Translating Each Other: Brenda Hillman ↔ Sebastião Edson Macedo

Brenda Hillman and Sebastião Edson Macedo met in the apartment of the Argentine poet Alejandro Crotto when he was visiting Berkeley in spring 2013. From there, Macedo became Hillman’s Portuguese tutor—but the student-teacher relationship did not last very long. As Macedo describes it, in helping Brenda review the nuances of Portuguese grammar, he became impressed by how rich and full of poetry her insights were into the language. Their collaboration thus quickly evolved into a translation project: They began working together on the poems Hillman and her mother (a native speaker of Portuguese) had translated by the Brazilian writer Ana Cristina Cesar. They worked together on Cesar’s collection A Teus Pés (At Your Feet) for years, before finalizing the manuscript with Katrina Dodson for Free Verse Editions in 2018.

It was this experience that led the two poets in their own right to engage in the symbiotic relationship of translating each other’s poetry. With regards to this process, Macedo writes of translating Hillman that:

Her work fascinates me for its vision of language entailing a sort of geological self that gives matter to meaning. Nature is at once tiny and colossal, populated by the dead and the living, by memory and forgetfulness. Its imagery equates classic with ordinary subjects emerging from private and public affairs, and its voice, apparently adrift, always decisive, moves along performing semantic quakes that call for a reality check. […] It has brought me to experiment with my mother tongue in ways I had not imagined before.

And Hillman on Macedo:

I knew I would never achieve any sort of fluency in Portuguese, but because of my ear for English, I knew that it was not hopeless to render some of Sebastião’s poems into English. We spent hours talking about the nuances here. I am drawn to the beauty and mystery of his poems, to their spiritual uncertainty and to their linguistic play (though of course the Portuguese play is a bit lost on me); I enjoy the range of his themes of human connectedness and look forward to translating more work together.

Two poems by Brenda Hillman

Translated into Portuguese by Sebastião Edson Macedo



– – –                                                                                         – – –

                                  LEFT EYE

There’s a barrier before between

I think they were trying to write their names on it

The rubbed-looking light    a glare of the all along
Had inserted itself into the nerves’ lining

Say you saw it                 Be alive

As if comprehension were not to blame

As if autonomy were not to blame

And to the you between us                        there could be read
(a heap   of dirt had been pushed up, outside)

In the numberless


Night                 the flame narrative the flame report

+ + +                                                                                       + + +



– – –                                                                                         – – –

                             OLHO ESQUERDO

Há um obstáculo anterior ao entre

Acho que tentaram grafar seus nomes nele

A luz espargida    o fulgor de por toda extensão
Se metia a meio do alinhamento dos nervos

Diz que o viu                Sê vivo

Como se a culpa não fosse da compreensão

Como se a culpa não fosse da autonomia

E para o tu entre nós        que haveria de ser lido
(um       monte de poeira foi erguido, varrido)

Na inumerável


Noite                 a narrativa em chamas o relato em chamas

+ + +                                                                                       + + +



After the Fires,,, In the Mountains,,,

The spirit seedlings do their yellow best.

      The sister seedlings move to the cold ground;

they join the feral mother

dressed in ash.          They join the feral

brother dressed in ask ;;;


There came a time attached

to the cold ground. Golden-crowned.

Agencies moved humans to new

metal boxes. Flies on

    corpses of the question marks.

        Fucking stupid leaders—excuse me,

stupid fucking leaders said profit hotel

attack mode. Earth said,

the large gods are lucky

       not to exist. Unimaginable

            conflict as families apply for

                little scraps of state money.

At solstice, without despair,

when nights are long, we study

the classics that halt in the middle

of action.  Humans loved life very much,

it was never just us vs. the sun king

or single minutes vs. all of eternity.

music notes

after SEM




Depois dos incêndios,,, Nas montanhas,,,

As etéreas mudas usam seu melhor amarelo.

       As mudas irmãs vão para a terra arrefecida;

elas se juntam à fera mãe

coberta de cinza.      Elas se juntam ao fero

irmão coberto de cisma ;;;


É chegado o tempo

atado à terra arrefecida. Coroado a ouro.

Os socorros colocaram os humanos em novos

compartimentos metálicos. Moscas

       nos cadáveres das interrogações.

            Líderes escrotos de merda – me perdoe,

merda de líderes escrotos disseram hotel aproveitador

hora de atacar. A terra disse,

os deuses graúdos têm sorte

            de não existir. Conflito

                 inimaginável enquanto as famílias solicitam

                       as migalhas da indenização estatal.

No solstício, sem desespero,

quando as noites são longas, a gente estuda

os clássicos que suspendem a ação

ao meio. Os humanos amaram muito a vida,

nunca foi apenas a gente versus o sol rei

ou os minutos isolados versus toda a eternidade.

music notes

após SEM





Two poems by Sebastião Edson Macedo

Translated into English by Brenda Hillman



potomac service center

                        para frm

eu recebia um documento com uma instrução e tinha

total confiança no que me diziam do mundo

e seu respeito pela validade de todo relato por extenso

eu nem precisava pedir uma opinião por exemplo

timbre sobre timbre combinado e tudo

nos conformes nos queridos nos máximos

eu levantava pela luz para receber o capricho desse trabalho

a marca da vontade de fazer sentido e praticamente ter


eu recebia um documento com uma instrução e voltava

pro dia em que me dei conta de que era melhor assim


potomac service center

                                 for FRM

I used to receive a document with an instruction and had

total confidence in what I was told about the world

and what it held for the validity of every story word by word

I didn’t even need to ask for an opinion for example

seal upon seal pressed together and everything

in place in the hoped-for in the best way possible

I rose through the light to catch the details of this work

a sign of the need to make sense and basically to have


I used to receive a document with an instruction and returned

to the day I realized that it was better like this


a queimada

para colher do tempo o seu melhor fruto

angariar do vocabulário uma pessoa querida

é possível que a queimada arrefeça antes da gente chegar aí

exude e resista ao lixo das redes sociais

para verter no coração a sua melhor pessoa

colocar na pauta dos moradores nossos palmos de parentes

e arrochar na dimensão do raro

do destino e da serra inteira ao nosso dispor

the burning

to gather from time its best fruit

to procure a loved one from language

it’s possible the fire will cool down before we get there

sweat out and resist the garbage of social networks

to pour your best self into the heart

to include in claims of the residents the span of our relatives

and to strive toward the rare dimension

of fate and of the whole range of hills available to us


Brenda Hillman is the award-winning author of ten full-length collections from Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), and Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (2018). With Patricia Dienstfrey, she edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003), and has co-translated At Your Feet by Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar, available from Free Verse Editions. Named by Poets and Writers as one of 50 inspiring writers in the world, Hillman currently serves as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets and teaches at St. Mary’s College where she is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry.

Sebastiao Edson Macedo is a Brazilian poet and scholar, and author of three collections of poetry published in Brazil, where he also published translations of Allen Ginsberg’s and Lee Harwood’s poems into Portuguese for literary magazines. Macedo holds a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Berkeley.


text credits: LEFT EYE was originally published in: Cascadia, Wesleyan UP, Middletown, CT: 2001. After the Fires,,, In the Mountains,,, is forthcoming in the chapbook Studio One Reading Series: 10 years :54 poets
image: Vija Celmins. “Envelope.” 1964. Oil on canvas. In To Fix the Image in Memory at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Photo: Elisa Wouk Almino

This is the first in a three-part series of poems translated from the Portuguese. Purchase a limited print edition of this set of poems by clicking  here. Your purchase of this edition helps to support contributor honoraria and printing costs.

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