18 July 08 | Chad W. Post

LanguageHat brought our attention to this essay by Margaret Jull Costa on the difficulties of translating emotion. She uses a short piece by Fernando Pessoa to illustrate this.

Before getting to the really cool thing, here’s a bit of info on Pessoa, who—along with all of his heteronyms—really was an amazing writer:

After the death of Pessoa’s father in 1893, his mother remarried and the family moved from Lisbon to Durban, South Africa. Pessoa was educated in English and wrote entirely in English until he was seventeen, when he chose to return to Portugal in order to follow a university course. He soon abandoned his studies – a student strike disrupted classes – and, instead, set up a publishing company that rapidly slid into bankruptcy. Whilst in South Africa, he had followed a course in business English and bookkeeping and, since he was also fluent in French, he got a job as a bookkeeper and translator of foreign correspondence in a company in Lisbon and earned a modest living from this until his death at 47 from cirrhosis of the liver. In his spare time he wrote mainly poetry, but also essays and articles, and was involved in various short-lived literary magazines.

The only other works published in his lifetime were a collection of thirty-five sonnets in English (published privately) and a book of poems, Mensagem (Message) in 1934. His genius was only recognised after his death and he is now considered to be Portugal’s greatest modern poet. He left behind a large trunk stuffed with quantities of typed and handwritten papers which are still being collated and published.

Now to illustrate the difficulties of translation, Costa used created this exercise, which has the Portuguese original and a translated version where you can choose one of several different English words at a number of key spots in the text. (Such a good use of internet technology!)

Following this exercise, there’s a list of three different translations and Costa’s response and conclusions:

Verbs of emotion are often difficult to translate, because one has to gauge the level or degree of the emotion described or expressed. Here, with ‘pasmo’, Pessoa is describing a high degree of surprise, so I think ‘I’m always astonished’ or I’m always amazed’ are better than ‘surprised’ – too weak – and ‘stupefied’ and ‘horrified’ – too strong. ‘Pasmar’ has more to do with shocked astonishment than with horror. With ‘desolo-me’, again there is no one perfect translation, since the word implies desolation, distress and sadness. As so often in translation, there is no perfect match, and so choices have to be made as to which nuance must be lost.

Very, very cool. And beyond this exercise, all of the workshops on the Literary Translation website are worth looking at.


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