Interview // Margaret Jull Costa on Fernando Pessoa

by Rick VanderKnyff | Contributing Writer

Margaret Jull Costa

Margaret Jull Costa has translated a heady list of significant Portuguese- and Spanish-language authors, including Nobel laureate José Saramago, Spain’s Javier Marías, and seven works by the great 19th-century Portuguese novelist Eça de Queiroz. Her current project is a co-translation with Robin Patterson of the collected stories of the 19th-century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, to be published by Norton in 2018.

Jull Costa’s first translation of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, still in print, was done in 1991 for Serpent’s Tail. She returned to the work for the new “complete” edition to be published by New Directions in August.

I had an email conversation with the U.K.-based translator over the course of a couple of weeks while I was reading her new edition of The Book of Disquiet. The following interview is condensed slightly from that correspondence.

How did you approach the new translation more than 25 years after your first? Was it primarily a matter of translating additional portions and reordering the rest? Or did you revisit or rework any of your first translation?

It was largely a matter of translating the new texts and fitting the older translations around them, following JerĂłnimo Pizarro’s edition. I did re-read all the original texts from the 1992 edition. Encouragingly, I didn’t find that much to change!

With the changes in numbering, it can be hard to easily determine what’s been added. Is there a newly added and translated section that you would like to highlight? Either because it’s a favorite, or because of any particular translation challenges it posed? Did you have newly translated passages in both phases of the book? I’d be curious to hear if there are different approaches or challenges in translating the two “authors,” Guedes and Soares.

The earlier Guedes pieces are very different in tone and often very obscure, so that was a challenge! But there’s a kind of freedom, too, for the translator when confronted by the inexplicable. Mostly, I simply had to go with what was there and find a way of saying it in English. Here’s one sentence: “Drunk on errors, I momentarily find myself erroneously alive.” I love the sheer perversity of that “erroneously alive”. That’s what he says! Or this: “The light had turned an exaggeratedly slow yellow, a yellow grimed with grey.” “Slow yellow”! But that’s also the joy of translating such a text, it forces you to expand your linguistic horizons and to embrace strangeness. There are new texts in the Soares half of the book too, and the voice is very different, less ethereal, more grounded in reality. As JerĂłnimo points out, Lisbon only exists in the second part of the book. Soares is not without his difficulties too, though, and for many of the same reasons, because, in linguistic terms, Pessoa is always doing the unexpected. Here’s a section chosen at random:

“I am a widowed house, cloistered in upon itself, darkened by timid, furtive spectres. I am always in the room next door, or they are, and all around me great trees rustle. I wander around and I find things, and I find things because I wander. My childhood days stand before me dressed in a pinafore!”

Who else do you know who writes like that?

How do you think the new organization of the book affects the experience of the reader? Did it change your relationship with the book on revisiting it?

It’s definitely very different. My 1991 translation was based on a selection of texts made by Maria JosĂ© de Lancastre for the Italian version, and the arrangement was more thematic than chronological. I do like the fact that this new edition follows the way the book evolved in Pessoa’s mind over many years. And it was very exciting to make that discovery. I don’t think it really changed my relationship with the book. It’s a book that’s very close to my heart and that still moves and inspires me. It’s also a book that you could publish as if it were a pack of cards and the reader could simply shuffle the texts and read them at random.

In your introduction to the new edition, you talk about the frequent challenges of capturing the meaning of Pessoa’s writing. What about tone? I’m thinking in particular of the Soares passages (the “Second Phase”). It’s so distinctive, but even as a reader I find it hard to encapsulate or describe effectively — I wonder how you went about capturing it.

I think the tone is there in the Portuguese, and I just have to be able to hear that and transfer it into English. That makes it sound very easy, but in every book I translate that’s what I try to do, to tune in to a voice and reproduce it. If you read another translation, of course, the tone may be quite different, but then, as I always say, you don’t expect every Hamlet you see to be or sound the same. On the contrary.

Is there anything the average American reader should know about Portugal—the people, the culture, the history—before diving into The Book of Disquiet?

I don’t think so. The Book of Disquiet seems to me pretty universal, dealing as it does with universal problems: feelings of isolation, a sense of meaninglessness and an inability to connect, but also, contrariwise, the sheer pleasure of seeing and being in the world.

What has been the reception of Pizarro’s critical edition in Portugal generally, and among other Pessoa scholars and experts? I know there was previously some skepticism about even attempting a chronological edition. Has it been a hard sell?

Pessoa scholarship is something of an industry, and so, inevitably, there will be differences of opinion about how to present a book as “unpresentable” as Book of Disquiet. Pessoa did have a kind of plan for the book, but he was such a whirlwind of literary activity, he never had time to put it into action. There is a very clear division between the Guedes period and the Soares period, and I do find that interesting, but, essentially, The Book of Disquiet can be read in any order and is, perhaps, best read randomly, dipping in here and there.

How have you experienced reading the book straight through?

I have to confess I didn’t end up reading straight through. I read through about half of the first section, then read through about half of the second section, then starting bouncing around (comparing across editions, etc.). I have a complicated system of bookmarks in my copy now.

To an earlier point you made, it really does show Pessoa’s development to read the passages chronologically. And to realize how the two halves of the book each works as a distinctly cohesive experience that is very different again from reading the blended “whole.” There is so much fantastic writing and thinking in the first half, but I find myself more drawn to the second half, with all the details of Lisbon and Soares’ life helping to ground the pure contemplation/observation. 

I can’t think of another work behaves in quite this way.

I do think that it is too much to read through the whole thing at once (although I have, of course, several times!), and dipping and skipping is probably the most satisfying way. And I also agree that Soares is more interesting than Guedes, for the very reasons you give. Guedes feels rather as if he belongs to a previous century, perhaps to that of Rimbaud and Verlaine, whereas Soares is much more attuned to twentieth-century angst. And, yes, his evocation of Lisbon is utterly exquisite. A lot of the texts are prose poetry, I think.

This interview is part of a Poetry Northwest feature on Fernando Pessoa. For more, read an excerpt of The Book of Disquiet and an essay by Rick VanderKnyff on the text.

Margaret Jull Costa, the three-time winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize, has also won the IMPAC Dublin prize and the PEN Translation Prize. She has been translating Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American fiction for over twenty years, including the works of Eca de Queiros and Jose Saramago. 

Rick VanderKnyff started his career as an arts writer and copy editor for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, and has since worked as a writer and editor for several online publications and projects. He holds a B.A. in Communications and an M.A. in Anthropology, both from California State University, Fullerton, and lives near Seattle.


Photo courtesy of Margaret Jull Costa