An Interview with Richard Zenith

Ryan Mihaly

Photograph by Nuno Ferreira Santos

It’s no secret that poets are revered in Lisbon. Immediately after our interview, translator Richard Zenith led me to Praça de São Paulo, an outdoor plaza where we watched the Lisbon Poetry Orchestra perform musical versions of Portuguese Surrealist poetry. The event was free, open to the public, and packed. As the six-piece band played some swirling psychedelic grooves, Zenith translated the vocalist’s raucous take on Pedro Oom’s poem “Actuação Escrita” (“Performance Writing”) for me in real time: “You can write without spelling. You can write without syntax. You can write without Portuguese. You can write in a language without knowing the language.”

Zenith is intimate with Portuguese, but he came to the language relatively late: he took his first Portuguese class as a senior in college in 1979. Not long after graduating he found himself in Portugal with “an ocean of literature” before him, largely untranslated. Since his first translations in the 1980s, he has produced some twenty-five books in translation of Portuguese writers, from the ancient to the modern. He has worked closely with many of Portugal’s well-known and respected poets, like Sophia de Mello Breyner, Herberto Helder, and Adília Lopes. He is best known for his numerous English editions and studies of Fernando Pessoa’s work, which include "The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Classics, 2002), Fernando Pessoa & Co. (Grove Press, 1998), A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 2006), and The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa (Grove Press, 2001)." In 2012, Zenith won the prestigious Pessoa Prize for his promotion of Pessoa and the many other Portuguese writers he has translated into English.

Before the interview, I had the chance to hear Zenith read at the Casa Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon. He read from 28 Portuguese Poets, a crash course in Portugal’s poetry post-Pessoa, and Multitudinous Heart, a selection of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poetry across his long career, both of which we discuss here. In the same room that houses Pessoa’s iconic glasses, notebooks, and other personal items, Zenith thoughtfully introduced ten poets from 28 Portuguese Poets: his knowledge of Portuguese poetry—across Portugal and Brazil—runs deep. If his translations on the page come off as charged, lively, and smart, his readings are doubly so.

We met a few days later in his Lisbon apartment to discuss Pessoa’s legacy, contemporary Portuguese poetry, and the tremendous experience of translating Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

—Ryan Mihaly

Most of Fernando Pessoa’s work was published after he died, and after reading your insightful introduction to Fernando Pessoa & Co., I wondered why he was published posthumously in the first place. What provoked his editors to unearth his manuscripts?

By the time Pessoa died in 1935, he was a well-respected intellectual in Lisbon. He had not only published poems and some creative prose in magazines, he also published political articles. Throughout Pessoa's entire life it had been a chaotic time for Portuguese politics. In 1910, a republic came to power after a decadent and deeply unpopular monarchy, but the republic was dysfunctional, always strongly divided among various factions, which explains why the dictator Salazar was able to come to power, as people initially felt he would set things right. At any rate, Pessoa was always very interested in writing about politics. When he died, he was known as a poet, but also as a political commentator and polemicist.

There was a magazine that was started in 1927 called Presença ("presence"), which recognized Pessoa as a literary master. Pessoa wasn't too well known, but the savvy editors published a number of his (now) most famous poems, such as "The Tobacco Shop," "Autopsychography," and several passages from The Book of Disquiet, and poems of his various heteronyms.

Pessoa had literally dozens and dozens of plans for his poetry as well as his creative prose, plays, and short stories, most of which are fragmentary. He also wrote nonfiction pieces about a wide range of subjects: sociology, psychology, religion, astrology, and so on. Yet he was never very organized about publishing his work. His friends knew that he was an important writer though, so in the 1940s, after he died, his family was in contact with literary people who had known Pessoa, and they began to bring out his poetry first. They published separate volumes for Pessoa’s main heteronyms—Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis—and then also the poetry written under his own name.

Pessoa was much appreciated by other poets early on, and he slowly began to grow in popularity, especially in Brazil. Then his poetry began to be translated, first into French, and into English in the 1970s. But what really launched Pessoa's work was the publication of Livro do Desassossego [The Book of Disquiet] in Portuguese in 1982, forty-seven years after his death. It was quickly translated into Spanish, Italian, French, and German, but it took a little bit longer to make it into English. I translated it, and so did three other people who had the idea at the same time, in 1991. So within the space of six months, four English editions came out. The Book of Disquiet is really what put Pessoa on the world map of literature.

