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 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.
The sea was unfurling bolts of cotton on the beach.
But now, at least in this cove, the sea is muddy. The waves sprawling on the sand, under the spotlight of an intense sun, exhibit a strange hue—a corrupt, corrosive red that might be called ocher, as if the sea, in its incessant flow, had passed through steep, muddy ravines before subsiding here, and dislodged clumps of earth that dissolved to contaminate green water, bluish water.
On the night Billy Ray was born
(New York, 28th and 7th)
not one soul contemplated the geraniums
There was, however, the sound of the world falling
like multiple stalactites
in the area surrounding the hospital
they say that the most impressive of all crossings is not thirst or the fear afterwards. The humiliation no longer wounds what does not exist they say bodies in a boat of bodies veins eyes skin penis nails vagina
And then, as is its wont, death comes knocking at the door. This time from two thousand miles away.
I try to get the image I have of him in my head to focus. The man who tried to be my father for over thirty years. Officially, not biologically, and not anymore. A death that will nevertheless force me home, back to Lisbon, just when I thought I’d found my place on this dry and sleepy island.