I can’t even hope to be nothing
September 17, 2023 12:58 AM   Subscribe

In translating Pessoa’s heteronyms, one thing we see clearly is the influence of reading on Pessoa’s plural and inquiring mind. I have no doubt that reading more than writing was his primary and long-lasting literary occupation. His marginalia are of great interest; so are his many influences. This is to say that the more we know about what Pessoa read and when, the better equipped we are as translators of his works—especially to see more clearly his poetical diction, meters, and rhythms at the core of each heteronymic voice. from Fernando Pessoa’s Unselving [The Paris Review; ungated]
posted by chavenet (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Some years ago I picked up the Margaret Jull Costa translation of The Book of Disquiet. I read about a hundred pages and quit because it was deathly dull. There was nothing obviously wrong with the translation, the sentences were interesting, and cohered well with the text around it, but the whole thing felt like a bunch of airy nothings.

Much later I confessed my non-understanding of Pessoa to someone well read in Portuguese literature, and he told me that the version I had read from is based on a very particular edition of the text by Pessoa scholar Jerónimo Pizarro.

First, I should mention that Pessoa never finished the Book of Disquiet, and that the first edition was published over forty years after his death. When he passed away, he left behind a chest full of envelopes and loose papers, and some of them were labeled as belonging to the Book of Disquietude. They were clearly written in two phases, one in the 1910s and early 20s, and attributed to the heteronym Vicente Guedes. The latter phase, which started in the late 20s and Pessoa kept adding to until his death, is in the voice of the heteronym Bernardo Soares.

Most editions of the book are mostly from that latter phase, with some insertions from the first. That’s generally the book that people fell in love with when it was first published and translated in the 1980s and 90s.

However, Pizarro thought that was too much editorial intervention, that by mixing the two heteronyms, the editors had done violence to the work. So his version, originally published in the 2010s, carefully disaggregated the two voices, and gave them each a section, with the Guedes given part one, and Soares part two. The problem, which I encountered, is that the earlier phase is very abstract and fairly boring, with the occasional nugget of quality, which is what previous editors extracted for their redactions. I never got to the Soares section, and perhaps I should just read that, but it’s always hard to pick a book up again, after completely failing to connect with it.

Pizarro seems to take the point of view that Pessoa’s drafts should be published as is, which isn’t how Pessoa worked in real life, and how no author works. Also, he seems to think that it’s somehow less of an editorial decision, but publishing texts in their chronological order of composition seems to me like a much more violent intervention on a writer’s work, than trying to present it in the most aesthetically pleasing way.

Because of Pizarro’s involvement, I’ve been fairly reticent to pick up the various Complete Works of the heteronyms, now being published by New Directions. That said, a collection of poems doesn’t expect its reader to engage with it sequentially, unlike a novel, even one as fragmentary and editorially constructed as the Book of Disquiet.
posted by Kattullus at 3:13 AM on September 17 [7 favorites]

I loved what I read of The Book of Disquiet, but couldn't make it through because the ideas were so bleak and upsetting, it was like poetic Portuguese Joy Division. I loaned it to a friend and he was so disturbed by it, I wonder if it's why he no longer answers any of my messages.

Today, suddenly, I reached an absurd but unerring conclusion. In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I'm nobody, absolutely nobody. When the lightning flashed, I saw that what I had thought to be a city was in fact a deserted plain and, in the same sinister light that revealed me to myself, there seemed to be no sky above it.
posted by earthstarvoyager at 5:47 AM on September 17 [5 favorites]

It's interesting to watch (over several decades) the creation of a golem--a great foreign poet in English translation. I'm still waiting for someone who's both a scholar of Portuguese & a first-rate poet in English to take up even part of the task for Pessoa. History doesn't always furnish us this person--everybody knows about Goethe--& it is especially moving when someone dedicates their life, as Eshleman did for Vallejo--to this impossible mountain to climb. But it also underscores the vexing dilemma of translation in our time: on the one hand, we empire-dwellers think we have the right to claim everything worthwhile (or stealable gold) outside our borders, without for a minute being willing to learn a "foreign" language; on the other, there's a growing job market for paraphrasers (sometimes otherwise eminent in their own language) who work with a bilingual informant to produce something not unlike the current poetry idiom--even at the price of misleading readers about what's so special about that poet. --Hey, Pessoa has a smile for that eventually, too! He's the Shakespeare of travesty.
posted by graywyvern at 6:50 AM on September 17 [3 favorites]

Thank you for that background, Kattullus. I'm about 30% in and keeping stalling.
I love some passages and read them aloud to folks.
posted by doctornemo at 10:53 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

Turns out Search is a real last name and not just one Pessoa made up for alter ego Alexander Search.
posted by earthstarvoyager at 12:55 PM on September 17 [2 favorites]

I have been learning Portuguese for a while. Last year I stumbled on "Se te queres matar" and it blew my mind.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:32 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

alter ego Alexander Search.

Whom God and man left in the lurch
posted by chavenet at 1:46 PM on September 17 [2 favorites]

This post is very relevant to me!

My first encounter with the Book of Disquiet was Richard Zenith's translation. I've never read any other English versions, and I've never tried reading it cover to cover, in Portuguese or English; it's always been the kind of book I pick up, read a few passages from, and ruminate on.
posted by heteronym at 2:04 PM on September 17 [3 favorites]

it's always been the kind of book I pick up, read a few passages from, and ruminate on.

I think that's where I've ended up.
posted by doctornemo at 12:17 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

Suddenly thinking to myself about his heteronyms and how the surname "Pessoa" ("person") is almost a kind of artistic nominative determinism.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:47 PM on September 22 [2 favorites]

« Older Boucher, backbone, and Blake: the legacy of...   |   Russell Brand, Sexual Predation, And Coverup At... Newer »

You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.