The Book of Disquiet is divided into nearly five hundred numbered sections. All of the English translations of The Book of Disquiet have chosen their own arrangements of the sections or “chapters” based on Pessoa’s papers. Was this the same in the original Portuguese and its translations into other languages?

The first Spanish translation followed the Portuguese edition directly. But the Portuguese editors made up their own order; it wasn’t anything they got from Pessoa. Pessoa didn't even have a notebook for The Book of Disquiet. There were pieces of paper with passages for the work scattered all over; he was completely chaotic in his habits.

He began writing the book in 1913 and worked on it for more than twenty years. Some time before he died, he did put about three hundred texts belonging to The Book of Disquiet in a large envelope he labeled as such, but there were several hundred other texts that researchers found among the rest of his thousands of papers. Pessoa had a few ideas on how to order the material, but they contradicted each other; he didn't know how to put it together. So, those of us who've edited his work posthumously all invented some kind of an order [laughs]. Pessoa scholars do a lot of quibbling about how the book should be organized.

I found it interesting that you chose to open your translation of The Book of Disquiet with the passage that begins: "I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason their elders had had it—without knowing why.” None of the other English editions use that as the first passage.

Interesting you should notice that. Actually, placing that passage first was not my decision. It was Pessoa's. He labeled it as the "beginning passage." And I think, when read closely, that it really gives you the right framework for approaching the whole book. By the “right” framework I mean the one that Pessoa intended. There are many ways of ordering the material for The Book of Disquiet, but I would definitely defend that that passage needs to be the first.

Is there work by Pessoa that remains untranslated? Are there still new, worthwhile books that could be edited together?

Definitely. I suppose a few thousand pages are still untranslated. Pessoa left over twenty-five thousand sheets when he died. Most were unpublished, and while some of those sheets are just scribbles, others are rather densely packed. And he wrote on any kind of support, like envelopes and the backs of calendars. He even used the back side of some cartoons to write some passages for The Book of Disquiet. There's still a fair amount of his work—mostly fragmentary—that has never been published, even in Portuguese. Pessoa also wrote in English, and a few complete English poems have not yet been published either. Pessoa’s handwriting, by the way, can be excruciatingly difficult to decipher, which partly explains why much of his work is still unpublished.

Since Pessoa is a world-class author, everything is interesting, at least for scholars, and should be published. From a more literary point of view, I wouldn't say there's a lot more to come of great interest. One or two new poems will pop up here or there, but virtually all of the Portuguese poetry has been published. What remains unpublished in English is of interest for understanding Pessoa as a writer, but as poetry it’s not up to the level of what he wrote in Portuguese. As for his prose, he wrote about everything under the sun, and there are some interesting things still to come to light. But there's no unpublished novel, no great play waiting to be revealed.

In your new anthology, 28 Portuguese Poets, you explain that poets who have written after Pessoa have to confront him in some way—he’s a massive presence. When you introduce each of the poets in the book, you often compare them to Pessoa or one of his heteronyms. I think Pablo Neruda said the same about Walt Whitman, that English poets have to confront Whitman when writing their own poetry. Do you think only Portuguese poets have to deal with Fernando Pessoa?

Until recently it has been mostly poets in Portugal and those writing in Portuguese that have had to deal with Pessoa. (There is a lot of crossover between the poetries of Brazil, Portugal, and Portuguese-speaking Africa.) Pessoa was not widely known outside of the Portuguese language area until a few decades ago, but that has changed. His influence, internationally, depends on the particular poet. Some poets closely read the modernists, figures like Pessoa or Eliot or Pound. Other poets deal with their own contemporaries, or with the generation that immediately preceded them. So it really all depends.

There seems to be a strong sense of legacy in Portuguese poetry, especially going by 28 Portuguese Poets. Flobela Espanca’s classical, romantic sonnet “To Love!,” for instance, is obliquely referenced in Adília Lopes’ sexualized and politicized free-verse poem, “I want to fuck to fuck.” Is there a unique anxiety in Portuguese poetry to write about the poets before them?

