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Camões’s Sonnets in English - A Review

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Luís de Camões: Selected Sonnets
A Bilingual Edition
Edited and Translated by William Baer
The University of Chicago Press, 2005

Regina Alfarano photoDiscussing the translation of poetry before his reading at the Brazilian Embassy in Rome, in 2001, Haroldo de Campos quoted Novalis: "The translator of poetry is a poet's poet." An internationally acclaimed, renowned poet and translator himself, he knew exactly what he was talking about.

It seems appropriate, then, to say that rather than reviews, poetry in translation encourages the sharing of approaches, the debate on decision-making processes, and exchanges while treading along "long and winding" poetical roads.

William Baer's year in Coimbra, and especially this book, have contributed not only to translation studies but to literature, to history, and to culture in a broad sense. The book includes a substantial Introduction, followed by Camões's Life and Literary Work. The translator also includes notes on his translation work: most invaluable in a bilingual edition.

Translation is the craft of making choices. Translating poetry is the art of making choices. A myriad of choices, all embedded, all intertwined, all interdependent. And that is what makes reviewing translation of poetry quite unique—if not almost impossible: choosing when translating poetry is a long, highly and carefully wrought process involving rhyming schemes, metrics, style, or, as Pound defined it, involving melopoeia (music), phanopoeia (imagistic quality), and logopoeia (a dance of the intellect among words). Such a process is exclusively subjective, based on knowledge, research, and most of all, on feeling and intuition.

Poetry translators are aware that their choice-making involves higher risks than other translation categories. As an anonymous author wrote on Pope's translations of Horace, he worked with his "bound hand and feet and yet danced as if free." The description is perfect! Would that not apply to all literary translation, one could ask? In a way, it does, but as the Brazilian poet Régis Bonvicino said once: "What else is poetry if not the most organized way of writing?" Poetry is indeed self-contained, self-sufficient, within clear-cut contours.

William Baer made his choice for the contemporary English language. He chose to bring Camões close to his 21st century readers many times by using colloquial, prose language. In his own words, putting together rhyming schemes, metrics, and style, "has led to some aesthetic liberties," while "trying, with English meters and rhymes, to highlight with sound, as his originals do so beautifully, Camões's poetic 'explorations'."

Poetry translators can and may undoubtedly be led to aesthetic liberties in their task, which in turn pave the way for readers to have access to foreign literature. Those liberties, however, are constrained by rhyming schemes, metrics, and style—the translator's "bound hand and feet." Only a few translators succeed in "dancing as if free."

It is too early yet to know how Camões's sonnets will be perceived by English-speaking readers.

Here are excerpts of Baer's translation of two of Camões's most renowned sonnets:

"Dear gentle soul, who has, too soon, departed this life, so discontent: please rest, my dear, forever in heaven, while I, remaining here, must live alone, in pain, and brokenhearted."

"Alma minha gentil, que te partiste tão cedo desta vida descontente repousa lá no Céu eternamente, e viva eu cá na terra sempre triste."

"The dawn rises lovely but ill-fated and full of grief. For as long as heartbreaks prey upon our tragic world, this dawning day should be forever famous and celebrated."

"Aquela triste leda madrugada, cheia toda de mágoa e de piedade, enquanto houver no mundo saüdade quero que seja sempre celebrada."

The debate on the choice of style considering time frames has understandably been extensive and endless. But the tripod—rhyming scheme, metrics, and style—are the very foundation of poetry, and consequently, of its translation. One must try to contradict Frost in his widely known "Poetry is what is lost in translation," and rather agree with Brodsky, when he energetically states that "Poetry is what is gained in translation." Or even more comfortably, keep Octávio Paz in mind: "Poetry is what gets transformed." What can be gained? What kind of transformation is to take place?

Melody and rhythm play as important a role as rhyme and metrics, if not more important, to reach that transformation, or that gain. Readers must naturally and spontaneously be taken by the hands of the translator to the melopoeia and to the logopoeia—immediately, instantaneously—so that phanopoeia can be revealed. Commas and broken sentences segment melody, chop rhythm. Colloquialism and prose style may make the sonnet more understandable, but also lend quite different tones to the shades originally painted by the poet.

Although there is an attempt on the part of Baer to keep the rhyming scheme and comparable metrics (iambic pentameters), the flow and beauty of Camões's verse seem to have been lost most of the time.

The significance of a bilingual edition of a superior and renowned poet (Baer himself compares him to Petrarch, Dante, and Shakespeare)—is to be pointed out. If this is the translation of Camões's sonnets for 21st century readers, one must question the perception they will have of this most important Portuguese poet.


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