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Leland Guyer on Translating Ferreira Gullar’s Concrete Poetry

Ferreira Gullar —poet, artist, intellectual and art critic— was born in Brazil in 1930. His writings —from his first major collection of poems published in 1954 to his Concrete and Neoconcrete work published between 1957 and 1959— are considered essential within the history of Brazilian and Latin American literature, and have greatly influenced generations of artists. In his country, Ferreira Gullar is considered a true cultural hero.

In this interview, the translator of his poetic work, Leland Guyer, talks about the challenges and rewards of the translator’s job, and specifically, about his work related to Gullar’s poetry and the admiration that the poet’s work incites. Guyer, author of the first complete translation of Gullar’s Poema sujo [Dirty Poem] —generally regarded as one of last century’s most important works of poetry that has been written in Latin America— says of Gullar: «Gullar’s poetry struck me with its power, creativity, lyric values, humanity, and social engagement…my primary motivation to translate Gullar’s work derived from a number of qualities that resonated strongly with me from my first encounter with it. I particularly enjoy the vigorous lyric qualities of his verse, his powerful force of memory in his work, his wonderfully evocative imagery, the Brazilianness of his themes, his elevation of simple things and events to sublime levels, the range of styles in his creative arc, and the keen-eyed honesty that I sense in whatever he writes.»

For Guyer, ongoing debates about literary translation explore the basic question about what exactly is translation: «Is it writing? Re-writing? Re-creation? Creation of an original, but perhaps secondary work? Close reading and criticism? A version? An imitation? A performance? I favor the latter, that translation is an interpretation or performance. As such, a smear of the performer is bound to appear on the face of the thing performed, intentional or not.»

This interview was conducted by Carrie Cooperider, Editor at the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.



Ferreira Gullar, 2010. Foto por Ariel Jiménez


How did you choose to translate Ferreira Gullar’s poetry?

I completed a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures in 1979, with a specialization in 19th and 20th century Luso-Brazilian literatures at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I wrote a dissertation on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a 20th century modernist writer who in recent years has been received into the post-modern pantheon.

Later, when I began teaching Portuguese at the University of Chicago I quickly learned that my students hungered not for the heavy dose of classic Portuguese literature that I favored at the time, but for language and culture with a contemporary Brazilian perspective, and not exclusively literary. I decided to try to meet their expectations and shifted my focus to the literature, music, art, cinema, as well as social movements and current events of Brazil. In addition and, to the extent that I was able, I changed my Portuguese pronunciation, diction and grammar to reflect better someone from Rio de Janeiro than from Lisbon. In all this I believe I was reasonably successful, while not giving up on modernist Portuguese poetry nor on the sidebar discussions that addressed the contrasts of Portuguese and Brazilian dialects. My position at UC came to an end after three years during a period when academic employment to my liking was hard to find. Rather than accept the poor choices available at the time, and having saved enough to see me through the next round of academic hires, I chose to devote a year of residence, travel and study in the area that had become my strongest interest — Brazil.

Traveling around Brazil in 1982, the name Ferreira Gullar was prominent in all of the major bookstores, although I was unfamiliar with his work. In fact, his Toda Poesia [All the Poetry], the kind of compilation that is usually prepared only for a major writer, caught my attention as a body of poetry that I was late in coming to know. Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda wrote in the preface to the volume that Ferreira Gullar is the “only great poet of our day,” and quoted Vinícius de Morais as saying that Gullar is the “last great Brazilian poet.” He added that only one other contemporary Brazilian writer can approach Gullar’s “singularity and importance,” and that is João Guimarães Rosa, a writer of extraordinary prose fiction who is still little known in the U.S. Gullar’s poetry struck me with its power, creativity, lyric values, humanity, and social engagement. While I found the entire book compelling reading, I was at the time most taken by his Poema Sujo [Dirty Poem].