In this anthology I chose to foreground those connections, which I think are always there. Portuguese poets, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, were constantly reading and responding to the poets before them. They respect the tradition, in the Eliotic sense of that word. Many American poets do as well, making direct or indirect references to their mother or father poets, their ancestors, but perhaps not with the same sort of intensity. Portuguese poets tend to have a vivid sense that their writing is part of a vast conversation, with other contemporary poets, but also, and perhaps more especially, with poets of the past.

Several of the Portuguese poets in the anthology even reference American writers like Wallace Stevens, Flannery O’Connor, and Marianne Moore, so there’s a sense of legacy not only in their own language but also in English.

Yes, although I have to say that this is a personal anthology. I chose the poets, and I also chose poems that could be appreciated by an English-language audience. But yes, there is a lot of interest here in American writing.

Tell me more about your criteria for including certain poets and not others.

There is a consensus on the poets who came right after Pessoa, but for recent generations . . . it becomes open season a bit. I’m not too interested in the, shall we say, “What I did yesterday” school of poetry, with all due respect [laughs]. Nowadays there is often a suspicion of poetry that tries too hard to say something.

Poetry that tries hard to be poetic.

Yeah—and I understand that. I'm suspicious of ornately poetic poetry, and maybe even suspicious of poetry that tries to tell Great Truths. But I do admire poetry that attempts to explore and do what cannot be done in prose.

I am interested in poetry that is traveling in search of knowledge. In my experiences as a reader and translator of poetry, I do feel that it can take us places that other kinds of literature or other kinds of art cannot, or not in the same way. That’s the kind of poetry I am interested in translating.

You mentioned that you did not particularly enjoy reading Florbela Espanca’s poetry in Portuguese, but when you began translating her work you started to appreciate her. I found her poems captivating, even if the romantic sonnet is no longer in style.

At the time she was writing, in the early 1900s, she wasn't doing anything formally innovative. Even conceptually, she was not high octane. But poetry is funny the way it can work. With her, I just find this incredible intensity of feeling. And it's an intensity she created in the poetry.

I'm curious about the word Adília Lopes invented, achadamente, for that poem “I want to fuck to fuck,” and how you translated it. Were you able to check with her about the meaning of the word?

Yes, fortunately. It's almost always an advantage if you can get help from the poet. I like to show my translations to poets and get their reactions before they're published. The word achadamente presented a problem. Her poem is playing off Florbela Espanca's sonnet, where she says she wants to love perdidamente. Perdido means “lost,” so she wants to love until she's lost. And in Adília's poem, we find the word achadamente, which comes from the word achado, meaning “found.” The adverb achadamente does not exist, or it didn’t until Adília invented it. I initially translated it as "to find myself fucking," but she said no, what she had in mind was “gratefully” or “thankfully,” which for me was a bit strange. No one would ever think that's what she meant—I have no idea how she got there [laughs]. So I compromised with her and I left in the notion of “finding,” translating it as "to find joy in fucking.”

You describe the poet Vitorino Nemésio in your introduction as perhaps the only “poet of brio” to emerge in the last years of Pessoa’s life. However, you wrote that his “exclusion from this anthology is due to my failure to produce translations of his poems that satisfy me.” What are the difficulties in translating him?

I have translated some of Nemésio’s poems in the past, and I even published a translation of his most famous poem, “O Canário de Oiro” (“The Golden Canary”), but I don't feel that I really caught it. I wasn't able to make it work in English.

I don't know if I can explain it. Vitorino Nemésio is very erudite. There are a lot of references woven into his poetry, but they're not obvious literary references. I think part of the problem is taking him out of the Portuguese context—the Portuguese language context. He plays tricks with the language that are so intricate, so subtle, it's as if you’d have to take the entire Portuguese language and transfer it over into English . . . and that's a bit of a challenge!

I would like you to elaborate on your interpretation of Jorge de Sena’s poem, “My Desired Tomb.” It describes the dingy back alley where the poet asks to be buried. He wants his grave to be the location of prostitution, rape, and death. How did you read the poem as a “marvelous hymn to life itself”?

Jorge de Sena, like Fernando Pessoa, was a ravenous intellectual and wrote about everything. He was a critic, a translator, a poet; he wrote novels, stories, and plays. He dabbled in all kinds of things. Jorge de Sena wrote a lot about Pessoa, and he wrote even more about the great Renaissance poet Luís de Camões. Camões was a Falstaffian character, a carnal lover of life, and an excellent, wonderful poet. He was quite learned, although we don't really know where he got his education. We don't know much at all about his early life. But we do know that he traveled the globe, to India and Africa, and that he lost an eye in battle. He loved literature, but he was also a passionate lover of women, and he loved living. He wanted it all. Pessoa lived intensely through literature—in his reading and his writing—and not so much in the world itself. Jorge de Sena was more of the Camões type of person, because he lived through literature and in the world. He was an intellectual like Pessoa, but he also celebrated life, real life, and this comes out in his poetry.

