Lesley Saunders*

A LINK TO LESLEY’S FEBRUARY WRITING WORKSHOPS IN READING http://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/events/details/748/’

MEET UPS : February, April

PROJECT: To share work in progress on translations of Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta.


February’s workshop – as well as giving us all the opportunity to hear, look at and study a selection of very moving and lovely work – surfaced a number of themes which I hope to revisit in my slot on translation in April.  In my last post, I mentioned James Underhill’s book ‘Voice and Versification in Translating Poems’, which I recently reviewed; I am very struck by his insistence that: ‘we do not translate a language, we do not translate poetry; we translate a poem.’ If translation is, as I believe, a particular variety of close reading, then what can that teach us about attentiveness to the form and soundscape of the single, singular poem in front of us? What, exactly, are we trying to ‘carry across’ from one linguistic-cultural space to another? We often talk about having or developing a ‘voice’; Underhill reminds us that ‘voice’ is actually a number of things simultaneously: the voice of a language, the voice of an era, the voice of a literary movement, the voice of a poet, and the voice of a particular poem. I shall try to do justice to some of these hugely engaging issues when I talk about my own emerging translations of Maria Teresa Horta’s passionate and idiosyncratic poems.


Maria Teresa Horta and I, working closely with the scholar Ana Raquel Fernandes, are making progress with the translations, though it is very painstaking work (as I shall outline in April’s workshop), made harder by Maria Teresa’s ongoing ill-health this winter. I am so delighted we decided to embark on the book at this stage, rather than waiting.


I was recently asked to review a book called ‘Voice and Versification in Translating Poems’ by James W. Underhill; and was delighted to find much to instruct and stimulate my thinking about poetry as well as about translation – I’ll bring the book with me for the February meeting. I’ve also managed to translate another half dozen poems of Maria Teresa Horta’s, and intend to bring the drafts with me even though I’m guessing there won’t be time to discuss them in detail, if at all. One day last week I felt so hopeless about the task I’d set myself and very dissatisfied with the translation work I’d been doing (it seemed so dead compared with the original) that a pretty sleepless night followed. Next day, however, I found a solution to one or two of the most pressing problems; and this reminded me that poetry so often happens in just that fashion:  we confront a place of impasse and impossibility, which – if we can bear to let go of our intentions and desires – resolves itself into a way forward, at least for a few steps more…


LESLEY WRITES : I always like to have a project to focus my writing, so this initiative of Sue’s – superbly structured and hosted, as always – is a very welcome opportunity to think aloud and to share work-in-progress.

One of several poetry projects I’m embarking on is  book of translations (for Two Rivers Press) of selected poems by the Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta, one of the most revered poets of modern Portugal who has published more than ten volumes of poetry over a lifetime’s writing career. I’m working directly with Maria Teresa and also with a scholar/lecturer Ana Raquel Fernandes, who as well as being a friend and colleague of Maria Teresa, speaks and writes very good English.

This all came about because on New Year’s Eve 2014 my husband and I decided that in the coming year we would go to Lisbon – a city we’d both wanted to visit for a long time. I’d last been to Portugal in the post-revolution years of the mid-1970s; and around that time I’d also encountered The New Portuguese Letters, a profoundly moving book collaboratively composed by the Three Marias – Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa – which challenged my sense of what literature could accomplish, formally as well as psychologically and politically. Forty years later in 2015, through those serendipitous connections that the internet makes possible, I was able to arrange a meeting with Maria Teresa, in a pastelaria!


Maria Teresa Horta and Lesley Saunders

Having tried my hand at translating three or four of Maria Teresa’s poems, I entered one of them for the 2016 Stephen Spender award – in which, to my utter surprise and delight, it was awarded first place. The same translation was also chosen by Carol Rumens as the Guardian Poem of the Week in November 2016, and she added a lovely commentary – see: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/nov/28/poem-of-the-week-poema-by-maria-teresa-horta-translated-by-lesley-saunders

My purpose in putting this budding work in the welcoming forum of Project 2017 is to expose my translations to the eyes and ears of English poets; Maria Teresa and Ana Raquel will take care of issues of lexical and grammatical fidelity, but I also need to find out whether each translation works with integrity as a poem in English. Maria Teresa’s work has a syntactical compactness coupled with a psychological passion, even wildness, which often makes nonsense of a literal translation. Sometimes I feel I have to stray quite far from the individual Portuguese words in order to convey the music and meaning of the whole. Think of translating Sylvia Plath or Emily Dickinson – two of Maria Teresa’s favourite Anglophone poets – into another language: that gives a sense of the task.

Arrogantly, perhaps, I believe that poetry is best translated by poets – we have at least lesley-saunderssome insight into the mechanisms and dynamics of the device we call a poem, even if it proves very hard to carry these features across into a language that works very differently from the original on the page and in the head. Most of all, we know how to hear a ‘voice’, and we recognise that this is the reader’s main responsibility, as well as the principal pleasure, of getting to know a poet’s work.


3 comments on “Lesley Saunders*

  1. veronabass says:

    Much can be said after the stimulus of our April meet – up. I want to say that I was inspired by much of what you said about the poet’s role and the ‘voice’ that distinguishes poetry. In particular you were talking about translation but I found it helpful in a general sense as well. You have such clear expression that I admire. I wish I could have done the Reading workshop. Writing about landscape and the sense of place is what I like to try to achieve.


  2. poetryspacepoet says:

    I love your Thirteen Ways, Lesley. Such a beautifully detailed piece.


  3. barleybooks says:

    Lesley, I’ve just read my e-mail from The Poetry Business: congratulations on your well-deserved success! I look forward to reading these poems.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s