Fado is music associated with a place.  Like Memphis Blues, Cuban Son, Colombian Cumbia, or Argentinean Tango, Fado celebrates its birthplace, evoking the streets and characters of Lisbon, that ‘city of sailors that never puts out to sea.’  And, just as Blues tells you all about the Blues, every Fado song is a re-exploration of what Fado is: that melancholy yearning for lost or unattainable happiness, which in Portuguese goes by the name of saudade.  With its feet in the poverty of the gutter, Fado has made a transition from the street to the stage and now, with the publication of Saudade: an anthology of Fado Poetry, it has arrived in the London literary establishment.

Why would this genre of Portuguese song attract poets in a way that the Blues, Son, Cumbia and Tango do not?  What makes Fado special?  Reading this anthology whilst listening to the songs being sung, it is easy to understand the attraction.  The songs have a lyrical hinterland in the broader poetic culture of Portugal that adds depth to their common themes: loss, yearning, memory, poverty, solitude and sadness.  Although the songs are clearly meant to be sung they can also stand as lyrics: they scan and rhyme.  And, to go by what the writers in this volume tell us, the rhythms of the Portuguese language exercise a peculiar charm over the musical sensitivities of British poets, even when they do not understand the words.

When you first start to investigate Fado or Saudade you will recognise this sound instantly: it is the soundtrack to a thousand posh shops and wine bars.  Saudade has filtered into the consciousness as much through Brazilian CDs of Saudade, where the traditions of Portuguese song took root with mass emigration in the nineteenth-century, as through tourism to Portugal itself.  The Fado/Saudade tradition is continually re-inventing itself, as some of the lyrics in this collection tell us:
Confesso então que chorei
                              Que julguei por tais razões
                               Que o fado tinha morrido
(Alberto Rodrigues, p.54: ‘I confess I cried/thinking because of these/Fado itself had died).

The clear and concise historical note by Rui Vieira Nery that introduces the collection explains how Fado became associated with nationalist sentiment during the Salazar regime which promoted it as a key attraction to foreign visitors.  Spain did something similar with Flamenco.  The popular singers of the fifties and sixties who tapped into the Flamenco traditions, such as Lola Flores and Carmen Sevilla, are called folklóricos.  They weren’t just for the guiris, or tourists; they were important in building a sense of national identity in an age of rapid social change.  Fado is a Portuguese folk music tradition, like Flamenco, and has the same range of popular to experimental singers and writers.  It is the popular expression of a deeper cultural phenomenon- saudade– and has the capacity of all folk music to return to its roots and periodically revive itself.

The Calouste-Gulbenkian Foundation has brought together a group of writers of various backgrounds to translate fados, selected by Vasco Graça Moura and edited in their English dimension by Mimi Khalvati.  Originals usefully appear alongside English language versions.  The songs are prefaced in sections under the translators’ names, rather than by the original authors whose biographical information is relegated to an appendix; the voice of the English language poet is given priority.   These ‘translators’ are poets, first and foremost, and have taken their task as translating the feeling of lyrics, which many of them confess to not understanding in the original, having been provided beforehand with literal translations to work from.   They are faced with a double problem in that, first, there is no context for this poetry in English and, second, translating a sung lyric into a poem to be read is a difficult task in itself: poetry has its own musicality.

It is immediately apparent that there are one or two good poets represented in the collection, such as Antonio Lobo Antunes, whose Valsa breathes a quality of metaphorical expression several degrees more subtle than the simpler Fado songs.  Sorrizo da vazante na almofada (The smile of the ebb-tide on the pillow) is a beautiful image that ties in with the symbolism of sea/beach/tide corresponding with desire/rejection/loss and culminating in the crushing final lines:

A noite tem segredos
               Que dizem coisas que não seu capaz
                (the night holds secrets
Which say things that I cannot say).

Philip Jenkins, the translator of this poem, is an amenable guide.  He gives a good parallel version of the text, does not go out of his way to ‘poeticise’ his diction, maintains the images and ideas in their order and shows respect for the original by not doing it excessive violence in his translation.  Alexandre O Neill is another poet of renown.  His poem Gaiv ota seems to demand reading rather than listening, to resolve the paradoxes of the heart in the chest and in the hand, the power of the gaze- olhar– and then to reread the gentle musicality of the chorus:

Que prefeito coraçao
                               No meu peito bateria.
The sung version of the Fado is good, but I still prefer it as a poem.

