An Interview With Chris Daniels, Translator of One Impossible Step

“My most childish dream is to be translated,” wrote Orides Fontela (b. 1940 in São João da Boa Vista, in the interior of São Paulo). “It’s completely silly, of course. But it must be nice to be international.”

Below is a conversation with Chris Daniels, who compiled and translated the poems in One Impossible Stepthe first ever collection of Orides Fontela’s poetry to appear in English, out today from Nightboat. Of the collection, he states he “tried to show the way Orides Fontela cognized life, and to give the reader an idea of what she was like as a person.” I believe he’s done both. 

Here we discuss the translation, Fontela’s place in Lusophone poetry, and what we can learn from someone who “always wrote her poems and lived her life against the grain.”

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: Thank you for this wonderful translation — I understand that it’s been in the works for a while now. How did you come to Fontela and her work? 

Chris Daniels: Thank you, Dante, for your kind words! Orides would be thrilled about the book. I’m over the moon. 

Brazilians often refer to famous people by their first names. I like that.

In the late 90s, I met Dana Stevens, who was at that time a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and is now a film critic. She was working on her PhD thesis on Fernando Pessoa. I was completely obsessed with Pessoa and had already started to translate his poetry. (Translating Pessoa made me realize that I really and truly did want to be a translator and that over time I could probably learn to be pretty good at it.) Dana and I got to talking and collaborated on a couple of translations. Eventually, she showed me her copy of Rosace (Rosácea), the book Orides published in 1986, and let me xerox it. I was blown away, just like when I came across Lorine Niedecker for the first time so long ago, WOW! All those little poems that do so much! Zukofsky’s not the branches, Charles Reznikoff, early HD; that beautiful simplicity, that devotion to clarity and precision. What Orides called a fast, low soccer kick. I love all kinds of poetry, but there’s a special place in my heart for poets who are able to work in that way.

I don’t remember when I started translating Orides’s poetry, but I definitely wanted to translate it right away. I’ve been lucky enough to know Brazilian poets and non-poets who are willing and able to answer questions and kind enough to save me from my inevitable blunders.

I started translating around the time I turned 20, 1975-77, but I was never really serious about it until September, 1995, almost 30 years ago. I’ve spent about 25 years with Orides, off and on ― sometimes very much on, indeed. I learned how to translate with Pessoa, Josely Vianna Baptista, and Orides, three very good, very different poets.

Dante Silva: I wanted to start with the title, from the 1969 collection Transposição (Transposition). Fontela writes, as you’ve wonderfully translated, “One step from my own spirit. / One impossible step from God.” Could you say more about these lines, and the spiritual connotations within? What is meant by an impossible step

Chris Daniels: Let’s look at that poem:

One step from my own spirit.

One impossible step from God.

Attentive to the real: here.

I happen here.

The noun espírito means spirit in every sense of the English word, but it can also mean mind. Estado do espíritostate or frame of mind ― can also mean mood. I had to make a decision. I’m not very happy with the decision I made. Such are the perils of translation! I should have added a note.

Is Orides saying that she’s at a distance from her own mind, her own spirit, her thoughts and feelings, and thus is able to perceive them objectively? Is she saying that that’s where she wants to be? God is very near, but unreachable, but what exactly does Orides mean by God? If the next two lines negate the first two, are then God and her own spirit / mind not here, and therefore apart from the real to which she attends? Was Orides religious? Is she pushing against mysticism? Does this have something to do with her adamant refusal of confessionalism? 

I don’t know whether or not Orides believed in God. Orides was raised a Catholic and was very interested in the Christian mystics. She had a degree in Philosophy. She was a Zen initiate. Again, what does Orides mean by God?

I don’t feel able to answer all those questions for anyone but myself. There are so many other questions that can be asked.

When asked what Attentive to the real meant to her, Orides answered: I don’t know, I just think it’s right. That’s all I can say about it. She wanted readers to come to their own conclusions.

Clarice Lispector wrote: As long as I have a question to ask, I’ll keep writing. Clarice also wrote: I am a question.

Dante Silva: In an interview with Jotabê Medeiros — included in the collection here — Fontela says, “[T]here comes a time when you find your own way of writing and nothing influences you anymore.” What stood out to you as characteristic of Fontela’s own way of writing? Where can we place her in a lineage of Lusophone poets/writers/artists?

Chris Daniels: This book contains less than a third of the poems. Orides didn’t organize her books chronologically. She took old poems from the drawer, sometimes reworked them, and added them to the newer poems. There’s no telling when many of the poems were written. Nevertheless, when you read her complete poems, a conscious stripping down of technical resources and an ever greater simplicity are apparent.

She would have objected strenuously to this, but I think that it’s not too off the mark to think of her in connection with the Brazilian Neo-Concrete artists, many of whom show a certain kinship with Minimalism in their work. Because of the spareness of her poetry, she can also be thought of as having something to do with the Concrete poets. She would have hated me saying that.

