Friday, October 28, 2011

bird or rose or sea - learning Portuguese the Eugénio de Andrade way

Who wants to help me learn Portuguese?  So kind, thank you.  My textbook is, as usual, Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade (New Directions, 2003, tr. Alexis Levitin).

I picked an easy one (pp. 54-5).


É um pássaro, é uma rosa,
é o mar que me acorda?
Pássaro ou rosa ou mar,
tudo é ardor, tudo é amor.
Acordar é ser rosa na rosa,
canto na ave, água no mar.

A little Spanish goes a long way here – it may help to know that “é” = “it is \ is it?” and “na” and “no” = “of the”.  I am not joking when I claim to use Andrade as a study aid.  The title of the poem is a vocabulary word by itself, and the nouns are all good basic ones – rose, sea, water, love, desire, song, and two words for bird, some repeated two or three or four times.

Some of Andrade’s poems are genuine lyrics, the words to an imaginary song.  They perhaps create their own music, this one, for example, with all of its soft, rolling “r”s.

To Waken

Is it a bird, is it a rose,
is it the sea that wakens me?
Bird or rose or sea,
all is fire, all desire.
To awake is to be rose of the rose,
song of the bird, water of the sea.

The one little bend the translator has to make is in the sonorous fourth line.  “Ardor” and “amor” are related but distinct, while “desire” and “fire” are much the same thing, one just a metaphor of the other.  But Levitin is able to shadow  the rhythm, keep the internal rhyme, and even mimic the soft “r” sounds.  His melody is at least an audible variation of Andrade’s.

As for the content of the poem, I wish I woke up feeling like that.  Not before coffee; rarely after.  But I suppose the waking is metaphorical, the surprise of the bird or rose or sea (or, who knows, a poem) lifting us out of our sleepy ordinary life once in a while.


  1. Italian can help here also—"è" = "it is/is it?" in Italian (among other similarities). "Na" and "no" are new to me though. I like this idea of using poems to learn a language. Or at least poems with basic vocabulary!

  2. Now that I poke at it, "no" and "na" should really be "in the," not "of the." Translator's license. "To awake is to be rose in the rose, song in the bird, water in the sea." I dunno.

    Portuguese is full of these preposition-article contractions, like "del" in Spanish. So "no" is "em + o" ("in + the (masc.)"), "na" is "em + a". The articles of course varies by number as well as gender, so we also need "nos" and "nas."

  3. A common issue - my review of OWC's bilingual version of Rilke's Selected Poems went over very similar ground :)