Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s little songs of the sea

by Bernard O'Shea

Whenever I am in a Romance language country I enthusiastically buy little anthologies of poetry, short stories or wot-not, thinking they will help me to conquer the language and familiarise myself with the local giants of literature. When I get home I tend to stack them in my bookcases, then forget about them. I have so many pristine books!

On a trip to Lisbon I came across a little volume of poetry by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (impressive name, huh?) entitled Shores, Horizons, Voyages (Orchid Press, 2005). Great, I thought, my economy class luggage allowance can accommodate this!. The title was appealing – I like shores, horizons, voyages, I am a travel writer! Even better, the poems had been translated into English by Rui Cascais Parada, so I wouldn’t have to look up any words in the dictionary. The foreword said Sophia is “one of the most universal, approachable, poetic voices of modern Portuguese literature”. Great, I like poetry that is “approachable” – I might be able to understand it. And she has won lots of prizes, so she must be good. I bought the book.

Sophia Mello Breyner Andresen, retrato a crayo...

Sophia Mello Breyner Andresen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sophia was born in Porto in 1919 and died in 2004, and like many Portuguese, she seemed to have a love affair with the sea. Judging by her poems, she spent much of her time roaming alone on the sea shore, ruminating, but nevertheless seems to have led quite an active and varied life.

The winds and waters of the west coast of Portugal can be rough and wild and the beaches there tend to lend themselves to more solitude, than the more sunny and sheltered beaches on the popular south coast (the Algarve). They must have been even more isolated in Sophia’s youth, when travel was much less common and sunbathing wasn’t “a thing”.

Anyway, here is one of my favourite poems by Sophie: I like it because it is only two lines long. 🙂

Inscrição (Inscription)

Quando eu morrer voltarei para buscar
Os instantes que não vivi junto do mar

Rui’s translation:

When I die I shall return to fetch back
The instants I didn’t live by the sea

Let’s try another: this one doesn’t have a title:

As ondas quebravam uma a uma
Eu estava só com a areia e com a espuma
Do mar que cantava só para mim.

The waves crashed one by one
I was alone with the sand and with the spray
Of the sea that sang only for me.

Well, that wasn’t too mentally taxing, was it? We might attempt a four-liner next time. In the meantime, back she goes on the bookshelf.

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pianolearner September 30, 2013 - 11:27 pm

I was listening to “Open Book” on r4 at the weekend and they were saying that Portuguese literature is very under-represented in the UK. I had never even heard of Sophia.

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Bernard O'Shea October 1, 2013 - 12:16 am

Yes, I agree not much is known about Portuguese literature. I don’t think I had heard of her either till I saw the book. I think Sophie de Mello would be a great name for a pop singer nowadays (Sophie sounds better than Sophia, somehow)

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Domingos Isabelinho January 9, 2014 - 10:55 am

Sophia can’t be translated without losing most of her delicate poetical touch. She was one of the last poets to feel the Classical culture deeply, Greece especially. Here’s my translation of one of her poems:

We exiled the gods and we were
Exiled from our wholeness

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Bernard O'Shea January 12, 2014 - 11:23 am

Hi, thanks for popping by on my blog and for comments. I agree with you, it is very hard to capture in another language the exact feel of the original. Do you do a lot of translating? All the best, Bernardo

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