Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen ‘Death’ – A Translation

Sophia de Mello writing and smoking by the window
Sophia de Mello

Death

How you are clear, 

What freshness stayed between your fingers… 

 

You are a fountain, 

With white stones in your depths, 

You are a fountain singing in the night 

And silently

Silver fishes arrive at the surface of the water. 

 

Death how you are clear, 

And full of blossom…

 

You are the breeze

Passing through the leaves with a single gesture of goodbye, 

You are the breeze that carries perfumes and spills them, 

You are the soft tread of the breeze 

On the streets when no one passes! 

 

You are a bunch of linden where silence blossoms, 

You are a lake of restless images, 

You are the secret nostalgia of a party

That murmurs in the gardens. 

 

Singing 

With hands running on the walls

Passing and harvesting

The matured red blood of blackberries

Coming and going 

Alone and transparent 

Accompanied by the memories of things. 

 

Death how clear you are, 

And lost!

 

You are the midnight of night, 

You are the veranda facing the wind, 

You are a feather, lone and smooth. 

 

The shadows commence their dance, 

The perfume of algae fills the air

And branches press on the windows:

 

Soft hair-like feathers in the wind.

Alone you pass at the ends of avenues. 

Not showing your face

Passing, with your back turned, in a white dress. 

 

How you are light and sweet like a dream! 

The gust of night fills with anguish 

And from me rise solitary words: 

 

You are the perfume of infancy on the rocks, 

You are the dress of infancy in the fields, 

You are the feather of infancy in the night. 

 

Suddenly

I hold the form of your face. 

 

How you are fresh! 

Passing and from your fingers fountains run

How you are light, 

Lighter than a dance!

 

Barely arriving, barely returning, barely seen

Extinguishing yourself at the end: 

 

Smooth white sand undisturbed

Smooth feather

Anguish fountain fresh and breezy.


This translation was originally published July 5th 2015, and edited and republished on the date shown.

Commentary

One of the most compelling elements of Sophia’s poetry is her belief in the power of the four primordial elements – air, fire, earth and water – and her ability to express poetic beauty by reencountering the primitive and the truth of the origins. In the original poem ‘Morta’ Sophia breathes life into death by demonstrating the colourful ability of life to reawaken the stillness of death. In my translated version I attempted to recreate this harmonious communion between life and death, focusing on the intensely sensory language that is central to the poem. This focus on stimulating the senses also remains loyal to Sophia’s poetry; in her poems it is often possible to smell and taste the sea, and there is always some fragrance carried in her breezes.

The most difficult aspect of this translation (and I believe it is for most Romance languages) occurred in the translation of gendered adjectives such as the title ‘Morta’, which translates literally as ‘dead’, and is used in conjunction with feminine nouns and pronouns (‘morto’ being the masculine equivalent). The reason behind the choice of title being ‘death’, as opposed to ‘dead’, is in the third line of the original ‘que frescura ficou entre os teus dedos’. The use of the past tense ‘ficou’ – in the translated version it is ‘stayed’ – demonstrates the poem’s elegiac style, and the use of ‘frescura’ (‘freshness’ in the translated version) toys with the central relationship between life and death, demonstrating its fragility.

Sophia is one of the most widely read and recognised authors in Portugal and despite having always lived in aristocratic circles she championed social equality and justice. In her poetry there is also a fundamental essence of Portugal—and being Portuguese—flowing from her language, and making her one of the most interesting and complex writers of contemporary Portuguese poetry.

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