TRANSLATION THURSDAY: AN INTERVIEW WITH LESLEY SAUNDERS
Posted on August 08 2019
Not only a book of translated poetry, but a book of poems that made history: Two Rivers Press have recently published the dual-language volume Point of Honour, bringing to the English-speaking public the influential work of Portuguese feminist Maria Teresa Horta. The poems in this anthology, selected by the poet herself from her 21 volumes of poetry across six decades, provide us with an overview of her career and make us reflect deeply on the power and meaning of literature, and the history of feminism and feminist writing.
The book’s translator, the poet Lesley Saunders, has kindly answered our questions and revealed us more about how this brilliant anthology came to life and the great importance and the challenges of translating Maria Teresa Horta’s poetry.
What makes Point of Honour special?
Maria Teresa Horta is one of the most revered writers of modern Portugal and this dual language book, published by Two Rivers Press, is the first anthology of her poetry containing both the original poems and facing-page English translations. The 90-plus poems were selected by the poet herself from each of her volumes of poetry published over a writing career that spans six decades.
The book also includes a critical essay by my friend and colleague, the Portuguese academic Ana Raquel Fernandes: it enables an anglophone readership to acquire a sense of the formal, emotional and intellectual power and significance of this poet’s work.
And for me personally, the book underlines the importance of creating and sustaining literary connections between the UK and the continent of Europe as the UK makes preparations to leave the European Union.
I am most grateful to Peter Robinson, Editor at Two Rivers Press, for his belief in this book, which is the first dual-language volume published by the press.Can you tell us more about the influential, contemporary Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta and her impact on Portuguese literature?
Maria Teresa was born in 1937 and began writing before the 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’ that deposed the brutal Estado Novo regime then under President Caetano; her early work was banned for being ‘an outrage to public morals’. With Maria Isabel Barreno and Maria Velho da Costa, she was one of the Three Marias who in 1971 co-authored the extraordinarily imaginative, erotic and experimental collaboration Novas Cartas Portuguesas (New Portuguese Letters), a book composed of letters, poems and dream-like stories that has remained central to the feminist literary canon. The book’s publication in Portugal led to the authors being arrested and the book banned and confiscated, though its English translation drew admiring reviews and a wide readership across Europe and the USA. The work was hugely influential on the literary development and expression of second-wave feminists, and is now being re-discovered by later generations.
For me as a young woman in the 1970s, the book challenged my sense of what literature could accomplish, formally as well as psychologically and politically; in a real sense it changed my life, because my first published book of poetry, Christina The Astonishing, was a collaboration with the poet Jane Draycott – both its form and content were inspired by New Portuguese Letters.
Maria Teresa has continued to publish novels, short stories and journalism, although she considers herself a poet above all: her first collection Espelho Inicial (First Mirror) was published in 1960 and her latest collection, published in May this year, is called Eu Sou a Minha Poesia (I Am My Poetry).
Was there a poem that you found particularly difficult to translate and why?
Maria Teresa is an elliptical, allusive and uncompromising writer, with a strong vision of her own work – it is powerful, political, erotically charged, almost visionary, and I suspect would have been a challenge for any translator. I was lucky enough to have the constant help and support in making the translations, not only of Maria Teresa herself, but also of Ana Raquel Fernandes and of Luís Barros, Teresa’s beloved companion, who acted as a critical friend and consultant. There were many drafts and re-drafts of several of the poems; though I do remember two that were particularly difficult, ‘Oponho’ (‘I Oppose’, from Candelabro) and a poem from Feiticeiras (Witches) – the latter poem didn’t make it into the anthology, because I felt its imagery of an active inquisitorial Catholicism were too far from contemporary English experience: I found I simply couldn’t translate it into modern English.
With ‘Oponho’, I understood the individual words and lines, but I couldn’t fathom what they meant! I ended up asking Maria Teresa what experience lay behind the poem, and she recounted a particular time in her life when everything was turned upside down. I won’t divulge what she told me, because the whole point is that the openness of the poem (shown in its structure as well as its language) is the opposite, it seems to me, of self-exposure, of the ‘poem-as-confessional’. We are offered psychological closeness, an almost propulsive intimacy, without any conventional autobiographical detail.
