This is the first of five instalments of work as the result of the 2017 Edwin Morgan Trust translation workshop. Three Portuguese and three Scottish poets met, under the guidance of facilitator Tom Pow, to translate each other’s work. The Portuguese poets were Andreia C. Faria, Ricardo Marques, and Miguel Martins. The Scottish poets were Jane McKie, Miriam Nash and Richard Price. From Portuguese into English, the bridge translators were Carla Davidson and Sophie Paterson; from English into Portuguese, the bridge translator was Catarina Nascimento. The co-ordinator for all translations was Carla Davidson. The Other Side of Silence, a pamphlet containing the other translated poems, was published by the EMT and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2017.
By Tom Pow
In his essay on Borges and Neruda, Alastair Reid wrote that, “Translating a poem means not only reading it deeply and deciphering it but clambering about backstage among the props and the scaffolding.” So, it is of inestimable value to have the person who built the theatre to guide you. That is the principle behind the Edwin Morgan Trust’s (EMT) translation programme, which brings three Scottish poets and three poets from another country together every second year. In 2017, the visiting poets were from Portugal.
In the first instance, both the Portuguese and the Scottish poets were asked for,
Five poems you would like to be translated. That is, not poems that you think would be straightforward to translate. Sometimes difficulty can be very interesting to work with. As a rough guide, the poems should be no more than a page in length, c. 20 lines, 250 words.
The submitted poems were then sent to Carla Davidson, the lead bridge translator, who sent her own letter of introduction to the poets:
We hope the bridge translations will serve to help you understand the meanings of the words used and are also including some comments to highlight any alternative translations or cultural references […]. We have deliberately left the translations quite unpolished (não polidos) and literal in parts to keep to the brief we were given. This should help to maintain the sense of the original poem (even with regard to things like word order and so on) and ensure that the final poems you produce faithfully reflect the original.
Os desejo tudo de bom and best wishes.
Portugal, like Scotland, faces the vast Atlantic, but there are historic similarities as well as geographical ones between the two countries. The wealth of its overseas empire allowed an aristocratic class in Portugal to migrate to the great cities of northern Europe, leaving a culture to fend for itself, in much the same way as the union of Scotland and England encouraged the Scottish gentry to take the road south. They too abandoned a culture they were persuaded was beneath them; leaving it to grow strong independent roots. We might say that the long-term results, in both countries, is a lively demotic culture and, in the case of its poets, a marked individuality. In Fernando Pessoa’s case, several marked individualities! These three poets promote such thoughts.
Much of the power of Andreia C. Faria’s poetry comes from the contrast between the controlled short forms in which they are written – each line chiselled to its most economic expression – and the emotional openness of the content. Hers are brave, honest, generous poems. Small as they are, they are the result of deep reflection on experience and on the capabilities of language to capture it. Her imagery reveals a sensitivity stripped of religious belief, but not of its religious intensity. In one poem, she writes of “A random altar arranged in the tar” (translated by Miriam Nash with Sophie Paterson); in another, that “The joy of some new shoes/is in the wound” (translated by Jane McKie with Sophie Paterson). For her,
Poetry is a way of finding my place in the world and in my own body. It is a way of exploring my limits and my preconceptions. It is imagination to the extreme.
Ricardo Marques’ poetry is distinguished instead by the elegance of its phrasing and by the concentration of thought it contains. One is aware, reading it, of a mind that is, by its nature, philosophical but, at the same time, committed to personal, sensuous experience. His poetry too can express a post-religious aesthetic – “the way the sensuality/ of a twisted languid body/ receives our gaze’s forgiveness” (translated by Richard Price with Carla Davidson) but it can also suggest the mythic:
The repetition of days
is like an early morning
in which we love each other
in the sheets of the world – (translated by Jane McKie with Carla Davidson)
For Marques, “Poetry is crucially a crucible: an experience of the world and a mirror. My poetry is a reflection on the past, present and future, three wor(l)ds we were given and we need to digest.”
There is a line in one of Miguel Martins’ poems, “My days are made of excesses and voids” (translated by Jane McKie with Sophie Paterson). So, to a large extent is his poetry. There is a revealing melancholy affecting many of the speakers in his work. For most of them, the greater decisions of their lives have been made – love has been lost, direction too. Of the three poets here, it is Martins who most deeply expresses the Portuguese sense of Saudismo; a word bearing connotations of nostalgia, longing or regret, even for what one never had in the first place. Though the poetry may have a fatalistic edge to it, it is animated by a mordant humour, by richness in narrative detail and, in the language that conveys the memories, by an engaging lyricism. The gestures of one lover, he writes, “resemble the sea/ when the nights are calm and the moon lights up/ the entire bay of Cadiz” (translated by Richard Price with Sophie Paterson). In his work, the void, if it comes, always comes with compensations. Martins writes that,
If my poems have one main thing in common, I’d say it is their obsession with the past, be it historical, biographical or fictional.
Translation, in the context of the Edwin Morgan Trust, involves conversation with the text and with its creator. There was, therefore, enthusiasm from the poets to mark the collaborative nature of the occasion with two joint poems – ghazals – in which the six poets wrote alternate couplets. From this distance, it strikes me that the paradox of the ghazal shares a similarity with translation. The success of a satisfying ghazal arises from the sensitivity of each poet to tone, sensibility and intention. Much of the meaning lies in the interstices between couplets. Similarly, between the original poem and the (always provisional) translation, lies a space where the conversation took place – a space filled with selfless good intentions and, on this occasion, fuelled by respect and fellow-feeling.
Saudade 1 (a ghazal)
We all travel alone through doubt,
along canals and rivers.
On the horizon, the pillars
of a new bridge – or could they be spires?
Or maybe it’s just a room,
bare but for memories.
What brought us here? What are our names?
Is it our shadow the river made longer
or the river itself filled with shadows?
Men and women, engineers together,
and the moon as big as a child.
 See Alastair Reid, ‘Borges and Neruda’, in Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008), pp. 106–130.