Where the Lion is also the Lion Tamer: An Interview with Salgado Maranhão and Alexis Levitin

 by Leah Brennan

Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão often writes about the dry, harsh landscape of Brazil’s northeast region where he was born. He credits his love for language to his mother and her support of the poets who traveled and performed around Brazil. Striking images of fire, dust, and the sea keep his work grounded in place, but his work also transcends the physical world. He pays homage to the people of his community, and to communities everywhere, formed by place, language, or love.

Maranhão has won numerous awards for his work, including the prestigious Brazilian Academy of Letters Prize for his collected poems, A Cora da Palavra (The Color of the Word) in 2011. Sol Sangüíne (Blood of the Sun) is his first bilingual collection. An accomplished musician and songwriter for many of Brazil’s most beloved jazz and pop artists, Maranhão infuses his lines with a sense of musicality.

While Maranhão considers his lyrics separate from his poetry, he has had considerable success in both. In addition to his awards, a number of Brazilian artists collaborated to produce a tribute album in 2006, titled Amorogio.

For Blood of the Sun, Maranhão worked with renowned translator Alexis Levitin,

author of thirty-one books, as well as publications in 25 anthologies in more than 200 literary journals. One of the most well respected English translators of Portuguese and Brazilian literature, Levitin translates not only sense, but sound as well. In Blood of the Sun, he incorporates assonance and slant rhyme to convey the rhythm of Maranhão ‘s Portuguese.

Maranhão and Levitin recently met with me at Chatham University’s Jennie King Mellon Library to discuss poetry, translation, music, and love. Please note that when Maranhão is speaking, it is Levitin’s translation that I’ve transcribed.

Brennan: How did you begin working together?

Maranhão: We met each other in 2007 at Brown University. The chairman of the department of Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Brown, Luiz Fernando Valente, brought us together.

Levitin: Valente was already a great fan of Salgado’s poetry and was eager to see it translated into English. He invited Salgado from Rio de Janeiro and me, from Plattsburg, New York, much less romantic, to attend a conference at Brown, intending us to meet and hoping that we would hit it off and work on a book together, which is indeed what happened.

Brennan: So, would you consider this work a collaboration?

Levitin: You could say the translation is a collaboration, because, in the process, I went over everything with him. We read it aloud together, and so on.

Brennan: Would you say that’s one of the greatest advantages of working with a living writer?

Levitin: I always prefer working with a living writer. You can ask them questions, both about meaning and about sound. In other words, about form and content. Everyone understands that you need to ask questions about content, but really you need some help with form as well.

Brennan: In terms of form, are you referring to the way the poems look on the page, the structure of the poems?

Levitin: More than that. Listen to this:

Maranhão: Há que se viver o árido / como se cálido.

Levitin: “One must live the arid / impassioned and torrid.” Arido and cálido: it’s not a full rhyme, but a slant rhyme. Arid and torrid: it’s not exactly a full rhyme, but it’s close. Now, listen to the next stanza:

Maranhão: Há que se viver o breu / como se brio.

Levitin: Again, it’s a slant rhyme. Breu and brio isn’t a full rhyme. I made it a full rhyme, and it’s made richer by saying, “one must live the vile / with valor, with style.” So, we have vile and valor as a slant rhyme, and vile and style as a full rhyme. And Salgado can help point out to me the different things he’s doing in the original, so that I can notice them, especially the different things he’s doing with sound. And here, palavra, larva, alarde. He’s playing with the Ls and the As and the Rs, and I have to be aware of it. I try to reproduce it, or to produce some repetition of sounds in English which will not be identical but will create the same web of sounds.

Brennan: I remember reading that, for both of you, it’s the sound that’s most important. You mentioned these moments of good fortune in translation, of finding the word that fits the meaning and also the sound.

Levitin: Sometimes, it takes the passage of time before you find the right solution. We’ve sat around together in Rio working on a poem and not finding a solution, and then suddenly it appears. Or it may only appear the next day, so it’s as if the solution has to mature.

Brennan: Like writing poetry.

Maranhão: Sometimes, the right word comes a week later. You send an e-mail to your subconscious. The subconscious searches its archives, and a week later it comes.

