Translating Pictures and Portuguese

by Natan Barreto | trans. Natan Barreto and John Edmund Rhodes

They are dreary, the dresses of these girls –

no flower, not even withered, no leaf

Translating my own poems

When I translate my own poems, I first write a near-literal version in English, one that is, above all, clear. I also offer several alternatives. In the next stage, John carefully reads the English version I came up with and maps it onto the original in Portuguese. In each language, each particular word has a sort of aura or networks of meanings, and sometimes it’s only in the process of connecting the sub meanings attached to each word that a corresponding one can be found. Once the original poem is more deeply explored by both of us, we move towards finding a more idiomatic English. We therefore not only explore semantics but the pragmatics of language: the way it is spoken, the appropriate way of using a phrase in a specific context. After generating several versions, we have an extended dialogue until both of us are satisfied that we have a vivid and accurate translation of the original.
~ Natan Barreto



Movimento imóvel

a partir da escultura Escravo “Atlas” (1530-34),
de Michelangelo Buonarroti

A força pelo corpo que se expande,

ao tentar escapar do estado bruto,

o faz mover-se imóvel eternamente,

pois não se quebra o pacto no tempo.

O mármore nos mente e mostra um homem

que do concreto surge interminado.

Parado no espaço estreito, o gesto,

e nele a luta que atravessa a ausência.

A pedra nunca cede e o ser não sai:

a rima é humana, mas sem riso e lágrima –

parede impermeável, sem fronteira,

entregue ao fundo, à prisão do peso.

Dentro do claro, não estanca o escuro

e o nó no fluxo fixo não desata.

Still movement

after the sculpture “Atlas” Slave (1530-34),
by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The force expanding in the body,

trying to escape the brute state,

makes him move in perpetuity,

a pact with time, unbroken.

The marble deceives and shows a man

emerging unfinished from the stone.

Held still, in the narrow space, the gesture,

and in it, the struggle that goes beyond absence.

The stone is never defeated, and the being never escapes:

a human rhythm, but without laughter and tears –

impenetrable wall, without borders,

delivered to the deepest point, a prison of weight.

Inside the illumination, darkness doesn’t cease:

the knot in the fixed flow is not undone.

No fundo do pano

a partir do quadro Lavadeiras (1937),
de Candido Portinari

Nas trouxas nas cabeças dessas moças

há roupas sujas que vestiram outras

em seus passeios, jantares e festas –

suor, perfume, no fundo do pano.

No pano que elas vestem, essas moças,

entra o suor (seu perfume agridoce),

pérolas transparentes que o permeiam,

molhando em amargo o raso dos vestidos.

São tristes os vestidos dessas moças –

nenhuma flor, nem mesmo murcha, ou folha,

nenhuma cor de pétala no claro –

alvo lavado por suas mãos tão limpas.

Nas mãos ainda meninas dessas moças,

brincar é força de dedos que doem,

que esfregam cegos qualquer encardido

e espremem a espuma quando a água enxágua.

Seguindo os pés descalços dessas moças

se chega a beiras, lagos escondidos,

onde se afoga o fundo frio do pano

das roupas sujas que vestiram outras.

In the cold depth of the cloth

after the painting Washerwomen (1937),
by Candido Portinari

In the bundles on the heads of these girls

there are dirty clothes worn by other girls,

who strolled, dined and partied –

sweat and perfume, in the weave of the cloth.

Into the cotton they wear, these girls,

enters their sweat (its bittersweet perfume),

transparent pearls that permeate it,

wetting with bitterness the fabric of their dresses.

They are dreary, the dresses of these girls –

no flower, not even withered, no leaf,

nor the color of petals on white –

a white that was washed by clean hands.

In the still young hands of these girls

playing is a strength that hurts,

that rubs blindly the filth

and squeezes the foam as the water rinses.

Following the bare feet of these girls

we arrive at the banks of hidden lakes,

where the cold depth of the cloth is drowned –

the soiled clothes put on by others.

LAVADEIRAS - de Candido Portinari

Senhor de mim

para Frederick Douglass (1818 –1895)

Roubei do meu senhor

esta cabeça.

Roubei-lhe a sombra

de braços e mãos.

Roubei do tronco seu

este tronco solto

e as pernas

lhe roubaram os pés

que se disseram ao chão.

Roubei-me do senhor

que me roubara

de mim

o que era ser

de mim

e a mim me dou

o que é me ser:

de mim senhor.

Master of my own self

for Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

I stole from my master

this head.

I stole from him the shadow

of these arms, of these hands.

I stole from his whipping post

this body that is free

and these legs

stole from him the feet

that say who they are to the road.

I stole myself from the master

who had stolen

from me

what it is to belong

to myself

and I give to myself

what it means to be me:

master of my own self.



Natan Barreto (Salvador, 1966) is a Brazilian poet, translator and primary school teacher. He has lived in Rio, Paris, Rome, and, since 1992, in London. He has published five collections of poetry, including Under the Roofs of the Night (1999), Still Movement (2016) and A Backyard and Other Corners (2018), which won the Sosígenes Costa Poetry Prize. He also translated from the French into Portuguese two books by the Madagascan writer Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, compiled in the volume Almost-Dreams & Translated from the Night (2009). In London he has given readings at the Brazilian Embassy, the Museum of London, and the universities of Queen Mary and Nottingham. His poetry has appeared in some journals, such as Blimunda, the magazine of the José Saramago Foundation, and is part of the bilingual anthology Poets adrift: first anthology of Brazilian diaspora poetry (2013).

John Edmund Rhodes (Preston, 1955) is an English consultant clinical psychologist. In London, he gained a degree in philosophy. He has also lived in Paris, where he studied languages and visual media. For some years he worked as an English teacher.He has published three psychology books, Solution Focused Thinking in Schools (1995), Narrative CBT for psychosis (2009) and Narrative CBT: Distinctive Features (2014), and numerous articles in academic journals. He has translated Brazilian poems for the bilingual anthology Poets adrift: first anthology of Brazilian diaspora poetry (2013), as well as for readings at the Brazilian Embassy, the Museum of London and the Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

lead image: Cândido Portinari. Lavadeiras (Washerwoman). 1937. Copyright kindly provided by João Candido Portinari


This is the second 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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