This week features the premiere of A Mulher de Bath, a stage production based on José Francisco Botelho’s 2013 translation of The Canterbury Tales and starring Maitê Proença. This Brazilian actor, known for her extensive filmography and her outspokenness, commissioned the play and seems the perfect embodiment for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a woman the promotional material identifies as “uma mulher de vasta experiência e de ardorosa oratória” (a woman of vast experience and ardent oratory).
O que quer esta muhler?
The opening performances are this weekend, 28 and 29 October 2017, in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, north of Rio de Janiero.
Last February 2016, José Francisco Botelho, Chaucer’s award-winning Brazilian translator, traveled to Connecticut. He was scheduled to speak twice, at Central Connecticut State University on translating The Canterbury Tales and at Southern Connecticut State University on translating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Though a snow storm that shut down the entire eastern seaboard caused us to cancel the SCSU presentation (and added an extra day to Chico’s Connecticut stay), we were able to squeeze in the conversation at CCSU. There, he and I held a conversation about his translation strategies and how looking at the Tales through the lens of Brazilian-Portuguese provided him insights that English readers might miss. We arranged to have the conversation videotaped using a stationary camera, and after a delay, I’m pleased to provide a link to the video: Gaucho Culture and Chaucer: Translating The Canterbury Tales for Brazil.
Chico’s appearance at CCSU was supported in part by the CCSU English Department.
At the George Washington Digital Humanities Institute’s symposium, “Global Chaucer and Shakespeare in a Digital World,” on 4 February 2017, Chico Botelho provided the opening address. He graciously shared the notes and images from his talk, and we are pleased now to share them with you. In addition to his award-winning translation of The Canterbury Tales, he has recently published his translation of Romeo and Juliet. These two translations were the subject of his talk.
by José Francisco Botelho
Good morning to all of you. It is an honor and an exquisite pleasure to be here in the United States of America, talking to you, in my first lecture in English, after a long journey that begun months ago, when I received a kind invitation from George Washington Digital Humanities Institute. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professors Jonathan Hsy and Alexa Huang, my dear friends Candace Barrington and Mike Shea; Haylie Swenson and Gabby Bychowski; the George Washington University, George Washington Digital Humanities Institute, Central Connecticut State University, and, of course, Global Chaucers. I also would like to thank each and every person present here this morning.
Today, we will be talking about very interesting topics such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, South American History, Brazilian proverbs and witticisms, lovebirds, oral poetry, and the way cultures may transcend borders, creating shared imaginary worlds and shifting identities. But let’s begin with The Canterbury Tales.
As it so often happens in the South American literary world, a book by Borges led my way to Chaucer.
It was an especially cold winter of one of the last few years of the past millennium, in my hometown – Bagé, on the far south of Brazil (yes, it does gets cold in the South of Brazil; more on that later). At the time, the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges was my favorite writer. I had recently taken hold of his complete works and was reading his latest book, “A History of Night”. In it, there is a poem named “El caballo”, or “The Horse”. One of its first lines supposedly quotes the Canterbury Tales. It was the first time I’d heard about Chaucer – whose work, back then, was largely unknown in Brazil. Here is Borges’ poem in a loose translation:
The great plains await since the beginning. Beyond the last peach trees, close to the waters, a white horse, with sleepy eyes, seems to be filling the morning. The arching neck, like a Persian blade, and the mane, and the swirling tail. The horse is elegant and firm and made up of long curves. I remember a quaint verse by Chaucer: a very horsely horse. And now the sun rises. And here is the horse, but there is something strange about him, because he is also a horse in a dream: a dream by Alexander of Macedon.
Borges’ poem describes a horse in a dream; the man who is dreaming is Alexander the Great. And to round up the description, Borges quotes Chaucer: “a very horsely horse.” That line stuck with me, for several reasons.
