The trials and tribulations of the translator

Turning the poetry of Ricardo Reis into English.

In an article in this week's New Statesman, the translator Ollie Brock likens translation to the feat of “cooking the same meal twice with different ingredients”. This is especially true in poetry, where the nuances of language matter all the more – idiosyncratic turns of phrase, witty wordplay and rhyme are so easily lost in translation. In this sense, it is less about cooking the same meal than about reproducing the exact same flavours; in poetry, unlike prose, form often precedes content. And even with poets who are notable for their clarity of thought and expression – as is the case with Ricardo Reis, in my opinion the most intellectualised and philosophy-driven of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms  – it is easy to end up with a lesser, synthesised version of the original, that by virtue of having been translated almost word-for-word (without being literal), conveys meaning but not feeling.

I didn't study languages seriously, so my knowledge of translation techniques, such as it is, is entirely intuitive. So, to use the “hortatory subjunctive” held dear by Reis (a verb form that sounds rather clunky in English but has the unintended, and arguably enriching, side-effect of highlighting Reis’s belief in a fate-imposed imperative), let this article stand as a first-hand account of the difficulties of translation for a bilingual amateur.

Firstly, although I am familiar with Reis (his no frills approach to writing and general angst made him a high school literature class favourite), I took to rereading as much of his work as possible in order to internalise his main themes. This proved helpful in the second stage, in which I sought to translate what (I thought) he was trying to say, whilst remaining faithful to word choice and sentence structure. One of the most difficult aspects of translating Reis’s poetry was sifting through the shades of polysemy - so getting to know him, as it were, definitely helped. Lastly, I reread the translations and changed certain words or sentences that sounded less than poetic. This involved a heated internal debate as to whether Reis’s trademark usage of hyperbatons was worth preserving; while they work well in romantic languages, they often obscure meaning in English. Furthermore, pronouns are often implied in Portuguese, while in English, less so – adding pronouns, in my opinion, rendered his verse less elegant, yet it was entirely necessary to preserve meaning. This last point epitomises the struggle between aesthetics and meaning that makes translators’ lives that much more difficult. Consequently, I found that toying with punctuation – sprinkling dashes here and there (I have a bit of a penchant for them, if you’ve noticed) – was a good way to clarify my interpretation of what he was conveying, without necessarily changing words.

At the risk of bastardising the work of one the greatest of all poets, here goes:

 

1)

 

Not only hatred and envy

Limit and oppress; those who love us,

Do not limit us less.

Let the gods concede me - stripped of affection - the cold freedom

Of fruitless stems.

Who little wants, all has; who nothing wants

Is free; who does not have, nor desires -

Man, like the gods.

 

 

2)

 

I prefer roses, my love, to the fatherland,

And love magnolias

Over glory and virtue.

 

So that life does not tire me, I let

It pass me by

So that I remain same.

 

What does it matter, to he for whom nothing matters anymore,

That one loses and another wins,

If dawn always breaks,

 

If every year with Spring,

Leaves grow

And with Autumn they perish?

 

And the rest – the other things that humans add to life,

What do they add to my soul?
Nothing but the desire for indifference,

And a flimsy confidence

In the hour of flight.

 

3)

 

I suffer, Lidia, from fear of destiny.

The light stone that in one moment raises

The smooth wheels of my car, drowns

My heart.

 

Everything that threatens to change me,

Even for better, I hate and flee from.

Let the gods leave my life

Without renovation

 

My days, let them each pass,

Leaving me always the same; trudging

To elderliness like day

Enters night.

 

4)

 

Come sit with me, Lidia, by the river.

Let us quietly watch it run its course and learn

That life passes, and our fingers are not intertwined.

(Let us hold hands)

 

Then let us – adult children – think that life

Passes and does not stay, nothing leaves and never returns.

That it goes to a distant sea near Fate,

Farther than the gods.

 

Let us unlace our fingers, because it is not worth tiring ourselves.

Whether we enjoy it or not, we pass like the river.

It is better to know how to pass silently

And without great disquiet.

 

Without loves, or hatreds, or passions that amplify the voice,

Nor envies that excite the eyes,

Nor worries - because if I had them, the river would still run,

And would always meet the sea.

 

Let us love each other placidly, thinking that we could,

If we wanted to, exchange kisses and hugs and caresses,

But that we may as well sit next to each other,

Listening to and watching the river pass.

 

Let us pick flowers; you collect them and leave them

On your lap, so that their perfume abates the moment –

This moment in which we quietly believe in nothing,

Innocent pagans of decadence.

 

At least if I become a shadow first, you will remember me afterwards

Without it stinging or hurting or moving you,

Because we never held hands, nor kissed

Nor were more than children.

 

And if you, before I, pay the shady ferryman an obol,

There will be nothing for me to suffer when I think of you.

Remembering you like this – by the river,

Sad pagan with flowers on her lap,

Will be a gentle memory.

 

5)

Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of life,

And when drinking does not remember

That he has drunk before,

For whom all is novel

And ever perennial.

 

Crown him with ivy or strung roses,

He knows that life

By him passes and

Atropos’ shears

Cut both the flowers and him.

 

But he knows to make the colour of wine obscure this,

So that its orgiastic flavour

Subdues the tang of hours

Like to a voice lamenting

The passing of bacchantes.

 

And he waits, an almost content and tranquil drinker,

Simply wishing

In a wish ill had

That the abominable wave

Does not, so promptly, soak him.

Fernando Pessoa's favourite café in Lisbon (Photograph: Getty Images)
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism