A Little Conversation about Tone
Translated by Tom Moore
"ne placidis coeant immitia"
"that savage not mate with tame"
Horace, Ars Poetica
Homer, who composed in Greek—and who as far as we know never
translated, or according to some, even wrote1—was, nevertheless,
also the first great translator in the West. Pseudo-Longino bears
witness to this fact. The author of On the sublime at one point
tells us that in the Iliad the blind bard made men seem like Gods,
and vice-versa. Or to put it another way, Longinus understands Homer's
task as a sort of translation: translating divine behavior into
human, and human behavior into divine: "he made the men who went to
Troy gods, to the extent that he could, and the gods he made men.
But for us, in our unhappiness, there is a refuge, which is death;
while it was not much the gods' nature as their misery which Homer
This eternal misery is also that of the translator, and particularly
of the translator of poetry, he who takes on a task which has
already and repeatedly been cursed: to reproduce in another language
the echoes of the unsayable.
in British or American English, ...the difference between spoken
and written is considerably smaller than in Brazilian Portuguese.
The question of translation is the order of the day. And the
question of the translation of poetry is at its most hermetic center.
It has been successively examined, through different lenses, in the
work of the principal philosophers of the recently-expired century.
From Heidegger to Benjamin, from Wittgenstein to Derrida: everyone
has pondered the question. And naturally these figures have
projected images of different intensities and shadings on the
backdrop of the shadow-play of translation.
In his hand-to-hand combat with the metaphysical tradition,
Heidegger arrives at the extreme of viewing all of Western thought
over the last two millennia as a bad translation of the concepts of
pre-classical Greek into Latin, something which squeezed out the sap,
and dried out its vigor. Something that was already foreshadowed in
Nietzsche. And to continue in this vein, the German language could
be the noble filter more adequate to the translation of archaic
Greek, and thus is exclusively capable of giving it a voice in
post-modernity. There is a strain of humor running through this
In Wittgenstein, the question of translation is much more implicit,
but not less decisive and anti-exclusivizing. It is authorized in
the analysis of the use of certain everyday expressions and slang (which
he calls "language games"), which have been removed from their
respective axes and point to modalities of translation, aporia and
exile within the same language. Besides that, Wittgenstein's own
thought is shaped at the watershed between two languages: the German
of his childhood, early youth and reading, and the English of his
academic training and later exile. But also on the delicate and
labile line where the traditions of Jewish and Christian thinking
Benjamin was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most important
theorist of translation of the last century. His essay "The Task of
the Translator" (which perhaps more accurately ought to be
translated—preserving the dense ambiguity of the German term Aufgabe
(task, but at the same time vexation) the Feat of the Translator)
has no peer in density and exegesis. In it Benjamin argues for
translation as an independent literary genre or form. And the way in
which he argues for its autonomy—in spite of points which are
polemical and on occasion mis-understood (as, for example, his
affirmation of the untranslatability of the translation)—is, as a
whole, dense, convincing and plastic.
As far as Derrida is concerned, he adds his own spice to certain
notions of Benjamin's. He argues—possibly mistakenly—for the
translation of the translation (perhaps through not paying attention
to how much of the metaphorical there is in this prohibition by
Benjamin, which looks at translation always as a modal experience,
as a relation, as a unique task which is exhausted in the collision
of translating itself). And, especially, he brings together some
important questions of detail: the question of the resistance of
proper names, the reinscription of metaphysics, "anasemic
translation," et cetera.
As we have seen, there are many routes by which we can derive and
discontinue concepts. There are many keys in which we can recompose
and wander. And yet, on neither side of the Atlantic has the
European language which first ventured into globalization yet
produced a single theorist of true renown in the field of
In the case of Brazil, to be fair there is, as a mitigating factor,
the emphasis placed on translation by the poets of the concretist
group in São Paulo, epigones of Pound. The concretists produced an
extensive list of good translations and introduced a range of
authors to Portuguese who had been hitherto unpublished. A breath of
fresh air. An opening to everything which did not come from the
chastest French tradition. But essays, investments in the creation
of the concept are—though important and revelatory—episodic. There
is no truly innovative theory, one that had not been foretold by
Pound on the one hand and Oswald de Andrade on the other. In
addition to which, the anthropophagy of Andrade hardly includes the
question of translation among its primary tasks (a grave omission,
and one very little commented upon.)
In the case of Portugal, the most prominent is Pessoa—always
Pessoa—a bilingual poet, putting forth meditations on translation
which are as graceful as they are epigrammatic and contingent. But,
from another point of view, his is the only voice which resonates
outside Portugal. And there are many specific and relevant aspects
which are only touched upon tangentially. In particular, the
specters with which the translator of fiction, and especially of
poetry, into Portuguese is confronted. Something like the distance
which voice alone will not measure between spoken and written
Portuguese—especially in Brazil and in Africa; but also the
musicality and the vocal quality of the language, which threatens to
entirely transform into music poetic projects as arid and
alliterative as those of a Gerard Manley Hopkins or a Seamus Heaney.
And good translators are rare. Those of the most honest stock, who
seek to draw their conclusions beginning from the procedures adopted
in their combat with the task—or feat. We do not possess many. Those
who do not devalue that which may pop up unexpectedly. Paulo Rónai
was one of them. But, in general, the lineage of those who have
sought to identify the recurring questions in translation from other
languages into Portuguese in particular is rather sparse.
That is to say, before we try to work at a solution in terms of
creating a more general and methodical systematization we must first
identify the problem to be solved. And the problem here, would be
precisely those little practical snares—superabounding in gains and
losses—with which the translator is confronted before offering the
eyes of the reader a commercially published translation.
Among these "snares," one which springs into view—and, more
importantly, into hearing—has to do with tone.
And what might the tone of a poem be? It is more than its register,
is a more abstract aspect, an certain approximation to the exact
axis (or context) in which a poems clamors to be heard. Its voice.
Its most intimate voice. But a voice conversing, in movement. Not
the shade of the voice -that would be closer to register. Not a
sample of it. But the voice in conversation. If the register varies
between, let us say, a review, a soliloquy, onomatopoeia, a drunken
ditty, the tag of a jingle, an academic thesis, a soccer fight song,
lullabies—or even all this together, alternating, in the weave of
the same poem—the tone would be that something indefinable in which
alone the poem can be expressed in its exactness, in its most
interior secret. The tone would be the strongest insinuation of how
to read to the poem. Its best form of being spoken. Something that
is heard even when it is not read aloud. And that is something much
more abstract (and thus less teleological) than its register—which
is yes, something more palpable and verging on stereotype.
But the tone is also expressly constructed by the ordering of the
words. Perhaps this order is itself the strongest support for the
tone, in terms of the written word—without the aid of the voice, of
the gesture. Which leads to the thought that syntax—especially in
poetry—is something less cerebral than common sense would imagine.
And it is not by chance that Benjamin attaches so much importance to
word order when he is considering translation. He himself assures us
that the clarity of the true translation "does not cover the
original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as
though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all
the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal
rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to
be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the
wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade."
"If someone wants to move to a new experience, syntax is needed, a
new syntax. A new syntax is a new cadence of uncovering, a new
cadence of logic, a new cadence of music, a new structure of space"4
the American poet George Oppen informs us, in a sentence in which
cadences and tones—departing from the same musical radiation perhaps
want to say exactly the same thing.
Our effort, then, after this raw definition of tone, is that of, by
means of analysis of two poems translated into Portuguese, and
published by important presses in São Paulo, detecting, in practice,
some "snares" into which translation may step—particularly those
that arise from the difficulty of hearing zones of conversation "in
reading," that is to say, from the difficulty of apprehending tone.
The authors chosen are two acclaimed postwar American poets:
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Creeley. The translators are two
contemporary poets and translators who are well established in
Brazil: Paulo Henriques Brito and Régis Bonvicino.
