Spaces of dialogue: I international conference in transatlantic literature


by Candace Barrington

In late April, I participated in “Spaces of Dialogue,” the First International Conference in Transatlantic Literature sponsored by the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard.  My focus was on José Francisco Botelho’s translation of The Canterbury Tales. Entitled “Botelho’s Contos da Cantuária and Creating a Medieval Past for Brazilian Portuguese,” the paper examined Botelho’s transatlantic strategies for bring the Middle Ages to 21st-century Brazil.

Below are excerpts from that presentation.

When José Francisco Botelho was commissioned by Companhia das Letras to translate Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales into Brazilian Portuguese, he was faced with several challenges, but the most immediate was the need to create a medieval language for a culture without a medieval past. As part of the Global Chaucers project, I have been conducting extensive email interviews with Botelho, and much of our conversation has centered on this challenge of bringing Chaucer’s verse over the Atlantic and across six centuries. His strategies vary for translating the fourteenth-century Middle English compilation of tales told by a group of English pilgrims; however, for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on three of these strategies: First, he reaches back to medieval Portuguese for technical, obsolete terms. Second, he adapts Lusitanic literature’s traditional decassílabo meter and its popular rima toante for Chaucer’s rhyming iambic pentameter couplets. And third, he draws on regionalismo, and interweaves Brazilian idioms to create a blend of strangeness and familiarity. Together, these three strategies allowed Botelho to create in Contos da Cantuária a Brazilian Middle Ages not found in the past yet emerging organically from Brazil’s present.

In order to give Brazilians a Middle Ages they could connect to, Botelho turned to the most logical source, medieval Portuguese for its embedded “Lusitanic cultural memories” and its “nostalgia of Colonial Empire.” Thus, he mined the sixteenth-century epic Os Lusíadas, de Camões for words with an archaic feel: varão (instead of homen), infant (instead of jovem ), terríbil (instead of terrível ), frecha (instead of flecha ). He turned to Sextilhas do Frei Antão by Gonçalves Dias, whose nineteenth-century collection of “medievalist poems … recreate [the] Portuguese Middle Ages and the wars between lusitanos and mouros. These poems were a particularly important resource for terms for clothing, arms, and armor, such as brial, fustão, saio and venteira. This strategy, however, had to be employed sparingly; otherwise, he would not be creating a translation for contemporary Brazilian readers.

The Lusitanic traditions also provided Botelho’s meter. By adapting Lusitanic literature’s traditionaldecassílabo and its popular rima toante, he found near equivalents to Chaucer’s iambic pentameter lines as well as metrical patterns that evoke a sense of the antique.Chaucer is frequently credited with giving the iambic pentameter line a distinctly English flavor and establishing it as the dominant metrical line in English verse form, a status it held until the early part of the twentieth century. To provide his Brazilian Portuguese translation with a comparable rhythm, Botelho turned to decassílabo, the favorite meter of sixteenth-century Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz de Camões, decassílabo, and thus with a lineage comparable to Chaucer’s iambic pentameter. Botelho also turns to rima toante, a less prestigious form of rhyme that is used in popular music as well as popular oral poetry, known as repentismo in Northeastern Brazil and pajada in Southern Brazil. Rima toante matches only the final vowels (rather than the final vowels and consonants as does rima consoante). In choosing rima toante, Botelho follows precedents sets by Cecília Meirelles, the twentieth-century Brazilian poet, whose O Romanceiro da Inconfidência is a “collection of poems written in the manner of Portuguese and Spanish trovadores and uses the rima toante.” Whether Botelho combines the resulting lines into couplets or seven-line stanzas, he provides readers with a verse form that simultaneously reaches back to ancient Portuguese examples and imitates contemporary poetics in order to lend a medieval feel to the verse.

Botelho’s most significant and most sophisticated translation strategy draws on Brazilian idioms associated with regionalismo, a set of loosely connected literary movements that represent the “Brazilian countryside and rural culture” outside the urban literary cultures of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In order for Chaucer not “to sound like an urban yuppie,” he aimed for a “slightly old-fashioned, worldly countryside cavalheiro of the old, sensual Brazil of yore.” This move reaches back prior to the mid-twentieth century when Brazil was a thoroughly rural country, providing him a wellspring of archetypical Brazilian idioms and attitudes not contaminated by postmodern metropolitanism. Most Brazilians identify language from the countryside with a familiar, intimate past that is uniquely Brazilian.

From the beginning of his translation, Botelho takes advantage of this nearby distance. Chaucer’s General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales opens with some of the most famous lines in English literature: “What that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (1.1-2). Botelho translates them as you see on the slide: Quando o chuvoso Abril em doce aragem / Desfez Março e a secura da estiagem. With “Aragem” and “estagem” he has chosen archaic, literary words which continue to survive in the rural areas of the Southern country. A few lines later, when Chaucer writes “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, / And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes / to ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes” (1.12-14), Botelho translates it as you see on the slide: “Éque o tempo chegou das romarias. / E lá se vão expertos palmeirins / Rumo a terras e altares e cofins.” By choosing “romarias” rather than “peregrinaçãoes,” Botelho has selected a term denoting “catholic peregrinations to shrines of popular saints,” thereby evoking the “almost polytheistic, magic religion, with its eccentric saints and baroque celebrations” that distinguishes Brazilian Catholicism. In addition, “romarias” alludes to a famous 1978 song by Porto Alegre native Elis Regina, “Romaria.” The song tells about a pilgrimage to a local shrine and its characters are the forlorn, impoverished Brazilian peasants who pray for release from their hardships. Botelho further connects these rural pilgrims to the archaic past by translating “palmers” in the next line as “palmeirins,” a medieval Portuguese word evoking Palmeirim de Inglaterra a chivalric romance written in the sixteenth century by Francisco de Moraes. Thus in these initial lines of the General Prologue, Botelho allows the Portuguese Middle Ages and the Brazilian countryside to intersect, thereby combining the familiar with the strange into what he identifies as a “world of seamless fictional verisimilitude” for Brazilian readers.