So getting back to that poem, where he said he would like rapists to rape women on his tomb, and for people to pee and shit on his tomb, and so forth . . . it’s all terribly violent and may feel repugnant or grotesque, but it's life. Life is violent. You can't really get around it. I call that poem a hymn to life because it's against the “safe” mentality of staying indoors, protected, doing no harm to anybody. If you go out into the world, you may not want to harm someone, but you will. You step on the ground and you're killing who knows how many microscopic organisms. So, it's not a hymn to violence, but it's a recognition that life includes a dark side, and it's all part of life.

Since it's so politically incorrect, did alarms go off when this poem was published?

That's a good question. I don't really know, but my sense is that “My Desired Tomb” was a poem that people preferred not to deal with. When it was published, there was not so much political correctness as nowadays, but still, it was not an easy truth to digest.

I was stunned when I came across it, especially because I don't find Pessoa so shocking.

Yes, but Pessoa's heteronym Alvaro de Campos can be rather outrageous. For instance in the poem "Triumphal Ode," he says he finds it sublime that there are little girls who masturbate respectable-looking men in stairwells. And the narrator of "Maritime Ode" sings a masochistic rant about how he wants to be raped by pirates. It's hardcore.

Another poet in the book, Herberto Helder, creates loose translations of poems from various languages in Portuguese. What are those poems like?

He took great liberties, such as changing the verse structure or even leaving out entire verses or stanzas. He didn't call them translated poems; they were poems “changed” (mudados) into Portuguese. They included poems he translated, or changed, from languages he didn’t know firsthand, including Asian and Native American languages, as well as from languages he did know, such as French and English.

I think you can't get any closer to a text than by translating it. The act of “changing” was his way of closely reading those poems, and also of paying homage, of showing his love for those poems. They were creative experiments, too. They’re interesting. There's a tradition of people writing their own poems "after" so-and-so, but Helder’s “changed” poems are somewhere between translations and his own riffs on what someone else did.

In translation, I think anything goes, as long as it's good. But transparency is important. So if a translator wants to radically change the form, or even change the setting or time period, that might be all right, as long as you're up front about it and you let the reader know what you're doing.

As you had already translated some of the poems in 28 Portuguese Poets, this has been a project for what, decades?

I guess so. I’ve translated a lot of Portuguese poetry that has been published in different places—magazines, anthologies, and online—and I agreed to take this project on with the understanding that I would use a lot of translations I had done already, but I carefully checked every single one, and some of them got seriously overhauled. I did a lot of new translations, and Alexis Levitin also provided a number of fine translations.

When were you working on Carlos Drummond de Andrade's Multitudinous Heart?

I probably started that three-and-a-half, four years ago. It was pretty much ready about two years ago, but production took a long time.

I was stunned by this poetry. He's vivid, gripping, wide eyed, and suspenseful. I feel like I'm holding my breath when I read him. Did his poetry get under your skin when you were translating him?

Oh, completely. For me, translating Drummond was one of my richest experiences, literary or otherwise. He has this fabulous ability to make the daily and mundane utterly sublime. Going back to the theme of the fullness of life in Jorge de Sena’s “My Desired Tomb,” Drummond is also bursting with life, but in parentheses—that is, he doesn’t leap out in flashy ways. His energy is under the skin of the poetry; it's just all pulsing. You feel that, it's very gripping. Just the act of translating it becomes a very passionate experience. It was a joy to translate.

Drummond is deceptive because he often enough has a very simple style, but simplicity can be the hardest thing to reproduce. Translation is a tricky business. You can spend an hour on a perfectly trivial word, a connective, a transitional phrase, something with no special meaning, something the reader doesn’t even notice, and yet it's completely vital to the rhythm and the whole flow of the poem.

Drummond is one of those poets who started out completely mature, right from the get-go. This is true of Herberto Helder and Sophia de Mello Breyner as well.