At about 100 pages long, Dirty Poem is an anomaly in Brazil and such a long poem seems almost inconceivable in the United States today. Nevertheless, it is known and read and loved all over Brazil for its daring, its complexity, its beauty, its grit, its verisimilitude, and its charity. It has been studied in countless articles, monographs, and presentations, and is still arguably his most significant work. Gullar wrote Dirty Poem in 1975 in Buenos Aires while he was in political exile, undocumented, separated from his family, fearing for his life, and feeling that it was his “last will and testament.”

I had translated shorter prose and poetry by other authors before I encountered Dirty Poem, but because of the latter’s sheer scope and beauty and, not knowing of any other translation of the work, and not immediately recognizing its complexity, I rather brashly chose to attempt a translation of the work to English. I made several translated versions of the poem, each one reflecting a deeper reading of the original and differing markedly from the previous translation. It was only after several years of off and on work with this poem that I felt that I comprehended the work sufficiently to attempt a translation that did justice to the original.

By then the translation had presented enough questions to me, however, that it seemed time to meet the author. In 1985 I proposed to Gullar a meeting to discuss the poem, the translation, and the circumstances that led to his writing the work. Gullar invited me into his home on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro for the interview. He was gracious, accessible, generous with his time, and responsive to any and all questions regarding his life and work. He encouraged me to complete the translation and offered whatever help I might need. The background he provided enlightened my reading of the work and enhanced the translation immensely. In addition, the information and introspection that he offered on his life and work amid the creative, turbulent and politically dangerous 1960s and 70s in Brazil were so compelling that I prepared my notes on the meeting as an interview that Discurso Literario published in 1987.

After perhaps six years of constant tinkering did I think that this immensely important work was in any condition to share with others. In 1990 University Press of America accepted and published my bilingual edition of Poema Sujo / Dirty Poem. Little did I know at the time that this was not the end of my involvement with Ferreira Gullar’s poetry, including Dirty Poem.

Of poetry’s formal qualities were some more important than others to consider in translating Gullar’s poetry?

There was a time when I felt comfortable speaking about prosody in Romance languages. Today, however, were I to try to address some of the formal qualities of Gullar’s verse in specific and technical ways, I would no doubt reveal a blurred sense of a devilishly complex business. I would be asking for trouble. With this disclaimer, I can turn to some rather more casual observations of Gullar’s poetry, with special emphasis on the works that I have translated.

The short answer to your question is that in translation all aspects of a work are important and that a translator must try to deal with everything possible to the extent that doing so does not damage the poem. To this I would add that where a reasonable solution eludes the translator, sometimes a compensatory equivalent might be inserted nearby. Failing in this, and only then, would a footnote, calque, or explicatory word or phrase be allowable. The question does, however, raise a number of corollary answers that I might append to this cursory response.

Since Gullar makes frequent but not always conventional or even predictable use the kinds of diction we call formal qualities, and perhaps especially because of this unpredictability it all appears material to me. What stands out more in this regard, especially in most of his later poetry, is the relatively infrequent appearance of rhyme, meter, and the like when these features can lend a special and appropriate effect.

Some of his earlier poetry is marked by exercises in traditional forms, such as the roundel and the Italian and English sonnet, complete with expected rhyme schemes, but the vast majority of his later poetry is free verse. Nevertheless, rhymes, rhythms, onomatopoeia, invented words, unusually placed lines, lines of odd lengths, “concrete” poetic conventions, and more pepper Gullar’s free verse.

I have translated but not submitted for review or publication some of Gullar’s poetry written in traditional stanzaic forms. Because this form of expression is relatively rare in his body of work, I chose to observe his choice of form and wrestle them into comparable rhymes and traditional meter. While I enjoyed the exercise and think the translations are pretty successful, I did have to alter the flow of image and idea to make the poems work. Some would question whether the translator has the right to make such alterations and would specifically decry the rearrangements I made. There has been for many years a lively debate about whether one should even attempt to rhyme in translation. The crux of the issue seems to be whether trying to duplicate rhyme and meter does too much damage to the rest of the poetry to be worth the risk. I admire those who do not shrink from the task of rhyming, as well as giving due diligence to the translation of felicitous word choice and appropriate figurative language.

