The Music of Translation


Each particular text requires that the translator be attuned to its needs. The needs are varied and complex in any transposition from one language, one culture to another. Here I will focus on the exploration of a text’s specific musical needs. From the poetic to the technical, and to varying degrees, each text will require assorted scales of attention to facilitate the flow of language. To accomplish this a translator must be an attentive listener and, in addition, competent at hearing the music in the words. What does the text shout, and what does the text murmur? Will the range of notes touch all ears across all cultures? Translation preserves, transforms and invents. Choices are made. The subtle reverberations require ears equal in might to those versed in translating the songs of the trees.

As a writer and poet, I depart from views such that superior texts carry an inherent, coherent rhythm and musicality, ingredients that reinforce the particular excellence of their semantics. An effective translator will embrace a parallel, lucid rhythm in the target language. In my translations, I have not needed to sacrifice meaning in a prose text in order to preserve the underlying musicality.

In translating, I first assess the essence of the work to establish if music—the score—lies at the core of the text as in the case of L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry or rhyme. At times, the primary need of the poem will speak to the obvious choice I must highlight in translation. At other times, when the need for semantic meaning and music are equally married and essential to the experience, such as in a sonnet or other rhyming, I have opted to highlight meaning. In the instance of language poetry, music will take precedence. I see two distinct levels of music in a text. The most apparent is exemplified by rhyme and might be called the


beat of the poem while a secondary one, subtle and conducted by punctuation, I will call a poem’s cadence. In the following example, alliteration from sibilant sounds is the essence of this poem.




for Adriana


Rita Taborda Duarte

translated by paulo da costa




from soporiferous sound

to sonorous silence



sharply sage

is the solar





À Adriana

Rita Taborda Duarte





de soporífero som

a sonoríssimo silêncio.



sustenidamente sábia

é a clave




In translating, I value the transposition of the breath alongside the semantics of a text, the word, the cadence, the tempo. I see merit in not reshaping the music of an original text to the rhythm of a target language. Instead, I endeavour to remain true to the distinct music and syntax of the original work. I do not shorten the length of the sentences from the original language because English speech favours sentences significantly shorter than the Portuguese, by this I mean, I do not change the punctuation of a text. Either amputation or prosthesis would change the breath of the sentence, the breath of the book and, as a consequence, the musicality of the text. I am a reader who appreciates the strangeness conveyed in the sound and structure of a foreign text. The strangeness that stays true to the spice and flavour I would expect from a distinct view of the world arriving from another language, voice and culture, and to illustrate this I have included a poem from the Portuguese poet Nuno Júdice.



Nuno Júdice

O homem que falava sozinho na estação central de munique
que língua falava? Que língua falam os que se perdem assim, nos
corredores das estações de comboio, à noite, quando já nenhum
quiosque vende jornais nem cafés? O homem de
munique não me pediu nada, nem tinha ar de
quem precisasse de alguma coisa, isto é, tinha aquele ar
de quem chegou ao último estado
que é o de quem não precisa nem de si próprio. No entanto,
falou-me: numa língua sem correspondência com linguagem
alguma de entre as possíveis de exprimirem emoção
ou sentimento, limitando-se a uma sequência de sons cuja lógica
a noite contrariava. Perguntar-me-ia se eu compreendia acaso
a sua língua? Ou queria dizer-me o seu nome e de onde vinha
– àquela hora em que não estava nenhum comboio
nem para chegar nem para partir? Se me dissesse isto,
ter-lhe-ia respondido que também eu não esperava ninguém,
nem me despedia de alguém, naquele canto de uma estação
alemã; mas poderia lembrar-lhe que há encontros que só dependem
do acaso, e que não precisam de uma combinação prévia
para se realizarem. – É então que os horóscopos adquirem sentido;
e a própria vida, para além deles, dá um sentido à solidão que empurra
alguém para uma estação deserta, à hora em que já não se compram
jornais nem se tomam cafés, restituindo um resto de alma ao corpo
ausente – o suficiente para que se estabeleça um diálogo, embora
ambos sejamos a sombra do outro. É que, a certas horas da noite,
ninguém pode garantir a sua própria realidade, nem quando outro,
como eu próprio, testemunhou toda a solidão do mundo
arrastada num deambular de frases sem sentido numa estação morta.




Nuno Júdice

translated by paulo da costa
The man who talked to himself in munich’s central station
what language did he speak? What language speak those lost like that, on
platforms of train stations, at night, when no
kiosk sells newspapers or coffee? The munich
man asked me for nothing, he didn’t even look
as if he needed anything, meaning, he looked
like someone who had arrived at the last stage
the stage of someone who does not even need himself. Although,
he spoke to me: in a tongue not resembling a language
capable of expressing emotion
or feeling, limited to a sequence of sounds whose logic
the night contradicted. Was he asking me if by any chance I understood
his language? Or did he want to tell me his name and where he was from
– at such an hour when no train was
about to arrive or leave? If he had told me this,
I would have told him that I too was waiting for no one,
nor was I saying goodbye to someone, in that corner of a german
station, though I could remind him that some meetings depend only
on chance, not requiring a previous arrangement
to occur. That is when horoscopes acquire meaning,
and life itself, beyond them, lends meaning to the solitude that pushes
someone toward an empty station, at an hour when newspapers
are not bought or coffee drunk, restoring a touch of soul to the absent
body – enough to establish a dialogue, although
both are each other’s shadow. Since, at certain hours of the night,
no one can be certain of one’s own reality, not even when another,
like myself, witnessed all the loneliness in the world
dragged through senseless meandering sentences in a dead station.



(… essay excerpt)



in Beyond Words, Banff Centre Press 2010, ISBN 978-1-894-77338-6


Forthcoming in: Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey, The Architecture of a Multicultural Identity, Autumn 2014 (forthcoming)


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