A visual translation of shifting views: ‘How To Face Death’ by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

by Eugenia Loffredo

Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902–1987) is regarded as one of the major representative of Brazilian literature and indeed the major contemporary poet in Portuguese language of the 20th Century. He is also considered to be the initiator of the second phase of Brazilian Modernism.

His literary work, which received numerous prestigious awards including the Nobel Prize, spans over a long period of time and has been divided in different phases. The themes explored in his poems include the individual and its relation to society, his native land, family, and more universal themes such as existence, truth, love and death, as the poem I chose to translate: ‘Como encarar a morte’, ‘How To Face Death’.

The profundity of his reflections in this composition is expressed by a lyric ‘simplicity’ (also making use of free verse and not depending on a fixed meter) which relies on a plain, everyday lively language. However, images are assembled in such a way that surprise the reader with their complexity and insight. Also, these images generate an intense sense of immediacy and make this universal theme concrete and tangible.

 ‘Como encarar a morte’ is part of a collection called Corpo, published in 1984. Corpo belongs to a later phase in which eroticism becomes not only a new theme for poetic investigation, but indeed a new optical lens through which ponder on a variety of universal themes, as in this case, death – also a reminder that the bond between Eros and Thanatos is indissoluble. I think that humour, which characterises most of Drummond de Andrade’s work in different degrees, from ironic to cynic, is still present in this poem somehow re-elaborated by the idea of ‘the ways’, or better ‘the positions’, in which one can face death. And, for this reason I never felt the topic overwhelming or as taking me to a more grave stance during the reading and translating of the poem. In other words, the irony seems to be produced by the friction of two contrasting planes summarised in the lyrics of a Cazuza’s song, a Brazilian composer and singer: ‘Senhoras e senhores, eu trago boa novas: eu vi a cara da morte e ela estava viva!’ (Ladies and Gentlemen I bring good news: I saw the face of death and she was alive!).

The reflections on death are articulated in a series of scenes defining at each time a different ‘position’ from which, and in which, one can face death (‘from faraway’, ‘from halfway’, ‘sideway’, ‘from inside’ and ‘out of sight)’.  Each scene provides a new slant, apparently increasing our understanding of death, or rather an essential element of our ‘humanity’, which is summarised in the last line ‘e, mais sabido, mais se ignora’, ‘and, the more it is known, the more it is ignored’. This sentence, however, does not express a lack of respect for death or a state of self-denial, but rather a rethinking of death through popular wisdom. Whether death is like a dream or despite the inevitability of the arrival of nameless traveller, the poem extols life and – Back to Eros and Thanatos bond – pushes forth an ‘optimism against all odds’ which ultimately celebrates life. The progressive moving and the getting closer is a reminder that life is transitory. Yet, we are always travelling and the journey, or better making most of the journey, is more important than the destination –even when we do get to the point of ‘out of sight’.

My translation, which you can find in Translation and Other Writings page, strives to convey the simplicity of the Portuguese language, both at lexical and at syntactical levels. It was actually difficult not to fall to the temptation of elevating the register and over-poetising such a ‘noble’ subject as death.

An intriguing choice concerns the genderisation of death. The nearer we get to death the more distinct its features are. And, where in Portuguese there is a possibility of avoiding specifying the subject, in English the pronoun is required. Since death has many faces, I felt that giving ‘it’ a different gender identity in different stanzas could produce an interesting and unexpected turn to the poem. Also, as its status changes and becomes fuzzier and fuzzier, the neuter ‘it’ is introduced. Finally, this sense of humanity and universality inherent to death, which goes beyond gender distinction, is reinforced with words such as ‘humankind’, instead of ‘mankind’.

Although the verbal translation may stand on its own, it is primarily intended to interact with visual images. The idea of ‘positioning oneself’, ‘points of view’ and ‘perspective’ seemed as if urging experimentation with the visual. Therefore, I created five digitally manipulated images functioning as backdrop to the verbal presentation of the stanzas, the two interacting to enhance the reader’s experience of the translation.

The images attempt to reproduce and ‘reflect’ the shifts of perspective of the various ‘positions’. Likewise, the interplay of light and darkness, the shifts from colour to black and white, and from the neatness to the blurriness of contours, these all attempt to replicate the changes of the status of death in the ongoing movement that is our life- which is indeed a metaphor for the act of reading itself, the journey through the poem to a final ‘non-knowledge’ of our destination.

Do send us you comments and thoughts on this visual translation!

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