As I have suggested, I have preferred working with Gullar’s free verse, recognizing and attempting the translation of exact and slant rhymes, alliteration, rhythms, puns, and such, whenever they are present, and whenever I recognize them. Sometimes, however, an author’s linguistic inventions are so complex as to defy adequate translation, and at that point the translator must consider retreat.

A Portuguese philosopher/poet and friend, Manuel dos Santos Lourenço, better known as M.S. Lourenço, was curious about translating to Portuguese Finnegans Wake, the difficult final novel of James Joyce. In the end, he chose instead to translate merely the novel’s first page as an introduction to an article on the feasibility of translating such a complex work. Faced with the complexity of a trying to translate a poem of invented words and wordplay such as Gullar’s “Roçzeiral” has repeatedly left me with the same conundrum that faced my friend. Instead of attempting a full translation of such a knotty exercise, I satisfy myself by nibbling at the edges of the concept and do not shy away entirely from lesser forays into translating occasional wordplays. An example of this is in the poem “Requiem para Gullar” in which his “sezo acexo” becomes “sef axire” (suggesting “sex afire”) in my translation. Maybe one day I’ll have a go at translating “Roçzeiral.”

One of the more interesting challenges of translating Dirty Poem was the portion that evokes a childhood journey the author took with his father through the Northeastern sertão. In it he seeks to convey the rhythms, sounds, and movement of the train as the train ride commences, advances through the landscape, and arrives at its destination, with sidebar instructions for the words to be sung to the tune of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ piece popularly called “Little Train of the Caipira.” Finding words in English that coincided with the Portuguese words and the esthetic used to suggest onomatopoeically the sound of the train were not as difficult as preserving the rhythm of the words and the shape of the lines. In any case, the translation of the “Little Train” pages was a pleasant task, and I think the result is successful.

English consists of many more monosyllabic words than Portuguese, and in your translation of the concrete poem consisting of the words “mel, lậmina, sol, laranja”—which in a literal translation might be honey, blade, sun, orange—you instead translate them into four monosyllabic and alliterative English words: “balm, blade, beam, burn”. In this way, you recreate the balance of the Portuguese words, two of which are trisyllabic, and the other two, monosyllabic, as well as capture the playfulness of repeated sounds; in Portuguese, it’s ‘l’ that appears in each word; in English, all four begin with the plosive ‘b’. As a result, to my ear, the words sound speedier, perhaps more aggressive in English than in Gullar’s original. What are some of the other structural differences between Portuguese and English that affected your translation of Gullar’s poetry?

The poem you refer to belongs to Gullar’s brief but intense involvement in the Neoconcrete movement, begun in the 1950s in Brazil. It is not my intention here to give anything but passing mention of the movement, but I will say that it was interdisciplinary and included painting, sculpture, etching, and poetry, as well as theoretical manifestos and a great deal of spirited criticism. At its heart was an attempt to recognize the value of Concrete poetry and to move it forward along new esthetic lines.I haven’t translated much of Gullar’s Neoconcrete poetry. Much of it defies translation and, since the linguistic barriers presented by this poetry are often not great to non-Portuguese speakers, I have generally chosen to leave them in their original state and hope that interested readers will sort out the conceptual difficulties on their own. The Neoconcrete poems that I have translated were either fairly easy, or at least feasible exercises. An example is the following poem and its translation:


verde         verde         verde                                     green         green       green

verde         verde         verde                                     green         green       green

verde         verde         verde                                     green         green       green

verde         verde         verde         erva                    green         green       green       grass


The translation of “verde verde verde” comes right out of a dictionary, the likes of which we wouldn’t be surprised to see in any computer-generated translation. Straightforward, but not so bad. The word “verde” is a powerful and suggestive word and color that appears often in Gullar’s work. Such a common word needs a common translation, and I am glad that the simplest solution works. The small word “erva” seems to escape, as if with a sigh, from the boxed, as if confining, array of repeated utterances of “verde.” Likewise, the repetition of “green” suggests many associations with life and growth, from which “grass” also breaks free from the monotony of confined abstraction, slipping free in the end almost as silently as “erva,” but with a slight sibilant that I rather like. Also, where “erva” repeats several of the vowels and consonants found in “verde,” “grass” repeats two of the consonants in “green.” In addition, “grass,” with its lingering sound and double “s” mirrors somewhat the long double “e” in “green.” I offer this as an example of, perhaps, an effective use of compensation.