I might also call Drummond’s "The Last Days" a hymn to life. It’s different from but also similar to the Jorge de Sena poem we discussed. Drummond’s narrator realizes he's going to die soon, but not quite yet. He wants to get as much as he can out of life, but to face death directly and with full consciousness at the same time.

Multitudinous Heart is a selection of eighty poems across fifteen books. Drummond had a large output. I'm curious about his “playful exercises” that you mention in the introduction but which were left out of the collection. Were those experimental poems not as successful as these more simple, lyrical poems?

No, I don’t think they were. A few of them are interesting, but not of much interest to me as a translator. The problem is they're very "punny.” They’re tied to particularities of the Portuguese language. You can do a similar kind of stunt in English, but then it becomes the translator’s stunt, so it's not exactly a translation anymore.

There are certain poems I think really are untranslatable. Maybe in those cases it makes more sense to do as Herberto Helder does and actually attempt something more creative that is not too bound by what the original poet did. Or write your own poem, after so-and-so.

As I mentioned, there are fifteen books of poetry by Drummond. Would it be a worthwhile project translating all of his books?

Well, perhaps not all of his books. As I mention in my introduction, the first ten or twelve titles are quite strong, but his last books are uneven. He was aging, and it was hard for him to keep getting it up. He did manage to get it up, just not as consistently. A book like his A Rosa do Povo [Rose of the People] is absolutely stunning, and all of its poems would be worth translating. There are quite a few selections from that book in Multitudinous Heart.

Aside from poetry, you’ve also translated prose works, including two novels by José Luís Peixoto. Where did the American title Implacable Order of Things come from? The UK edition was called Blank Gaze.

"Blank Gaze" is closer to the Portuguese title, Nenhum Olhar. The literal translation would be "no gaze,” which doesn't really work, so I came up with "blank gaze." It was published first in England, and I guess the American publisher didn't think it was a sexy enough title. "Implacable order of things" is a phrase that appears in the novel, so they latched on to that. I wasn't crazy about that choice actually. It seems to be a summary of what the novel proposes, and I’m afraid it might limit or pre-condition one’s reading.

Do you think the United States will ever have a deeper appreciation for translated literature? In Portugal, I've seen many titles translated from English—books that are still new in English. When, if at all, do you think the United States will reach a higher standard?

Probably never. That's the short answer. It's true that English, because it’s so widely spoken, has an astonishing variety of literary styles and registers. So it's partly understandable that there’s a resistance to translations, which take time and cost money. When translating from one language to another, I think it’s legitimate to ask: Why is this particular novel or this poetry of interest to the target language? Will it add something new? If, for instance, there’s an okay detective novel in Portuguese similar to many okay detective novels in English, is there any point in translating it? If it's a remarkable detective novel, then of course it’s worth translating.

The publishing industry looks for projects that promise large returns with a limited amount of risk. You have authors writing in English nowadays that have their novels translated so quickly that they come out simultaneously in a number of languages. It’s commercially easier and more profitable to do that. To do the same kind of operation for a wonderful Hungarian novel would be costlier, and riskier. How many editors in New York read Hungarian? Who would be able to judge the novel and realize what a great novel it is? And how to get it quickly and well translated into other languages? So English-language literature predominates. It’s grossly unfair.

The result of all this is that, in the States, there are dozens of small publishers that mostly do translations, they become a tiny market, and they create a small subculture. Meanwhile in the mainstream, everyone is reading the same popular English-language fiction and they're not aware of the rest of the world.

Besides the business aspect, there’s another problem that goes back centuries: an insular attitude. The UK never showed much of an interest in the culture of continental Europe. The English Channel might as well be an ocean. Similarly, the United States tends not to be very interested in any culture except its own. Partly, no doubt, because it’s such a huge country. Whereas in Europe, with many smallish countries rubbing shoulders, all kinds of exchanges go on, and many people grow up speaking more than one language. It makes for a different attitude, one that accepts differences and is curious about what’s different.

Finally, do you have any new projects you are working on?

In translation, no, not at the moment. There are some things I want to go back to, though. I would like to return to troubadour poetry, revising and expanding 113 Galician Portuguese Troubadour Poems, which is out of print. And there are other poets I’d like to revisit, both Portuguese and Brazilian. I have not translated prose in recent years and don’t expect to do any more. What I really love is poetry.