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)
BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.