It is important to remember here that, in spite of the reservations
we may express, translations constitute, in themselves, and a
priori, an act of courage. And, in time, it is better that there be
translations, even with the possibility of slips as far as finding
the tone is concerned, than otherwise.
In the case before us, deliberately, Bishop and Creeley belong to
somewhat different moments and trends within the rich panorama of
American poetry in the twentieth century. They were contemporaries,
but only seemingly so. Bishop, who preceded Creeley, was always at
the center of the canon, and considered to be heir to a tradition
that made its way through Eliot and Auden. Creeley, on the other
hand, followed after those who were on the margins, and carved out
their own spaces over decades. His predecessors are Pound, Williams,
and Zukofsky, that is, poets, who in one way or another, suffered
considerable rejection over the course of their careers. (Though of
course this commentary is very schematic).
Let us look at how the following famous poem by Bishop is translated:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
O Banho de Xampu
Os liquens—silenciosas explosões
nas pedras—crescem e engordam,
concêntricas, cinzentas concussões.
Têm um encontro marcado com
os halos ao redor da lua, embora
até o momento nada tenha mudado.
E como o céu há de nos dar guarida,
enquanto isso não se der,
você há de convir, amiga,
que se precipitou;
e eis no que dá. Porque o Tempo é,
mais que tudo, contemporizador.
No teu cabelo negro brilham estrelas
Para onde irão elas
tão cedo, resolutas?
—Vem, deixa eu lavá-lo, aqui nessa bacia
amassada e brilhante como a lua.5
The poem, seen as a whole, is an a wholly intimate and somewhat
solemn register. An oblique declaration of love. Written, as we know,
for her Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she shared
an edenic house in the mountains in Teresopolis.
Even if spoken by a poet in absolutely flat and colorless reading,
this poem would still be iridescent, precariously sentimental, with
its elegant diction which connotes a reserved and vaguely
embarrassed confessionalism. Here is a love letter as intimate as it
is impressively well-made. Its tone is rather straightforward. And
yet never in a loud voice. It is as if. Its tone is something
explicit, although never spoken out loud. It is as if one were
reading a score, expanding on the figured harmony. It presents its
own way of being spoken. It does not attack it, so common today. It
is disinterested, it does not deconstruct it, parenthesize it,
Ashberyize—this is not its game. It does not collapse in pirouettes
before the reader, and at the end, beg for applause—as the epigones
of John Ashbery do without half the grace of the master. It is more
generous and genteel with itself. It is less interested in showing
its intelligence because it is in itself as much a declaration of
love as of intelligence and grace.
Thus, even when simply seen on paper, a precarious equilibrium
between solemn and intimate resounds in the ear. As indeed is
suggested by the alternation between abstract and concrete,
immeasurable and measured of the entities glossed by the poem: rocks,
lichens, halos of moonlight, memories, the skies, Time (with a
capital T as the broadest abstraction, almost an allegory), falling
stars, finally focusing on her friend's hair, which for their part,
shines like these stars, until washed in the prosaic tin basin—which
we know so well here in Brazil, and which until the seventies was an
emblematic object, present in nine out of ten homes. Yes, the tin
basin is a symbol of the home. A sort of hearth alla brasileira and
which only someone with Bishop's sensibilitiy and her enormous zeal
for becoming one with the "other" could draw upon for a poem about
domestic love. I cannot recall a strong Brazilian poet who has made
use of this prosaic image. In Drummond, there is, at most, a "tin
mug"—something more Bohemian, more from the wineshop, the bar, than
from the house, the home. Something more stereotypically masculine.
But this tin basin is also the moon, that in some way blots out the
stars—milky powder in her friend's hair—during the washing: ablution,
baptism, engagement. But also the feminine auto-circumscribing
itself in love.
It is clear that this initial image of lichens, of explosions on the
rocks, of the concentric shocks converging toward the halos of the
moon have to do with a shampoo. And especially with a shampoo which
happens over a tin basin "battered and shiny like the moon."
