A new translation of Pessoa: a review
In the way of bloggers everywhere, I'm posting here a review of mine which was rejected by a journal.
Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems
Translated by David Butler
Every translation of poetry should come with an introduction explaining the approach of the translator. David Butler does this with admirable forthrightness in his recent volume of selected translations of Fernando Pessoa: "I have resisted the temptation to tidy up the English syntax for the sake of readability. . . . The awkward syntax . . . of Pessoa's poetry is intended as a semantic corollary to his overwhelming sense of existential 'thrownness', and is ill-served by imposing definitive structures or meaning on the English." "A great advantage of a bilingual edition," continues Butler, "is that it is far easier for the translator to resist the urge to rewrite," since the original is available to the reader for easy comparison.
Thus on the one hand we can praise Butler for an important service: presenting the nearest English equivalents of Pessoa's existentially knotty Portuguese. But the translator of poetry has another responsibility (which does not necessarily exclude Butler's approach): creating poems in the target language. Translating a poem into Portuguese into a non-poem in English which respects the unclarity and strangeness of the original is a good deed of philology but not yet a poetic accomplishment.
First, though, to Pessoa. Anyone but the blasé Pessologist will warmly welcome a new selection of his poems, since some of it will be new to the average reader. The effect of his controlled and variegated confusion is that of someone thinking out loud, unsure about everything but his own unsureness: "I write in the midst/Of that which isn't to hand." Is this the modern predicament, or merely a modern version of that pain which we dismiss with the classification "the human condition"? Pessoa (this time under his own name and not one of his famed multiple-personality eponyms) has something to say about this ( p.39):
The poet's a man who feigns.
He feigns so completely
That he comes to pretend pain
For pain that he actually feels.
And those who read what he writes
Feel also, in the pain they read,
Neither of the two that he had,
But only that which they don't have.
Thus, to entertain our reason,
Round and round in wheel-ruts
Revolves that clockwork engine
That is termed the heart.
The combination of cold mechanics and raw pain is invigorating, Larkin without the censoriousness. Pessoa implicates us in his poetry, a sort of imposter's game or dressing-up of feelings as other feelings – but the poet also points out time and again that only through such playacting do we see what might be true.
A short review of Pessoa would be as inappropriate as a one-page review of the work of Emily Dickinson. Here I'll just something about the translation. Though in agreement with Butler's theoretical possibilities, the reader might find it difficult to find anything poetical in his translations. From Butler's introduction, it seems that this might be what he wants, and the translations themselves seem to bear out this suspicion. The last lines of the poem above, for example, run this way in the original: "E assim nas calhas de roda/Gira, a entreter a razao,/Esse comboio de corda/Que se chama o coracao." The verb gira precedes the noun comboio; in Portuguese, as in other Romance languages, there is nothing particularly awkward or significant about this syntax. Preserving in English this Portuguese syntax ("revolves that clockwork engine") throws the reader off guard and does not allow her to finish reading the poem without thoughts of translation intruding into her attention. This is presumably not the sort of "thrownness" Butler has in mind.
One could go through these translations and quibble with a number of word and phrasing choices (for example, Butler tends to translate Portuguese basta as suffice, a word which in English is confined mainly to upper-register speech), but this is unfair. Translating Pessoa requires concentration and sensitivity, and by and large these are present in this edition. Indeed, these same qualities should be brought by the reader to every poem of Pessoa's represented here, a record of a personality nervously approaching and then withdrawing from the world:
That which pains me is not
What is in the heart
But rather those beautiful things
Which will never exist.
They are the forms without form
Which pass by, without pain
Being able to know them
Or love dream them.
They are as though sadness
Were a tree and, one by one,
Its leaves were to fall
Between the trace and the mist.