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Launching Point of Honour at an event celebrating the life and work of Maria Teresa Horta in Lisbon, 10 May 2019

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:

The Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira where the conference opened
The Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira where the conference opened
Point of Honour on display in the exhibition of Maria Teresa’s work
The Three Marias in 1974 (Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa), whose ground-breaking work, New Portuguese Letters, was banned by the authorities
The Three Marias in 1974 (Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa), whose ground-breaking work, New Portuguese Letters, was banned by the authorities
Maria Teresa Horta reading a poem she wrote especially for the conference
Maria Teresa Horta reading a poem she wrote especially for the conference
Finally, me with artist and sculptor Francisco Simões, who came to the seminar I gave on my own poetry (at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa the following week). Not only did Francisco present me with a copy of a beautiful book about his commissioned sculptures for the ‘Park of Poets’, but also took care to mention how much he loved the way his painting of the angel had been used in the design of the cover of Point of Honour: Sally Castle, take a bow!
Finally, me with artist and sculptor Francisco Simões, who came to the seminar I gave on my own poetry (at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa the following week). Not only did Francisco present me with a copy of a beautiful book about his commissioned sculptures for the ‘Park of Poets’, but also took care to mention how much he loved the way his painting of the angel had been used in the design of the cover of Point of Honour: Sally Castle, take a bow!
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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)

.

Ser poeta é corer riscos

Trazer consigo a vassoura

De voar a linguagem

.

A paixão, a liberdade

.

As asa são seu

Oficio

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

Her calling

To serve and guard saudade

Buy Point of Honour

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Wulf’s Journey

The following poem came out of a workshop with Robin Thomas, Lesley Saunders and Adrian Blamires, with theme of Reading Abbey.

Wulf’s  journey

Wulf maketh preparation for his journey

then he made up his mind

to visit the Abbey, leaving

his own dear Besse to twist

the flax and gather the bones.

First he made his way

to the water’s edge, thick as it was

with vetches, lillies and herbs

and there summoned

Blood-eye, the blind

terms agreed with the bote maker

boat maker who lived there

among the glittering frogs

and tail-less adders

‘Maken me an bote’ Wulf said

‘of herb and wasp nests

fastened with eye of fish

and Royal pitch’.

‘Master I will,’ he said,

straightening himself

like a wrought sword, like

a glottal tree.

‘What must I render?’

said Wulf, ‘three golden pins,

two stones from the shore, a dace

and nine withers.’

Night after night laboured

Blood-eye in his earth-sodden

byre to make and to finish

the boat

and by the day of the waif

its shape could be seen.

it glowed like a fleeing eel.

Then did Wulf seek out

and with Edgemon, sword-maker

Edgemon, the deft, deaf

maker of blades

in his dark cavern

under the yearning cliffs.

‘A blade shall ye maken for me’,

‘so I will, master, for you, for

payment of prayer for my father

and his, a noggin of pith and

a basin of scrawl.’

‘Those you shall have’, said Wulf,

on proof of its strength

and lightness of hold’.

he setteth forth on the streyme

Then went forth Wulf, in his boat

on the stream, leaving all

he had known, trusting his boat

to convey him with safety.

Thus was his journey: 

first, he encountered the

divers adversities

watery wolves.  These

he dispatched with his

new-finished blade, then

did he find the teeth in the river,

their insidious grin, the dark

of their threats, but prayer

made them shudder and sink,

But grimmest of all were the serpents

which swam, under the waves,

in their silvery sheen, but these

he ignored, trusting the will of his boat.

his journey continueth

And so he continued, by night

and by day, past monsters

and witches and tygers

and men in their fearsome

accouters, their accurate

spears in their hands, under

weather of lead or scorched

by the sun as if through a lens.

Now, as the boat

rounds a curve in the stream,

a vision of majesty

a vision of majesty, great

to behold

but which words cannot win

into verse.  There,

he reacheth his destination

Wulf ended his journey.

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POETRY & EUROPE, A Celebration

However the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland leaves the European Union, if it does, the long and deep-rooted connections between the poetic cultures of these islands and those of continental Europe will continue to be, and need to be, sustained.

As a celebration of these continuities, whose existence has, if anything, been made more urgently manifest by the current political crisis in which the countries of the British archipelago find themselves, the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading and Two Rivers Press, the town’s most prominent publisher, hosted an evening of readings featuring poems and translations from or about experiences of Europe.

This event also served to launch two new volumes on these and related themes, Ravishing Europa by Peter Robinson (published by Worple Press) and A Part of the Main by Philip Gross and Lesley Saunders (publish by Mulffran Press). Jane Draycott, reading from Storms under the Skin, her translations of Henri Michaux (Two Rivers Press), a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation in 2017, joined them; and the evening, hosted by Steven Matthews, included guest appearances by other poets published by Two Rivers Press in 2019, including Kate Behrens, James Peake and Conor Carville.

The event took place in the foyer café at the Museum of English Rural Life, Redlands Road, Reading, on Tuesday 12 March 2019.

This event was supported by a grant to the Department of English Literature from the Endowment Fund of the University of Reading and by gifts in kind from Two Rivers Press.

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Two events to celebrate Europe

Tuesday 12 FEBRUARY, 7.30pm

A PART OF THE MAIN

A reading at Toppings bookshop, Bath, from the newly published A Part of the Main by Lesley Saunders and Philip Gross. This collaborative project grew from an email exchange after the referendum of 2016. In a time of soundbites and binary rhetoric, it gives the pressing questions about individual and national identity more breathing-space, more heart- and head-room.

Tuesday 12 MARCH, 5.30pm, MERL

POETRY IN EUROPE

Jane Draycott, Lesley Saunders, Philip Gross and Peter Robinson will celebrate relations between contemporary British poetry and poetry from Europe. Far from being merely a lament or complaint, it will draw attention to the deep continuities between our poetic culture and that of our nearest neighbours, underlining that these continuities will continue despite the United Kingdom’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union.