But the losses are evident from the beginning of the translation,
and already begin in the title itself, since in Portuguese the word
xampu can be stretched to include a bath with shampoo. And even if
it is not found with this meaning in the most popular dictionary, a
poet might well surmise as much, and employ it thus. Hence the
superfluity of being so explicit ("O Banho de Xampu"), since the
axis of the poem itself invites one to read shampoo in this sense.6
The translation begins by linking the lichens unavoidably to the "silent
explosions," where in the original this is subtly imprecise. Though
the sentence could also be read in a more enumerative manner. And
further the lichens, so masterfully delayed in the original, are
anticipated in the translation. The verb "grow" is translated by
"crescem e engordam," rather adiposely. The word "concussões" is
entirely outside the epistolary and elegant colloquiality of the
register of the poem. But the absence of "our memories" (6, I) is no
less grave. "Momento" is a term which spoils the colloquial and
quite stylized solution of the two last verses of this strophe in
the original. Possibly, in this context, it would be better
represented by "agora." Just as the tense "tenho mudado," translated
literally to the Portuguese, sounds, at the very least, awkward. The
meter is almost always not the same. Would it be possible to
reproduce the same level of condensation in Portuguese? Not likely.
And if, in English, there is a continuing alternation of longer
verses and shorter verses from strophe to strophe, the same cannot
be said of the Portuguese, particularly in the first two strophes,
in which this alternation is not found, and the verses have almost
the same length—between eight and ten syllables.
In the second strophe, the term "guarida"—though certainly not to
the same extent as the "concussões" of the preceding strophe—is
somewhat out of alignment, though it finds a nice solution to rhyme,
meter and balance, taking in the first three lines. Perhaps the best
part of the poem in Portuguese. The rhyme schemes chimes on its own,
in contrast to the previous strophe, and the obvious problem with
the closing rhymes in this one ("precipitou/contemporizador). And
perhaps the "for" of the penultimate verse might have been more
effectively translated by something like "Pois" or "Pois que," since
it is moderately anti-colloquial, as in the English. At the end,
there is a rare jewel of inverse alliteration: "Nothing if not,"
which the translator has not even attempted to approach—and how
could he have? The end of the this strophe is simply somewhat
troublesome, with its "contemporizador"—so long, rhythmically
awkward, and so distant from the genteel tone that the word "amenable"
helps to produce in English, and for which, with its gentle meeting
of vowels and consonants, there is no lack of more laconic and
phonetically more adequate substitutes in Portuguese: "ameno," "docil,"
At the beginning of the third strophe, the subject of the sentence
("estrelas," stars) is subordinated. The repetition of the same
duplex and flabby stratagem of paraphrase from the first strophe
("crescem e engordam") is repeated ("cadentes, arredias"); this is
not even to mention that they are far from creating the shining
impact of the original (something like "em formaçao esplêndida" in
To sum up, the poem sounds rather awkward in Portuguese. Why is this?
In particular, because it has a difficult time finding its register
in the language. A manner of speaking which is fairly colloquial,
filtered through a gentle solemnity, something intimate, and related
to that which used in certain personal letters, notes, or messages.
And this is why the reading of the poem in the original leaves us
with a sense of unity, of flowing and transitive speech. There are
no highs and lows, as there are in the translation.
There are good moments in the translation, nonetheless. The best of
them is doubtless the three verses which begin the second strophe.
Now, let us move on to Bonvicino's task in translating one of the
most famous poems by Creeley:
I think I grow tensions Penso que cultivo tensões
like flowers como flores
in a wood where num bosque onde
Each wound is perfect, cada ferida—perfeita—,
enclosed itself in a tiny fecha-se numa minúscula
imperceptible blossom, imperceptível pétala
making pain. causando dor.
Pain is a flower, like that one, Dor é uma flor, como aquela
like this one, como esta,
like that one, como aquela,
like this one. como esta7.