She loved Carlos Drummond de Andrade. His way of writing was alien to her. We can to some extent connect her to João Cabral de Melo Neto, but compared to Orides, the arch-materialist João Cabral was a sensualist. I can’t place her among the poets around Tropicália or Poesia Marginal.

She can be seen as a Symbolist or neo-Symbolist, and she loved some of the Brazilian Symbolists. The influence of Zen on her work is profound and obvious. Haiku is well-known and practiced in Brazil. 

Orides was first and foremost a writer of concise philosophical lyric poetry. It’s safe to say that in 20th-century Brazilian poetry, her work stands apart. She talks about it in her interviews. I hope people will read the book!

Dante Silva: You mentioned in your note the absence of “eu,” the first-person singular pronoun, in Fontela’s work. I’m wondering if you could say more here — is there a politics to this absence?

Chris Daniels: It’s important to note that Portuguese is an inflected language. Verbs do not necessarily need pronouns to function in a sentence.

Some time ago, out of curiosity I counted the number of times that several famous Lusophone poets wrote the first-person singular subjective pronoun. I found that Pessoa wrote it more than a thousand times. Hilda Hilst, about 300 (in her poems). Carlos Drummond de Andrade, more than 400. João Cabral de Melo Neto (who also disliked confessionalism), a little less than 200 (though usually in the voice of someone not himself). Henriqueta Lisboa, a little more than 100. I could go on indefinitely. I no longer have all my books with me, but I can’t think of any Lusophone poets who so resolutely refused to write “eu,” except perhaps for the Brazilian concrete poets.

In his marvelous afterword, Ricardo Domeneck writes that in the poems of Orides Fontela the first-person singular seems to be consistently exiled from the verbs. It is crystal clear to me that Orides made a conscious decision, and that this decision was both philosophical and aesthetic. 

As for politics, some of her poems are explicitly or implicitly political. Readers will find them. Orides never denied her background. She had little support for most of her writing life. Certain critics praised her, but very few readers were capable of appreciating her work. She was hurt and angered by the way she was perceived and treated by many Brazilian literary types, the vast majority of whom were not working class, not poor, certainly were not raised by an illiterate father and a barely literate mother. She was humiliated and angered by the inequality of the society she lived in, as we all should be angered by the unacceptable inequality of ours. As a woman, she repudiated the domesticity of an Adélia Prado and the confessionalism of an Ana Cristina Cesar. I think she must have felt some resentment toward poets who wrote about their kitchen, their trips abroad, their possessions, and love affairs because she had none of the above. I’ve always had support from people I respect, but for a long time, I quite often felt alone. I no longer feel alone. Orides must have felt bitter sometimes. I’m not bitter, but I understand her feelings.

I worry that I’ve just painted a pretty bleak picture. Her anger and frustration are apparent in her interviews, but so is her sense of humor. First-person plural verbs occur throughout her poems. There is a big difference between loneliness and the solitude many artists need in order to create. Some of her poems are quiet celebrations of her own humanity among other humans. Some of them are funny. There are moments of sweetness in her poems.

Orides was a complex person. She was very intelligent. She was perfectly aware of the value of her work. She did not wish to be thought of as anything but a good poet. She did not want her poems to be used for anything other than what poems can do. She tried to keep her very identity out of her poems. Yes, there are social and political as well as philosophical and emotional reasons for her to discard what she considered to be an unnecessary, perhaps uncomfortable fixation on her own self.

One question remains. Why did she leave the few instances of “eu” intact? Maybe she just thought it was right . . .

Dante Silva: I wanted to ask about your own practice of translation, which you refer to as “feral.” What does a feral practice of translation look like, sound like? Where does it lead you?

Chris Daniels: Oh, but I don’t call my practice feral. I call myself feral. It’s kind of a little private joke I have with myself. 

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of the organic intellectual. An organic intellectual is a person who comes from a social class that does not normally produce intellectuals, and remains connected to that class. Organic intellectuals are not upwardly mobile. Their concern is for the conditions of their class as a whole, not for themselves.

I’m a working class person. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I’m poor, but I’m able to get by. I dropped out of high school and never went to college. Apart from a grievous decade or so in an office, my jobs have been typical of the working class: dishwasher, ditch digger, cook, house painter, trash sorter in recycling stations, among others. Until I was 40, when I began to come into real contact with other poets, I spent most of the time around people, workers like myself, who didn’t care at all about poetry.

Most of humanity is working class. I’m happy and proud to be a solidarious part of that vast global majority. Imagine how I felt when I found out that Orides came from a poor working class family!

I’m not an academic. I’m not remotely a theorist or a critic. I’ve read some translation theory, but very little of it has been helpful, in part because I’m not good at reading theory. I don’t have the training for it, you know? Standard critical essays about translation are too filled with highly debatable injunctions and prohibitions for me to take them seriously. I remember reading in an essay or in an interview that a certain 20th-century poet was untranslatable because their poetry was written in a mixture of contemporary and archaic vocabulary and syntax and that it was impossible to capture that in contemporary English. I don’t recall who said that, or the language of the supposedly untranslatable poet, but I immediately thought: Why is it impossible? Is there only one way to write a poem in English? Why shouldn’t I take the same risks taken by the poet I’m translating? Why not go all out and see what happens?

