In Conversation • Luci Collin

“Translating them into a culture and language like Brazilian Portuguese, considering how far away we are geographically and culturally, is a delicate compromise and, without thorough research, temerarious, as it may border on the superficial and mistaken.”

Luci Collin, a fictionalist, poet and translator from Curitiba, has more than 20 published books, and a Jabuti award. Completed the Bachelor’s Degrees in Piano Performance and Classical Percussion, the Degree in Portuguese / English Letters, the Master in Letters / English Language Literature; from the University of São Paulo, completed a PhD in Linguistic and Literary Studies and two post-doctoral internships in Irish Literature. She is a retired professor at the Department of Modern Foreign Languages ​​at UFPR, where she taught English Language Literature and Translation. Occupies Chair n. 32 at the Academia Paranaense de Letras. Over more than 30 years of career, she wrote articles and essays for several literary newspapers and magazines, participated in national and international anthologies (USA, France, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay), and received awards from literature contests in Brazil and the USA. She translated authors such as Gary Snyder, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Vachel Lindsay, Jerome Rothenberg, Moya Cannon, among many others.

In an interview with the Translation Studies Program at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, you defined your work in three genres as follows: ‘Poetry: subjectivity; Fiction: everyday life; and Translation: a huge passion’. Then you say that your voice differs from the different types of text you write and that in translation, specifically, the relationship of passion is what defines the works you will translate. How did you choose to translate the Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin?

I met Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin in 2007, when I received a Scholarship for Literary Translators from the Government of Ireland and spent a few months in Dublin organizing and translating the Irish Tales book of the early 20th century (published by Travessa dos Editores). Eiléan was a professor of translation at Trinity College and was linked to the program for this scholarship, so I joined her a few times so that my project could be followed up. On that occasion, I came into contact with the grandiose poetry of one of the greatest names in contemporary Irish poetry. I was immediately struck by an immense admiration for that poetry so intense and subtle that Ní Chuilleanáin writes and thought of a translation project. We needed to read this poet in Brazil! Motivated by this idea, I bought the books I could from Eiléan, already thinking about organizing a publication of her poetry in Brazilian Portuguese. I was back in Dublin in 2009 to present this anthology to the poet herself (that was very exciting – having the poems commented on by the creator herself, who was also a translation teacher) and in 2010 the book Hábitos do Musgo (by Kafka Edições), which I organized with translations of selected poems from six books by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. With the support of ABEI and the Yeats Chair, from USP, we managed to bring the poet to participate in the 5th Symposium on Irish Studies in South America and, on the occasion, we promoted book launches in São Paulo and Curitiba.

Still on Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. As an Irish poet who writes both in English and in Gaelic, do you believe that she can capture Irish culture, folklore and mythologies in its essence, and in this way, allowing us to immerse ourselves into the Irish universe?

Without a doubt, the poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin presents and reveals to us, with singular depth, the Irish universe. If the exceptional poetic sensitivity of this writer was not enough, it must be considered that Ní Chilleanáin has an impeccable cultural and intellectual formation – historical, linguistic, political, philosophical -, of an enormous amplitude. All of this lends his poetry an impressive complexity and solidity. And having access to the poetic perception of someone who is a native speaker of Gaelic, a language that dates back to the constitution of the Irish people since the beginnings linked to Celtic culture, is a precious thing. Also, the relationship that Ní Chuilleanáin has with the mysteries of the religious and the sacred, in addition to the mastery of several other languages ​​(translates from Italian and Romanian), make her poetry an expression of an extraordinary carat. I know few poets whose work corresponds and represents a dive as critically deep into Irish culture as Ní Chuilleanáin.

Moya Cannon, another Irish poet whom you translated, also uses terms in Gaelic, as for example in the poem “Taom”, which means an overflow, usually in the context of a great wave of emotion. How was your writing and researching process in these translations and this connection with the Irish language?