If in the case of the Bishop poem, by reason of its size and scope,
some missteps as far as tone are concerned can be forgiven, in
Creeley's poem, whose condensation and metareferenciality are yet
more pungent, they threaten to suffocate the extreme minimalism of
the piece, the delicate balance between spoken and written.
And this threat is already present in the first verse. In place of
"penso," a more effective solution would be "acho" (I, 1). But the
suppression of the pronoun is praiseworthy, the right decision. "Grow,"
in English, does not have as much proximity to the written style as
does "cultivar" in Portuguese. A more appropriate equivalent perhaps
might be "planto." But this is still conjecture. "Bosque" is an
inadequate term that might better be replaced by "mato." The
translation of "blossom" by "pétala" is mistaken from the point of
view of both meaning ("bud") and metrics, but not for its sonorous
emphasis on the bilabial. "Esta"(that) would be better glossed by
"essa" (this). And this apparently trivial detail speaks much in
relation to the subtle equilibrium between spoken and written in the
original. Its ably stylized colloquiality is what does not
comfortably finds its own space in the translation.
On the positive side, there is the ingenious suppression of the
auxiliary verb ("cada ferida—perfeita") to maintain the rhythm. And,
nevertheless, "minuscúla" seems excessively long to stand in for the
Here, we insist, more attention would be necessary, precisely
because of the minimal size and scope of the original, since every
almost inexpressive error in the translation will clang much louder
than in the case of Bishop. Although, the direct mode of expression
of the poem makes it, at a quick glance at least, easier to bring
into Portuguese than in the previous case. Which is, in part, owing
to a certain dry and empirical generalism of the original. However,
to compensate, there is Creeley's unequivocal and sophisticated
sense of measure, that same sense which led Ezra Pound to opine that
Creeley possessed "the keenest sense of measure of his generation."
And, in fact, Creeley shows us the measure of the lyricism that is
possible, in an epoch that has already sung its last.
A sense of measure literally referring to the size of the verse. It
is sufficient to note how ably the thought stops short at the end of
each line in the first strophe. To then begin again with surprises.
An able sequence. Tensions are compared to flowers. What follows "where"
is lacunary. If written in medical jargon, "The Flower" could be a
treatise on cancer. But it is a poem. About the kind of cancer that
breaks in between life and writing. And given tone by a serene and
even polite voice. And there is nothing like this ending: everything
ringing, reticently suggesting, so that it is even possible to hear
it (as it fades out) even after one is no longer reading.
To understand what Pound sees in Creeley as "measure" can be,
imperfectly, translated by Creeley's assertion by which "in a poem,
I tend to hear that which can be called its melody well before
arriving at an understanding of what it all might mean."8 Something
which passes through the experience of the eye, the ear, the mind.
In a certain sense, the melody of a poem is the length and sequence
of its words. "The possible better than the perfect," according to
Creeley's own conception.
On the other hand, it is at the least suspect that, in translating
unrhymed poetry without a regular meter, the Brazilian translator,
by and large, does not pay close attention to the length of the
verses. Bonvicino, in contrast, took care here. Less in the case of
the initial verse, since its whole length is already contained in
"Penso que cultivo." Nevertheless, the length of the remaining
verses, which in a more or less regular way, reproduce the metric
fluidity of the original, is praiseworthy.
