems by Azorean writers (some of whom live in the States) translated into English. It’s interesting to read the originals in Portuguese and compare them side-by-side with the translations by George Monteiro, a renowned scholar and professor at Brown University. I’ve been working on my own poetry translation skills and am finding The Sea Within to be a terrific teaching guide as I’m able to compare the original with Monteiro’s translation.

I’m not as fluent in the language as I’d like to be despite it having been my only languge until elementary school but I have a pretty good comprehension of written Portuguese.  At last year’s Disquiet International Literary program in Lisbon I was privileged to participate in a translation workshop series with the noted professor and translator, Margarida Vale de Gato, a respected poet in her own right.

One of the things Margarida taught us was that a competent translator had to recreate the stylistic sensibility of the poem while honouring the meaning and intent of the poet. No easy feat as the best translations involve a form of lexical choreography — a substitution of slightly different lyrics without disturbing the melody, or meaning, of the song and where the translator’s voice is only a hum-in-the-ear and not an entirely new or different tune. A good translator substitutes words according to both sound and nuance. It is in translation where having a good ear dovetails with instinct. As most writers are aware, vowels and consonants, words and sentences, have a complex universe of music all their own.

In addition, language is inextricably connected to cultural identity, geography, history and even religion, so a weak translation results in a distinct loss when it comes to conveying the “cultural psyche” of the author. Saramago’s translator, Margaret Jull Costa, understood this. In speaking of her work, Jull Costa has said, “Translation is always a balancing act between faithfulness to letter and faithfulness to spirit. You have to understand what the author means not only at the level of denotation, but also of connotation. You have to be aware of the sound of words and their register, as well as the rhythm and sound of the sentence in the translated version, so that the finished product is as cogent, fluent and convincing in the new language as it is in the original.”

Saramago himself stressed the important cross-cultural role of translators. “Writers create a national literature,” he said, “but it is translators who create international literature.”

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Translation: A Complex Universe of Music

  1. Hello Fernanda-yes I was in Margarida’s wonderful class, and it was very enlightening, as is your piece here about translation and its challenges. It is almost like crossing a bridge over a ravine in someone else’s car-one must bring so much across, yet tread lightly enough not to allow the whole thing to collapse. Or like being a DJ on the radio (my other gig)-one must contextualize the work of others into a cohesive whole that will resonate for an unfamiliar audience. Thank you for this!

  2. Hi Dean. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Margarida’s class was terrific, wasn’t it? She gave me a new appreciation of the skills–and patience–needed to translate Portuguese poetry into English.

  3. Yes it was, Fernanda, and you did a nice job in this piece addressing those skills and challenges. Will you be in Lisbon again this summer? I would love to but, alas, it doesn’t seem possible this year para mim!

  4. No to Lisbon, but yes to the Azores! We’re going “back home” to Flores with stops at Terceira and Sao Miguel for six weeks this summer. I can hardly wait to sip my first galão of the summer.

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