By Nicolas Pelicioni de OLIVEIRA and Anthee BEZIOULA
How did the work of Greek poet Konstantinos Cavafy ever reached the distant, exotic and alluring land of Brazil? Who brought it there from this sun drenched tip of Eastern Europe called Greece, crossing the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean? It was a Portuguese writer, who introduced Cavafy’s poetry to Brazilians and interestingly enough, it is Nicolas’ passion for the Greek language and literature and Anthee’s passion for the Portuguese language and literature and their long collaboration and continuous cultural exchange that bring this article to life today.
Ancient Greek literature has been studied in Brazilian college language courses for a long time and it is often translated by specialist scholars. However Modern Greek poetry is not as popular amongst Brazilians as ancient Greek literature; in fact, it would almost not have any presence if it was not for Cavafy’s poetry, which is now an important part of modern literary Brazilian culture.
Cavafy’s poetry was introduced to Brazilian readers by the Portuguese modernist poet Jorge de Sena
Cavafy’s poetry was introduced to Brazilian readers by the Portuguese modernist poet Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), who came to Brazil in 1959, when Portugal was under Salazar’s dictatorship, and, as part of the resistance, he found himself in the imminence of an arrestment. Later, when in 1964 Brazil went through its own military dictatorship, he went to the United States.
Sena translated to Portuguese about 90 of the 154 of Cavafy’s poems, although his translation was from English rather than Greek.
In the 80’s, Brazil entered an era of poetical translation, which included French poets like Mallarme, whose A throw of the dice never will abolish chance is his most influential poem, and Baudelaire’s collection of poems entitled Flowers of evil. The translation of English language poets, not only from Europe but also from the United States, has always been a tradition in Brazil; because of Cavafy’s popularity due to his introduction in Brazil by Jorge de Sena, Jose Paulo Paes (1926-1998) translated 75 of his poems directly from Greek.
Greece might be a Brazilian tourist’s dream destination but it is still an unexplored literary culture. Odysseus Elytis was also translated by Jose Paulo Paes as part of a Modern Greek poets collection book (one volume that today is out-of-print); but writers like Giorgos Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, and Kiki Dimoula are still waiting to be translated. In 2011 Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis was finally translated to Portuguese directly from Greek. Of course, there is also the work done by the Greek embassy, which regularly promotes Greek culture and presents some poems translations, but it only has a short reach within its own community.
It is said that a poem is not just to be read but to live with. Similarly, just like a living being, the poem itself, in this coexistence, constructs its place and takes part in the literary scenario. It becomes part of what we conventionally call a canon ― a place where it is integrated and where it recognises itself between its own peers. Cavafy’s poetry found its place in Brazil beside the work of Portuguese poets like Cesario Verde (1855-1886), Camilo Pessanha (1867-1926), Mario de Sa-Carneiro (1890-1916), among others.
All his poetry is now a very relevant part of literature in Brazil because, together with Portuguese poetry, it was an inspiration for Brazilian modern poets.
Portuguese poets have taken as theme for their poetry the city, the time, and the great deeds of the past of Portugal, which is in some extend quite similar to Cavafy’s themes. Because they have such similarities and because Cavafy’s poetry is very present in modern Brazilian poetry, he became one of the favourite modern foreigner language poets to be explored by scholars and writers. Ithaca is a known poem but also Waiting for the barbarians and the romantic Body, remember… All his poetry is now a very relevant part of literature in Brazil because, together with Portuguese poetry, it was an inspiration for Brazilian modern poets.
In 2006, Isis Borges da Fonseca translated all of Cavafy’s 154 poems and got it published by an editor that specialised mainly in ancient Greek literature. Her translation focused primarily on contents, anyway that renewed the interest in Cavafy’s poetry and, in 2003, Harold de Campos, one of the greatest Brazilian poets, translators and essayists, died and left within his writings some translations of Cavafy’s poems. His translation, unlike Fonseca’s, attempted to reconstruct in Portuguese a rhythm similar to the one present in the original Greek text.
There are, in Brazil, several papers published every year about Cavafy’s life and work. They barely include Greek actualities, culture, or other Greek literature and this is because even if a researcher is not interested in Greek culture or language, they might be interested in Cavafy’s poetry as it became a permanent part of modern Brazilian literature.
Nicolas Pelicioni de Oliveira is Brazilian and he lives in Sao Paulo state. He works as a language teacher, and is passionate about Greek language and culture.
Anthee Bezioula is Greek and she lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She works as a pharmacist and is passionate about Portuguese language and culture.
They have worked together on the translation of Katerina Gogou’s poetry work since 2014 and the promotion of Modern Greek culture. They presented a seminar in 2015, in UNESP (University of Sao Paulo State), which counted with Anthee’s participation by video conference.