"The Flower" is an extremely efficacious metapoem. It is more or
less obvious that Creeley is speaking of his own task. Tensions,
cultivated like flowers, are also poems—in the most classic sense of
the florilegium and the anthology. And, at the end the alternation
of "this" and "that" suggests the well-known game of "he loves me,
he loves me not." There is a breath of stoic favor. A sort of
kindness. There is melancholy but not misery. There is an almost
coherent resignation. And a broad and complex accepting of life as
written. Of the written translating life. This possibility. There is
a subtle equilibrium between philosophy spoken out loud—like a
daydream or a solitary exclamation—and an expressly colloquial
manner of speech. Although a colloquial manner that is hard to find
in the everyday. And, thus, ably reprocessed. There is dignity, in
And yet, all these modes are hardly to be found in Bonvicino's
translation, which, to the same extent as that by Henriques Britto,
does not really stand on its own, unaccompanied by the original, and
precisely because it pays so little attention to the tone of the
The question of the tone of a poem is a mysterious one. It must have
to do with a certain refined capacity to hear conversations "on the
page." But also to "read" speech. To decipher. It is a matter of an
equilibrium that few translators know how to apprehend in its
minimal equivalence, in its complex subtlety—which demands that he
be not only an intellectual but also—and above all—an artisan, a
practical man, who knows how to listen to everything from the radio
to conversations in the elevator, by way of political speeches,
sports reporting and impassioned harangues. To listen while occupied
in slow and repetitive work, which is also the classic time of one
who writes books. Or, as Ecclesiastes says, "of making many books
there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh." To
listen in wise entropy.
But all this, it is understood, would still slip into register. For
tone, in this case, would be simply the affection with which this is
said, is conversed. The degree of affectivity with which this was
mysteriously abducted to a zone of truth. Something less
apprehendible. Very difficult to capture the tone of a poem in its
greatest breadth. Something that the two translations simply brush
on, without leaving marks of teeth, or even of lips; they simply
outline, in their courageous failure. Interrupted gesture.
Tone, by reason of its inapprehensibility, its ethereal and scarcely
didactic character, through there is in it that cannot easily be
learned in a more orthodox way, is exactly that something more that
makes a poem from a jumble of lines. That makes him who arranges
them in order, a poet. And if a poet is one who encodes against
time, tone is his strongest code. It is a matter of the most stable
translation affection which can be encoded. It is the dignity of the
poem in its most truth-saturated glimmer. It is something capable of
mocking stingy esotericism on the one hand, and marketing on the
other. To sum up, something that in itself already embodies
resistance not only to time, but also to the space furrowed by
different languages and cultural shadings.
Thus one can say that tone is the part which is most easy to
identify and least easy to talk about in a poem. It is what is least
accessible to paraphrase. And what is most resistant to being
dissected by a theory. In a poem the tone is the mysterious nucleus
in which affection, intelligence and chance are mixed in a zone
midway between ear and eye. A pulsar.
But on the labile boundary that exists between tone and register, it
is possible to perceive that the tone -although to a much lesser
extent than the register—is also an aspect which is conditioned by
differing languages. And so drunkards' songs are more syncopated and
alliterative in the Anglo-Saxon tongues. And likewise ballads of
tender love are much more at home in the Romance languages—after all,
the the dolce stil nuovo was originally something from Provence and
Tuscany. There is a tone which extends to genres. But, it should be
understood, it is only partly determined by genres or periods or
styles, since it also transcends them.
In Brazil, to digress, the writers from the Northeast to Rio, by way
of Minas Gerais, are the inheritors of a tonal sensibility which is
much more Iberian, Mediterranean, Mozarabic, marrano, Moorish.
Archaic, mixed. Mestizo in all senses. While those from the south
are more turned toward northern and western Europe, or toward Italy,
the Middle East and quite recent immigration. They are groping for
their own voice. And in this groping one can sense novelty. What
those in the south have not yet noticed is the hybridity that comes
from the simple fact of expressing themselves in a language that is
far from transmitting their most immediate atavistic longings as far
as their own descent: Italian, German, Ashkenazi Jewish, Swiss,
Slavic, and even Arab and Oriental. What that is new and fused can
come from this southern antinomy? Much. And even because, by a
historical irony, Brazil Portuguese still is much more focused on
the archaic—in the sense of the Luso-Atlantic cosmopolitanism of
1500 -than that of Portugal Hence the preservation of the gerund, of
the vowels, and of an organic, mellifluous and marinated lassitude
in Brazilian speech—much less hurried than Lusitanian speech.
