The Birth of the Poem

O Nascimento do poema

Adélia Prado

Interview conducted by Michaela Kotziers

Michaela Kotziers: I’d love to hear about how you came to translate Prado. I’m interested in whether you were on the hunt to translate Portuguese when you were in Brazil.

Ellen Watson: As soon as I knew I was going to live there for a year, I knew I wanted to find a Brazilian poet to translate. When I looked in bookstores in the little provincial town I was living in, I found they had a glut of male poets, and they didn’t appeal to me. My husband was working at the state university, University of Santa Catarina, at the time. The English department had a little magazine in which students translated poems from Portuguese into English; the students were struggling to translate a short poem of Adélia’s. They didn’t know which idiom in English to use, but I saw the English (they didn’t even print the Portuguese, I don’t think) and I thought, This woman has that spark that I’m looking for. And no one, when I asked around at home, had heard of her. So I definitely thought I was on to something.

Kotziers: That’s part of the really important work of translation, too, is introducing a poet whom no one else has been able to read yet. Turning to this very personal relationship that the two of you have, I’m interested in the way that you two connect despite having very distinct ways of being poets in the world. Prado has expressed that she’s an author, but she doesn’t really have interest in inhabiting the role of writer in the professional and public sense. She doesn’t quite make a career day-to-day of her writing, and she said in a BBC radio interview that “There’s my normal life, and then there’s poetry.” And then, on the other hand, you are very much a professional writer. You direct the poetry center at Smith, you teach writing workshops, you’re the Poetry and Translation Editor at the Massachusetts Review. I’m wondering how this professional side affects your process of writing and if, when trying to understand where Prado’s coming from, if that ever felt like something that needed to be worked out.

Watson: No, not really. We have an incredible bond, and there are certain similarities in our fervor for different things. She is the spiritual person. I am not that spiritual. I mean, my first book was called We Live in Bodies, so that’s another reason that I gravitated towards her work: that it had the spiritual side but is so dedicated to and full of the body and daily life. For me, the struggle is more one of time. There’s never enough time in the week and the day and in anything to do editing and translating and my own writing. I guess I’ll just say that at a point when I was translating novels, I had to quit translating and not do any translating for a number of years in order to get my first book written. And people said, “Oh, you must be done translating.” And I said, “No, I’m a translator by heart. I’ve gotten that far into it. But I just have to find a way to make space to also write my own poems.” And I guess I’m a little bit of a workaholic in the way that I love the work that I do. When we’re in Divinopolis together, when we’re not working, she expects me to just go take walks, relax, and she’s like, “Why are you still working?” And I say, “Well, I’m preparing for our next session.” She kind of feels sorry for me, but I’m excited about this! So in those ways we’re different.

Kotziers: I’d like to request you to read “Where a Bird Is Also Nesting.” It’s from your book Dogged Hearts. It’s a poem that I felt really captured your relationship with Adélia Prado.

Watson: And it really did start with this pineapple. [Reads poem aloud.]

Kotziers: The last line is still my favorite.

Watson: I tear up when I say it. I mean, it’s true I am lucky to have these people in my life.

Kotziers: I’m wondering if we could talk a bit more about the process of your collaboration with Prado, in those sessions when you sat down at the table and you wrote with her because she doesn’t speak English. Could you talk about explaining your translations to her once they were written?

Watson: Well, I sort of paraphrased into Portuguese what I had on the page. After a while, when we both trusted each other and I trusted what I knew and knew what I didn’t, it was more of a matter of opening a book to a certain poem and me having my questions ready. There were times when there are references to Biblical moments and although I grew up with the Bible, it was a Protestant upbringing and I don’t remember it all that well, and so she would go to great lengths to bring out the Bible and show me what’s in it and the verse. We just sit there, and sometimes we get distracted and wander off somewhere else in our talking, and then I would say, “Ok, the next question is…” There was a time in her life when she kind of lost her faith for a while. She was clinically depressed and felt like her belief had somehow gotten frail, and she didn’t write for a number of years. She’s such a fervent believer that doubt wasn’t something that she could really accept. There are poems that refer to that, and we always talk about how much to reveal.

Kotziers: I can imagine that having known her poems so deeply and in a way that any other reader, without having spoken to her, wouldn’t quite know them, it would be difficult not to let that wander into your mind while you were translating and let it show too much, maybe even in ways that she hadn’t.

