Ana Luísa Amaral is one of Portugal’s leading contemporary writers – in the words of Nuno Júdice, her poems encompass “images ranging from the most trivial objects to nature and the celestial world, from where a search is born verging on metaphysics.” Her poems are currently being translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, while a collection of English-language essays on her work is being edited by Claire Williams and Teresa Louro.
Continuing our Poet of the Month series, Ana Luísa Amaral spoke to The Missing Slate’s Literature Editor, Jacob Silkstone, about the nature of memory, the way poetry can be simultaneously lost and found in translation, and whether the idea of a “Portuguese psyche” can be written off as a guidebook cliché.
“We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.”
How pure, really, is the “pure joy” (pura alegria) in your poem? Am I wrong to think that the lines “it was life and being able to choose/Or so it seemed” (era a vida, e o poder de escolher,/ ou assim o parecia) introduce a sense of irony into poem?
“Pure joy” takes place for very short instants, it emerges in flashes – when it does, it’s like a ‘visitation’, I have no other word… It is about one of those instants in childhood, remembered later, an “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, as Wordsworth once put it, that I wanted to speak about. Or maybe I should say “in intranquility…”, since the poem develops into the present time, and our times are ruthless, empty of solidarity, ruled by the dictatorship of the markets and of the so-called ‘financial industries’. It is, therefore, a poem about a past time, recollected, and our own time. And the question is how to reconcile that ‘pure joy’ of a time crystallized in the past and brought to the writing of the poem with the reality of the present.
I don’t think that the lines “it was life and being able to choose / Or so it seemed” introduce a sense of irony. I think it is much more a sense of sadness: the power to choose was an illusion, just like the title of the poem, ‘About the purest memories’ – because memory is always impure, always tinged not only with further memories, but also with what we see happening in front of us, with the experiences we get from the world.
How comfortable are you with the idea of analysing your own work? Does it seem reductive to explain your own lines to an audience?
(I’m thinking, I suppose, of the old anecdote about a student asking T.S. Eliot what he could possibly have meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.” Eliot supposedly paused for a second before replying, ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”)
I never explain my poems if I am in a poetry reading. I simply hate the very idea of doing it! I just say “thank you”, “good afternoon”, or “good evening”, and start reading. I don’t think that we need an explanation before or after we listen to a poem – the poem speaks for itself. If we can’t understand some references, there is always the music of the words or some words or phrases that move us. I believe that poetry has to touch us, to move us (in several senses, as emotion and as commotion).
It is different if I’m writing an essay (or answering an interview question!) and am specifically asked to write about my own poetry. Even then, I don’t explain much, never say things like “I’ve used such and such a metre here”, or “in stanza this or that, this was what I meant”. What I try to do then is to relate the poem with the world and with my own experiences of the world, engaging with what critics have written about my work and engaging with other poems that move me or poets that I admire.
You’ve translated several poets (including Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and John Updike) into Portuguese, and perhaps you’re already familiar with Robert Frost’s definition of poetry in ‘Conversations on the Craft…’: “it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” Octavio Paz is supposed to have responded that poetry is what gets found in translation.
Which of those two positions is closer to your own? What do you think has been lost or found in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of ‘Das Mais Puras Memórias…’?
There is a beautiful passage by Marina Tsetaeva, written when she was translating Rilke, that I really love:
“Today, I would like Rilke to speak – through me. In everyday language this is called translation. How much better the Germans put it – nachdichten! Following in the poet’s footsteps to lay again the path he has already laid. Let nach mean follow, but dichten always has a new meaning. Nachdichten, laying a new path all traces of which are grown over instantaneously. But ‘translate’ has another meaning: to translate not into (into Russian, for example), but also to (to the opposite bank of the river). I will translate Rilke into Russian and he, in time, will translate me to the other world.”
I think this idea of transit, of following a path, but also crossing over (and bearing witness) can enlighten Frost’s and Octavio Paz’s positions. When you translate, you always lose something, but you also find something – like when you cross a river: you may lose a piece of clothing, but you may find a beautiful pebble. And the piece of clothing may become, in the language into which you are translating, something less valuable compared to the rays of colour in that pebble you found.
This, for me, has happened with Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of my poetry. Margaret is one of the most gifted translators I know, a highly creative person, and she has done a wonderful job with ‘Das mais puras memórias: ou de lumes’. For example, she might have used “flame”, or “glow”, for “lume”; instead, she translated “lumes” into “light”, which I think was a beautiful choice. In my poetry, she has to deal with the issue of my syntax (I will come back to this later on, when speaking about Emily Dickinson). I can say something in Portuguese that, while intelligible, is clearly non-grammatical; however, when translated into English, it becomes both non-grammatical and incomprehensible… This has to do, of course with the limits of a language. Every language has its limits, just like every language has its music. In that poem, Margaret Jull Costa’s findings were magnificent; this is all I can say.
