Ten Questions for Margaret Jull Costa on Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet

The Portuguese modernist par excellence Fernando Pessoa remains an immense figure in world literature. Any significant new translation of his work is an event worthy of attention (all the more so because much of his writing remains untranslated still). But what do you call it when his undisputed masterpiece is translated in a new, impeccably edited, expanded edition by possibly the greatest translator of Iberian literature working today?

That is what we have in Margaret Jull Costa’s new version of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, forthcoming from New Directions later this month. This central text of Portuguese modernism—an unclassifiable, utterly original, and indisputable genius work—here gets what is possibly its most complete and best-translated English edition ever. Pessoa’s magnum opus is famously incomplete—we do not even know the correct order of the hundreds of fragments that now comprise this “book”—and this edition of The Book of Disquiet offers a version that has been carefully edited and is more complete than other available translations.

And, of course, it has been translated by one of the true legends of the translation field. In addition to being the lead translator of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago and frequent Nobel finalist Javier Marías, Margaret Jull Costa is also the translator of scores of other works from Portuguese and Spanish, both classic and contemporary. It is no exaggeration at all to call her the leading living translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature, and her work has won multiple awards. I corresponded with her via email to hear about her latest project.


Scott Esposito: This is not your first try at The Book of Disquiet—you did an edition with Serpent’s Tail in 2011, and you also received a 1992 Portuguese Translation Prize for what I take to be a different translation of Pessoa’s magnum opus. For all I know, there might even be other Margaret Jull Costa translations of Pessoa, as you’re rather prodigious. So can you enlighten us as to why you took the opportunity to translate this book again and how this edition might be different from other translations of Pessoa currently available, either yours or others?

Margaret Jull Costa: The 2011 edition was a reprint of my 1992 translation, and this new edition is actually an expanded version of that original 1992 translation. That first translation was based on Maria José Lancastre’s selection of texts for the Italian edition (translated by her husband, novelist Antonio Tabucchi). This translation follows Jerónimo Pizarro’s 2013 edition, and while this new English edition includes all the texts that appeared in my earlier translation, it also includes a large number of texts that did not. Jerónimo’s edition gives us the Book of Disquiet as it evolved, with the first part attributed to one heteronym—Vicente Guedes—and the second to the better-known heteronym—Bernardo Soares. These two “parts” are very different in tone, and you get a real sense of how the book evolved over the many years Pessoa was writing it. I can’t remember now whose idea it was to produce this new expanded version, but I found it fascinating to return to the book after all these years and to discover a very different voice in the earlier Vicente Guedes sections. I did revisit the texts from my 1992 translation, but I actually changed very little, which is encouraging!

SE: You’ve done extensive work with many classics of Portuguese literature, among them numerous books by José Maria de Eça de Queirós and José Saramago, as well as books by Teolinda Gersão, Lídia Jorge, and many others. I take it your knowledge of Portuguese literature is rather substantial. Where does Pessoa fit in for you? What is his importance?

MJC: I’ve been reading and studying Portuguese literature for the last forty or so years, but there is always more to learn. And I’ve been enormously privileged to be asked to translate so many of Portugal’s finest writers. Pessoa is the Portuguese poet, but, oddly, he had no real followers. I suppose the same could be said of Eça. But maybe that’s the mark of true genius. Pessoa was a contemporary of Eliot and Pound and other Modernists, but none of them produced that wild proliferation of other selves, that constant splitting off into different personalities. To me, he still seems utterly modern and speaks so directly to us across the years that he remains forever fresh.

SE: This is a strange thing about Pessoa—if you visit Portugal nowadays, he’s everywhere. As you say, he is the poet, he’s read by schoolchildren, etc, etc. But The Book of Disquiet only appeared as a complete book in 1982, which was half a century after Pessoa died. In his own lifetime he was a marginal figure, published here and there in little magazines, but not really seen as a great writer along the lines of an Eliot or a Pound. It is a real testament to this book that, as you say, it could appear six or seven decades after it was composed and still feel entirely fresh and new. What kind of an impact did this book have on its release, and who among the contemporary Portuguese writers have been influenced by Pessoa?

MJC: Yes, a whole industry has built up around Pessoa, and that image of him striding along a Lisbon street is everywhere. This does seem ironic, given what a very private person he was in real life. The late appearance of The Book of Disquiet can be put down to the many years it took for researchers to make any sense of the more than 200,000 bits of paper found in the famous trunk after Pessoa’s death. Since the first 1982 version put together by Maria Aliete Galhoz, Teresa Sobral Cunha and Jacinto do Prado Coelho, there have been numerous versions in Portuguese, all of them different and in a different order, and even more translations, again all different, all with a different selection of texts and all in a different order. I’m sure Pessoa would have been most amused at (or bemused by) this chaotic legacy and posthumous celebrity. Pessoa was already known as a poet prior to the publication of The Book of Disquiet, but this prose work seems to hold a perennial fascination for scholars and readers alike, perhaps because it is so incomplete and uncertain. Paradoxically, as I said before, I don’t feel that contemporary Portuguese writers have been much influenced by Pessoa, perhaps because he is a complete one-off.

