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Craft Talk 2: Packing Lines with Sound <span class="amp">&</span> Meaning — Rosa Alice Branco, translated by Alexis Levitin

It’s hard to write about craft when you’re talk­ing about a trans­la­tion, espe­cial­ly if you can’t read the orig­i­nal, because it’s not always pos­si­ble to know whose craft you’re talk­ing about, the translator’s or the author’s. So, for exam­ple, while read­ing Alex­is Levitin’s trans­la­tion of Rosa Alice Branco’s Cat­tle of the Lord, I found myself mar­veling at the clean, chis­eled tight­ness of the lines and how the deft manip­u­la­tion of syn­tax with­in those lines, and also across line breaks, helps to cre­ate the emo­tion­al res­o­nances that make Branco’s poems so pow­er­ful. Take, for exam­ple, “The Soul in the Mouth of Ani­mals,” to which I have opened at random.

Don’t look back at a life like death.
The diges­tion of dreams is slow­er than
our final des­tiny. In any lan­guage the verb to be
ends always at the slaugh­ter­house. Come quick
to drink the sacred chal­ice. I have cho­sen such a wine
for this night. Lat­er I will undress your flesh while you say:
take, this is my body: I am
my body on its way to yours. There is no burial
for meat is use­ful and the soul has turned to rot in the mouths
of ani­mals. The immac­u­late essence of history
is trans­mut­ed into mat­ter for the delight of the chosen.

As far as I can tell, the lines in Levitin’s trans­la­tion match up per­fect­ly with Branco’s orig­i­nal in Por­tuguese, pre­serv­ing the rip­ples of mean­ing sent out with­in the poem because of the way one sen­tence will end and anoth­er begin with­in the same line. Here are two exam­ples of what I mean:

our final des­tiny. In any lan­guage the verb to be

my body on its way to yours. There is no burial

Read that first exam­ple punc­tu­at­ed dif­fer­ent­ly—Our final des­tiny, in any lan­guage, the verb “to be”—and you have a mean­ing that is almost pre­cise­ly the oppo­site of where the next line takes us: “the verb to be/ends always at the slaugh­ter­house.” Repunc­tu­ate the sec­ond exam­ple—My body on its way to yours: there is no bur­ial—and the rela­tion­ship between death and eroti­cism that Bran­co plays with through­out the poem takes on an addi­tion­al lay­er of emo­tion­al and metaphor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. If I am right about how the lines of the trans­la­tion match up with those of the orig­i­nal, then this is Branco’s craft, not Levitin’s, though his is obvi­ous­ly the skill that makes it seem as effort­less in Eng­lish as I am assum­ing it must seem in Portuguese.

That effort­less­ness, of course, is an illu­sion cre­at­ed by how thor­ough­ly each sen­tence in the poem is pared down, syn­tac­ti­cal­ly and seman­ti­cal­ly, so that noth­ing extra is left over that might inter­fere with the sub­tex­tu­al asso­ci­a­tions I point­ed out above. I have read poems where this same technique—the pack­ing of a line with words that are sup­posed some­how to play off each oth­er in sig­nif­i­cant ways—comes off as so heavy-hand­ed that it’s dif­fi­cult to take either the poem or the poet seri­ous­ly. Look care­ful­ly at these lines, on the oth­er hand, and you can see how Lev­itin does it:

to drink the sacred chal­ice. I have cho­sen such a wine
for this night. Lat­er I will undress your flesh while you say:
take, this is my body: I am
my body on its way to yours. There is no burial

There are, more or less, sev­en stress­es per line if you stress each of the mono­syl­lab­ic words in the third line, which is a plau­si­ble way to read it. As well, there is a very sub­tle and sophis­ti­cat­ed sound pat­tern­ing at work. Con­sid­er the first line:

  1. the k in drink and the c in sacred
  2. the s in sacred and such, along with the final ce in chal­ice,
  3. the ch in chal­ice and cho­sen and such
  4. the a in chal­ice and have
  5. the final syl­la­ble of cho­sen and the mono­syl­lab­ic wine

Then the long i in night picks up the vow­el in wine; and if you were to fol­low the trails of asso­nance, con­so­nance, and allit­er­a­tion through­out these lines you’d end up with a com­plex map of the poem’s son­ic infra­struc­ture, not a sin­gle com­po­nent of which should be con­sid­ered accidental—which is not the same thing, by the way, as say­ing that some of it might have hap­pened intu­itive­ly. Intu­ition in art is some­thing that needs to be cul­ti­vat­ed over time, that emerges at this lev­el of craft from sur­ren­der to the dis­ci­pline. That is the les­son that the heavy-hand­ed poets I was talk­ing about above have not yet learned and that Lev­itin has chan­neled so seam­less­ly into Eng­lish from what I imag­ine is a sim­i­lar seam­less­ness in Branco’s Portuguese.

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