Once Botelho turns to the tales themselves, he repeatedly creates characters associated with Brazil’s rural past. In The Franklin’s Tale, Chaucer writes: The bittre frostes, with the sleet and reyn, / Destroyed hath the grene in every yerd; / Janis sit by the fyr, with double berd, / And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn (5.1250-1253); and Botelho translates it as you see on the slide. “Geadas e granizos fustigantes / Já mataram as plantas verdejantes; / Jano, com grande barba bifurcada, / Em uma longa guampa recurvada / Bebe vinho, sentado junto ao fogo.” According to Botelho, “Geada is a weather phenomenon common in the southern pampas. Snow is rare here due to low altitudes, but in winter dawns the Brazilian pampas will appear all white, covered by a thin layer of frozen dew—that’s the geada or ground frost. Guampa means horn or bugle; it is a word very typical of the South. In ‘metropolitan Brazil,’ the more accepted term to translate ‘bugle or horn’ would be ‘chifre’.” By choosing the southern idiom, Botelho bypasses the official Brazilian stereotype of a tropical “country of eternal warmth and scantily dressed people” and posits the “exotic South” where “winter can be brutally cold.” As he explained to me, “I wanted them to picture—unconsciously—an old gaucho sitting by the fireplace and drinking canha from his big old guampa, surrounded by white fields covered by geada. So I put this guampa in the hands of Janus, and I covered European December in South American geada….” By using these indigenous terms, Botelho encourages his Brazilian readers to identify with the extreme cold—even those who reside in the tropical climes—as a phenomenon found “here” in Brazil as well as “there” in medieval England.

Unlike many translators who dampen the sexual bawdiness for which Chaucer’s Tales are so well known, Botelho accents that lustiness. When Chaucer describes Nicholas’s seduction of Alison in The Miller’s Tale, Botelho labels her“bonequinha” or “little doll,” a demeaning endearment typical of a Brazilian malandro or cheap Don Juan. In The Merchant’s Tale, another fabliau about a cuckholded old husband, a weave of rural idioms convey the animal lust at the moment when January looked up into the tree and “saugh that Damyan his wyf had dressed/ In swich manere it may nat been expressed” (IV.2361-2362) with the phrase you see on the slide “Vê que outro está engatando-a de tal jeito” and using the polyvalent “engatando” (with standard definitions meaning to “to clamp or bind,” “to hook,” or “to hitch up horses”). Because, however, “engatando” is used in rural areas to refer to the mating of animals, the translation conveys the crudity of Damian’s animal-like thrusts via a rural idiom. Throughout the Contos da Cantuária, this strategy of using rural idioms allows Botelho to accentuate the lusty sexuality of the Tales in terms familiar—yet always distant—to his readers.

Together, these techniques “interweave salacious idioms and words that would be easily recognized with words and concepts that resonant in Brazilian historical memory of a long-forgotten and very blurred medieval original. By mixing what was specifically Brazilian—the language of Brazilian countryside—with the specifically European—the Portuguese Middle Ages—he creates a fictional yet probable world. It simultaneously evokes Chaucer’s strangeness by medievalizing familiar portions of Brazilian culture, “thus creating a fictional world in which both Chaucer’s world and the Brazilian one contaminate and, therefore, transform each other.

As this small body of examples indicates, we learn a great deal about Brazilian culture and literary history by studying Botelho’s Contos. What the Contos have to teach us does not stop there. For instance, the inherent Latinity of Chaucer’s Middle English text is often lost in modern English translations and interpretations. Brazilian Portuguese’s affinity with Latin means that a Latin phrase has a more fluid fit and does not stick out as much as it does for a modern English reader. Or, for another instance, we could point to the sexual metaphors based on money and commerce circulating in Chaucer’s Tales. Because sexual innuendo is a favorite pastime in Brazilian culture, Botelho’s Contos can revel and celebrate the constant sexual wordplay that many modern English readers miss.

In addition to these readings specific to Chaucer’s Tales, Botelho’stranslation asks us to scrutinize our use of the term and concept, “medieval.” Of late, this term has been placed under a great deal of pressure, especially from postcolonial studies, where it has been argued that “medieval” is a concept developed by Western Europeans to justify their colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These colonizers wielded the term “medieval” as a way to lump together and marginalize the pre-modern and non-European. Botelho’stranslation takes advantage of this prejudice and exploits the sense that “medieval” equals the backward ways left behind by industrial development and urban sophistication.




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