Returning to your original question, translating the poem that begins “mel lâmina sol laranja” presented reasonable but not insuperable challenges in my view. I could easily have begun the poem as “honey lamina sun orange,” and, uninteresting as it would have been, there might have been no challenge. But I approached it from many angles and word choices and settled on the “balm blade beams burns” sequence, knowing full well that it was not the only, or even the best solution. The only thing I was sure of was that it would catch readers’ attention.

It has become something of a cliché to say that translation is by necessity a series of compromises, and that when the translator fails at one point he or she may try to make up for the failure elsewhere. In this case the solution that I chose fit a view of what the original spoke to me, and it satisfied me, even though it was quite different from the original. Of course most translations are at least partial failures, despite our best efforts. That’s why we keep re-translating both ancient and modern classics.

I still like not only the plosive “b’s” for the associations that sol (the sun) has with the assertive words that suggest piercing and burning rays. I also think they are adequate to convey warmth and comfort, and light that can mean soft illumination or even a pictorial image of projecting rays of light, precisely as Gullar arranges the lines. I like the “b’s” also for their association of the unspoken “ball” form of the sun (sol) and orange (laranja) and even the form a drop of honey (mel) can assume.

As for the “aggressive” nature of the plosives, I thought the word “balm” could attenuate the stronger “blade” and suggest the Janus-like duality of the sun, at once both anodyne and severe. And, in my defense, when I speak the words aloud I find nothing staccato about them. In fact, I find it hard to say them quickly or sharply. My mind and voice prefer to linger over the sounds, which hang in the air a moment while the mouth forms the shape necessary to begin another “b” sound.

On the other hand, as I revisit the poem I see a lazy array of lines that extend almost laterally from the “sun,” the near physical center of the poem. I also see a rather more languid diction of liquid consonants in lâmina and laranja that are consistent with that rather benign originating sun Gullar may suggest. My problem with observing this shade of tone in English was to reconcile the rhythm I read in the original with the words in English that I had at my command. No doubt there is an equally good, and probably better, solution to the problem I faced. Indeed, these challenges are what attract me to translation. Every translation I have ever made is a work in progress and a constant niggling companion. Perhaps I could sleep better at night if I could craft a definitive translation, one that I knew was perfect.

If the reader of these words has been so patient as to arrive at this point, he or she at least deserves to have a look and determine whether I’m making any sense at all.


mel                                                                                                                             laranja

lâmina                                                                          mel

                                                            sol       lâmina

                                                            laranja       mel

                        sol                                                                          laranja

lâmina                                                                                                                                 sol


balm                                                                                                                              burns

                        blade                                                                            balm

                                                            beams     blade

                                                            burns      balm

                        beams                                                                          burns

blade                                                                                                                               beams


Do you think that Gullar’s reading of French poetry (in French) informs the language he uses when he writes in Portuguese? Does being multilingual bring a corollary dexterity and flexibility in writing in one’s native tongue? Does reading work in translation in one’s mother tongue add to the sense of possibility of language?

My background in French poetry is limited. I have some familiarity with 19th and 20th centuries French classics, but I have not tried to trace any poem or sensibility in Gullar’s work to any specific French author or style, except to mention some commonly referred to precursors to his eye-catching Neoconcrete poetry, such as Ezra Pound, Guillaume Apolinnaire, E.E. Cummings, and Lewis Carroll wrote from time to time. Gullar’s poetry is powerfully Brazilian in many of the themes that he treats, in the regional vocabulary and locales that he uses, and in the sometimes raw and usually vigorous New World manner of writing that has appeared so frequently in much of North, Central and South American literature in the last couple of hundred years. At the same time, Gullar’s poetry is crafted in a style that would not surprise a French pupil or any other more or less cosmopolitan reader around the world.

