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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