There are exceptions, of course. Historical surveys of translation are useful and a lot of fun to read. The essays, notes, and comments by translators I admire are very helpful; their work is always instructive. And I read a lot of Lusophone literary criticism, history, etc.

I used to be a musician; I played electric bass for a long time and got pretty good at it. Perhaps whatever critical and/or theoretical acumen I possess has been gained and interiorized through practice, the way a musician interiorizes music theory, scales and harmony, until there’s nothing but sound between the hands and the ear. That’s not to say that I don’t have to struggle to solve problems. Of course I do. I don’t know everything. I accept my limitations. But when everything is going well and the translation flows along, it feels the way I felt when I played music. 

I have no official connection to any institution. I have no career. Acknowledgment and recognition are nice, but the work is most important. It helps me feel useful to other poets, which helps me attain a measure of contentment. It can be exciting. My main ambition is to do good work and, in so doing, turn people on to poetry I love and hopefully inspire other poets to learn Portuguese and start translating so that an 800-year-old, immensely rich poetic tradition will be revealed in all its beauty to the Anglophone world. 

Solidarity with other poets in the world has a great deal to do with it.

Early on, a Brazilian friend helped me with Pessoa, but I’m entirely self-taught. I still ask as many questions as I need to and I always will. You have to ask questions. You can’t assume anything. I look words up when I don’t know them, when I’ve forgotten the definition, and, most crucially, when I’m dead certain of the meaning but there’s a little nagging voice in my head telling me that I’m on the wrong track. Even so, I still make mistakes. At some point I stopped caring about “faithfulness,” whatever that means. I want to make good poems. It took a long time, most of my life, but here I am.

I’ve always allowed myself to be led by my own nose, like a wild pig rooting for truffles in the forest. When a poet knocks me out, I feel the need to translate. I don’t always act on that need, but I feel it. It’s kind of like I’m wandering around in the wild, rootless, unaffiliated, stubbornly independent, looking for poems that excite me enough that I try to find a voice inside myself that can speak them. “Find a voice” is a corny, workshoppy thing to say, but that’s what it’s like.

I’m an organic intellectual for sure, but I like the word “feral” very much. And I very much like the word “feracious.” Different etymologies, great words, both of which describe me and my endless practice.

Translation is the closest reading imaginable. I like to call it “close writing.” I can’t explain why it fulfills such a deeply felt need in me. I have a lot of fun when I translate a poem. When, after days or weeks or months or even years, I finally solve a problem or realize I’ve gotten something wrong and then make it right, that’s all part of the fun; there’s no better reason to do anything a person can do.

Dante Silva: I love the final quote of Fontela’s you included — “My most childish dream is to be translated.” How wonderful to realize that dream, now. 

Where do you see these poems having resonance, in the contemporary world (particularly as Fontela’s work reaches Anglophone audiences)? Where, maybe more importantly, might they strike dissonance?

Chris Daniels: It is wonderful, yes. It makes me happy to know that a poet I love so dearly can now be read by  the people who speak the language I grew up speaking. 

A translation can add something new to a poetic culture, something different that may give rise to other ways of thinking about what a poem can be. I hope that all of my translations do that, in however small a way. I hope that people find beauty in what I’ve done, and fellow-feeling. That’s the resonance I hope for.

Orides found a way to write that was unique to her. Everybody knows or ought to know that in art there are no rules; there are only matters of craft and expectations. Expectations are cultural. Culture is not static. There are no recipes to follow when one tries to write (or translate) a poem. However, I believe that all artists have a responsibility to find their own way as best they can, like Orides did. Her poetry is accessible to anybody who thinks feelingly and feels thoughtfully (that’s Brecht). I don’t think that the poems will cause dissonance, except perhaps for readers who only know confessional poetry, or who expect poetry to be “difficult,” or “experimental.” There are many, many ways to write (and read) a good poem.

It’s a pity that English grammar demands that verbs be accompanied by a pronoun. If I’d been able to get away with leaving all those pronouns out, we really could wonder along with Flora Süssekind, “Who speaks in the poetry of Orides Fontela?” We might be led to ask “What is the identity of this person?” and think about identity and the many ways that it can be embodied in language, even when a poet tries so hard to keep her own self out of her poetry.

Some of the things she says in her interviews go against the grain of contemporary thinking in the so-called West. That may raise a few eyebrows. Well, Orides always wrote her poems and lived her life against the grain.

The Soviet literary critic A.K. Voronsky said that art is a cognition of life. I can’t think of a more concise definition. I’ve tried to show the way Orides Fontela cognized life, and to give the reader an idea of what she was like as a person. If I’ve managed to do both, I’ve done something worthwhile.