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)
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser