“Penumbra” is one of those words that I always think I know the meaning of, but then I realize I need to look it up again to make sure. … There is no poem called “Penumbra” in this, Kate Behrens’s third collection, but the word works well as an all-inclusive title, for Behrens writes about the shadowy and the marginal, and the way that death or deaths bring previously indefinite feelings into stark, vivid relief.
For the official launch of Rural Reading, Adrian Lawson and Geoff Sawers led a walk from the Caversham foot bridge to Kennetmouth, via View Island, pointing out interesting plants and habitats and sharing their knowledge of the green spaces along the way. The sun shone and it was a fascinating walk. And at Kennetmouth there awaited cakes, elderflower fizz and copies of the new book!
About Rural Reading: The book takes us through the calendar year with a selection of articles from Adrian Lawson’s long-running newspaper column, Rural Reading, plus some new and previously unpublished pieces. Accompanied by perceptive and very personal illustrations from Geoff Sawers, equally devoted to the natural history of Reading, this exquisite collection will open your eyes to the wild side of town. Buy your copy here!
Point of Honour – translations by Lesley Saunders of poems selected by Maria Teresa Horta, renowned Portuguese writer and life-long feminist – is the first anthology of her poetry in English. Lesley was invited to participate in a conference held in Lisbon to celebrate the life and work of Maria Teresa, and to launch the book in front of an international audience of writers and academics. She says:
… the conference was fantastic: three days of celebration of Maria Teresa Horta’s work – her journalism, her novels and short stories, and her poetry – by feminists and academics from all over the world and culminating with a series of homages by well-known Portuguese literary and political figures.
The launch of Point of Honour was well-received (I even gave a short speech in Portuguese!) and people seem truly grateful that Teresa’s work will be able to reach a wider audience.
Ana Raquel Fernandes, who wrote the introduction to Point of Honour, invited me to spend the weekend at her family’s seaside home in Santa Cruz, so we were able to relax on the beach after the intensity of the conference.
Here are a just a few of the many photos I took:
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.
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.
O Voo da Linguagem
(from Poesis 2017)
Ser poeta é corer riscos
Trazer consigo a vassoura
De voar a linguagem
A paixão, a liberdade
As asa são seu
Onde resguarda a saudade
The Flight of Language
To be a poet is to court danger
Is to bring a broom and soar
The language into open air
Its anger, ardour, freedom
The wings are hers
To serve and guard saudade
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.