The inclusion of these two quality poems in a book of song lyrics is a little like including Yeats in a collection of Bob Dylan and John Lennon lyrics: they share space but they are not the same thing.  And, curiously, the better poem does not make the better Fado.  I watched an aged Alfredo Marceneiro singing Henrique Rêgo’s Cabelo Branco é Saudade (White Hair Means Yearning):

White hair means yearning
For youth’s lost pleasures
Not only through age
But also life’s sorrows
(Tr. Ruth Fainlight).
Read as a poem it is repetitive and, frankly, a little dull but as a song it comes alive: its repetitions gain meaning in the lilting of the voice and the guitar accompaniment.  Don Paterson alludes to this when he ends up with an ‘Audenesque thing’ translating Manuela de Freitas, saying he likes the ‘improvisatory feel and rough artefacts you get in song lyrics’.  A song has to leave space for the interpretation of the singer who can turn what, in a poem, would be maudlin, conventional or overblown, into powerful expression.

Returning to that central concept of saudade as a yearning for something lost or unattainable I am brought up against the relationship of Fado with its audience and context.  This is something that a number of the contributors to the volume mention.  George Szirtes, for example, says that ‘the heart recognises itself’ in Fado because it ‘possesses the wealth of association with which to equip it.”  Just as you can appreciate the Blues in Hampstead, you can listen to Fado in Hull.  He also mentions Auden, along with Elizabethan song lyrics and 40s Hungarian popular songs, attempting thereby to translate the song into a different and comparable network of associations.

Marilyn Hacker goes further taking her originals as mere pretexts for an entirely different context in Palestine.  Can you do the West Bank Blues?  Does a Bratislavan Flamenco make sense?  And Palestinian Fado?  When a translator wants to force these connections as a part of the job of translation, I am tempted to say, “But I just want you to be invisible, so that I can make my own mind up!”  The urge to over-translate can become self-contradictory as when Alfred Corn translates Travessa da Palha as Haymarket Lane, which sounds English enough, but keeps fado in the third stanza untranslated.  Fado being so closely associated with one place- Lisbon- seems to positively demand that its network of local associations should remain in the original, especially since a large part of the appeal of the lyrics is precisely the fact that they emerge from a different and unique culture.

Fado and saudade are concepts of sufficient specificity and weight to remain untranslated, but I think there is not enough historical and critical apparatus in this volume to support our understanding of them.  Saudade underlies the lyric tradition of Portugal and is of fundamental importance in understanding the literature of the region.  Ramon Piñeiro, the Galician philosopher of saudade, thinks that the tendency to appreciate the world through the feelings is particular to the west coast of the Iberian peninsula; yearning for transcendence of the soul’s inevitable solitude.  This is not angst  and predates existentialism.  In its lyricism and its veneration for poetic vision it reaches out to Ireland and even yearns for a Celtic connection.

Saudade has a long history in Portugal and Galicia.  The word gives its title to the first novel in Portuguese, for example (Menina e Moça, 1554), and the nineteenth-century revival of Galego was deeply imbued with reminiscences of yearning medieval troubadour songs, when the culture of Portugal and Galicia was even closer than today.  The revival acquired an especially profound expression in the poetry of Rosalía de Castro, without mention of whom any book on saudade is bound to seem incomplete.  It is intimately linked with poverty, deprivation, emigration and longing.  In Portugal ‘Sebastianismo’, that longing for a the return of a mythical good king, which in some respects recalls the legend of King Arthur, affected perhaps the greatest writer of saudade the country has produced- Fernando Pessoa.

Perhaps this seems overly academic, but there are two concepts of translation on the table: one involves translating yourself into another culture and, by virtue of reading and investigation, attempting to understand it; the other consists in importing cultural artefacts, such as Fado, so that they can be remade in a form that is comprehensible in your own culture.  This volume, which represents the second concept, by drawing people into the study of Fado, may perhaps lead them on to a further investigation of a literature that is well worth studying in depth on its own account.  For that study a different book would be required with a more modest idea of the role of the translator.

I was in Lisbon two years ago and in Oporto last year.  Portugal is now in Europe.  No one is looking out to the Western Sea for the return of the king.  What place does Pessoa´s sensibility have in the materialism and economic development of modern Portugal?  Will Fado become just another means to sell television sets?  Shopping centres, smart cars, motorways and ranks of anonymous new apartment buildings are transforming the face of the country.  These improvements must, inevitably, affect the culture.  Putting Fado into English is one translation, but in Galicia and Portugal the context of saudade is disappearing.  The past itself is a foreign country and modern versions of Fado are themselves translations of what could be seen as a golden age of lyrical poetry and song-writing that now survives, not as a living tradition, but as a museum-piece.

A Portuguese might say that this idea itself is Fado.

About Jason Preater

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