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Hi, Fidelity! or
Translating Fernando Pessoa: Felicity was Ever My Aim
A practice of reading is always embodied. A translation always translates a reading practice enacted on a text, not simply "an original text." And reading practices are codifications/decodifications that are historically and culturally determined. As such, a work, in the course of translation, provokes an inscription of the reader/translator's embodiment (as site of cultural production but also of resistances: to normative sexual definitions, to contemporary notions of urban life, etc.) into the translated text. Whether or not this is acknowledged.
Add this to Fernando Pessoa, with his heteronyms. I don't think he is, as some have said, a precursor of post-modern fragmentation of identity: Pessoa, rather, loved identity positions. His particularity was that he didn't make a primary and irrevocable association between a single identity structure and self. Pessoa insisted on a plurality of the self. For him, self was a mirror or performance of a plural universe. "Ser plural, como ó universo!" Already universe here is both embodied and multiple. An always-moving set of "sitings."
Pessoa believed in excessive subjectivity, invoked and provoked subjectivity. Subjectivities that could not be said to be "the self" in normative speech and, thus, occur (or appear to occur) outside of it.
The fun part is that I as translator can end up as one of those subjectivities, outside Pessoa and yet "caused" by him, by his work, by Alberto Caeiro. Yet also, as a body, I was (am) in and of a place, am sited. "I," even if not "finished," physically exist somewhere. Or some properties of "I"/"eu" do. I'm a translator. I sit at a desk, and that desk is somewhere. So we're back full circle, to reading practice.
Given the force of reading practice and the exorbitant subjectivity of Pessoa, it is not strange that the translator/reader Erin Mouré, facing Alberto Caeiro's O Guardador de Rebanhos, was compelled to become Eirin Moure(1), a performative and exhorbitant body announcing a textual inscription she calls a "transelation."
Which sets the scene for what comes next:
1. Unhas poucas palabras sobre a traducciózn
Although I work as a commercial translator to earn my living, my experience of "translating" Fernando Pessoa is quite different, and can't be separated from my experience as a poet. For that is its closest correlation, and not the process of reproducing one text in another language. Of course it could be argued that even commercial translation is less about reproduction than it is about a voice that appears at home in the target culture, one that appears comfortable in the target culture with no taint of foreignness, and thus is more about dissembling than it is about fidelity. These considerations aside, however, my principal reaction to language is as a poet, and my first reasons for opening to languages have always been to read poetry in the original language: Garc’a Lorca, Pessoa, the cantigas . . .
As such, I did not "intend" to translate O Guardador. I intended to read it. I started "translating" without goal and without aim, making words in English to incarnate, alongside the text, my own surprise and pleasure, and my own readerly sitedness in time and culture. To make this siting not just visible but a propulsive, gestural element in the new text, bringing Pessoa's Caeiro from his Portuguese hillside into Toronto, Canada, into the patient "rural" that still thrives just under its urban surface. One century later.
All this was aimed at surprise and pleasure. And perhaps pleasure and surprise produce textual experiences (whether translations or other) sans pareil, in their exorbitance but also in other ways.
2. O conto de fadas
In Toronto, where I was temporarily living in the spring of 2000, I'd opened up a bilingual (Portuguese to U.S. English) edition of O Guardador de Rebanhos. It was a work with which I was familiar in bits, in American and English translations, but I'd never read the whole book. Finally, full book in hand, my eye set first upon the Portuguese, and it startled and elated me. I'd only expected to view the original language as material markings, as traits, but, because of my studies of Galician, I realized I could read it.(2) A sudden, unexpected gift. Felicity!
The first lines I translated were from the middle of poem XIX, for I'd opened the book randomly:
Lembra-me a voz da criada velha
Contando-me contos de fadas.
In my Canadian English correlate, this burst out with a tone of one resisting both her own upbringing and the city. What made me laugh as I wrote was that it had a word in it that couldn't possibly be Pessoa's.(3) So already my translation was preposterous, excessive:
Sometimes I think of all the babysitters
who told me lies.
