Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Translation Notes on a Dirty Poem



Ferreira Gullar arrives in Argentina on the day Juan Perón dies. Isabel, his third wife, took over the reins. There’s no Broadway musical called Isabel, so you can imagine how that turned out. Gullar finds a country on the brink of a new right-wing coup. The poet was naturally preoccupied. Rumours had it that the authorities were kidnapping Brazilian exiles living in Buenos Aires and covertly shipping them to Brazil, to be prosecuted by the military regime. Gullar, who had already survived the coup in Chile, feared the end was near and figured it was time to put everything he still wanted to say in a poem – a ‘final poem,’ the poem he’d write if he knew he was about to die. He called this extraordinary imaginative exercise Dirty Poem, an epic poem running some sixty pages. In his own words it was a poem ‘without logical or syntactic order, all my past, everything I had lived, as man and writer.’

To Gullar the poem saved his life. ‘When life seemed to have no meaning and all possibilities were closed, I invented, through it, another destiny.’ From March to September 1975 he laboured over the poem, barely resting except to sleep and eat. His devotion to it is even more remarkable if we remember that, besides fearing for his life, his son Paulo had been missing for weeks and Gullar didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

At the house of Augusto Boal, playwright, stage director and co-founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Gullar read the poem aloud in the presence of poet and songwriter Vinícius de Moraes, who recorded the poem on tape and took a copy to Brazil, where it was divulged and reproduced, generating interest and persuading a publisher to buy the rights to it. At the start of 1976 Gullar’s wife, Thereza, took a printed copy of the poem to Brazil, and the poem was published a few months later. The poem was immediately acclaimed as one of the best and most important Brazilian poems of the 20th century. It was so popular people in Brazil started campaigning for Gullar to be allowed to return safely to his homeland.

Ferreira Gullar lived his whole life to write this poem, it’s his masterpiece. He put all his life, childhood, experience into it, he just poured his soul into it, and it’s poetic and coarse at the same time. It is a dirty poem for a good reason. But it’s really the linguistic splendour that makes me marvel at it. A translator called Leland Guyer rendered it into English in 1990; I have no access to it but I presume it was a difficult poem to translate: it’s very musical, not just because of the rhymes but also the alliteration. And it’s very polysemic. Then the lack of punctuation and capital letters, plus the use of enjambment, turns the meaning of the verses ambiguous. Each verse gave me reasons to pause and think about the best approach.

As my readers know, I don’t give a fig about translations provided they’re reasonably readable. I know, I know, it’s a time-honoured pastime of the English-language blogosphere to bemoan translations and make feeble vows to learn foreign languages to go read all the books in the world in their 6000+ languages; and when reading translations, to fuss about the precious minutia that inevitably ruins them. I couldn’t care less, but when in Rome… so for once I’m going to pretend I’m a finicky reader who gets nothing out of a translation save the pleasure of belabouring the finer points of languages.

Our corpus will be the Dirty Poem’s opening section, posted here in the original:

turvo turvo
a turva
mão do sopro
contra o muro
escuro
menos menos
menos que escuro
menos que mole e duro menos que fosso e muro: menos que furo
            escuro
            mais que escuro:
            claro
como água? como pluma? claro mais que claro claro: coisa alguma
            e tudo
            (ou quase)
um bicho que o universo fabrica e vem sonhando desde as entranhas
            azul
era o gato
azul
era o galo
azul
o cavalo
azul
o teu cu

In Portuguese this is a beautiful opening full of delicate cadences, not just because of the rhymes (escuro, muro, duro, furo) but the well-positioned repetition of words, and also the lightness of the words themselves, all so short, mostly composed of two or three syllables. Sadly in a translation the rhymes go out the window immediately. Nothing to do about that. Let us move on.

When Gullar was idealizing the poem, he decided it was going to start from before the existence of language, an impossible feat. But let us see what strategies he used to navigate that impossibility. This is my translation of the opening:


            turbid turbid
            the turbid
            blowing hand
            against the wall
            dark
            less less
            less than dark
less than soft and hard less than pit and wall: less than hole
            dark
            more than dark:
            clear
like water? like a plume? Clear more than clear clear: some thing
            and all
            (or almost)
a critter the universe fabricates and comes dreaming since the entrails
            blue
            was the cat
            blue
            was the cock
            blue
            was the horse
            blue
            was your ass

Now turvo is not a very common word in Portuguese, so I figured the equally awkward turbid was a good fit, not least because it starts with a t and has the same number of syllables. I could have used dark, but then I’d need another synonym for dark, and the sound of the word black doesn’t work here, to my ears anyway, not to mention it lacks the right connotations. Black is a colour; but when one thinks of dark, one thinks of the primordial darkness, the darkness before the creation, which is exactly what Gullar is trying to express here, the mysterious nothing before universe and language existed. So dark seemed like a better choice.