I grew up in the Brazilian countryside, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. My hometown lies in a very isolated and peculiar region, called The Frontier (A Fronteira), because it borders with Uruguay and Argentina. It shares with those countries not only a similar landscape ‒ the Pampas ‒ but also several cultural traits. On the borderlands of Rio Grande do Sul, different worlds converge and combine: that’s the place where the Portuguese-speaking part of South America ‒ Brazil ‒ meets the Spanish-speaking part. It is worth mentioning that those two South American worlds not always lived in peace: in the past, my State was one of the most intense battlefields in the wars between the Portuguese and the Spanish Empires. During the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the Frontier was a moving thing, like a living and restless creature, unsure about where it really belonged on the maps, going up north, and then plunging back south, several times. Nowadays, however, this violent History is no longer the stuff of disputes, but the source that provides both sides of the Frontier with the feeling of a shared past. In the region where Brazil and Uruguay meet, most people, on both sides of the border, are bilingual; and some speak a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish known as “Portuñol”, one of the many dialects spoken in my state. Gaucho culture, generally associated with Uruguay and Argentina, also marks the cultural identity of the southern parts of Rio Grande do Sul. Originally, gauchos or gaúchos were the inhabitants of rural areas in the South of the continent. The gaucho is a national symbol both of Uruguay and Argentina; gaúcho is also the demonym of the people from Rio Grande do Sul. Gauchoesque language is a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Native American languages (such as Quechuan) and African words. Gaúcho culture is one of the many regional cultures of Brazil; and it is also a kind of cultural bridge connecting us to the rest of South America.
So this is the world where I grew up. I spent part of my childhood in a farm on the borderlands, where horses were a daily sight. Since I was a little boy, I had a recurring dream of a white horse, its colors mirroring those of the westering moon in the wide pampa. When I read about the “very horsely horse” in that cold afternoon in the late ‘90s, my imagination lit up. Although I had never heard of Chaucer before, I was determined to find him – or, rather, to find his book, and the horse within the book.
It wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be. Translations of Chaucer into Portuguese were very rare. Among the great classics of western literature, I think the Tales were, at that point, one of the least known among readers in the Portuguese-speaking world. There was no full verse translation in Portuguese, anywhere.
By the time I read the Middle English original, I was already living in the state’s capital, Porto Alegre, and working as a journalist and freelance writer. And so, at last, I found out that Borges had slightly misquoted Chaucer. When Borges wrote his poem, he probably had these verses from The Squire’s Tale in mind (I will read all Chaucer’s quotations from a Modern English Translation, to make things easier to everyone).
Just as it were a steed of Lombardy;
Therewith as horsely and as quick of eye
Well, I had finally found Chaucer’s horse, but the verse was not exactly as I had read in Borges’ poem. Borges’ version seemed as a blurry, misremember citation. Almost immediately, some verses in Portuguese sprang to my mind, mixing Chaucer’s line with Borges’ creative misreading:
Era um cavalo muito cavalar.
Velozes são seus olhos; parecia
Atrevido corcel da Lombardia.
It was a very horsely horse.
Quick were its eyes; it seemed
A saucy steed from Lombardy.
(As you see, I turned Chaucer’s 2 lines into 3 lines. That’s something I did throughout the translation, as I will explain later).
So this is how it began. I decided at that moment that I would someday translate the entire Canterbury Tales, and began to make plans and think my way through it. I started practicing the decasyllable‒a traditional poetic form in Portuguese, and Luis Vaz de Camões’ favorite meter. (Now, Camões is the great Portuguese classic. Sometimes described as Portugal’s Shakespeare, because his works greatly influenced the shaping of the Portuguese language. His great epic poem, The Lusiads, describes Portuguese discoveries and conquests, in a ten-syllable meter that became the staple verse of epic poetry in Portuguese and whose rhythm is similar to that of the iambic pentameter. It was also widely used by Brazilian epic poets such as Basílio da Gama and Gonçalves Dias).
I also began to think about ways to efficiently transplant Chaucer’s stories and voice to my South American surroundings. Now, I’ll explain some of my translating decisions, and how I tried to recreate Chaucer’s fictional and poetic universe in my own culture.
Before we proceed, I have a little confession to make: in the final version of the book, I incorporated that line with Borges misreading. You will find “um cavalo muito cavalar” (my translation of the nonexistent verse “a very horsely horse”) right there on page four hundred eighty five. It was the line that lured me toward Chaucer, so I thought I should keep it where it belongs.
It’s kind of a talisman.