Being multilingual probably does give a writer or translator some extra tools to use, for better or worse. I can imagine that deep exposure to several languages can lead to certain phrasings, neologisms, syntax, and the like, which might not occur to a translator working from a source language in which he or she is not thoroughly steeped. Conversely, I can also imagine someone so familiar with say, Portuguese, that awkward and odd phrasing might emerge that could give an unintended tone not apparent in the original and distractingly out of place in the target language. Some might contend that this kind of oddness is not inappropriate, as it might impart a sense of foreignness, adding another dimension to the reading. Most, however, would argue that to apply a layer of exoticism to the language is inappropriate, unwarranted, and usually unsuccessful.

Still, there is an appeal in the exotic, which is in large part why we make and read translations. To wander in foreign texts translated to languages we comprehend can be in many ways comparable to the act of travel. So, it seems that an exotic tone can have two sides to it, ranging from unsatisfactory to enlightening. Compromise, contradiction, and ambiguity are often fellow travelers in translation. It’s better to do what reads and sounds right than to be bound to theoretical constraints.

Do you find it important to read the poetry you translate aloud?

Some writers and translators must have exquisite eye-ear coordination, if I may, and if they exist they are lucky, indeed. I, however, require reading aloud the translated piece. Since so much of literature depends on the sound and sense continuum, reading aloud seems to me as integral to creating and experiencing the original as to making and experiencing the translation. I can’t imagine the times that a careful reading aloud has led me to a new awareness of a poem or a passage, which has led to alterations in word choice, position, and rhythm. Besides, it’s just fun to perform the piece aloud, even if only to oneself.

Even though Gullar’s language is “simple” and he speaks of the everyday in his poetry, it is far from a simple matter to create a translation that remains true to the subtleties and complexities inherent in the work; its connotations and hidden history—to forge something that is faithful to the original without stumbling on the literal. You do that beautifully; to take one example (no doubt you have your favorites), in the poem Un homem ri (A Man Laughs) the first line, in Portuguese, begins, “Ele ria da cintura para cima….” You have translated it as, “He was laughing from his belly to his brows….” Which retains not only the sense of the original meaning, the alliteration of “cintura..cima” but also the basic scansion of the line (the Portuguese has one final unstressed syllable, it’s true, but essentially they are rhythmically alike).

Gullar’s language does, for the most part, appear simple. With the exception of a relatively few enigmatic poems, words, and phrases, the reader need not spend a lot of time sorting out arcane language or conceits in his poetry. That is not to say that his poetry lacks profundity, but it is a profundity that is not unnecessarily cloaked. But the “subtleties and complexities” in his work, which are at the heart of some of his profundity, are not always simple to translate to another language.

I haven’t often sought Gullar’s help with difficulties, but when I have done so his assistance has saved me both time and embarrassment. Dirty Poem brims with references to meaningful places in his childhood city of São Luís, in the state of Maranhão. I made two fairly extensive visits to São Luís to get a feel for the humid equatorial Brazilian coast that he poeticizes so powerfully. Equally important was to be able to put a face on the many place names in the poem. The Praça João Lisboa, the Fonte Ribeirão, the Fonte do Bispo, the Ponta da Areia, the many named streets and avenues, the rivers Anil, Bacanga, and Azul, and the Tanque Caga-Osso are just a fraction of the places in Dirty Poem that I wanted to see and explore.

The last one, Gullar told me, is a childish corruption of the real name Tanque Cagliostro, or the Cagliostro Cistern. Knowing this suggested that I might diverge from my usual habit of neither translating place names nor footnoting unless for good reason and indulge in the scatological equivalent in English: “the Shits Bones Cistern.” There are other slang meanings of caga-osso, which include a “scrawny person,” or “brown-noser” or other similarly mild invectives, but the adolescent attraction to bathroom humor to which Gullar refers was an opportunity I could not resist in my second translation of Dirty Poem.

