Portuguese poet talks career and translating her works
Portuguese poet Rosa Alice Branco reflects that translating her originally-Portuguese poetry and literature for international audiences has been both rewarding and challenging, while reflecting on the “lost in translation” concept.
This was a major point in her visit to the University at Albany’s Standish Room at the Science Library on April 3 at 4:15 p.m., where she, and her colleague and translator Alexis Levitin, were met with a packed audience.
Among the audience were numerous UAlbany students who were studying Portuguese and were interested in learning more about the field of Portuguese literature.
Branco, one of the most acclaimed Portuguese poets today, read several poems from her 2009 book, “Cattle of the Lord,” in its native language during her visit, before Levitin translated it to English for the audience. Levitin indeed did translate “Cattle of the Lord” to English in 2016.
“Cattle of the Lord” included poems that revolved around animals, nature and the environment, interconnectedness, the human experience, and life and death. Some of the poems read by the duo were “Decomposition of the Soul,” “Go Forth and Multiply” (which notably caused chuckles among the audience), “Tasks of the World” and “The Dog Who Had Me.”
Branco’s poetry has been translated for international publications like in Spain, Tunisia, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Brazil, Venezuela and French Canada. In the U.S. alone, her translated works have appeared on publications like “The England Review” and “Prairie Schooner,” among others. Levitin has translated over 30 “works of writers from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador, and his translations have appeared in more than 200 magazines.”
The event had originally been planned to occur last year on April 27 but was canceled because Levitin had suffered a broken hip from a cycling injury.
Branco said that she enjoyed working with Levitin to translate her work back in Portugal, even reminiscing how they jokingly “fought” and disagreed over certain translations, but ended up having a fulfilling experience in the end.
Both noted that when it comes to translating, onomatopoeic words like “Buzz” or “Moo” are universal while cultural changes could affect the original literature, like changing “pound” to “kilo” for countries with the metric system in terms of weight.
Branco personally admitted she did not like French translations of her works because French does not generally keep the so-called “rhythm” of her words. She did emphasize that she did not like the French translations, not the translator who did them.
“You try to seek beauty and truth [when writing and translating] but in seeking dictionary truth, you, of course, ruin any chance of having any beauty in the new language,” Levitin added. “So, you have to balance between the beauty somehow and weigh them simultaneously.”
Levitin also said that he particularly enjoys the translating experience when the writer gives him some freedom although he expressed that he never wants to translate anything too drastically without informing the writer first.
After reading from her poems in both Portuguese and English, the duo answered questions from the audience who asked Branco about her influences and upbringing, and Levitin about being a translator.
Growing up, Branco would enjoy mathematical problems and reading literature before developing a passion for writing. She would learn to hone her own writing voice, which she recounted that she was criticized for by her Portuguese literary critics as having “a very personal voice.” She then said she believes her writing voice is rather “the voice of so many people that it’s impossible to find that one voice” to focus on, hence hushing her critics.
Also, João Guimarães Rosa, who is revered as Brazil’s greatest writer, was her biggest inspiration but noted that international audiences would be unfamiliar with his name and works. This is because of his works’ poor translations during the 1920s and there have not generally been any since then.
“Here’s the deal, if you have a rich uncle, this is a good career path for you,” Levitin initially joked. “But certainly, you won’t make a living being a translator of literature. You could make a living translating for a pharmaceutical company or in a corporate environment or electronics, because they pay quite well and they need good translators.”
He further noted that such companies’ brochures often come in different languages to reach international masses, but joked that generally, translators don’t know English fluently. This unfortunately shows in the brochures, making the company look bad or unprofessional.
In regards to poetry though, Levitin said that the most rewarding experience with translating poetry would be to get the translation published in magazines.
“Because America has around five to 10 literary magazines whereas Portugal probably has three, and Brazil probably has four or five,” he reasoned. “So, you probably will get your translations published in magazines but you won’t make a living being a translator of literature. I think that’s a fair thing to say even if you do novels.”
Roughly $12,000 was the most one could earn from translating a novel, which Levitin estimated as being already “a lot.” Also, one has to take into account that translating a novel can take half a year—it obviously depends on the novel’s length—which can be time-consuming.
“So, this is not a career path in terms of money,” he concluded, which Branco supported. “This is more a career path in terms of inner development, and maybe even passion or joy.”