When I set out to translate Chaucer, my first decision was to make it as readable as I could to the Brazilian readership. I did not want to make a translation that would interest only specialists and academic researchers; I wanted to create a literary work that could have real artistic relevance and, therefore, I had to speak with a voice that would reach casual readers as well as trained medievalists and literary experts. How should I do that? How should I recreate Chaucer’s flow of poetic narrative in the most accessible way to Brazilian readers? Then it occurred to me: what if I take this medieval poem, rather unknown in Brazil, and mix it with some popular music and ôral poetry, to bring it closer to readers that might otherwise feel intimidated? That lead me to a crucial decision about a fundamental issue: rhyming. In Portuguese and Brazilian poetry, there are two main kinds of rhyme. The one considered most “literary” is the rima consoante, known henceforth as “complete rhyme”, which rhymes all the final letters of two words: batata and bravata, for instance. On the other hand, rima toante, which we may call “slant rhyme”, matches only the vowels: for instance, bagagem and verdade. Medieval troubadours in the Iberian Peninsula originally used slant rhyme. From the sixteenth century onward, however it lost favor. Complete rhyme became the more prestigious, literary choice. However, slant rhyme remained widely used in popular music and in popular oral poetry. Now, oral poetry in Brazil stems from the medieval “romances”, that is, rhymed narratives that were orally passed on from generation to generation in medieval Portugal. In many places of Brazil, there still exists what we could call a minstrel tradition, wherein poets will “improvise” lines or entire poems in front of the audiences. They are generally called “cantadores”, from the verb “cantar”, to sing. Oral poets or improvisators also have regional names. In the Northeast, they are called repentistas; in the South, pajadores. The pajador tradition is now disappearing, but I had the honor of meeting some of its last representatives – actually, I learned to rhyme and to make verse scansion with one of them.
As an example, consider these verses from a popular Southern song:
In literature, slant rhyme has been revived in the twentieth century by Cecília Meirelles, my favorite Brazilian poet, in her masterpiece “Romanceiro da Inconfidência”, that purports to recreate the intonation of the old “romances”, in a narrative poem that tells the story of an eighteenth century Brazilian insurgency against Portuguese monarchy.
For most of my translation, I used slant rhymes, to give Chaucer’s text the tone of a declaimed popular poem. It wasn’t an easy decision: more often than not, translations of classics in Brazil are made in complete rhyme. So, it was a rather risky choice to combine this very popular kind of rhyme with the decassylable verse, considered as very literary and solemn.
The decision to make Chaucer’s text legible did not mean making it Brazilian in perfunctory way. From the start, I kept in mind that I was translating fiction; I had to create a believable fictional universe, in which the reader could dive in and experience what Coleridge describes as a “momentary suspension of disbelief.” After all, one of the main principles of good fiction is establishing a balance between strangeness and familiarity. To make the Contos work not only as poetry, but also as fiction, I had to respect this axiom.
Bringing Chaucer closer to non-expert readers, therefore, did not mean neutralizing the strangeness of the Tales. I neither intended to water the Tales down, nor make them hermetical. I did not want the readers to feel they were reading a story set in Brazil because that would feel fake. My intention was not to subdue Chaucer’s medieval strangeness. On the contrary, I wanted, so to speak, to “medievalize” some portions of Brazilian culture, thus creating a fictional universe in which Chaucer’s world and my own would contaminate and transform each other, creating something new.
How was I to pull it off? The answer, once more, came from the culture of rural Brazil. Brazilian Literature has been marked by a set of loosely connected literary movements collectively called regionalismo, or regionalism. They represent Brazilian countryside and rural culture within a literary system that was (and is) mainly dominated by two big urban centers, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Regionalism brought us some of the great classics of Brazilian literature, such as Grande Sertão Veredas by Guimarães Rosa, considered by many as the best Brazilian novel of all times; O Tempo e o Vento by Érico Veríssimo and Memorial de Maria Moura by Raquel de Queiroz. Among the short story collections, we have Contos Gauchescos & Lendas do Sul, by Simões Lopes Neto, arguably one of the best short story collections ever written in Portuguese; and the “Borderland” short stories of Sergio Faraco, a master story-teller whose masterpieces showcase the peculiar dialect of the Southern Frontier, a blend of Portuguese, Spanish and other linguistic influences.
Nowadays, however, many young writers have turned away from regional themes, seeking a language that can be easily translated into English and “universalized,” giving preference, thus, to urban, “cosmopolitan” literary themes.