Now I was quite lucky that the English words were short like in the original. There’s only one word I’m dissatisfied with; I preferred an alternative to cock, because it’s misleading: the reader won’t be sure if it’s the bird or the penis; since the last verse ends with ass, the reader is forgiven for incorrectly thinking the latter. In fact this anticipates and ruins the effect of the last verse of what so far had been a very un-dirty poem. Unfortunately rooster sounded too long to be used, not to mention it prevented alliteration between cock and cat. But so far these are minor quibbles.

The problems increased when I started thinking about the order of the words. Portuguese and English have different syntaxes. In Portuguese you can write an adjective before or after a noun without the sentence’s meaning changing (save some exceptions), whereas in English an adjective can only be placed after a noun in very specific contexts. So things become turbid when we think of the best way to translate:

menos que mole e duro menos que fosso e muro: menos que furo
            escuro

less than soft and hard less than pit and wall: less than hole
            dark

Now first of all we have to determine if furo and escuro form a noun phrase (furo escuro, with furo as the head), or if menos que furo constitutes, er, I’m not sure but I think an adjective phrase (my English linguistics is so rusty you can get tetanus from exposure to this post; Chomsky’s generative grammar was always my nemesis at the university) and escuro a sentence by itself. This is of the utmost importance because it completely changes the order and meaning of the poem. If furo escuro is a noun phrase then we need to translate it as:

less than soft and hard less than pit and wall: less than a dark
            hole

But if escuro is a sentence, then my choice is correct. The problem is that the poem in Portuguese can be read in both ways, and at the same time. Escuro there can be an adjective modifying furo at the same time it’s a noun that means darkness. And, as we can see in the next lines, the poem plays with this polysemic ambiguity. Let’s consider:

escuro
menos menos
menos que escuro
menos que mole e duro menos que fosso e muro: menos que furo
            escuro

dark
            less less
            less than dark
less than soft and hard less than pit and wall: less than hole
            dark

The dark in less than dark can be both an adjective and a noun. The poem itself uses this polysemy in the next verse, in which it repeats the same syntactic construction for adjectives (less than soft and hard) and nouns (less than pit and wall). So less than dark(ness) is perhaps the most correct option since it expresses both possibilities simultaneously, but it’s unaesthetic.

We have another problem, one of repetition and form. If we had written dark hole instead, we’d have:

dark
            less less
            less than dark
less than soft and hard less than pit and wall: less than a dark
            hole
more than dark:
            clear

And this would have disrupted the formal harmony between the four uses of the word dark.

We have a similar problem with

contra o muro
escuro

against the wall
dark
           
because it can actually be a dark wall, in which case we’d have to write:

against the dark
            wall

Again I preferred to write

against the wall
dark

because of the position of the word dark in relation to the other uses of the same word. The salient point here is that English, by its own syntactic nature, has to make a decision and preclude the other possibility. It’s either-or. Either it’s a dark wall, or it’s just a wall and dark constitutes an independent sentence. It can’t be both. In Portuguese it can. This deliberate ambiguity resides in the fabric of the poem. It becomes even more ambiguous if we give in to the temptation to insert punctuation, capital letters and articles, in which case the first verse can have multiple meanings:

[O] turvo, [o] turvo (Turbidness, turbidness)

Turvo turvo (Turbid turbidness)

Turvo. Turvo. (Turbid. Turbid.)

Turvo, turvo, (Turbid, turbid,)

Turvo, [eu] turvo (Turbid, I muddy)
a turva (the turbid)
mão do sopro (blowing hand)

[Eu] turvo, turvo (I muddy, muddy)
a turva (the turbid)
mão do sopro (blowing hand)

The form of the word turvo serves for adjective, noun and verb. Now I think we can eliminate the last two hypotheses since the I doesn’t exist yet at this point in the poem’s cosmogonic vision. The I can’t predate the nothing, it can’t come before language is invented, and more importantly it can’t exist without individuation, which doesn’t occur until the poem starts enumerating animal species.

The first hypothesis is also far-fetched. Portuguese, unlike English, generally uses articles before nouns. Whereas in English we say, War is hell, in Portuguese we say A guerra é um inferno. Notice that we added a definite article to war and an indefinite article to hell. So if Gullar didn’t put the male singular definite article o in the text, it’s likely he didn’t mean it in this sense, unless he were making a conscious rupture with traditional grammar rules. I consider it only for the sake of thoroughness.

The second hypothesis is also unlikely, although it works by contrast with claro claro, which can also mean clear clarity. Indeed this redundant exaggeration helps heighten the essence of the darkness and clarity in question here. It’s not just darkness and light, it’s the original concepts at their purest. How to describe the darkness before anything was? And the big bang? This technique of repetition and exaggeration tries to supplant the limitations of language to describe what can’t be described.