Watson: Exactly. I didn’t want the poem to reveal more than she put in the poem. Whether she’d want that or not, it really should have been loyal to the poem.

Kotziers: There’s a compromise in the process of choosing what to keep and what to omit. Not just on a line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza level, but also having to choose which poems from her volumes to publish in English. Could you speak to that process of deciding which poems to keep in?

Watson: Sometimes it was about poems just having a problem that makes it hard for them to work in English. For the things that get left behind, it was usually because they’re weaker poems. Occasionally she’d ask me, “Why didn’t you include this poem?” and I’d say, especially when it’s religious content, is that she is known for and unique in her ability to put not just the body and religion in the same book or poem — sex and belief — but for a counterbalance, a conflict. And some of her poems are just written in a moment of hallelujah, when she’s praising God, and it’s more likely they could be in a collection. But when they didn’t have images within them, when they didn’t have the daily in them, and then they ended with “Amen, Amen, Hallelujah,” I had a harder time putting them in with these other poems that were so much more substantial. I said to her that it’s that they’re less complicated. When I’m reading student poems or looking at my own poems or looking at peers’ poems, I’m looking for complexity. I’m looking for layers. When I’m putting a book together, I try to pick out what I think are the richest Adélia Prado poems.

Kotziers: I have some questions that are more specific to translation. Prado has said that what you must translate is the emotion. She has said, “I don’t care about the word.” I’m wondering how you reconcile such a liberal statement with the translator’s impulse to be more conservative or to meticulously consider every word and how it relates to the whole.

Watson: I think we make blanket statements to make a point, but I think what that really means is don’t put the word above the emotion. The words are still important. But because she’s not a veiled poet, if I don’t understand something, it’s my lack of cultural context or Portuguese faltering, and that’s sort of the easy part of the fix. Overall my goals in translating her were to create the same sort of energy and accessibility in her work. I think of her poems as inviting and also disconcerting, because they are very open-armed. I think that she’s very inventive in the way the poems move, and I want to keep that level of surprise and spontaneity, because they feel like they’re just happening as you read them, and that’s exactly what they are. She’s so genuine. She says things and she takes them back, but you know that she means them both.

Kotziers: I’m wondering if I could ask you to read another poem, while we’re on the topic of choosing the right word. This one is called “The Birth of the Poem.” It’s in Ex-Voto, originally from Prado’s O Pelicano.

Watson: [Reads poem aloud.] I like how she has it both ways. “Words stand for things. Things stand for nothing. Understanding comes like rapture. It’s the same as not understanding.”

Kotziers: I especially love the last line: “I didn’t build the pyramids. I am God,” as if we’re not building things; we’re just building poems and words.

Watson: She says that poetry is the most human kind of communication. So although there’s the God side of it, there’s the human side of it. It’s the body. Poetry is the most human.

Kotziers: Just reading her poetry you can see her spirituality, and she finds God in things, in every day. She’s not searching for it in churches and buildings. She’s just writing at a kitchen table.

In another interview, you asked Prado if she thought metaphor was the guardian of reality, and if so, if translation could then be the guardian of metaphor. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “translation as guardian of metaphor”?

Watson: It’s like the business of saying I might have to change the image or metaphor to reflect more of the reality. So it’s the responsibility of what metaphor you choose. Maybe I’m interpreting it right now just in terms of translation and there’s a broader way of understanding it.

Kotziers: That makes sense to me, though, in terms of translation too.

Watson: It’s so funny because we don’t think about the fact that the news cycle uses it. “Boots on the ground,” for example. I’m so sick of that. It dehumanizes boots. It’s people in those boots who are going to die. They don’t just say, “the troops.” We think in metaphors, but I think that’s not being the guardian of reality to say, “Boots on the ground.” That’s denying reality.

Kotziers: That’s almost doing a disservice to the kind of work that metaphor could be doing.

Watson: It’s not the most human form of communication that metaphor should be doing. It sounds catchy. And once it started happening, everyone now says that phrase and so many others like it.

Kotziers: I’m wondering, for translation to be the guardian of metaphor, do you feel like this means realizing that there are metaphors in every language? Is it preserving that this is a powerful thing we do in the way we think as humans?

Watson: In a way, it’s that you are a guardian, so you need to take it seriously. It’s the commonality, that it happens in both languages, but you have to be creative in order to preserve it. I think translation is not an intellectual act. I think it’s an act of poem-making, in which the metaphor is supreme.