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:




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.





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.




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.




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.



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)
ahisgett - Flickr
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis