Cat, dog... does it really matter?

Cat, dog... does it really matter?

If I were to condense this comment piece into a poem, it might go like this:

on the joys of reading

a book (of poetry)

in its original language

for World Book Day

Even in those four lines (as in all poetry) there is so much to unpack!

Let’s start with line 3, in its original language. The very concept of original language is a bit tricky. If there is a language we call ‘original’, what should we call the ‘other’ language? Secondary? Counterfeited? Belated? Naturally, we all know what it means when we say ‘I wish I could read Chekhov in the original…!’ The thing is that no one can master almost 8,000 languages, and the fact that there is a way of turning not only beautiful but also understandable ‘original’ words into words of one’s own language that is, in itself, a wonder.

I am referring to translation, of course; translation as in being transported down a river and through imagination, words flowing from one riverbank to the other. I have no doubt that it would be magnificent to be able to read Ibn Ammar, the Andalusian poet of the 11th century, in Arabic. Even when I teach courses on William Shakespeare, there are nuances, double or multiple meanings that my students miss completely when they read the text in its Portuguese translation.

Yes, there are nuances, moments of playfulness in the ‘original’ language that are always at risk of being lost when translated, and which often are irremediably lost. Because each language has its own limits just as it has its own music, and in the case of an Anglo-Saxon language like English and of a Romance language like Portuguese, we are speaking of languages with different structures, English being usually more synthetic and more open to puns and witty shifts in meaning than Portuguese. But then, Portuguese, my language, has this tinge of melancholy, this dash of strange sadness, its famous ‘saudade’, so very hard to translate…

Leaving behind the problem of ‘original language’, let’s go back to lines 1 and 2: on the joys of reading / a book (of poetry). This is a little less fraught; translated poetry books are usually presented in a bilingual form, even if the reader may not know the ‘original’ language, as in the case of Arabic. Let’s imagine that a book of poems by the 8th-century Chinese poet Li Bai is translated into Portuguese, and that the reader is Portuguese and can’t read Mandarin. Although what they see on one page are indecipherable characters, or ideograms, they will still be looking at the shape that every poem is, a kind of painting, a design; they will be looking at the spaces left in silence, and which are never truly silent, but a different form of eloquence – full of meaning. And, if the translation is good, the reader will also be moved by what they see on the opposite page in their own language. Both poems are original in a way – and this is the moment when we can truly speak of those joys (plural): a manifold pleasure unfolding.

Obviously, I’m an advocate of those joys. I’m a poet. But how can we encourage the desire for reading in translation at a time when there is such a deficit in language learning? I believe that they are deeply connected, language and literature, for both literature and language move within (and through) a magic realm where with only a few letters representing basic units of sound it is possible to create infinite ways of communicating. And communication can be both useful, as with the language we use daily among each other to buy a piece of bread, to convey a message of comfort, to say ‘thank you’; or beautiful, as with the language we use in poetry. If only we could invite children to that magic realm, show them that all it takes to enter in this realm is imagination…

It would help if we could reawaken that old tradition of reading out loud, showing that poetry is, in its very core, music – because music speaks to us all. Music exists in the sound of cars, in the singing of the birds, even in the silence of a room. We are surrounded by music just like we are surrounded by words and by the air through which words and music travel. Some words would be familiar, some would be foreign, yet they are human – all of them.

Yes, we may miss many things when we read a text in translation. But sometimes we also gain other things in their place.

In my last book, Margaret Jull Costa, the wonderful translator of Portuguese and Spanish into English, in a poem titled ‘Nu: estudo em comoção’ [‘Nude: a study in poignancy’], she translated ‘E quando dormes, como noutras horas, / que sonhos te viajam: / a mãe, a caça, a mão macia, o salto / muito perfeito / e alto, muito esguio’ into ‘And when you sleep, at other times, / what dreams travel through you: / your mother, a mouse, a soft hand, a leap / so perfect / and high, so lithe’.

The addressee of the poem is unclear at the beginning of the poem: it appears to be a female body and the first stanzas even seem to have erotic inferences, but after that it becomes obvious that it is an animal, either a dog or a cat. Actually, it is a dog, my dog, called Millie (Dickinson). In Margaret’s translation, the Portuguese word ‘a caça’ (hunting) became ‘a mouse’, leading the English reader to think that this animal was most probably a cat. However, I asked Margaret not to change a thing: she had come up with this beautiful alliteration ‘mother/mouse’, an alliteration that also exists in Portuguese, but elsewhere in the line, with ‘macia/salto’ It was just a question of dis-location; it had nothing to do with absence of beauty or lack of intensity of meaning.

‘There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away’, Emily Dickinson wrote. The very act of reading, just like the act of writing, is an act of love. And love, in its multiple forms, is common to us all, humans and non-humans. On World Book Day, if we can pass on to a child this love and passion for words and books, and for the many ways in which they can take us to distant lands, then, cat or dog: does it really matter? All that matters is that they feel inspired to jump in.

Ana Luísa Amaral is an award-winning Portuguese poet, writer of fiction and children’s books, essayist and translator, and a Professor of Literature. Her books have been translated into more than ten languages. Her translator into English is Margaret Jull Costa.

Ana Luísa Amaral has presented several of her books in the United Kingdom (e.g. What’s in a Name, NY, New Directions, 2019), with the support of Camões Institute – the Portuguese Institute for the promotion of Portuguese language and culture at the Portuguese Embassy in the UK.

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