And those babysitters were followed by a further excess, an admonishment of such babysitters, in a line with no equivalent in the Pessoa text:
As if they knew fate!(4)
This initial outburst became a guiding principle. As such, I worked within a framework of "readerly response" that pulled into the translation not just the Caeiro text but also the chance or hazardous appearance of words in my head; this totality (if one can say that) was what I translated. From those first lines, I noted two further guides: the idiom in the target language had to be resolutely Canadian but also a little old-fashioned, a little quaint from a 21st-century perspective (as Caeiro's Portuguese, it is said, was a little curious and simple as well); and the excessive or exorbitant gesture was permitted.
After I'd translated five poems or so, randomly, working slowly so as not to lose my readerly relationship with the lines, I realized that Pessoa had entered Toronto, and I read the poems over the phone to my girlfriend in England, who laughed and said "That's not Pessoa, that's you."
I objected, of course. I'm a translator.
Yet, her words made me realize Pessoa himself (his words, my only access to a Pessoan "self") was having an effect on me that altered me as an addressee (a reader) and as an actor-upon-a-text (a translator). Pessoa's own multiplication of consciousnesses in his creation of heteronyms, his exorbitant subjectivity as I have called it elsewhere; and Caeiro's phenomenalism of presence and touchability entered me. I could not remain who I was, Erin, and continue. Even prior to me, the author - Caeiro - was already false, a representation. An Eirin. So I had to answer to the Pessoan presence in the Caeiroist text, and this altered "me." It was a performative, gestural experience, expanding - but as a private joke - the circle of ordinary "translatory effects" to embody a Pessoan subjectivity as multiply sited, declamatory, proximal, refractive.
Still in Toronto, I realized I had to translate the whole book quickly, before I left for my home in Montrˇal and lost my particular and replete loneliness, and my readerly elation, too: the siting that had driven the first pages. So I saw no one, buckled down and worked as Erin's Eirin to bear Pessoa's rural Caeiro into urban Toronto, into its suburbs of the 1950s, built over creeks and ravines, an undulate landscape that buried all water underground, to be heard only in manholes, deep under:
. . . I realized Pessoa had entered Toronto, living a pastoral life in Toronto's not-quite-vanished original topographies. In me, there appeared my master. Finally I could feel joy. I found Taddle Creek in Wychwood Park. Then I found the creek that crosses Winnett Avenue just below where I lived. After I found the creeks, I lived alongside them.
And Alberto Caeiro came with me.
. . . I translated Pessoa by responding to him as a person. I, a person, and Pessoa, a person. For in Portuguese, pessoa is person. I just read the Pessoan poem line, then wrote my line, or read a few lines, then wrote mine. It was abrupt, direct, total.
At the same time, I couldn't write too many at once. It set my heart murmur going. Besides, I was afraid of responding to the context of what I'd already done, and I wanted to respond only to the Pessoa lines, using the context of my own corporeal position in the world of mid-town Toronto north of Vaughan Road. In just over a week I'd translated some 30 of the 49 poems, in a sort of ecstasy. It was a form of prayer I lit each day, a vigil candle.(5)
It was a way of bringing Pessoa into a Canadian arena, into a present still tinged with an archaic past: the fifties and the alteration of a still largely rural Canadian society into an urban one. I just needed to find the current, Canadian phrase equivalent to the gestural value of the Pessoan phrase. For I wanted to build a structure with the same weight and weight's relation as the Pessoan text. Supplementally, I was also responding to Pessoa's gestures, his sensitivity to how la subjection dÈbordent les frontiêres de la personne (and funnily, here, I have to overflow the borders of English . . . into French) as individually constituted. Translating was a gesture of excess person, of what exceeds the person. How language itself is perhaps always a gesture of excess, how language's vibrations exceed boundaries! I worked as though there was no border between "myself" and Pessoa, as if limits were smudged by excessive movement, exorbitant tracing, as if translation were the performance of an exhorbitant body.
In places, this expansiveness was obliged to exceed all semantic "sense;" the person is truly en fervura, as in the last line in the long poem V, where:
E ando com ele a toda a hora.
