Now or never: translation of a poem and other things I don´t know

I have chosen now. Well, that is rather misleading.

Let me rephrase that: I have finally chosen now to be the time. This is the time to translate that poem. I shall need a preamble for this.

For fellow translators in a hurry: the poem in the original Portuguese together with the English translation are at the end. I am not a poet in the strict sense of the word, nor do I habitually translate poetry. That might be a good thing! Scroll down rapidly to find out. 🙂


In June/July 2006 my partner and I left our home country of Zimbabwe and came to Portugal on holiday. I have written evidence dated 1991 that I promised we would do this “one day”. The irony of “now” begins to kick in, doesn’t it?

I shall skip all the cherished, interesting bits and summarise.  Her soul mate and best friend in the whole world until I came along had died about eighteen months prior to our holiday. We obviously did not get our travelling act together soon enough. Part of our trip involved the imperative of her paying her respects.

Thus, we found ourselves in the Algarve with the soul mate’s parents at the beginning of the chapter which was to change the course of our lives. Almost everyone else in this story is Portuguese or has strong Portuguese ties.  I have no ties, and no heritage remotely connected to this wonderful country.  Yet, I was the one who after three nights on this soil stated that I wanted to live here, in Alfontes. Well, now we do. Close enough, anyway. We live about 3 kilometres from Alfontes and have done so for almost four years.

The soul mate’s mother welcomed this dear friend of her departed son, and certainly contributed to making our holiday memorable. She is a walking encyclopaedia on all things botanical, historical and cultural in this region. We could not have had a better, or kinder, tour guide.


We were taken to visit the historical town of Alte. Much is done to restore and preserve the ancient origins of this town, almost as a living monument. It is at the Roman fountains where we collected bottles and bottles of pure water that I first came face to face with the poem written by “the poet of Alte”, Francisco Xavier Cândido Guerreiro (1871–1953).

This poem, “Assenta a minha aldeia” and excerpts of others have been reproduced on azulejo, the famous blue and white ceramic tiles of Portugal, of which there are examples on countless buildings both old and new, but perhaps exhibited to best effect at the national tile museum in Lisbon, the Muséu Nacional do Azulejo.

Azulejo style display

The mother of the soul mate said the poem out loud in English prose for me right there on the spot. Her husband is the great grandson of this famous poet. At the time, all I could do was order coffee and a double room for the night in Portuguese, so this linguistic assistance was definitely appreciated.

The Poem

The poem is lovely in the original. For those of you fortunate enough to have a command of the Portuguese, I need say no more, except to encourage you to relish in its richness once more.

Another World

I started learning Portuguese when we arrived here as emigrants in October 2008. People assume that because I am a translator, and already know a couple of other languages that it is easier for me than a garden variety English monolingual. I do not think so.

While it may be easier from the point of view that I am genuinely interested in all the possible uses of the subjunctive, for example, and can identify the relics of this mood in English with ease, what many non linguists fail to grasp is that another language is not simply another functional word list to employ when you find yourself surrounded by Continentals.

Another language is another world. It is a new and different mentality with its own history and culture and methods of food preparation, and types of vegetation for which you have hitherto had no need for a name. In this world, too, there are countless social strata quite different from the ones to which you may be accustomed.


The connections between these layers of society – the alliances and divisions and histories – are never explained. They merely serve as a backdrop to the language you are attempting to learn. This backdrop is an exceedingly intricate tapestry. Not only is this complex web a backdrop to the linguistic structure, it lies at the very core of the language itself, and to a large extent, provides the mindset within which current conventions of the language are framed. (I say to a large extent, because of external influences on most of the more widely used languages.)

The tapestry is nebulous, fluid, and a provider of fresh insight at each stage of your learning experience. It has nothing to do with phrases such as, “John is taller than Peter”, or “Can you tell me the way to the railway station?”, or “I think I have vaginal trush and would like a gynaecological examination, please”, although learning these things is necessary, albeit intrinsincally designed to numb your senses as to where the real beauty of a language lies. That last example sentence, by the way, is not taught at night school.

Without observing and learning the convolutions and textures of the tapestry, even if it is from an outsider’s perspective, you cannot progress with the learning of the language.  Without learning a good deal of the language, you simply do not have the tools to see the tapestry with the right pair of eyes. Learning a language thoroughly (my aim) requires vigilance of the highest order!

I will argue here that as a translator, learning a new language after twenty years’ experience in translating two others into my mother tongue is harder, not easier, for me to learn than it is for an expat, for example, who simply wants to order two pints of lager and a packet of chips, and chat to their neighbour when walking the dog.

It is harder for me because my expectations of myself are so much higher than someone who starts learning the language from a monolingual perspective. At each stage of the learning process, I am doing so much more “head work”. I am drawing parallels with and, more importantly, making distinctions between the other languages I know at the grammatical level, whilst I am in the act of learning the Portuguese grammar.

I have always loved the mastery of grammar, since once you are sure of the structure upon which you can hang your thoughts, you gain creative liberty. More tunefully put: In the words of my favourite analogy taken from the film “The Sound of Music”, Julie Andrews sings the line, “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing ‘most anything!” I have never tired of this idea. It can be applied to any endeavour, if you think about it.