Ireland has a history of considerable multiplicity, with very significant socio-cultural, historical and political developments. It is almost impossible to carry out a literary translation if there is not a thorough study of at least the main elements that have made up the history of Ireland since its formation because poetry is, in itself, the reconstruction of meanings that feed on many cultural components then linguistically recombined for the poet’s vision and experience. To translate, going beyond literal words, is to try to recover as much as possible of this meaning that goes “over” the words. Thus, right when starting translation projects, both of Ní Chuilleanáin’s and Cannon’s poetry, also when reading for a later selection of poems, I always considered the need for study in order to contextualize the writers’ production. Both poets have a solid educational background, not only academic, but broad life experience, which is enhanced in their poetry. Translating them into a culture and language like Brazilian Portuguese, considering how far away we are geographically and culturally, is a delicate compromise and, without thorough research, temerarious, as it may border on the superficial and mistaken.

In one of your articles, “Animals From Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry”, you translate into Portuguese the poem “The girl who married the deer”, which portrays a communion between civilization and nature, or, metaphorically a deity and a human, and the clash that this interrelation (society action vs nature) causes. Does this approach in the poem make us realize the connection that Irish writers have with the social conflicts they have gone through?

This poem has always interested me very precisely because of the “bridge” that it establishes with Ireland’s historical and mythological past. I am also interested in this theme of animality and ancestry, due to other poets that I translated that explore it, such as the Americans Gary Snyder and Jerome Rothenberg. Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry invests in this constant tension between past / present and reveals the action and the impact of time on community relations. Ireland’s history, especially the absorption of religious elements – whether from Catholic, Protestant or primitive pagan backgrounds – brings a dynamic that calls for and presupposes that conflicting forces find an appeasement over time. There are dramatic episodes throughout the history of the Emerald Isle, the resistance to the invasion of the Roman Empire, the imposed hegemony of England and the consequent problems of identity and belonging arising therefrom, the Great Hunger, the civil wars for Independence, the waves of Diaspora, the constant attempt to avoid the disappearance of the Gaelic, the economic crises, to name just a few. I see in NÍ Chuilleanáin’s poetry exactly this possibility of revising the past and this touching concern that the ancestral, mythical, communal portion be considered essential to the understanding of the recent historical moment.

Because you translate contemporary poets, do you believe that the past is still present in current poetry, and how is it possible to differentiate? How do you see contemporary poetry in Brazil and Ireland?

This question is very broad and my answer may be only generic. I find it almost impossible to compare the state of poetic production here in Brazil to that of Ireland given the cultural discrepancies that the two countries present. From the geographical difference, the extent, the origin, the type of colonization, the antiquity of each country (the Independence of Ireland, it is worth remembering, was recognized in late 1922, more than 30 years after ours), all of this makes that each culture is forged in a particular way. But the comparison is especially difficult because at that moment in Brazil we have little or no literary criticism, little encouragement for literary writing and, as a result of this intricate production / distribution mechanism, the more solid relationship between readers and poetry is diminished. In Ireland, on the other hand, a much smaller country and with a very different relationship with the literature than we have in our country, the promotion, criticism, absorption by readers of contemporary production makes the distance between poets and their audience less dramatic. However, there is a similarity to be pointed out: the exuberance of both productions. Both in Brazil and in Ireland today – regardless of conditions and difficulties – poets produce a lot of very good poetry. Point of hope for the future of literature. My predilection and my interest in translating contemporary authors (mainly Irish, English and American playwrights and poets) arises precisely from this, from this modest desire to show Brazilian readers the poetry that is made elsewhere. I strongly believe in the importance of translation as it establishes connections. This is communication and sharing.

Is the presence of folklore and mythology as used in Irish literature also visible in any Brazilian poet or writer?