And go with God, on Winnett or Vaughan Road, or down Winona to No Frills, where Garrison Creek is, heading southward to the Lake and America and the ocean and the Lakehead and the whales and Gibraltar and my heartbeat, fraying, and the high towers of Chicago, and the road southeast to Albany, the graveyards where the workers lay and Coaticook where I taught once, and my heartbeat, fraying, and the emigrants from Poland, and I love you, and Niagara Falls.(6)
Reproduction was never my aim. Not "fidelity" but "felicity," not "fidelity" but "Hi, Fidelity!" I had the urge to condense gestures, to welcome Caeiro to Toronto (where he clearly was heading at top speed), and be resolutely true to the gesture and movement of the Pessoa work, to Caeiro's philosophy. Reproduction wouldn't have helped, would have just sounded bland, remote, impresent.
3. Para rematar
But what justifies an exorbitant translation in the face of the fact that there are already "true" translations of Caeiro, and that more are possible? Is this really translation?
While every original work seems unique and settled (and thus a fit object for "true" translation), it still shifts, as its cultural context shifts. And shift it does - !! - just ask successive generations of readers. Who can read Pope's translation of The Iliad today? Place, time. Ah. These facts of siting augment a given work's translational possibilities, which are always already multiple, even in English, which is not one language, but several closely related ones. Given this, my Caeiro is easily seen as translation (and is printed with bilingual facing pages, etc.), while acknowledging its difference in the word "transelation."
Yet it is a translation, for it has the structure of the prior text, and could not have been created without it. The prior text was its impetus but did not offer it a closed door; rather, this prior text accelerated, encouraged the translatory work, even to the point of altering its translator. And such shifts (amazing!) are among translation's openings, even if they are seldom lauded, or said. As well, it's Alberto Caeiro through and through. It's just not part of the fluent, domesticating, translation practice that dominates in English, that claims to "represent" the author and elide the translator and the translator's sitedness. In Sheep's Vigil, rather, translation is the practice of an exhorbitance, a seeming dis/replacement of the original text that leaves the translator unscreened, visible, blinking at the reader. Yet it's one that respects the original's archaic, simple, inelegant (the elegance of inelegance) use of language, and respects the philosophy and wry tone of Alberto Caeiro and iterates Caeiro's concerns. Further, translation as exorbitance echoes Pessoa's own exorbitant subjectivity in many ways, opening the text back to its original author, Fernando himself. The exorbitance echoes the "crease" in subjectivity that translation enacts, always, I think. And my own sitedness, in Toronto, is left visible in the translation. As such, it becomes, and I let myself become, a Pessoan, or even Caeiroist (second-generation) heteronym. As if Pessoa's thinking had provoked an excessive subjectivity, an Eirin, an excessive habitation, in and of me.
Finally, for me, this book is a small Toronto. It's a history of water, for Toronto is a city of water. It's built on running water. It buries water but water continues to define it. And where there's water flowing, and bits of scrub poplar, bidoeiro, ravine and creek beds, there are cats. Yes, cats! They know where water is and aren't fooled by surfaces. They're the flocks of Toronto. And, thirdly, my small Toronto returns, in a kind of soft crease back to the first word: "gift." This book is my gift giving Toronto back to Toronto.
It's in this way, as gift, bookended as a gift, that translation can surprise and locate us. Locate us, both as foreign to the place from which the work stems, necessary foreigners, and - at the same time - as inhabitants of our own language, our own place, and our own opened possibilities for literature.
1. Mouré, Eirin. Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person - A TransElation of Fernando Pessoa/Alberto Caeiro's O Guardador de Rebanhos. House of Anansi Press. Toronto, 2001, cover.
2. I'd been studying Galician using workbooks at home in Montréal, without hearing it spoken, though.
3. "Babysitters" is a word first documented in English in 1947; Pessoa died in 1935.
4. Mouré, op. cit. page 57.
5. Mouré, op. cit. page viii.
6. Mouré, op. cit. page 19.
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