Place: Portugal

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet and the destruction of the “I”

The original text must be boiled down to its constituent parts and lovingly re-moulded into new forms

The dissolution of authorship is intrinsic to the act of translation. Far from being mechanical vessels for the words of another, translators invariably leave a phantom imprint of themselves upon a piece of writing. They are the invisible co-authors of a text, the ghost writers who flit across linguistic frontiers, flirting with multiple literary identities. It seems unsurprising, then, that the most elusive of Portuguese modernist poets, the godfather of urban melancholia and man of many selves, Fernando Pessoa, should have worked as a translator for much of his life.

Pessoa’s writing spans countless styles and modes, but perhaps his most famous innovation lies in his use of ‘heteronyms,’ the multiple literary identities under which he wrote. Centred around the core triumvirate of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s heteronyms continue to be discovered today, with over 130 currently known to us. Some of the heteronyms are even characterized by linguistic divisions, such as Alexander Search who wrote uniquely in English. As Pessoa scholar Darlene Sadlier points out, Pessoa’s splintering of authorship was in a sense symptomatic of the “general crisis of subjectivity in nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy,” suggesting that the self is something to be created rather than preordained, and, therefore, that it can contain multitudes.

This summer has seen the publication of a new English edition of the work that brought Pessoa posthumous renown, the modernist masterpiece entitled The Book of Disquiet. The publication history of this work has become the stuff of legends. On his death in 1935 aged forty-seven, Pessoa left behind at least two large wooden trunks filled with thousands upon thousands of scribbled scraps of manuscript paper, a life’s work in fragmentary form. Out of these fragments, Pessoa’s project for a work called Livro do Desassossego (once translated as The Book of Disquietude, now as The Book of Disquiet) was discovered, but the “book” was found to have multiple authors, no discernible order, and was never completed. Here was the ultimate modernist text: a “deconstructed” book that could be infinitely reassembled out of thousands of scraps of paper lying in a trunk.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly ride around the literary universe!

This week we will bring you up to speed on what’s happening in Central America, Morocco, and Spain. José brings us the latest news from the world of independent bookstores and publishing houses that are a treat for bibliophiles in Central America. Layla too has updates about exciting literary festivals and meets in Spain which bring book lovers together. Jessie shares some sad news from Morocco which however, on an optimistic note, reminds us of the universal reach of literature. 

José García, a cultural journalist from Guatemala, covers Central America for us this week:

On June 20 in San José, Costa Rica, Uruk Editores released Bernabé Berrocal’s second novel Archosaurio (Archosaur). Fellow Costa Rican writers like Aquileo J. Echeverría Prize winner Warren Ulloa and philologist Manuela Álvarez Escobar have called Archosaurio disturbing and captivating.

In late 2016 los tres editores publishing house announced its creation in Costa Rica. On June 21 they revealed their first title, Vamos a tocar el agua (Let’s Go Touch the Water) by Luis Chaves, a celebrated author of eleven books, whose work has been translated into German and is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary in Costa Rican poetry. los tres editores is yet to announced the publication date of Chaves’s book.

Additionally, the renowned Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon and Guggenheim fellow—whose work has been translated into several language including English, French, and Italian—on June 22  presented his novels Pan y Cerveza (Bread and Beer) and Saturno (Saturn). These novels were originally published by Alfaguara in 2003 as a single book titled Esto no es una pipa, Saturno (This is not a pipe, Saturno), and are now separate, as the author originally intended them to be. Pan y Cerveza and Saturno were published thanks to the work of Guatemalan bookstore SOPHOS and Spanish publishing house Jekyll & Jill. Eduardo has also a new book entitled Duelo (Duel) coming out later this year.

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In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at www.lesleysaunders.org.uk

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.

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Translation Tuesday: “Testament” by Ana Luísa Amaral

if I should die on a plane and be…a free-floating atom in the sky

To commemorate International Women’s Day coming up tomorrow, I’m thrilled to present the following poem by award-winning Portuguese poet, Ana Luísa Amaral, translated by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa. Addressed to the narrator’s daughter (and, it seems, the daughter of that daughter), these words celebrate the hidden potentiality inside every woman—and the spontaneity of life itself, even in its contemplation of sudden death.

Testament

I’m about to fly off somewhere
and my fear of heights plus myself
finds me resorting to tranquillisers
and having confused dreams

If I should die
I want my daughter always to remember me
for someone to sing to her even if they can’t hold a tune
to offer her pure dreams
rather than a fixed timetable
or a well-made bed

To give her love and the ability
to look inside things
to dream of blue suns and brilliant skies
instead of teaching her how to add up
and how to peel potatoes

To prepare my daughter
for life
if I should die on a plane
and be separated from my body
and become a free-floating atom in the sky

Let my daughter
remember me
and later on say to her own daughter
that I flew off into the sky
and was all dazzle and contentment
to see that in her house none of the sums added up
and the potatoes were still in their sack forgotten
entire

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