Brazil has an immense and beautiful culture, represented by our original native inhabitants and its vast mythology and by the amalgamation of that culture with all the elements of the cultures of European colonizers, of the dramatically enslaved peoples from Africa and of the immigrants who settled here (I take advantage of to leave here the controversial issue, of which little is said, about the Irish immigrants who settled in Brazil). The beauty of this meeting is colossal. Our Brazilianness and our history – from north to south – are well protected and alive in the Brazilian popular songbook, in the expression of the cordel and in the updating of the content that goes back to our past directly linked to medieval Europe. In the Northeast, names such as those from Ceará, Cego Aderaldo and Jarid Arraes, from Bahia Antonio Brasileiro Borges, from Paraíba, Apolônio Alves dos Santos and many others, maintain this tradition. In the south, the oral tradition of poetry is equally intense and has the same ancient origins, which survive in the pay of Jaime Caetano Braun, acclaimed payer, and of more recent generations, as is the case of the declaimer Pedro Junior da Fontoura. In addition to the oral transmission, we have many writers who, with their own sophistication, appropriated the imagination of the Brazilian people, recovering our legends, stories and mythological figures (as Lady Gregory and WB Yeats did), in addition to national types and stereotypes (as George Moore did). What about Guimarães Rosa and Ariano Suassuna? What about our Mario de Andrade, who left us the very important figure of Macunaíma, not yet absorbed by the Brazilians (time to do our homework!)? And at least two more names in the literature must be cited: Monteiro Lobato, who establishes this milestone in the preservation of our mythology and Flavio de Souza who, with the creation of the sensational Castle Ra-tim-bum, lit up a whole generation of children with our heroes original and true (far from imported artificialities), as is the case with Caipora. Save the Brazilianness and your understanding given by literature!

Poets and translators Luci Collin and Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin, in Brazil, for the launch of Luci’s Anthology “Hábitos do Musgo”.

“Poetry should not be about prizes”, Eiléan commented in an interview with Wake Forest University Press, in 2009. You, as a writer awarded by Jabuti and nominated for the Oceanos Award, how do you read the Irish poet’s statement? What was the biggest prize that literature offered you?

A poetic work only makes sense if it remains faithful to the purpose of the artistic, which is to offer the reader contact with an aesthetic experience – in itself, critically transcendent. In addition, everything is market, vanity, media diffusion mechanism, etc. True writers maintain the coherence that ties to the dignity and responsibility of being a spokesman for humanity. I revere Ni Chuilleanáin’s stance – which is repeated in other great names in contemporary poetry, such as Adrienne Rich – when he reinforces his true function as a poet by not being subject to prizes and to what they often have as artificial. I would never compare myself to these poets, I am aware of the dimension and impact of their poetry. In my modest presence in the question asked: without any fear of being mushy, the biggest prizes are the sincere hugs of the readers.

You have translated other Irish writers, what were the biggest challenges of translating them into Portuguese?

I translated Irish authors like Bram Stoker, James Joyce and WB Yeats among some others and in all of them I came across the so-called “translation problems”, expressions or words linked to the historical context of the production that demand an investigative work to rescue and recontextualize the translation . One example is from George Moore’s short story “A letter to Rome”, in which the main character, a priest, says that on one occasion he was so worried that he could not knit and would leave the sock he was making aside. Translating this literally is not difficult, but the explanation, which I did not find in books, was given to me by the great teacher and scholar Declan Kiberd: at the time of the Great Famine, priests, since they received their support, were obliged to “pay” to the community doing handicrafts, such as knitting and sewing, to distribute to the needy in their parish. Other words from the Irish lexicon that have passed to English (including, sometimes with corruption) or references to places that are impregnated with historical relations are examples of these difficulties. You can have a good command of English, but that alone will not be enough to translate the meaning of words and expressions like “relief works”, “bocanachs”, “beehive huts”, “the famine roads”, “permafrost woman”, “Dulish”, “take the pledge”, “fairy fort”.

You said that you must create a method and a relationship between the translator and the poem. Is it possible to create a personal relationship with the translated poet? For example, the meeting with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, how was it to find her after having translated her?

