At the Carnaval blocos (street parties) in Rio last week—rising above the sea of fluorescent wigs, animal ears, and sequined fedoras—I saw the same three signs reappear: Não Vai Ter Copa (There Won’t Be A World Cup), Tá Tudo Caro (Everything’s Expensive), and, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests, Ocupa Carnaval.
Near the end of one show in Praça São Salvador, the brass band that was performing passed out an Ocupa Carnaval manifesto with lyrics to parodies of well-known marchinhas, samba marches, so that the crowd could sing along. The lyrics included jabs at politicians, the World Cup committee, and the military police. One remake changed the song “Mamãe Eu Quero” (Mom I Want) into a critique of Rio’s public transit system called “Tarifa Zero” (Zero Tariff). It was a bus fare hike that sparked the unprecedented street protests here last summer, when Brazilians’ collective frustration with the rising cost of everything from real estate to groceries in the run up to the World Cup merged with general fury and exasperation about corruption. There is widespread sentiment that, in arguably the most soccer-centric country on earth, average citizens are being priced out of their own party.
Timed to coincide with the dirtiest week of the calendar year, Rio’s street sweepers went on strike March 1, midway through Carnaval, demanding an increase in wages and daily food allowances from Comlurb (the Municipal Urban Cleaning Company). Mountains of trash leaking rivers of toxic-smelling liquids down Rio’s wide avenues made the city center look like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. The workers protested with “Acelera, Comlurb!” (Accelerate, Comlurb!)—parodying samba school Unidos da Tijuca’s theme song this year, an homage to racecar driver Ayrton Senna called “Acelera, Tijuca!”
Politics, music, spectacle, and wordplay got me thinking about how it wasn’t until years after I first listened to Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil’s song “Cálice” that I understood its real meaning. When Emílio Médici came to power in 1969, Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) moved into its most repressive phase, the “years of lead,” and Buarque went into exile in Italy while Gil moved to England. Upon their return in the early ’70s, they used duplo sentido (double meanings)—writing superficially benign lyrics with a much darker subtext—to try to evade the censorship of DOPS (the Department of Political and Social Order). One of their most famous protest songs from this period, “Cálice” is an indictment of the military dictatorship as well as the complicity of the Catholic Church. The title hinges on the double meaning of Cálice (chalice, a ceremonial cup to drink wine from) with its homonym, Cale-se!, (the order, à la the censors, to shut up).
The challenge of translating poetry is that, just as with song lyrics, the language is often so dense. There’s no room to sneak in explanatory details the way you can with a novel. I often stumble across compelling stories while I’m trying to track down the origins of an unusual word or phrase, and it can be a struggle to stop myself from including endless footnotes. A translator can do a disservice to the poetry he or she is translating by spoon-feeding the reader background information and analysis. When I’m writing my own poems, after all, I don’t expect or even want someone else to interpret the images and ideas in the exact same way as I do.
Brazilian poet Flávio de Araújo uses lots of puns in his collection Zangareio, and these are especially challenging to translate because they often pit the same word against itself, using both the Brazilian and caiçara context simultaneously. The first of his poems that I translated, “Quinhão,” literally means “portion” in Portuguese. In the caiçara dialect, however, it refers specifically to the portion of the total catch that each fishermen receives; if there’s only one fish, that fish is divided equally among them. Araújo includes a glossary at the back of Zangareio because the fishing vocabulary would be unfamiliar even to Brazilians from other parts of the country. As I translate his poems, I’m constantly debating how much of his own footnotes to bring into English, as well as what, if any, additional things I should clarify for an audience that may have very little background on mainstream Brazilian history and culture, much less that of a small ethnic group. At the same time, more than worrying about whether a reader will understand all the references, what is most important for me to recreate in English is Araújo’s hypnotic rhythm, deceptively simple language, and vivid imagery.
When jazz legend John Coltrane said, “Sometimes I wish I could walk up to my music for the first time, as if I had never heard it before,” he was evoking the desire to stay in the moment, to experience the raw feeling of his songs freed from his knowledge of the technicalities. When you're at a concert, you don't want to be aware of how much training a musician has, or how many times they've rehearsed; you want all of that preparation to be invisible, for the performance to feel spontaneous. Just as I connected with “Cálice” before I even knew Portuguese, I always want my translations to work first and foremost on a visceral level. Poetry as an art form is much closer to music than it is to literature. Regardless of all the hidden or double meanings embedded in a text, it is the sonorous force of the language that has to move a reader, the emotional stakes.