Opera and Language

On the phonetic level, the work is easier, since I merely make special note of the sounds I genuinely have not been used to making or hearing before. As your local audiopsychophonologist will tell you, you cannot produce a sound unless you can hear it. This principle was established, I believe, upon testing the hearing of aged soprano opera singers who had started singing the high notes flat. It was discovered, remarkably, that they had lost the ability to sing the high notes not because of faulty vocal cords as conventional wisdom would have it, but because of a physical inability to hear the notes at the top end of their former range. The poor dears had deafened themselves with years of producing so much high-pitched noise so close to their own ears.

Those of you who know me personally think that I have gone off on a tangent again.  What can this story about partially deaf opera singers singing off key possibly have to do with the translation of a poem, or language learning?

Quite a lot, as it happens.

All human languages were spoken before they were ever written down. Languages have their own rhythm. Some words change their interior rhythm depending on the part of speech they serve.  One example of this – and parallels exist in other languages too, of course – would be the English word “economy”. The stress jumps to a different syllable in “economic”, and is more nuanced in “economically”. Once you have taught a non native to say these three words with the correct intonation, you are obliged to get him or her to say “economist”.  Now, it is not hard for any language learner (assuming they come from a society which has an economy) to grasp the meaning of these four words. Achieving the correct rhythm requires the student to hear it first. Only once the student has grasped the notion of how the different phonetic elements of the word interact and has made correlations with other sounds and rhythms he or she knows can the word in question be appreciated in its fullness. Then, sound-wise and rhythm-wise, one has to progress to the level of the phrase, thence to the sentence, paragraph, and so on. Initially, we learn the rhythm of a language as we are dealing with the foreign sounds. Only once these two aspects are internalised – and truly heard – can we begin to hear the music of that language.

That is one dimension to learning a language. The other is learning what the basic meaning of all these perfectly pronounced words are, what they mean in conjunction with other words, and in different contexts. And learning to detect when they mean the opposite of what they normally mean.  We all go through these processes when learning our mother tongue. It is perfectly sensible to expect to go through a similar process when learning another language.


Who am I to tell anyone what poetry is? From the driest point of view, poetry makes use of the rhythmic arrangement of word-based sounds to create a “thing of beauty” which is a “joy forever” (in irreverent, fragmented, and unpoetic reference to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats). Oh yes, and a lot of poetry rhymes, too.

When people create poems they push the boundaries of language on a number of levels, even if they stick to the conventions of traditional metre and form. This means that only the fortunate few understand the full import of a poem straight away. Some never get the hang of it, and reject it as a waste of time. That is their prerogative; I, too, do not waste time with things that I am certain will always be beyond my ken. Buy hey, if you’re still reading this, you are still dying to see where it leads; or, you are a Portuguese-English translator who is almost finished making your own complete comparative analysis of the two versions of the poem further down the page.

Post Script to the Preamble

I shall admit a number of things before I reveal my translation into English of this sonnet.  This will instill true horror in literary translators, and still more horror in translators of poems: I have done no research to speak of. I have never studied Portuguese poetry on a formal basis, and have very little idea of the literary history of Portugal.

By way of minimal pertinent background, I have studied English and French literature and poetry, and could give you an off-the-cuff potted history of both from the Middle Ages to about the time when we started “Waiting for Godot”, which after all these years of translating so many non literary texts, will probably be littered with inaccuracies and imaginative embellishment. I spent many hours of my youth writing my own bad poetry, if that counts for anything. The point is that I do read and love poetry. That, at least, is a start.

I did an internet search in Portuguese for literary criticism of this poem, hoping to unearth a critical analysis of this poem to help me orientate myself and discover the secrets behind one of the metaphors. I did not find what I was looking for, but discovered that many considered Cândido Guerreiro, despite his prolific literary output, to have been a master of the sonnet. Who knew?

In short, this means my ignorance of the poet, the literature, and the language in which the poem is written is enormous!

You are cordially invited to criticise (in Portuguese or English) my “transcreation” as a translation, as a poem, or even the fact that I have attempted it.

One thing I have not found is a translation into English of this poem. In any case, I would not have read it until I had completed my own. If you know of one which does exist, I would be grateful if you could forward it to me.

By the same token, if I have made you wince more than once, please send me your suggestions and we can craft something together worthy of this poet’s true stature.

Let the games begin!


You may share freely, with acknowledgement to
You may share freely, with acknowledgement to

Clearly, I have more than a few glitches in the classic sonnet rhyme scheme options.


(Last line altered 11 October 2013.)

5 thoughts on “Now or never: translation of a poem and other things I don´t know

  1. I was so excited to find your translation of Guerreiro. I can’t find any published translations, do you know of any? When I visited Alte, I tried to read the poems I saw using my Spanish and general linguistic abilities – enough to get a sense of his love for place and for nature.


    1. Hello Robert,
      Thank you for your comment. I have done fairly extensive searches in Portuguese and English, and cannot find any published English translations of Cândido Guerreiro’s work. It seems like his poem’s are a treasure that the Portuguese would like to keep for themselves! I see there is a museum in Loulé, which is a town close to where I live. I may go there one day soon, and speak to the curators to find out why. Granted, translating sonnets is difficult, because although one can achieve accuracy in metre and meaning, it is almost impossible to adhere to a classic sonnet rhyming scheme and achieve an accurate rendering at the same time.


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