Brennan: So, it’s more like snail mail than e-mail.

Maranhão: Not always at the time you want it. Poetry is mysterious. Like women.

Brennan: Yes, I would agree with that. Can you tell me how working with a translator affected your writing or your writing process?

Maranhão: Well, it’s had a great effect on me. It opened for me an understanding of the field of translation. I’m basically monolingual, so it’s a field that I didn’t have much to do with before. Although, of course I’d read English and American and French poets in Portuguese. I certainly knew that a poem could be translated into another language. What I didn’t know was the modus operandi. How do you actually accomplish it?

Brennan: That’s the mystery.

Maranhão: I was able to experience the craft of harmonizing the rhythms of one language into another, or harmonically presenting the rhythms of one language in another. I discovered what hard work is involved in finding the right word or the right phrase in translation, but also that it’s a bit chaotic or random. Sometimes it just comes from the air. Now, I realize the importance of the translator. And I’m convinced that they are profoundly underestimated.

Brennan: Alexis, I’ve heard you speak about translation as a moral act, as a way to increase understanding between cultures.

Levitin: Of course. I do think it’s moral, but here’s the deal. Anything you do in life presents a moral dilemma, because you can do it sloppily or you can try to do it well. And to do anything well is in a sense a moral triumph. Obviously, you can trap me with paradoxes; for example, the Nazis did their extermination of the Jews very well, and that of course is not moral, so there are paradoxes in what I’m saying, but in general, to do your work well is already a moral triumph. And then there’s the communication. My sense is  that we’re all islands. The reason John Donne said, “no man is an island” is exactly because we are. And we have to overcome that, and surely translating is one hopeful way to make a connection from one island to another. In this case, not just from one individual to another but from an individual from one archipelago–let’s say the Portuguese archipelago–to those of us who live in the archipelago of Anglo-Saxonic English. And making connections is surely, I think, a moral act.

Maranhão: Translation is a vital act for culture and for civilization itself. The labor of these upstanding people, the translators, has been an enormous contribution to all cultures. Imagine what our life would be like had no one translated the Bible, the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, and many other books that have made our life so very rich. Even today, in our technologically advanced era, when you can make a translation from Google. You can’t use Google for essential and symbolic language, though. Despite Google and technology, the translator is essential for helping us bring an awareness and understanding from one culture to another through language.

Brennan: It seems especially true for poetry. There’s just no way to use Google Translate.

Levitin: If Google translated a poem, it would be a totally different poem.

Brennan: When I was reading these poems, I noticed that, while a few of them are in first person, many of them are removed from the personal perspective and focused more on observations, especially of the physical landscape. I’m wondering if that is a reflection of, not only a connection to landscape, but maybe also a lack of ego?

Maranhão: Since my story comes from a community, I was never really alone with my ego, so that even when I do speak in the first person, I am carrying along with me a communal sense of things. I bring a community along with me. Even when I speak in the third person, I am still present as a kind of hidden observer. If you read my poetry carefully, here or there you’ll catch glimpses of me, just as you do of Alfred Hitchcock in his films.

Brennan: Alexis, can you also speak about the question of ego from a translator’s perspective?

Levitin: Even if translators begin life as egocentric as anyone else, they cannot very well remain so. The first factor is that they are completely dependent on somebody else. A poet sits down in front of a blank piece of paper, and something grows on that paper because of the poet. I never sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, because I already have a book in my hand that is written by someone else. Second of all, although poets generally do not become very famous in our culture, translators hardly become known at all. Even if you do a good job, you tend to remain relatively anonymous. Third of all, in our culture, most rewards take a financial shape, and obviously poetry by its very nature, in American society, garners almost no financial rewards, and the translation of poetry even less so. If you’re not humble to begin with, then as you live your life as a translator, you better become humble, because that’s what life is telling you. You’re important, but not that important.

Brennan: Speaking about the support for artists in the United States, I’m wondering what it’s like to be a poet in Brazil?

