By Tom Gatehouse
Profundamente. “Profoundly” – easy, surely? The Portuguese and English words have a common Latin root; it might appear to be a like-for-like swap. But not so fast. In English we tend to say “deeply”, a word of Germanic origin. Ten of us had sat down to translate this poem by Manuel Bandeira, and here we were, stumped by the very first word, the title.
This example neatly illustrates how translation is all about choices. And when it comes to the translation of poetry in particular, the process of making these choices can seem like a minefield. After all, a poor choice by a translator is far more likely to be noticed by a reader of poetry than by a reader of prose, and they are far less likely to forgive it. We tend to read poetry and prose differently: we generally read prose in order to arrive at a general understanding of the whole, without necessarily poring over the smaller details. Poetry, on the other hand, typically demands greater reflection and analysis of the language.
In our group, we worked on sections of the poem individually, before opening up a discussion to which everyone contributed. The conclusion of our debate regarding the title was that it felt more natural to close the third and fifth stanzas with the lines “Sleeping / Deeply” than “Sleeping / Profoundly”, meaning the title had to change as well. “Deeply” it was.
The importance of melody, rhythm and rhyme means that a bad choice by the translator can have a kind of nails-down-the-blackboard effect for the reader, whereas generally speaking such choices in translated prose are rarely as jarring. Sitting down to translate a poem can therefore seem like a rather daunting task. The effect created by a poem in the original language is so fragile, and in translation it can easily be broken. It takes just one bad choice, whether an interruption to a rhythm or an overly literal noun or adjective.
[pullquote]Working collaboratively vastly multiplied our possibilities. A translator working alone might identify perhaps a handful of potential solutions to any given problem; working in a group, the solutions are almost endless. [/pullquote]A good example of the latter was the translation of the Portuguese word “deitados”, which literally means “lying down”. But we felt that “lying down” sounded clunky, excessively literal; it broke the solemn mood of the poem. Moreover, the succinctness of the single word in Portuguese felt important. Our solution was to opt for “resting”, which not only maintained this brevity, but is also a verb with connotations of death, a theme we wanted to draw out of the poem. The most literal or precise translation is not necessarily the best translation.
A related point here is that yes, while translating poetry may often be very difficult for reasons outlined above, the ambiguity of much poetry, along with its tendency to play and experiment with language, means that we can in fact be much freer and more creative in the way we approach translating a poem than a piece of prose. In other words, it’s more about trying to recreate the same feeling, rather than expressing exactly the same meaning. The impossibility of ever recreating the same auditory experience in the target language can be similarly liberating.
A couple of points at which we got a little more creative as translators were with the translations of “luzes de Bengala”, in the first stanza, and “balões”, in the second. These words translate as “sparklers” and “balloons”, but we opted instead for “Catherine wheels” and “sky lanterns”. Both are a real departure from the original text, in terms of both meaning and sound – far more so than with the translation of “deitados” as “resting”. So why did we make these choices? Perhaps the simplest answer would be poetic licence. Why should this not apply to translators as well as poets? We feel we have been faithful to the feeling and atmosphere of Bandeira’s poem, even if we have not used exactly the same words and concepts.
This example also shows how working collaboratively vastly multiplied our possibilities. A translator working alone might identify perhaps a handful of potential solutions to any given problem; working in a group, the solutions are almost endless. In addition, what seems straightforward to one translator may seem problematic to another and vice versa. Essentially, working together meant that the translation received much more thorough and intense reflection than one translator would reasonably have been capable of working alone.
And while some choices might indeed be better than others, there are no right answers as such. Two previous translations of the poem, by John Nist and David R. Slavitt, both maintain the title “Profoundly” with the corresponding scheme in the poem, and are not necessarily any less successful for it. And naturally, we often disagreed amongst ourselves. Most of our choices were made by majority consensus rather than being unanimous.
But this is precisely the spirit of collaboration. We each relinquished our individual control over the final product (perhaps not something that comes naturally to many translators, who usually work alone), and in return we got something far more crafted and polished than anything we could have produced by ourselves in the same amount of time. What’s more, for all of us in different ways, the final translation was full of ideas and little details that might never have occurred to us individually. And therein lies the beauty: I am sure that like me, everyone else in the group felt very proud of the result; it was a pleasant surprise, something entirely unexpected.
Tom Gatehouse was part of the 2015 City University Literary Translation Summer School. Click here to read their English translation of Manuel Bandeira’s ‘Profundamente’.