As for me, translating Emily Dickinson, John Updike or William Shakespeare was extremely difficult, not only because of the meaning of the poems, but also because of the rhymes and the metre, recurrent in the three poets, Updike included. In Emily Dickinson’s case, there was an additional problem — the problem of her syntax. In Shakespeare, there was the problem of the iambic pentameter. Rather than using a decasyllabic line, I settled on twelve syllables instead – giving the sonnet space to ‘breathe’ (the English language is more condensed than Portuguese, a Romance language, which favours longer lines). To translate poets like this was exhilarating – meaning frightening, but also elating. In both cases (Dickinson and Shakespeare) I also had to take into account the linguistic and poetic codes (Dickinson’s 19th-century New England and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan period).
I remember waking up many times, in the small hours of the night, with a word, or an expression I had found for a poem by Dickinson, or with a line for a sonnet by Shakespeare. Let me give you an example. In Sonnet 138, Shakespeare creates a pun on the word “lie”, suggesting both deceit and eroticism: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be.” This is extremely challenging to say in Portuguese, since we don’t have an equivalent word. The literal translations of “lie” would be the verb “deitar-se com” (go to bed with) and the noun “mentira” (lie, or deception). The solution I found, one night at 4 am, was “Com ela me deleito, mentindo, e ela comigo, / E, a mentir nossas faltas, em deleite existimos.” For a Portuguese reader, the idea of deceit is there, with the verb “mentir”; by using the noun “deleite” (delight, pleasure) and the verbal form “deleito”, which also means “I take delight/pleasure in”, I tried to be faithful to the idea, because , if you break “deleito” into “de-leito”, there is the suggestion of the Portuguese word “leito” (bed).
But this is a process that takes place not only in the intellect, but also in the emotional realm. And I can only speak about it afterwards. This is why, for me, translating poetry is sometimes similar to the process of writing a poem. It is also a matter of ‘inspiration’…
Another quotation, but this time from a non-literary source: The Lonely Planet’s guide to Portugal. “The Portuguese psyche is a complicated thing… Saudade is deeply connected to [Portugal]’s history and remains deeply interwined with Portuguese identity.”
Do you see this emphasis on saudade and fado as a guidebook cliché, or are nostalgia and melancholic longing genuinely “deeply interwined with Portuguese identity”?
I believe it’s a cliché, especially that idea of a “Portuguese psyche”…
It is true that the word ‘saudade’ is untranslatable. ‘Saudade’ is not longing, exactly, but it means longing too, mixed with loss, loneliness, distance (although as we, the Portuguese, say, one may feel saudades for the way one felt about someone who is near…) In the medieval times (when the common language was Galician-Portuguese), the word ‘soidade’ was used, and ‘saudade’ is still used in Galician (along with ‘morriña’ – literally, a very light and nagging rain –, that means sadness and is also connected with ‘saudade’).
But I wonder whether saudade is intertwined per se with the Portuguese identity, or if it became deeply intertwined with it. In the first case, we could consider the geographic position of Portugal: being the oldest country in Europe (with its frontiers intact since the 12th century), it is also the westernmost country of mainland Europe, and this may have contributed to a certain isolation and feeling of loneliness. The feeling of longing, absence, and distance might be connected to the Portuguese history of expansion and, later on, to the big waves of emigration in the 19th century and in the 20th century, primarily during the Fascist dictatorship.
In any case, ‘saudade’ (or ‘saudades’, in the plural) is certainly the word mostly used in the ‘fado’ (that comes from fatum, destiny) – and probably in Portuguese poetry.
Anne Stevenson once wrote that “love is not a hook to hang a life on”. What about literature? How central is writing to your life?
For me, writing is as essential as breathing. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it is true. I need to write, I always did. My first book was only published when I was 33 years old, but I had already written thousands of poems. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of publishing — somehow afraid that I might lose what I thought was a certain relationship of innocence I had with words. But I always showed my poems to friends, which is a way of going ‘public’, only not the more conventional one.
There were periods in my life when I felt that poetry replaced life. I believe that the freedom of poetry (not being subject, as fiction is, to the laws of the market) can help to break “the precarious chains of solitude”, as Judith Butler once wrote: our human condition.