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Translating the poetry of Maria Teresa Horta

Point of Honour is the first anthology in English of the poetry of Maria Teresa Horta, translated from the Portuguese by Lesley Saunders, herself a poet. In the book, Lesley provides a translator’s note which talks about the challenges and the joys of translating – or ‘bringing across’ – the poems. A slightly condensed version is reproduced here.

Book cover of Point of Honour

My first encounter with Maria Teresa Horta’s work was to read, when I was a young woman, the revolutionary New Portuguese Letters, translated into English in 1975 for the anglophone feminist market. Without exaggeration I can say that that book changed my life, and the torch I carried for her has stayed alight for forty years. So when, as a much older woman, I decided to try my hand at translating one or two of her poems, I felt I wanted to meet her. The network of connections that the internet makes possible resulted in a rendezvous in the famous Café Namur in Lisbon. (The French word is relevant here because French was the language Teresa and I shared!) Teresa graciously acceded to my request to make translations of her poems, and the idea of an entire book grew quickly soon afterwards.

It has been a rare privilege to work directly with Teresa, who has been the most patient and encouraging collaborator, whether in explaining the personal or political background to particular poems or engaging in lengthy discussions about the idiomatic meaning of individual words and phrases. But semantic fidelity is not the only criterion by which translations should be judged. I was acutely conscious of the responsibility to try to make poems which would be good in their own right.

What does constitute a ‘good’ poem-in-translation? Part of the answer lies in expanding the notion of ‘semantic fidelity’ in recognition of the fact that words – at least in poetry – do not have a single denotative definition but sit within a capacious semantic field. A word is a ‘knot of consensually agreed aspects and connotations’, as Don Paterson puts it. English is especially rich in synonyms – each, however, with its own ‘immediate circle of strong aspects, relations and associations… [its own] connotative blur’ (Paterson again). So translators have to ask of the foreign word, ‘what are all the shades of meaning that colour this word in its general and specific contexts?’ rather than resting content with its dictionary definition, and then do the same for all possible English equivalents.

The challenge in Teresa’s case is that she is an elliptical, allusive and uncompromising writer, with a strong vision of her own work – it is powerful, political, erotically charged, almost visionary. Readers want to hear that original voice insofar as it is possible, especially as very little of her work has come over into English, and consequently I believe it was my responsibility to translate her poetry as directly as possible, whilst not ending up with literal paraphrases which serve mainly to point readers to something that is not quite there. It has been a fine balance to find.

The other half of the answer to ‘what makes a good poem-in-translation?’ must be its ‘music’ – the sense that comes from, as a result of, the sound of the words. Portuguese has the morphology characteristic of Romance languages, with vocalic word-endings that arise from relatively regular inflections and other grammatical structures. These have created a naturally generous facility for melodic and variegated rhyming. On the other hand, the spoken language, being strongly elided (as well as having many nasalised vowels and fricative sibilants), has a softer, more muted acoustic than other Romance languages: what the eye sees is not the same as what the ear hears. English obviously makes a very different kind of music, visually and aurally. What a translator does with this difference must be a matter of taste, the outcome of tireless experimentation and critical reflection, of instinct and conscious technique. I chose to represent Teresa’s mellifluous and myriad end-rhymes, mid-rhymes and half-rhymes, her stresses and pauses, with sound-and-shape patterns that seemed to me to work in English, rather than attempting the fruitless task of reproducing the original cadence and metric. I could not avoid the fact that, in Paul Muldoon’s words, ‘the poem is inevitably becoming a different thing as it goes from one language into another’.

People often ask me if I speak Portuguese. My response to the other (implied) part of this query is that I believed making a good poem-in-translation would depend much more on my experience as a poet and editor than on my (limited) expertise as a linguist. In some ways it helped that Teresa’s poetic – dynamic compression, parataxis, declamation, the location of white spaces/silence – is quite different from mine, so I was not tempted to turn her poetry into something I might have written. But this difference of sensibility was also a huge challenge, in conserving, or finding, the right degree of ‘strangeness’ in conveying the poems in(to) English. I hope and believe that the residual ‘foreignness’ in these English versions is a true reflection of something essential in the original, an intensity of sensual imagination and a forceful, often rapturous, use of imagery that do not surrender themselves easily to prose explication. I hope and trust that readers will be able to assent to the poems’ compelling inner logic, recognising them as extraordinary works that have been ‘brought across’, though not in any way tamed.