Yes, I have a type of “method”, but it refers to the analysis of the elements of sound, metrics, visuals of a poem. It is a survey – a kind of X-ray of the poem. This leads me to a very revealing structure, in addition to the purely semantic aspect, which also supports this. I do not translate poetry if not, with this verse-by-verse survey, which is my way of understanding the organicity of the text and how it will build meaning. Like, as far as possible, undressing the poem, to understand how it was made and how its elements contribute to your sense to exacerbate. The technique is part of the poet’s diction. This is part of the process. Now, when you have the possibility to access the author, it’s wonderful. So it was with Snyder and Rothenberg, my friends today. So it was with Ní Chuilleanáin and Cannon, very accessible and generous poets, with whom I was able to discuss the translations personally. Now I am translating an American poet named Diane Goetsch and I have already used it to clarify details of certain texts. It is remarkable to be able to count on the poets in the translation of their work when they are available.

“Ní Chuilleanáin has a formal musical education and sings divinely. Even when she was in Curitiba, she surprised an audience singing an Irish folk song a capella. It was a very poetic moment, in every sense of the word.”

Your education is in music, but literature has been inviting you to write over the years. Do you believe that the relationship between poetry and your music studies complement each other, and what the biggest challenge regarding the rhythm of a translation of poems in Portuguese to English and vice-versa?

I can say that if I had not been trained in music I would not have been a poet and still less a translator. All my understanding of what a poem is is primarily through rhythm and sound (I believe a lot in the spoken-word in poetry) and, as a result of the combination of these elements, the poetic component arises as a language, while semantized. During my childhood (I started at the piano at 7 years old) and youth, I read, heard and performed mostly music. And how close are the musical and literary texts! Even the terminology – phrases, semi-phrases, items, breathing, dynamics – is similar. As I do not believe in silent poem (which has nothing to do with subjective reading, I emphasize) nor in a reading that disregard the body, the voice, the sign of the reader would be very difficult to translate poetry is not could approach her taking for heart its musicality, be it its melody or its rhythm. It seems to me almost impossible to translate certain writers, such as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Vachel Lindsay, for example, without the investment to recover the elements of sound that his writings contain. And the Irish poets I translated, Ní Chuilleanáin and Cannon, both are very connected to music. Ní Chuilleanáin has a formal musical education and sings divinely. Even when she was in Curitiba, she surprised an audience singing an Irish folk song a capella. It was a very poetic moment, in every sense of the word.

In this fragment of the poem ‘Taom’: The unexpected tide, / the great wave, / uncontrolled, confronts the rock, / floods the heart, in spring or winter.// Emerging from a faded tongue, / the word comes when / A dark sound advances and ebbs, / your care stabilizes the heart. It is possible to identify in this poem the confrontations that language has; and perhaps some differences of “time”, in all its senses (distance, climate, time zone, seasons, etc.) for Brazilian poets who live or lived in the seas of Ireland and for those who live in the seas of Brazil ? In other words, does being divided by an ocean differ in some sense or does it tend to distance us from the native language?

The experience of sea, ocean, wave, of a human being taken by reflection in the act of observing the ebbing of the waves is subjective and at the same time universal. It does not, therefore, belong to a single culture, nor is it enclosed in a single language. It does not depend on the geographical position of the observer. It is something atavistic and linked to the ancestry of the animal that we are. You can have a nostalgia for the sea without even being close to it. So it is with other elements, from Nature or from our psychological, emotional, communal existence. In fact, the poet translates poeticity, the essence of that experience. And the translator tries to take as much of that poeticity as possible into another language, understanding and respecting the elements and mechanisms that constitute it, preserved in another language. Poeticity is independent of the language. Ezra Pound went so far as to say that what matters is to listen to poetry, no matter what language, even if you don’t understand the meaning of words, poeticity survives, touches us, moves us. It is the transcendence of the very word that the poem offers us, is what Cannon beautifully reminds us of: the overflow of the wave.

Cover photo: Luciano Schmeiske Pascoal.

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