There are so many other culturally and geographically specific words and terms that reflect a kind of challenge to translation that, were I to attempt to enumerate, there would hardly be an end to the list. So allow me to mention just two more very simple words with which I have wrestled and have still not found a satisfactory translation. They are boi [ox, steer] and cachaça [sugar cane liquor, something like rum].

When I think of the words “ox” and “steer,” I think of ponderous, well-fed beasts of burden and the fattened beef on the hoof munching on the prairies or in feed lots of Texas and Nebraska. To translate boi as either ox or steer creates an image in my mind that is inconsistent with the often underfed and thirsty animal that is so common in Gullar’s Brazilian Northeast and accompanies the hardscrabble existence of the human dweller of the semi-arid sertão. The boi is also a revered image that figures in a kind of morality play in the Bumba Meu Boi festivals that occur throughout Brazil, particularly popular in São Luís. I would like to leave the word alone and not translate it, but in the end I settle for “ox.” I like its short and somewhat odd sound and appearance in English, and hope that the reader will one day travel to São Luís to view the boi nordestino and the Bumba Meu Boi festival, which is observed sporadically from late June to early August.

Cachaça is an alcoholic drink made from fermented and distilled sugar cane pulp. It is uniquely Brazilian and does not have the same market penetration outside of Brazil that, say, rum has in the United States. Indeed, it is a relatively rare person who knows cachaça outside of Brazil. While until recently the consumption of inexpensive cachaça has been associated mostly with the Brazilian lower classes, despite the fact that cachaça has been the basis of what might be called the Brazilian national cocktail, the caipirinha, a diminutive form of caipira, which means country hick, hillbilly, yokel, peasant, etc. In recent years there has been a great deal of interest in developing a taste for unadulterated cachaça, in much the way Mexican tequila producers have been developing premium brands of the drink for sophisticated imbibers of their national drink. Still cachaça, when taken neat, is more often associated with people who cannot afford finer alcoholic beverages. It is also wrapped up in the practice of Afro-Brazilian religious expressions such as Macumba and Candomblé. In short, I believe cachaça is a word best left alone in a translation. Just as the Spanish fiesta, rodeo, reata, pueblo, to name but a few of the linguistic torrent that has crossed the border into English, inevitably cachaça one day will be as well known as grapa and ouzo. Until such time as the term is better known in English, a word with such a cultural intimacy just doesn’t translate well as a generic “sugar cane liquor” or, worse yet, “white lightning,” and should probably be left in Portuguese.

There are other words, too, that appear regularly and that in my mind defy an adequate translation that both conveys an accurate dictionary meaning as well as implied cultural significance. As boi and cachaça, other words that have given me pause are babaçu, oitizeiro, Baixinha, usina, and quitanda, all words wrapped up in regional and personal meanings that simple solutions do not immediately come to mind. Historical references in a work such as Dirty Poem also create complications that sometimes require that the reader consult a footnote or another book to approximate the understanding that a Brazilian Northeasterner would understand without effort.

In another poem, Jarro na mesa (Vase on the Table) you have translated the word ‘jarro’ as ‘vase’ instead of ‘jar’ or ‘crock’ and I wondered about that choice: jar or crock would seem more in keeping with the humble feeling of the place being described, but since the word appears three times at the end of a line in that poem, I’m assuming that your choice was made because the sound of ‘vase’ is preferable.

One of the many features of Gullar’s poetry that I enjoy most is its frequent focus on the humble. It can evoke images and emotions and memories in the reader that are hard to ignore, especially if the images resonate with the reader’s own experience. It is quite possible that I have made an error of judgment in this poem, and as I revisit the poem I suspect that my own memory may have exerted some pull, again, for better or worse.