Lesley Saunders

O Voo da Linguagem

(from Poesis 2017)

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Ser poeta é corer riscos

Trazer consigo a vassoura

De voar a linguagem

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A paixão, a liberdade

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As asa são seu

Oficio

Onde resguarda a saudade

The Flight of Language

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To be a poet is to court danger

Is to bring a broom and soar

The language into open air

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Its anger, ardour, freedom

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The wings are hers

Her calling

To serve and guard saudade

Buy Point of Honour

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The inspiration behind “Signs of the Times” – Malcolm Summers on his new book about the plaques and memorials around Reading

I had thought that I was familiar with Reading’s town centre. However, one day as I was passing Harris Arcade on Friar Street I was surprised by a plaque that I had never seen before. It wasn’t new; it had been in the same place for over a hundred years! I read: This house was the birthplace of Professor Goldwin Smith DCL, born August 13, 1823, died at Toronto June 7, 1910. A second surprise… not just a plaque I had never seen but a person I had never heard of.

This Reading-born man must have been well known for a plaque to be erected in his memory. This unexpected encounter with an unknown person piqued my interest. I had to find out who Professor Goldwin Smith was and what had made him famous enough that when he died in Toronto, his contemporaries in Reading wanted to honour him. My first discovery was that I had read a brief account of his life a long time ago in Some Worthies of Reading by J.J. Cooper and had forgotten. I then discovered a biography by Elisabeth Wallace, written in 1957, which was an engrossing read. I tracked occurrences in his life through the newspapers, including the striking assessment in his obituary in the Reading Observer that he was ‘one of the most famous men that Reading has ever produced’. By this time, I had begun to understand why and to agree with that sentiment.

Having learned so much about Goldwin Smith, I inevitably brought him into my conversations, usually with the opening ‘have you ever heard of…’ No one I spoke to had heard of him, but many were interested to know more because of his local connection. That led me to the thought of writing about Goldwin Smith, the plaque and why Reading people had wanted to commemorate him. Thus my book, Signs of the Times, was born, with twenty of Reading’s memorials as starting points to look at why that memorial is there, what or who it commemorates, and what was the story behind the setting up of the memorial itself – stories that our forebears thought important enough to fix into local memory.

Find out more about Signs of the Times – available to buy now!

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Poetry readings in Ludlow this July…

Sue Leigh will be reading from her collection, ‘Chosen Hill’, with Roger Garfitt

All are very welcome…

7 pm for 7.30 pm, Thursday 2 July, 2019

Poetry Lounge

The Blue Boar, 52 Mill Street, Ludlow, SY8 1BB

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The Arborealists: The Art of Trees

The Arborealists and Guests: The Art of Trees
14-24 June, daily 10am-6pm
The Turbine House Gallery, Gas Works Road (just by the Prudential Building).

We are delighted to contribute to this exhibition, organised and hosted by the Reading Tree Wardens, with a poetry reading on Sunday 23rd June at 2pm. Hear Susan Utting, Jean Watkins, Ian House and Gill Learner read poems – some of their own, some written by others – inspired by their love of trees. Wine and nibbles will be provided and our books available for sale. Open to all but places MUST be booked as the venue is small. Please book by emailing rtwn2011@gmail.com.

The Arborealists are a group of professional artists whose special topic is the tree and whose inaugural exhibition at The Royal Academy, Bristol, was nationally acclaimed.

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Whiteknights Studio Trail

COME & MEET OUR AUTHORS!

Visit us at the Whiteknights Studio Trail, venue 9 and take the opportunity to tap their brains for historical facts and figures.

Malcolm Summers, author of Signs of the Times at 3pm on Sat 15th June.

Peter Durrant, co-author of Reading Abbey and the Abbey Quarter at 3pm on Sunday 16th June.

And please stay on at the end of the first day to celebrate the publication of The Constitutionals with Peter Robinson at 6.30pm on Saturday 15th June at 24 New Road, with wine, nibbles and readings.