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Translating Brazilian Concrete Poetry: The French Connection
Marjorie Perloff
[Augusto de Campos, Anthologie despoesia, traduit et présenté par Jacques Donguy (Paris: Editions Al Dante, 2002)] no. 2, 2003

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We have, to date, no adequate English translations of the rich and varied poetic oeuvre of the Brazilian Concretists Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. A Haroldo de Campos Reader, translated by Sergio Bessa and Odile Cisneros, is now in the making, but those of us who do not read Portuguese, know Augusto's work chiefly from discussion, in the scholarly journals, of such seminal verbal-visual texts as Codigo, as well as the beautiful reproductions of visual poems like sem un número ("without a number"), luxo ("luxury"), ovo novelo "(egg ball of yarn"), and OLHO POR OLHO, ("EYE FOR EYE"), in Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View (1971), which gives translations of these texts in the Appendix. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that Augusto's poems, like those of his brother Haroldo, are notoriously difficult to translate into English, where their punning, homophonic play, and morphology are invariably lost. But, as in the case of the Galáxias, Haroldo's sequence of prose poems ingeniously rendered in French by Inez Oseki-Depré, perhaps the solution, for the moment, is to leave aside English, a language markedly different in sound, syntax and morphology from Portuguese, and translate the Brazilian Concrete Poets into French, where it is perfectly possible to give the feel of the original. Then, too, unfair though it may be, there are more of us that read French than read Portuguese.

The new Anthologie despoesia is thus doubly welcome: first because it makes Augusto de Campos's poetry accessible to a whole new readership, and second because the translator, Jacques Donguy, is himself a prominent French visual and cyberpoet as well as a theorist of the new digital poetics. His beautifully produced book, with its scholarly preface, notes, and outstanding translations, is thus a model of what translation can be and can do.

In his Preface, Donguy gives us, in a long note, the etymology of the word Noigandres (the name of the group the De Campos brothers founded together with the poet-novelist-theorist Decio Pignatari in 1952). It is well known that the term Noigandres was taken from Ezra Pound's Canto XX, in which the poet seeks out the venerable Provençal specialist Emil Lévy, a professor at Freiburg, and asks him what the word noigandres (used by the great troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel) means, only to be told by Lévy that for six months he has been trying without success to find the answer : "Noigandres, eh, noigandres, / "Now what the DEFFIL can that mean!" But, Donguy points out, "Old Lévy" in fact went on to crack this difficult nut: the word, he suggested, could be divided in two- enoi (ennui) and gandres (éloigner, to remove)--in its original troubadour context, an odor (probably of a flower) that could drive away ennui. Other Provençalists, the note tell us, have suggested that Noigandres might also refer to noix de muscade (nutmeg), which is an aphrodisiac--a reading that is plausible given that Arnaut's poem in question is a love poem. And since the nutmeg plant is prickly on the outside, silky on the inside, noigandres may also be a sexual metaphor (p. 7)

I cite all this just to show how attuned Donguy is to the double entendre and pun, as well as to Provençal scholarship that distinguishes Augusto's oeuvre from first to last. The Preface takes us through Augusto's work volume by volume, pointing out key elements and tracing the poet's evolution from the still linear lyric of Poetamenos [Poètemoins] of 1953, to the ideogram, poem-object, laser poem, hologram, sound poem, and finally the interactive computer poetries of recent years. Particularly notable, in the first section, are the so-called color-word poems, like Lygia (p. 22), which juxtaposes the "red" title word with green, yellow, blue, and purple word groups to create a dense set of repetitions and contrasts. Translation is minimal here, since Augusto himself has invented a multilingual poetics that eerily anticipates what is sometimes known in contemporary poetry circles today as "The New Mongrelism." Lygia contains English, Italian, German, and Latin words and phrases, most of them creating puns like finge ("feint" or "trick") which becomes, as we read on into the next line, the word finge/rs. Again, lynx is also links, meaning "left" in German, whereas the German phrase so lange so puns on Solange Sohl, the idealized beloved, whom Augusto, who came across the name in a newspaper poem, celebrated in the Provençal manner ses vezer ("without seeing her") in his 1950 poem O Sol por Natural (see note, p. 22). Gia, which means "already" in Italian, points ahead to the next line, completing the name ly/gia, the poet's donna ideale. Augusto's love poem also creates anagrams on Lygia, using words like "digital" and "illa (gryphe), the italicized letters appearing in contrasting colors for emphasis. There are conjunctions between lynx, féline, figlia, and felix, where the words are, respectively, English, French, Italian, and Latin. And yet the poetic constellation that emerges is curiously unified: in this homage to Lygia, who is both feline mother and sister, as well as child-wife, the emphasis is finely on so only lonely tt-/l, the power to turn sounds into words breaking off abruptly upon the pronouncement of the "l" of Lygia herself. 

