Translator Jethro Soutar speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about three pieces he translated from Portuguese for Issue 20 of The Common magazine. These pieces appear in a special portfolio of writing from and about the Lusosphere—Portugal’s colonial and linguistic diaspora around the globe. In this conversation, Soutar talks about the complexities of translating poetry and prose: capturing not just the meaning of a piece but the feeling and atmosphere of it, and the culture behind the scenes. He also explains a little of the colonial and racial history of Portugal, Cape Verde, and Mozambique, and how those events echo today through the literature and language of modern Lusophone countries.
Through radar, the Americans made contact with the moon, which of course is exciting. But the most important event of the week happened with my cornstalk.
In my backyard, in a pile of dirt the gardener gathered, something was born that might have been just plain grass—but that I discovered was a cornstalk. I transplanted it to the narrow flowerbed in front of the house. The small leaves were dried out; I thought it was dead. But it revived. When it was the size of a palm, I showed a friend and he declared disdainfully that it was actually grass. When it was the size of two palms, I showed another friend, and he confirmed that it was sugar cane.
“It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” wrote Borges. This is a statement that makes me think of my other self, the other Laughlin who lived in another world, another time, as another self in another country—as we’re always another when we live outside our native land.
Lusophones love to tout the uniqueness of their (our) language, and in even the most roundabout of metalinguistic conversations, all roads eventually lead to saudade. But aside from a vague quasi-mysticism about loss that surrounds the word, the meaning is straightforward—saudades tuas, I miss you. Saudades de Portugal. I miss Portugal. Loss, longing. We have tools in English that serve to get the point across quite easily.
It’s July 2020. I am supposed to be in Portugal for the tenth edition of the DISQUIET International Literary Program. Instead I’m at my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, about half a mile from the very common the magazine that you hold in your hands is named after.
The Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak. Or at least it was to me. Even its trees are clearly loners, set apart from each other at distant intervals across miles of sere brown fields. The Alentejo is all about waiting, from its numbered cork trees, with their skinned underbellies between harvest years, to the fabled, and perhaps fictional, nun Mariana, writing from Beja to a lover who will never come back. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun have been awaiting an author, an answer, for three and a half centuries now. Once celebrated for sparking a revolution in the European epistolary novel, now considered out of fashion even in Portugal, they remain a literary enigma, the country’s Mona Lisa.
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.