Yet I did not want Chaucer to sound like a yuppie, but rather like a tongue-in-cheek, slightly old fashioned, worldly countryside gentleman of the old, sensual Brazil of yore. Why have I avoided modern, citified slang, in favor of regional idioms? My choice has to do with Brazilian history and with the reception of fiction and language among the Brazilian public. Brazil was still mostly rural in the early twentieth century. The country then underwent a sudden – and, some would say, rushed and incomplete – process of industrialization in the ‘40s. Brazil has been split in half by this process. Even today, the backcountry or interior is seen as the site of archaic ways of life and worldviews. Literature that wants to be regarded as “thoroughly contemporary” tends to focus on metropolitan lifestyles. (In my own efforts as a fiction writer, I have done exactly the opposite, mixing the urban, the rural and the scholarly. But that’s a different story.) Language that stems from the backcountry experience is immediately identified with the past. This rural past has a strange aura of imperfection and desire. In some states, local culture is deeply marked by a longing for the ancient, evanescent world of the pagus (a world that never really existed as we remember it). Therefore, backcountry words feel a bit old-fashioned, but close to us, nevertheless, and familiar in a strange way; they form the shadows of a past world that hasn’t left us and probably never will, a world under whose strange dominion we still exist. To create the idea of a world long gone, but at the same time real and strangely alive, I chose words taken from the culture of rural areas and placed it on dramatic passages of Chaucer’s poem.
Among the sources I used throughout are, of course, my own childhood memories, and some regionalist writers and the popular songbook of the South and the Northeast, including musicians Luis Gonzaga and Noel Guarani, as well as gauchoesque poems as Amaro Juvenal’s masterpiece Antônio Chimango.
As an example, let’s turn to a passage on the General Prologue, when Chaucer, after introducing the Somnour, gives us these lines about the Pardoner:
With him there rode a noble PARDONER
Of Rouncival, his friend and his compeer
Here, I have created a line that is not found in the original, but brings the Brazilian reader very close to those two characters – just as if they had met them on the street, or maybe heard some gossip about them, around the neighborhood:
Com ele viajava um VENDEDOR
D’INDULGÊNCIAS – garanto que era flor
Nascida no mesmíssimo canteiro
With him, traveled a Seller of Indulgencies.
Take it from me, he was a flower grown
in the very same flowerbed.
Here, I have combined two very well know Brazilian proverbs:
Proverb number one: Ele não é flor que se cheire – “He is not a flower to sniff.” Meaning: this guy is up to no good, stay away! He might seem seductive (a “flower”) but if you get close enough, you’ll notice the stench instead of the perfume.
Proverb number two: Eles são farinha do mesmo saco – “They are wheat flour from the same bag.” Meaning: they are birds of a feather, and are both equally bad.
Those are very old and very popular proverbs, used throughout Brazil, but they do not sound too modern, contemporary, or urban. So from these two well-known proverbs, I made one: They are flowers from the very same flowerbed.
Here’s another example: in The Franklin’s Tale, there’s a passage describing winter in Western Europe:
The bitter frosts, with all the sleet and rain,
Had killed the green of every garden-yard.
Janus sat by the fire, with double beard,
And drained from out his bugle horn the wine.
It was almost a guilty pleasure to produce the following translation:
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.
Well, my personal touch here was to translate “bitter frosts” as “geada” and “bugle” as “guampa”.
Let’s begin with guampa. In “metropolitan Brazil,” the more accepted term for horn would be chifre, whereas “guampa” is very typical of the rural world. The word stems from the Quechuan huamparu and means horn or bugle. Bottles made of horn can still be found today in the rural regions. In the olden days, traveling gauchos would carry large guampas on their saddles, not only to store water but also liquor ‒ more specifically, canha, the Brazilian sugarcane rum. Therefore, drinking (water or alcohol) from a guampa is an image that can be easily found in local poetry and popular music.