The color poems present the translator with only minor challenges, since little of the vocabulary must actually be changed. But now consider the following from Bestiáro (Bestiaire, p. 32): 



o poeta





(em tese)


e se mani








que lhe é




le poète







et se mani



dans cette





qui lui est


The principle of this poem may be found in the word tmesis, the rhetorical term for the cutting or separation of the parts of a word by inserting a word or words between them. Yes, this lyric declares, the infin/itesi poet --note the portmanteau word tesi ("thesis) buried in the Italian word--lives badly. At least that is the poem's "hypothesis." Donguy's note telling us that em tese (line 7) literally means en principe, en théorie, but that he is using the word hypothèse, which is certainly close enough to "in theory," so as to make the line homophonic with the key word tmèse. The translation of e se mani /(ainda) /festa as et se mani / (aussi) / feste poses no problems: even in English, we have the matching word "manifest." But in the next section, the transformation of ani / (trieste)/ mal / espècie into es /(triste)/ "pèce / animale is very effective because es / pèce ("species") so nicely draws out the sound structure of tesi, tmése, feste, cette, and triste, leaving animale to have a line of its own. The body, that triste and cut up es / pèce is certainly funeste ("fatal") to the poet's infinite desires.

Here is a case where the French translation is quite as good as the Portuguese original. When we come to the later, more fully "concrete" poems --poems in which the visual placement of words and syllables is their meaning--Donguy achieves even more impressive results. Here is the 1956 com/ som, which Augusto has performed frequently in tape and video presentations:

com can

som    tem 

con   ten    tam

tem   so bem 

tom   sem

bem    som 


dans   chan

son   tons 

con   ten   son

tons   sion   dant 

tom   sans

bons   son 

This poem, as Augusto has explained (see note, p. 50), moves from "Avec son [com bom] to "sans son [sem som]," from with sound to without sound or silence. The French literally reads, "in sound, let us sing, let us tell, tension, sounding, we fall, without sound"). French sounds are close enough to the Portuguese so that the poem creates similar chiming between dans/son and "sans/son as in the original; indeed, throughout the poem, the rhyming of morphemes creates the temporal movement from the original sound to the final silence. In the center of the constellation, there is the ten/sion that holds it all together; and the cut between the syllables of tom and bons creates a nice pun on the English male name and the French word for "good" which in turn suggests that the final "son" is also "bons."

In the mid-sixties, Augusto began to make what he called Popcretos or tableaux poèmes, collaging newspaper cutouts to create new typographical possibilities. "L'ANTI-BRUIT", for example, takes Dante's dal centro al cerchio e si dal cerchio al centro, to create an explosion-implosion nucléaire de paroles. De la chronique sociale la critique sociale. De petits mots distingués et raffinés--d'anni, de bals de déb etc.--aux gros mots étouffés popcrets gros et gras, completer ad libitum par le lecteur--voyeur--auteur (p. 75). The result, as is the case with all the Popcretos, might be described as a cross between Marinetti's parole in libert and John Cage's rule-governed mesostic compositions. In L'ANTI-BRUIT, as Jacques Donguy's note tells us, the rule is to make the circle out of words whose last letter is missing, as in suc(o) meaning "juice" or gost(o) meaning "taste." It was quite possible to find French equivalents like MANCH or MERD or CAF. In the center of the circle, the words are complete monosyllables, but most are in English (presumably from an American newspaper) and are either abbreviations (CAP, DEB ), acronyms (VIP, PSIC) or off-color references like COCK. These interact to create new networks of meaning: SEX, for example, points to POP and the ZER of "zero" [figure 1]. 


Throughout the later works like the 1977 stèlegramme called O Quasar (with its pun on quasi amar, which Donguy renders as quasi aimer, the French equivalents of Augusto's words are brilliantly chosen and articulated. This is a translation by a poet totally in sync with the original, whether Donguy is translating the early etymological and punning word-color poems or i the later digital and sound compositions. More important: this Anthologie despoesia serves as a reminder of how exciting and important concrete or visual poetries have been ever since their inception in the fifties. In America, where "poetry" still too often refers to a rectancular column of type, surrounded by white space--a column of type whose physical appearance is treated as largely irrelevant to its "meanings" and the emotions ostensibly conveyed, it is bracing to read and look at a set of "verbivocovisual" texts as subtle, ironic, and materially charged as those of Augusto de Campos. I am also eager to read more of Jacques Donguy's own work. 

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