It is not by chance that a poet conscious of the limitations of his
medium, such as the paraense Age de Carvalho would feel at home with
Paul Celan. Celan was one who struggled against an entire accepted
tradition of literature in German. Perhaps so "that savage not mate
with tame," as, indeed, Horace tell us in Ad Pisones. Celan glimpsed
the extent to which the best promises, the urbanity, gentility and
deep thought of this tradition were only concealing crime. Thus,
Carvalho seems to suggest to us that Brazilian Portuguese—and
especially that from Rio northwards—is excessively macerated, frayed,
weak. Excessively complicit, in other words. That nothing so
impactful was produced in it after Machado, Rosa, Drummond,
Graciliano and Lispector. There is inertia and exhaustion in the air.
When he opts for this self-exile, for this Jewish urging by Celan to
self-renew,9 Carvalho is pointing to the vital necessity for fresh
air in the Brazilian language. A language that confirmed too many
injustices of epic scale, to be able to, suddenly, confront them
without first twisting completely around. And so one of the
antidotes against this state of things might come from contamination
and from exile. From the necessity of seeing anew with unshod eyes—a
radically poetic challenge. Whether Carvalho manages to reach his
goal, or is frustrated in the attempt, is a conversation for another
The parallel that can be drawn, specifically, is with the soccer
(Eng. football) of the Brazilian team. Like Brazilian Portuguese as
far as expression is concerned, our football team seems inert,
through bureaucracy and accommodation. It has lost its tone, and
lacks in boldness, improvisation. Players who will be more than mere
aggressors. The touch of the ball. Dribbling. Triangulations. All
the syntax of the rapid attack in individual and enveloping touches.
Space for individual expression that transcends looking for
penalties or kicking the opponent to get a miserable lateral or
corner kick. We need a more lucid direction capable of saving the
immense repertoire of plays promised us by the past. Our traditional
love of the attack and the inventive, fortuitous, chance goal is
lacking. And even the failure of 1982 has gained mythical
proportions, with the finest flower of incantatory soccer was
decimated on the fields of Seville. Incalcubable, perverse irony.
And exactly there, across from Ceuta.
The media has not helped matters, since it projects the spectacle of
a man gesticulating foolishly on the side of the field. And the game
itself, within the lines, is ever more forgotten.
But let us return to Carvalho's uneasiness and to the question of
It is important to remember here that supplementarity is what
follows from the juxtaposition of the different languages.
Benjamin's famous image of shards. In its exclusion they form the
so-called absolute language—of which they are nothing more than a
refraction. A thought which is rather Platonic in its origins.
One should bear in mind, as well, that in British or American
English (like that of the poems discussed above), broadly speaking,
the difference between spoken and written is considerably smaller
than in Brazilian Portuguese. This almost always means that
Portuguese is at an advantage, as far as breadth of registers and
tones is concerned. But for this reason, it poses greater difficulty.
As far as the advantage is concerned, it is one which our
translators rarely use in all its vigor and power (in the same way
that the writers from the south of Brazil have still not noted the
goldmine which they have in their hands). And one which, it must be
emphasized has not yet been seriously explored. It is as if in
English there were fewer chromatic possibilities. And that in
Portuguese, by reason of their excess, it were more difficult to
identify the correct register and tone for a translation: the space
for accommodating that which is, strictly speaking, unsayable. That
wandering of voices highly saturated with meaning. That indefinable
space in which one hears the conversation of the poem even when it
is no longer capable of conversing. That proto-utopia, that true
Sebastianism implicit in the well-made poem taken as a whole. And
exactly because it stems from an artisanry which is so well-finished
that it is capable of creating an abstract hearing, somewhat removed
from the eyes.
No one, in Brazilian, not even Manuel Bandeira, knows so well how to
calibrate this hearing/seeing in the matter of tone as João
Guimarães Rosa. And his research was so arduous, that is even
possible to conceive of translating a good part of his books into
the same language in which they were supposedly written. A paradox.
