Of pilgrims, knights and cantadores: translating Chaucer and Shakespeare in modern Brazil


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 Camoes.pngpracticing 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:

Morena, fique sabendo

Que eu quero mesmo mudar de vida.

Já chega de pantomima

Co’ essas meninas de má bebida.[1]

And these, from A Morte do Vaqueiro, a popular song by Northeastern Luiz Gonzaga:

Bom vaqueiro nordestino

Morre sem deixar tostão,

O seu nome é esquecido

Nas quebradas do sertão.[2]

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 Rosa.pngBrazilian 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 Verrissimo.pngMemorial 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.

[1]” 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.

[2]“A good cowboy from the Northeast/ will always die penniless,/ and his name will be forgotten/ in the deep backlands”.