Now, let’s turn to geada, or ground frost, a weather phenomenon common in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Due to low altitudes, snow is rare, but in some winter dawns, the Brazilian pampas will wake covered in a white, thin layer of frozen dew. By choosing the southern idiom, I wanted to not only create an idea of a fictional past, but also to produce the feeling of a “Brazilian winter.” Of course, Brazil is stereotypically a tropical country, a civilization of scantily dressed people living in eternal seaside warmth. In some parts of the South, however, winter can be chilling. (Well, in relative terms…) I wanted Brazilian readers to identify with the Brazilian or South American idea of cold; I wanted them to picture – unconsciously – an old gaucho sitting by the fire, surrounded by the white pampa. So I put a guampa in the hands of old Janus, and I covered European December in a South American geada.
However, as I’ve stated earlier, I didn’t intend to create the illusion that the Tales were actually set in Brazil; the gist of my translation was the construction of a new fictional universe in which Chaucer’s voices resounded with new life –a linguistic world-building process, so to speak. In my search for ingredients to bring into the mix, I also drew upon medieval and courtly Portuguese literature. I interwove idioms and cultural morsels of Brazilian stock with vocabulary taken from works like Os Lusíadas, by Camões. Thus I mixed what was specifically Brazilian (the language of the Brazilian backcountry), with the specifically European (the Portuguese Middle Ages), endeavoring to create a seamless world in which to set these renewed Contos. Mixing the scholarly and the colloquial, the regio and the urbs, the down-to-earth and the archaic, I tried to produce a significant and cohesive (if diverse) whole, as if for a while Brazil did kind of have the Middle Ages within itself.
Now, let us turn to Shakespeare. In my translation of “Romeo & Juliet” I used a very similar method. Naturally, the way that method was applied and the results that unfolded thereby were very different from what happened with the Tales.
To begin with, I decided to use different kinds of verse throughout the play. The reason to do this was twofold. As I told you before, when translating Chaucer’s Tales, sometimes I would turn one couplet into two. I did this because Portuguese words tend to be longer than their English equivalents. Take, for instance, a very common word such as “man”. In Portuguese, you would need two syllables to say the same thing: “ho-mem”. And things can get worse: “head”, one syllable in English, demands three syllables in Portuguese: “ca-be-ça”. Portuguese metrics is based on the number of poetic syllables within a line. A decasyllable has a similar rhythm to the iambic pentameter, but generally holds less information. Because I didn’t want to trim important pieces of information, nor to create compressed, hermetical verses, I decided to duplicate lines when the need arose. The same strategy worked beautifully with Shakespeare’s blank verses. But when I got to the Sonnets or Sonnet-like passages in Romeo & Juliet, things got trickier. You cannot add lines to a sonnet, because then it would cease to be a sonnet. Therefore, in those passages, as I could not add lines, I decided to use longer lines. What I did then was to use what we call the “dodecassílabo” – a twelve-syllable kind of verse that might sound like an anapestic hexameter in English and is formally similar to the French alexandrin. Whereas the Portuguese decasyllable was the staple meter of epic poetry, the twelve-syllable verse is associated with with lyricism. It then occurred me that beginning Shakespeare’s greatest love story with a sonnet written in alexandrin would naturally please the Brazilian ear (and eyes).
The second reason to use two kinds of verse was that I wanted to create different tempos within the play: on one hand, the quick rhythm of intrigue and duel and gossip and masquerades and blood feuds unfolding on the streets; on the other hand, the deep rhythm of intimate speculation and mystical amazement and ecstasy and ominous anticipation. I wanted to impress the feeling that Time in fair Verona flowed too quick and too slow. That things happened in a way that couldn’t be correctly measured by the human mind, but only under the perspective of Eternity or the inscrutable Fate. That Time now washed over the characters as the lightning that is over before you can say “it lights”, and now slows down and resembles more a deep lake than a rapid river. That effect I created by the succession of meters. The play begins with quick-witted decasyllables, but slows down when the two lovers meet for the first time, and the more ponderous rhythm of the twelve-syllable verse gives a taste of eternity within the dizzying brevity of human drama.
As I had done with Chaucer, I also used Brazilian idioms and proverbs to convey Shakespeare’s wit and language play, but in a way that would not seem too obvious or heavy-handed. I wanted audiences to experience Shakespeare’s words and thought games as something urgent, touching, cheerful, disturbing and so on.