In the same way as Homer—who he knew amply, and in the original
Greek—Rosa made gods of the sertanejos of Minas. This is why one
would not be surprised if one day Grande Sertão were to receive an
exemplary translation into Portuguese.
In its Latin root, the word tone (tonus) refers originally to the
strength of a muscle, but also to the sound of the thunderclap. In
the end, everything is ripped into light and flash. Potency. And it
is Camões, another translator of men to gods—and the poet par
excellence of the Portuguese language—who, in invoking the Tagides,
at the opening of his epic, calls upon "a high and sublime sound," a
"great and sonorous fury." And he reminds us of the fear that the
word arouse "When high Jupiter, speaking thus/ begins in a tone of
voice which is grave and awful...." The sound of thunder. In
contemporary poetry, the meaning of tone is not so different, since
it also refers to an invocation with a strong voice—even when the
matter is apparently far from the epic.
It must be made clear that tone is not only affection, a zone of
feeling. It is much more than this. It also takes in the
organization of the idea. This is why it suggests syntax. As
Wittgenstein says, "only one who can converse, can converse in his
imagination. Since to converse in the imagination implies that what
one lets be said in silence can later be communicated"10 And, in
reality, to feel or apprehend is only half the job, since "sometimes
one wishes to speak of belief and certainty as tones of thought: and
in fact, often, these are expressed by the tone of the voice.
Nevertheless, do not think of these as "feelings" which accompany
In this sense, tone is the bait. It is the tone which summons the
abstract hearing or resonates in the memory, even if perceptible
words are lacking. To tune his hearing to the tone is the chief task
(or feat) of the translator of poetry. And it is really the first
task to be addressed, since every attentive reader is capable of
tuning it in. Of attuning himself to the tone. Even before thinking
of the words that might embody it in another language.
In a 1914 letter to Ficker, commenting on the poems of Trakl, whom
he was supporting at the time, Wittgenstein says: "in fact, I don't
understand them, but their tone fascinates me. It is the tone of
1 The hypothesis that Homer never wrote is more and
more challenged: "even those who thought that his poems were not
combined into their present shape until long after his death ( that,
for example, the last part of the Odyssey was a later addition),
even those who believe that different poets composed the Illiad and
the Odyssey, the so called Separatists—everyone assumed that Homer
was a poet composing as all poets since have done: with the aid of
writing." KNOX, Bernard, Introduction to The Iliad, (translated by
Robert Fagles), Penguin, London, 2000, p. 70
2 LONGINUS, Do Sublime, (trans. by Filomena Hirata) Ed. Martins
Fontes, São Paulo, 1996, p. 56.
3 BENJAMIN, Walter, "The task of the translator," in Selected
Writings, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 1996, p.
4 OPPEN, George, Selected Letters, (organization and foreword by
Rachel Blau-DuPlessis), Duke University Press, Durham, p. 97
5 BISHOP, Elizabeth, Poemas do Brasil, (seleção e tradução de Paulo
Henriques Britto), Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 1999, p. 92
6 Symptomatically, three months after the completion of this essay,
the newly-published Dicionário Houaiss da Língua Portuguesa (Ed.
Objetiva, Rio, 2001, which does not yet include this meaning for the
term, at least refers to it in Portuguese in tracing its etymology.
7 CREELEY, Robert, A um, (seleção e tradução de Régis Bonvicino),
Ateliê Editorial, São Paulo, 1997, p. 26
8 CREELEY, The Collected Essays, University of California Press,
Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1989, p. 499
9 Or, to sedimentar the Jewish sense of otherness, the nice
commentary by the American poet George Oppen: "midway between being
singular and being numerous there is the state of being Jewish."
Sulfur, 27 (October 1990), p. 211.
10 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Ultimos escritos sobre Filosofia de la
Psicologia (translation by Javier Sabada), Madrid: Ed. Tecnos, p.
11 Idem, p. 150.
12 Apud Perloff, Marjorie, in Wittgenstein's Ladder, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, p. 10.
This article was originally published at Translation Journal