Having grown up in post WWII U.S. in sporadic contact with rural life, I keenly and fondly recall the juxtaposition of live chickens and old doilies, wood stoves and china, modest surroundings and optimistic good cheer and the like in my grandmother’s home. Cut flowers in a glass vase set on a dusty doily in my her kitchen next to a window looking out on the barnyard was a small affordable luxury that did not seem inconsistent with her status then nor does it now. Nor is it inconsistent in rural Brazil. People of limited means, whether rural or urban, seek small luxuries. But I digress from the poem itself.

I certainly considered other possibilities, particularly “jar” or “pot,” but I think I went with “vase” because it went well with my own experience. I could extend the self-examination further by my translation of “uma toalha de brim / bordada de linha” as “crocheted doily.” “Toalha” can mean “table cloth,” “wash cloth,” and “bath/beach towel,” but not really “doily.” “Brim” is a coarse cloth, like “denim” or “twill.” And “bordada de linha” would be “embroidered [with thread].” I could have translated the lines as “Beneath the jar / is a rough embroidered cloth,” which would have worked. Adding to this, I would point out that the vase/jar is “na boca da terra” [at the mouth of the earth], which reminds the reader of the origin of the (perhaps earthenware) jar. Were I to translate the poem again, I would probably opt for an image of a jar on a rough piece of embroidered cloth, because it seems to be the more correct interpretation, and the words work as well, if not better, than the ones I put to paper.

Continuing debates about translation explore the basic question about what translation really is. Is it writing? Re-writing? Re-creation? Creation of an original, but perhaps secondary work? Close reading and criticism? A version? An imitation? A performance? I favor the latter, that translation is an interpretation or performance. As such, a smear of the performer is bound to appear on the face of the thing performed, intentional or not.

I imagine that any translation has to ‘cook’ for a while, and that some lines are more obdurate than others. Can you describe some of the thornier instances in translating Gullar’s poems and how you arrived at solutions that pleased you?

Cooking is indeed a part of the process. Everyone reads, comprehends, and reacts to a poem differently from another. And I would add that each person might have a different experience on some level with each reading. The first draft of a translation is rarely the final draft. With each subsequent encounter with the poem and its translation it is likely that the translator will discover new things, correct misinterpretations, find better choices of words, and/or confirm first impressions. Though the source text doesn’t change, over weeks, months, or years the translator may well have a dramatically different experience in a new encounter with the work that may be enlightening, satisfying, or perhaps deflating. The more time that passes, one by necessity acquires knowledge and experience, rejects prior understanding, and generally lives into a new body and consciousness.

Simmering can also have an unintended result from looking at the translation too much so that one’s personal vision may supplant the author’s design. This may have occurred in “Jarro na mesa,” where instead of opting for the more obvious choice I chose what merged from my past and what sounded better to me at the time, and perhaps still does.
On the other hand, if one has enough time, a tough line or reference may almost resolve itself. Perhaps in the form of information gleaned from the Internet — a resource unavailable when I began translating Gullar. Perhaps an epiphany may surface to give guidance. Generally, however, one finds a solution to a tough word or line or rhyme through trial and error, tenacity and, finally, the willingness to concede that there is a limit to one’s abilities and to be satisfied with the best result at hand.

So, rather than continuing to dodge the question, and rather than offering a safe example of a translation that eluded me, and that finally surrendered to my efforts, I offer a translation to which I alluded earlier and for which there would be as many translations are there are translators. It comes from Gullar’s Dirty Poem, and it relates a childhood journey by train that the author took with his father. Gullar placed instructions in a sidebar that the words should be sung to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 — Toccata (O Trenzinho do Caipira).