You are a poet too. How did this influence the translation process?
I would say almost completely – I believed making a good poem-in-translation would depend much more on my experience as a poet and editor than on my (limited) expertise as a linguist. In some ways it helped that Teresa’s poetic – dynamic compression, parataxis, declamation, the location of white spaces/silence – is quite different from mine, so I was not tempted to turn her poetry into something I might have written.
Read more about the translation process in Lesley’s Translator’s Note in Point of Honour!
What was your journey to becoming a poet and a translator of poetry? Have you ever met the poet in person?
My journey towards becoming a poet (a journey I’m still on) started when I studied T. S. Eliot for A-level English, though I didn’t begin writing poems myself until I was in my twenties. I went on to read Classics at university, and translation into, as well as from, Latin and Greek, was an integral part of the syllabus.
I don’t consider myself a translator, however; so, as far as translating Maria Teresa’s poems is concerned, it was a much more personal story. As I said, New Portuguese Letters has stayed with me as an influence throughout my life. Eventually, as a much older woman and with little knowledge of Portuguese, I decided to try my hand at translating a few of Maria Teresa’s poems. Extraordinarily enough, one of them, ‘Poema’ (‘Poem’) won the 2016 Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation. And then I had the strong feeling that I wanted to meet Maria Teresa. The long chain of connections that the internet makes possible resulted, via email contact with various colleagues, in my acquaintance with Ana Raquel Fernandes, who then kindly organised a rendez-vous for the three of us in the Café Namur in Lisbon. (The French word is relevant here because French was the language Teresa and I shared at that point!)
We met several times after that initial rendez-vous: Maria Teresa and Luís were kind enough to invite me (and my husband) to their apartment so that we could sit down at the table with Ana Raquel and discuss my drafts in great detail. I saw Maria Teresa most recently this May, at the three-day conference organised in her honour in Lisbon; I’m delighted to say that Point of Honour had its official launch there!
I will be forever grateful for the warmth, patience and encouraging support shown to me by Maria Teresa, Luís and Ana Raquel.
What are your favourite verses by Horta?
It’s very difficult to choose, though I do love ‘Rosa Sangrenta’ (‘Rose That Bleeds’), a sequence celebrating menstruation, in which this once-taboo (still taboo?) subject is couched in passionate and flamboyantly lyrical images. It’s a profoundly affirmative series of poems, not least in its expansive length, but one that doesn’t wield an overtly political programme. The whole sequence is framed by a unifying metaphor: the rose that bleeds, an image that surely has intentional associations with the sacred symbols of the bleeding heart (of Christ’s Passion) and the Rose without thorns which is a symbol of the virgin Mary (about whom I gather it is a matter of theological dispute whether she menstruated), or even of Christ himself. There may perhaps also be a resonance with the rose that represents the chalice of the Grail which conceals the mystery of the essential centre. Whatever the case, the poems’ composition, their pace and diction and imagery, is realised with what I feel impelled to call courtesy: the sequence reads like an enactment, albeit a highly unconventional one, of that courtly form of love for the beloved, the lady of one’s heart. A definition of courtly love given by Francis X. Newman as ‘a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent’ seems to me to touch on something fundamental about this particular work of Maria Teresa’s.
Lesley Saunders is the author of several books of poetry – most recently Nominy Dominy, her praise-song for the classical literature she grew up with. Her previous collection Cloud Camera was described by Michael Hulse in The Poetry Review as ‘the most intelligent and thrilling book of poetry I’ve seen in several years’. In 2016 Lesley won the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation with her version of a poem by Maria Teresa Horta; judge Sean O’Brien described Lesley’s translation as: ‘a witty, erotic piece which traces the way a poem comes into being.’ Point of Honour, containing 90-plus translated poems of Horta’s, was published in May 2019 by Two Rivers Press. Lesley’s most recent collaboration is with the poet Philip Gross on A Part of the Main, a response to the political and social upheavals surrounding the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Otherwise, Lesley is a visiting professor in education policy at Newman University, Birmingham, and an honorary research fellow at Oxford University Department of Education.