SE: I’ve read The Book of Disquiet a couple of times, and I still have a hard time when it comes to the matter of categorizing this book. Is it a diary? Notebooks? A collection of pensées? A sort of philosophical work? Fiction or nonfiction? How would you classify The Book of Disquiet?

MJC: I think The Book of Disquiet defies categorization. It is all of those things, and never just one of them. I would prefer not to classify it at all.

SE: Are there particular books, essays, stories, poems, or writers that you would recommend to read alongside The Book of Disquiet?

MJC: I think perhaps as an antidote, people should read Eça de Queiroz, so eminently unneurotic and unintrospective. For something similar, Pessoa himself recommends Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal. And he has another kindred spirit, I think, in Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno.

SE: What are the particular challenges of translating The Book of Disquiet? Were there certain resources you drew on for this project?

MJC: The translator of Book of Disquiet really has to be able to use his or her own language as inventively as Pessoa used Portuguese. That is, of course, also the great pleasure of translating, and the book is full of wonderful passages which are, at once, so physical, so vivid and so strange. For example: “The trams growl and clang around the edges of the square, like large, yellow, mobile matchboxes, into which a child has stuck a spent match at an angle to act as a mast; as they set off they emit a loud, iron-hard whistle. The pigeons wandering about around the central statue are like dark, ever-shifting crumbs at the mercy of a scattering wind.” Isn’t that amazing? And I don’t mean the translation (!), but the imagery, so vivid and so original, that ‘iron-hard whistle’, for example. Translating such wonderfully creative writing forces the translator to find what his or her own language can do, to test it to its limits. Fortunately, English is a wonderfully rich and flexible tongue. As for resources, I suppose I drew on what every experienced translator would draw on, many years of translating and a life spent reading and absorbing both languages, Portuguese and English.

SE: Could you talk a little about one or two particular ways in which Pessoa’s Portuguese differs from that of the other Portuguese-language authors you’ve translated?

MJC: All the Portuguese authors I’ve translated have their own particular style and voice. Eça, for example, writing in the nineteenth century, is full of detailed descriptions of people and places, but also very funny, naturalistic dialogues. In his earlier work, Saramago also contains brilliant descriptions of nature (his descriptions of rain and darkness in All the Names are unsurpassed) and excellent dialogues embedded in long, long sentences. Teolinda Gersão has a plainer style, but with every word weighed carefully, and with some exquisite descriptions of nature, particularly in The Word Tree. Ana Luisa Amaral’s poetry is perhaps the closest to Pessoa’s writing in its obliqueness, in the challenge it lays down for the translator to step outside the usual boundaries of language, of what we can say. And Pessoa is constantly trying to say the unsayable, to describe the undescribable, but in way that the reader can understand, because Pessoa, for all that linguistic complexity, does speak to us so clearly across the years.

SE: Pessoa is rather voluminous, prodigious. And though The Book of Disquiet is rather well-represented in the English language, as well as scattered volumes of his poetry in excellent translations, there is still so much of his writing that has never made it into the English language. Do you have plans to go further with him? And beyond your own translation work, are you aware of any future editions of Pessoa that we should know about?

MJC: I’ve heard Pessoa described as “o homem interminável”—the interminable man—which doesn’t actually sound that complimentary in English! But he was SO prodigious in his output. I don’t know about other Pessoa projects, but New Directions have asked me to translate all the poetry and prose of his three best-known heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. That will take me a few years. And there is a possibility that I might translate some of his detective fiction—you see what people mean about his interminability!

SE: In The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa’s heteronym Bernardo Soares writes, “I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting.” How did you feel upon completing this translation?

MJC: Oh, those words have haunted me for years! As a translator, I have that same ‘desire for perfection’ and the same fear of falling short. I only hope that I have done justice to Pessoa’s prose. Perfection is, they say, for the gods. Although when one considers Pessoa’s prodigious output, of course, his desire for perfection clearly didn’t prevent him from starting!

SE: Lastly, we’ve talked a bit about how this book did not see the light of day until four decades after its author’s death, and how even then the writing was still quite fresh and relevant. What would you say The Book of Disquiet has to offer readers in the Anglosphere in this year 2017?

MJC: I think certainty is a very dangerous thing. Beware of people who are too certain about anything. The Book of Disquiet embraces doubt and uncertainty and an awareness of human frailty. Alongside those feelings, though, there is an intense love of life and the physical world, a celebration of seeing, and that, in our overly busy, screen-fixated world, is something to be treasured.



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