Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Jorge de Sena: An Inventory, or The letters lose themselves.

An odd thing about Jorge de Sena, I mean for a poet as obscure in English-speaking countries as he is, is that translations of his individual books outnumber books of selections of his poems.  I believe the only English Selected Poems is from 1980, just after his death.  Subsequent volumes of his short stories have been translated, as well as little books or booklets like the ones I read, Metamorphoses and The Evidences.

I wonder if his books have such a strong conceptual bent that they resist selection.  A few years after Metamorphoses, all poems about images, Sena published The Art of Music (1968).  The Poetry International site features a poem from the book which fills me in on the concept:

Chopin: An Inventory

Almost sixty mazurkas; about thirty etudes;
two dozen preludes; a score of nocturnes;

[etc., etc., but the inventory soon expands]

a talent for concertizing; many mundane successes; an unhappy passion;
a celebrated liaison with a famous woman; other assorted liaisons;

[an ingenious conceit, isn’t it?]

the repugnant possibility…
of becoming
a piece de non-résistance for performers who play for those who believe
they like music but really don’t

Ouch, ouch.  Well, I should track down this book, too.

I mentioned yesterday that the sonnet sequence titles The Evidences had stumped me.  How irritating.  Fight back!

Let’s see.  The title is peculiar.  Not quite English.  Evidences, plural.  Evidence of many things or many of one thing?  I’ll skip to the end, Sonnet XXI.

Ash-colored light is darkening the day,
so pale on rooftops in the distance there.
I barely see to write, and anyway
pain more free than hand guides me and may
look on its like in me, and ease my care.

At the fearful end that waits me from afar,
I can ask no comfort, can voice no plea.
From freedom the sheet unfolded to the air
will shroud my face.  Nor know if thought is there
or if I’ll think as I escape from me.

The fading letters are lost.  Night again,
my love, my life, who spoke was never me.
For us, for you, for me, who spoke was pain.
And the pain is evident – and set free.

Earlier in the book, the poet has some sort of crisis – political, railing against the “slimy and crustaceous” powers, and sexual, which begins to threaten the integrity of the sonnets themselves.  The translator absolutely has to keep the rhymes, since Sena uses them to tell the story.  In this final poem, although the form is odd, order has been restored.  Night falls; the poet has to put down his pen as the letters fade.  Or he could turn on a light.  Whichever.  The sheet that is both paper and a shroud suggests that the evidence is perhaps of the poet’s self, its nature or even existence.

That’s a start.  I now see that the some of the obscurity of The Evidences belongs to the translator (Phyllis Sterling Smith, Jorge de Sena Center for Portuguese Studies, 1994), not the poet.  She keeps “meus cuidados,” “my cares,” but finds no better rhyme than the thumping dud “there.”  The Portuguese rhyme word is “telhados,” rooftops, so the whole line has to be scrambled just to get us “there.” 

Many of the lines I find most puzzling in English look more straightforward in Portuguese, although Sena’s writing is more complex than Eugénio de Andrade’s, so I am mostly guessing.  I do not think this translation has solved the puzzle of these poems.  To the next translator: learn to love the slant rhyme.


  1. You're right: the Metamorphoses bits you quoted yesterday are certainly easier to engage with than this sonnet. Metamorphoses had a different translator, right? Prose translation is difficult enough; poetry seems like a lost battle right from the start. If all translation is a paraphrase, is it possible to say you're even reading The Poem when it's presented in a different language? I donno. I got no time to learn Portuguese or French or Greek or Spanish or Swahili or Chinese or...

    I'm a lazy reader of poetry; I like it clever in its wordplay but formally uncomplicated because I read it like prose, from end-to-end expecting it to reveal itself immediately. Which, if that's true, makes me a lazy reader of prose, too. Huh. The Chopin poem is pretty good, though. I might like that collection.

  2. Poetry is so hard to translate.I gave it a clumsy shot to confirm how horribly difficult it is. And then comparing my version with the translator's, I realized the two of us got different messages from it. Or that sentences have to be twisted out of their more obvious meanings for rhyming and meter's sake. I vote for having poetry books published with more or less literal translations next to the poetic attempt ones. :)

    Anyway, and apologizing in advance if it sounds clunky and disregards meter completely and rhyming at times, while reminding this is merely for, er, blog commenting purposes:

    Ashen light darkening the day,
    so pale in the horizon of rooftops!
    See enough to write I barely may,
    but the freest pain directs my hand's way,
    it sees me, my troubles it comforts.

    To the terrible end awaiting me at length,
    no comfort may I entreat or plead.
    Of freedom the unfolded cloth
    my face will cover. I ignore if thought
    will preside when from myself I am freed.

    The letters are getting lost. Night, my love,
    oh my life, not a word came from me.
    For us, for you, for me, spoke pain thus.
    And the pain is evident - it is set free.

  3. Yes, a different translator. It is glorious to lose a battle well.

    Any attempt at communication should reveal something immediately. Might, in literature, be an awfully small something.

    Claudia, thanks so much! Translation really is an act of interpretation. The line about the pain and the hand, for example, or the cloth that covers the face. And those are fairly concrete details that are hard, aside from the syntax.

    You hit the rhymes at least as well as the other version - length-cloth-thought is especially good.

    I, too, vote for the three-fold book of poems: original language, literal translation (with notes and variations), poetic translation.

  4. Something you may not have noticed - and there's no reason to, I just like to point out obscure trivia - is that the translator of the sonnet tried (and for but three verses, if I counted correctly, succeeded) to respect the metric. This is a Portuguese sonnet, and Sena follows the decasyllable structure inherited from Camões sonnets:


    tão\pá\li\da\nos\lon\ges\dos\te\lha (dos.)

    The last syllable is excluded because we only count up to the last stressed syllable. To keep the rhymes is hard enough, to keep the metric and the rhymes, that's some great work!

  5. Wonderfully skillful translation - I had not noticed that.

    1. Indeed. I think we can also see her attempts to maintain stresses on the 6th and 10th syllables. Sena was using the 'heroic' decasyllable, with stresses on fixed positions. This is where she had more difficulty, I think.