Maranhão: Recently, enormous state enterprises, such as state-run oil companies or electric companies, have begun to support major artistic events such as film festivals and jazz festivals, which are of cultural interest. In fact, they are also beginning to support things that have some pedagogical value. However, poetry doesn’t really interest government agencies because, alas, it doesn’t appeal to great numbers of people. And more and more, these big companies that have money are often being co-opted by political figures, whose real interest is to win votes, and you don’t win many votes with poetry. Politicians don’t have the slightest interest in poetry. Nonetheless, poetry, which is an amphibian creature, survives both in the wet season and the dry.

Brennan: Can you talk about your experience working with jazz musicians and your experience as a songwriter?

Maranhão: My education as a poet occurred simultaneously with the growth of a movement that was both musical and poetic in Brazil called Tropicália. The leaders of this movement were Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Torquato Neto, among others. I was ten or twelve years younger than they were. I had the chance to be friends with one of the leaders, Torquato Neto, and he stirred in me an interest in the vanguardism of poetry, and encouraged me to take part in that world of music and writing song lyrics. Neto was one of the most distinguished writers of song lyrics in Brazil, and he was a close friend of the founders of the concrete poetry movement in Brazil, Haroldo de Campos and Augusto de Campos.

Brennan: So, is working with musicians at all like working with a translator?

Maranhão: It’s a work in metrics, because music is mathematical and the writer has to adjust. If you don’t find the right word with the right rhythm and the right sound, [the song] just won’t work. So, strangely enough, even some very good poets are unable to do [the work] successfully, to write lyrics that work with music. If you’re writing the lyrics first, you have to somehow be foreseeing or imaging the music. A poem has to have a certain rhythmic availability, and even an availability in choice of words, because if it is sung, it is sung for all the people, not only for erudite academics. Erudite poems will not work as song lyrics for the people. And in fact, I do not include my song lyrics in any of my books of poetry, because it’s a different mechanism and a different density.

Levitin: I completely agree with him, but there are people who don’t agree. Back in the 70s, the Norton Anthology included Bob Dylan in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. I thought it was ridiculous, but they did it. I know Leonard Cohen refuses to discuss the difference between poetry and the poetry of song lyrics, and I must say that Leonard Cohen comes as close as one possibly can in pop music to being a real poet.

Maranhão: Sometimes, a rather fragile, or a slender, slim poem gains great success as a song lyric, because it is anchored on a beautiful melody. There on the white page, that poem is all alone. There, the cruelty of the reader can devour it, because it lies there exposed, and it doesn’t have the music to support it.

Levitin: I think Salgado and I completely agree on this distinction between song lyrics and poetry; coming from him, it’s more significant because he’s succeeded in writing song lyrics, and I’m only an observer.

Maranhão: I am also a cruel reader.

Brennan: I think poets always are. And I have one last question. I’m wondering what the word amoragio means.

Maranhão: I made up the word from two words. Love and another word, something like a surcharge, or the price you pay. If there’s a car that everyone wants, and there are very few of them, the car dealer will raise the price, and that raised price is the agio. After all, the  most expensive thing, in a sense, is love because you pay a very high surcharge in suffering, in despair, in loneliness and loss.

Levitin: He says that [love] is a flame that unties, or unravels the knots in the skein. And easily ignores…I’d want to think about this. I really hate it when he makes me translate poetry in one second flat. The word is good, but it’s also the goods. It ignores the good, and has disdain for truth.

Maranhão: It is a bridge of air.

Levitin: A bridge of air from Eden to insanity. Now, he’s saying that love is a dance before a circle of angels. A dance before a circle of drunken angels.

Maranhão: Where the lion is also the lion tamer.

Levitin: Where the lion is also the lion tamer and who, after rising to the throne of splendor, gives up his own flesh to the hunter. Or, surrenders his very flesh to the hunter. I like that! That’s good. That’s poetry.

Leah Brennan studies fiction and poetry at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she also teaches ESL and yoga. Her translations of French op-eds can be found at WatchingAmerica.com.

Note: The lines that are referenced in this interview are from parts 1 and 4 of Salgado Mranhão’s poem “Blood of the Sun.”  The cover and interview photos are by Kinsley Stocum.