Translator's notes

XLIV - Literal translation

By Alberto Caeiro

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is Portugal’s great modernist poet. He published almost nothing during his own lifetime, but left a trunk full of papers, many bearing different names and written in different styles. These names became known as ‘heteronyms’, which were not just names, but personalities, who produced poetry in keeping with their education, temperament, and personal philosophy. Alberto Caeiro was one of those heteronyms, for whom Pessoa provided the following biography:

Born in 1889 in Lisbon, but lived nearly all his life in the country. His parents died when he was a child, and he lived with an elderly aunt. Only primary education. Average height, fair hair, blue eyes. Professions: none. Died of tuberculosis in 1915, aged 26.

Caeiro wrote very little, and his recurrent themes are a child-like wonder at nature, a calm acceptance of the world precisely as it is, and the ‘thingness’ of things, which have no meaning beyond themselves.

As you can see from this poem, he uses very simple language, and the poem is written entirely in the present tense. The tone is confiding, but the language quite stark and, apart from a couple of words, emotionless.

  • Line 1 Word order: is it important to keep ‘subitamente’ at the end of the line?

  • Line 2 ‘ocupa’ – is ‘occupies’ the best translation here? He uses ‘encher’ meaning ’to fill’ near the end of the poem, so we do need two different verbs meaning ‘fill’. ‘ocupar’ brings a sense of ‘filling entirely’, almost ‘inhabiting’.

  • Line 3 The verb ‘sentir’ means to perceive with the senses, so it could mean ‘feel/sense/hear/smell’. In a poem about sounds and silence, perhaps the sense he means here is that of hearing. Or should we try to keep the ambiguity?

  • Line 4 ‘coisa’ is repeated three times in the poem, and given Caeiro’s obsession with the ‘thingness’ of things, that seems right, although we can perhaps review this when we look at line 11.

    Do we keep the word order at the end of the line or normalise it? The order in Portuguese is normal.

  • Line 5 Note repetition of ‘lá fora’ meaning ‘outside’. ‘há’ = ‘there is’, but do we want this rather lifeless construction in such a concise poem?

    ‘sossego’ means calm, peace, tranquillity, quietude, stillness. Which fits the mood of the poem? Do we want to translate this as a noun or as an adjective?

  • Line 6 Does the literal translation work just as it is? Too flat?

  • Line 7 ‘engrenagens’ are the cogs and gears inside a machine, in this case, a clock. Are those words too short to replace the much longer and ‘coggier’ (!) Portuguese word?

  • Line 8 ‘abafa’ - this comes across as very emphatic at the beginning of the line. Do any of the English alternatives have that force? For example: muffle/smother/stifle/mute/dull/extinguish?

    ‘existência’ – this is slightly odd in Portuguese. Do we keep it or opt for something else?

  • Line 9 ‘Quase que me perco’ – the speaker almost loses or forgets himself in pondering the mystery of what this strange situation means.

  • Line 10 Another very stark verb in Portuguese ‘estaco’. Can we find a translation that keeps that concision? ‘stop’ is perhaps too stark and fails to get the ‘suddenness’ of the stopping.

    ‘sinto-me sorrir na noite com os cantos da boca’ The sense we want to convey is that his mouth is smiling of its own accord, that like the other ‘things’, it has a life of its own.

  • Line 11 The third ‘coisa’ – do we want to translate it as ‘thing’ again here?

  • Lines 12-14 We need to keep the repetition here, but not necessarily the same word order.

    ‘enorme’ – is ‘enormous’ the best translation?

    ‘pequenez’ means ‘smallness’ and ‘insignificance’ – can we find a word in English that encapsulates both?

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