I didn’t know Villa-Lobos’ piece when I first read the poem, and I didn’t attempt a translation without listening carefully to it. Over time I learned to accompany a recording of the piece with a reading of the original, eventually managing to coordinate the beginning and end of the poem’s portion with the beginning and end of the music. The segment to which I refer consists of 414 words and invented words arranged in an array of stanzas, totaling 136 lines. There are stanzas comprised of eight-syllable alternating consonant rhymes, stanzas with monorhyming eight-syllable lines, unrhymed couplets, onomatopoeic words chosen to mimic the sound of the train as it accelerates, cruises, decelerates, and stops, and an arrangement of words and sounds on the page to remind the reader not only of the motions, sounds and rhythms of the train but also of the experimental Neoconcrete poetry with which we associate some of Gullar’s poetry of the late 1950s.

As I mentioned, translators often do not attempt to mimic the syllabification and rhyme of the original in their translation. Rhyme, rhythm, and onomatopoeia in this part of the poem, however, is so insistent and so much a part of effect that it would not have been right to ignore them. In the end I observed rhyme where and how I found it, and I replicated the rhythms that I discerned within the section. I did not replicate the exact number of syllables in each line, nor did I impose an Anglo-centric metrical beat of iambs, trochees, or what have you. Instead I sought a freer form of rhythmic speech that observes Gullar’s cadence, simple rhymes and sounds, which vary in the same way that a train’s movement and sound might as it crosses a landscape.

Just to give a brief example of this portion of the poem, below I reproduce a copy of the original last few lines of the train sequence as the journey slows to a stop and emits a hiss, followed by my translation:


café com pão

                        bolacha não

                                                café com pão                                                                                                                                                  bolacha não

vale quem tem

                          vale quem tem

                                                     vale quem tem

                          vale quem tem

                                                     nada vale

                          quem não tem

                                                     nada não vale

                          nada vale

                                                     quem nada


                                 neste vale















bread and coffee

                              teacake no

                                                  bread and coffee                                                                                                                 teacake no

value makes the man

                                      value makes the man

                                                                           value makes the man

                                      value makes the man

                                                                           there’s no value

                                      in just the man

                                                                           nothing is of value

                                      there’s no


                                      in just the man

                                                                 in this valley

there’s no


there’s no


for the man who




in the









No writer who is not translated into English can be considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, because English is the one language all of the judges speak. Was that a motivation for you in translating Gullar’s work?

When I began working on Gullar’s work I did not consider whether my efforts might be instrumental in his being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Over time, however, I came to recognize his immense importance as a world poet, having learned that his work has been translated into several European and other languages as well. Of even greater note is the fact that it is hard not to find references to Gullar in the Brazilian media on a daily basis. In addition to being a poet and artist, he writes fiction, drama, screenplays, art criticism, and more. He is a genuine cultural hero in Brazil, an intellectual / artist / writer / social critic who was forced into exile, during which time he traveled from one country to the next, gradually becoming disillusioned with radical politics. Even though the military dictatorship continued in force, conditions did improve in Brazil, and he eventually returned to his homeland and family. Today he is an inspiration to several generations of Brazilians who have witnessed too many cycles of democracy and dictatorship, economic boom and bust, cultural renaissance and repression. Younger Brazilians who have not known some of Brazil’s darkest hours know him from his addition to the cultural canon and his continued presence in the media. Of the numerous Brazilians I have met, young and old, Ferreira Gullar is known and beloved by all.

Of course I am biased and believe that Ferreira Gullar should receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In fact, some years ago I was part of a small group that nominated him to the Nobel Prize Committee. Now with the many translations of Gullar’s work into languages that they read, including now Swedish, perhaps they will receive his nomination differently.

But, to answer your question more directly, my primary motivation to translate Gullar’s work derived from a number of qualities that resonated strongly with me from my first encounter with it. I particularly enjoy the vigorous lyric qualities of his verse, his powerful force of memory in his work, his wonderfully evocative imagery, the Brazilianness of his themes, his elevation of simple things and events to sublime levels, the range of styles in his creative arc, and the keen-eyed honesty that I sense in whatever he writes.

What do you wish I had asked you that I did not?

I think that you have covered all the bases very nicely, and I thank you for the opportunity to reflect upon the inherent processes and thorny choices inherent in the act of translation.




Carrie Cooperider

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