We all remember the famous lines where Romeo and Juliet talk about larks and nightingales. The usual translation for “lark” in Portuguese would be “cotovia”: it means
the European lark, exactly the bird mentioned by Juliet. There is, however, a much prettier word in Portuguese to designate a similar bird: “calhandra”. In Brazil, “calhandra” is also used to designate some local species of thrush, one of the most famous and widespread of all Brazilian birds. That happens a lot in Portuguese: an old Portuguese word, used to mean one thing in Europe, is used to refer to a different thing in the Americas. So, the word “calhandra” means something similar to the lark, but also other birds that exist only in Brazil: it is a kind of semantical bridge, and also a multitudinous bird, one bird that is many birds, simultaneously a very Brazilian bird and an exclusively European one, and therefore a point of confluence of the strange and the familiar. And, of course, the word “calhandra” is widely used on the borderlands where I was born. Using it to replace the traditional “cotovia” was one of many ways in which I left a kind of personal mark on Shakespeare’s immortal play.
A new translation is a way to keep a great text alive, but it can also become a means to echo other voices, that were not present in the original work. All the local cultures I just mentioned are more or less threatened. Some, like the Portuguese-speaking gaúcho culture of Southern Brazil, are already in the process of disappearing. The angel of History flies away with a silent, sidelong glance. In my work, I tried to retain at least a small glimpse of those fading worlds.
Many thanks to all of you.
” Dark-haired woman, let me tell you,/ I do want to change my ways. / I’m done playing around/ with girls of evil drinking, or wild carousing girls”. The song is “Louco por Chamamé”, by Mauro Ferreira and Luiz Bastos.
“A good cowboy from the Northeast/ will always die penniless,/ and his name will be forgotten/ in the deep backlands”.
I’m pleased to announce that my Canterbury Tales students and I will be hosting Francisco José Botelho, Brazil’s award-winning poet and translator in a conversation about his Contos da Cantuária. Botelho is in the United States as a guest of the Global Chaucers Project, CCSU English Department, SCSU English Department, and the George Washington University Digital Humanities Institute.
Date: Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Time: 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Place: Marcus White Living Room, CCSU
We welcome anyone interested in Brazilian culture, medieval literature, translation studies, or fascinating conversation.
Global Chaucers is sponsoring another roundtable at the next New Chaucer Society Congress. Titled “Translating Global Chaucers,” the roundtable will continues the Global Chaucers conversation begun at the 2014 Congress. The focus will be on translations of Chaucerian texts into languages other than standard Present Day English. Participants include translators, scholars, and teachers outside the Anglophone inner circle (UK, US, Canada, Australia, and NZ). Their presentations consider the ways translations
reflect the particular linguistic, cultural, or social context in which they appeared;
reveal understandings of Chaucer’s texts unavailable to an Anglophone reader; and
take advantage of verse or prose forms (or other stylistic conventions) available in the receiving literary culture but not in English.
The five participants are
Stephanie Downes, University of Melbourne, Australia, “Vilains mots! Nineteenth-Century French Translations of The Canterbury Tales”
Marcin Ciura, Independent Translator, “In the Margins of the Polish Parlement of Foules”
Züleyha Çetiner-Ōktem, Ege University, “Reinventing Chaucer’s Sir Thopas from a Turkish Perspective”
Denise Ming-yueh Wang, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan, “When Global Chaucers Go Local: Reading Chaucer in Taiwan”
José Francisco Botelho, Independent Translator, “Contos da Cantuária: Chaucer in Brazil”
We’re super excited about the international panel, with its mix of translators and scholars!
Good news. Contos da Cantuária is among the finalists for the Prêmio Jabuti, the biggest literary prize in Brazil, in the category “Literary Translation – English to Portuguese”. This year has seen a huge number of works enrolled (over 2000 in all categories), so it is really, really good to be among the finalists; that alone is a considerable prize, even if the Contos don’t get to the final three winning places (final results come out in October). I also hope this will help to make Chaucer better known in Brazil; already I have been contacted by Brazilian medievalists who have read the Contos and are thrilled that Chaucer is finally in verse form amongst us. Some months after the first edition of the Contos arrived to the bookshops, a new edition of Paulo Vizioli’s prose translation has been issued (it had been out of print for over a decade). So it seems the merry company is on the road.
Congratulations from Global Chaucers!
We will post the final results when they appear in October.
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, deCamões 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.