I, however, have found objections to this possibility. I think adjectives are of tremendous importance in this opening in the sense that they’re denied their traditional modifying role. Few of the adjectives have clear nouns to modify. For instance, soft and hard, what do they refer to? Or clear in

clear
like water? like a plume?

What is the first part of this simile? What is the thing that may be clear like water and a plume? The text leaves it out. In fact I judged the order of the words on the realization that most of the adjectives here do not refer to anything concrete. What is less than dark and/or more than dark? What is being compared here? Again, that information is missing. That’s why I don’t think dark wall and dark hole make sense, because they contradict this deliberate indefiniteness. It’s also why I chose to translate claro mais que claro claro as

clear more than clear clear

and not

clear clearer than clear clear

or even

more clear than clear clear

Let’s see why. As readers we automatically add punctuation to the poem. We have to keep in mind the meaning changes depending on the punctuation. To my mind there’s a comma between clear and more, meaning I in fact read it as:

clear, more than clear, clear

Why do I favour this option over the other two? Options two and three contain comparisons. If we go back to the text, we’ll notice this verse is preceded by broken comparisons: … like water… like a plume. We don’t know what the first part is. Suddenly we have this comparison, light against light. And we have to ask ourselves, what has changed in the poem? Without warning the poem transitions from early muddiness to high definition. Finally something in the universe exists that can be compared to something else, even if it’s only an ethereal substance like light. But is it the right moment? Because next we have some thing. And this is a big moment in the poem. This is the poem’s second unambiguous noun phrase. Prior to it there was only turbid blowing hand, appropriate of course because this is a metaphor for the original creative gesture that pierces through the primordial darkness and sets creation in motion. But then the poem remains undefined for a few more verses. Remember, what is clear like water? And like a plume? Is dark modifying wall and hole? What is less and/or more than dark? Questions without answers, vagueness everywhere. I had to think, after dark, blowing hand, which would be the second adjective to modify a noun in the poem? Because this isn’t an idle question, it’s the heart of the poem’s meaning! The second use of a modifying adjective is actually some thing, with some and thing being undetermined: no number, no sex, a universe in formation still. We have to follow the poem’s thematic line of thought. It starts with darkness, then something disrupting the darkness, then a flash of light, and finally something coming into existence. That’s why clear clearer than clear clear and more clear than clear clear cannot work. The comparison in clear clearer than clear clear signifies that things exist in the universe that can be compared. Using light in a comparison is admitting its existence, which steals the poignancy of some thing. Light is already something, meaning that it’s not some thing that is created, but something else besides light. Light is already too defined to move up to some thing. That’s why I prefer to keep the translation as clear more than clear clear. That way some thing takes primacy, and finally we arrive at blue. In case you didn’t notice, blue is the first adjective in the poem to be used as a predicative adjective in blue was the cat. Things start taking shape, form, colour, species individualize.

It’s also of the utmost importance to the comprehension of the poem to consider for a moment use of metaphors in the opening. There is one metaphor that I can identify, the turbid blowing hand, which as we’ve seen before stands for the creative principle. In fact we have more similes than metaphors. And this is relevant too. A metaphor implies an identification between two things, whereas a simile maintains both things in their separate universes. A metaphor is intimate; a simile, superficial. Indeed the metaphor refers to the essence of a thing, whereas a simile only accentuates a passing resemblance. Even the poem’s similes, however, are half-formed. There’s something that is clear like water and a plume, although we don’t know what. The metaphors really start coming hard after the opening, when the poet has moved past the pre-verbal time and starts plucking images from his memories and imagination.

Finally we can’t overlook the role of verbs in the opening. The first verb shows up in the fifteenth verse: fabricates. To fabricate, cognate of the Latin fabricar, which is also the form of the Portuguese verb. I could have used the more common to construct, but preferred to remain faithful to the original sound. So we have a poem that starts in a formless dark void before language, and the first verb refers to an act of creation, and not just any creation, but of the human species. The second verb of note is the gerund form of the verb to dream (we’re deliberately ignoring the verb to come, which is used here for syntactic rather than thematic reasons), so we have one verb that contains physical properties, another one that is related to our inner existence. What could complete this trinity? The verb to be, used in a list of predicates. For the first time in the poem we have a verb that individualizes each being.

So what we learn from this remarkable analysis is that Ferreira Gullar uses words in the poem in very specific ways. We see the careful use of verbs, we see him limiting the role of adjectives, in fact denying their purpose. Adjectives give properties and features to things, distinguish them from inert matter, they’re a way of us constructing reality through language. So we can appreciate the deliberate progression, from the first adjectiveless verses, to an adjective of indefinite features (some) and finally to a visual one (blue) grounded on our senses. Likewise the verbs follow a similar line of thought. Unfortunately we lack the time to explore the rest of the poem, but the reader may rest assured it’s equally dense. In fact so dense I think I’m going to learn Portuguese to read it in the original instead of a choppy translation.

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