Finding history in translation


Writer, translator D A Smith from Houston, Texas, was in Goa to host a lecture on the Portuguese poetry of Goan poet Laxmanrao Sardessai. Smith holds BAs in Creative Writing (Sam Houston State University) and Chinese Studies (University of Houston), and writer of the novel ‘Axis Mundi Sum’, has also recently translated Orlando da Costa’s novel ‘O Signo da Ira’ (The Sign of Wrath). In conversation with NT BUZZ Smith speaks about the poetry of Laxmanrao Sardessai, Orlando da Costa’s contribution in Goa’s literature scenario and the scope of Goan literature in Portuguese

Q. Can you elaborate upon the topic of the talk, ‘Avante, Goeses, Avante!: The Portuguese Poetry of Laxmanrao Sardessai’, which you delivered at Xavier Centre for Historical Research, Porvorim?
After a 30-plus year career of writing short stories in Marathi, Laxmanrao Sardessai switched to writing poetry in Portuguese for a period of about two years, between 1964 and 1966. These poems were published in the Portuguese language newspapers like A Vida and O Heraldo. About half of his poems dealt with political issues, such as merger with Maharashtra and the state of affairs in Goa after 1961, while the rest of his poems addressed a variety of themes, from growing old (Sardessai turned 60 in 1964), to the life of a poet, to appreciation of Goa’s natural beauty.

Q. Laxmanrao Sardessai wrote this poem during the Opinion Poll (1964) as he was against the merger of Goa with Maharashtra. How would you look at this work? Is it only about Opinion Poll or is it making a deeper comment about democracy?
You’re right. The period in which Sardessai wrote poetry, 1964-1966, preceded the Opinion Poll, and he wrote a number of poems in favour of remaining separate from Maharashtra. He doesn’t discuss the Opinion Poll specifically—I imagine there was no need, for his readers would’ve known exactly what he was talking about in his poems. Sardessai makes some comments about democracy that display certain ambivalence, in the sense that post-1961 events left him concerned about Goa’s future, though on the whole I’d say he was certainly more fond of democracy than colonial rule. After all, he’d been imprisoned twice by the Portuguese for anti-colonial agitation.

Q. What inspired you to translate the works of Laxmanrao Sardessai?
At first I read and translated a few of his poems purely for pleasure, but as I read more I realised that he’d published enough to constitute a real body of work. More importantly, Sardessai addressed a wide range of subjects beyond politics, and thereby gave us a good look at what the Portuguese-speaking literary scene in Goa was like after 1961, when the language was already waning. What’s more, the fact that Sardessai was a Hindu writing in Portuguese, rather than a Catholic, was unusual. All of these elements, taken together, brought me to the conclusion that the entirety of Sardessai’s poetic work was worthy of translation.

Q. You have also recently translated works of Orlando da Costa’s novel ‘O Signo da Ira’ (‘The Sign of Wrath’). How was this creative process? Also how would you look at his contribution to Goa’s literature?
Translating a novel was quite different from translating poetry, and I intend to make additional revisions to ‘O Signo da Ira’/ ‘The Sign of Wrath’, so it’s really an ongoing process. I found it deeply interesting and very rewarding to read Orlando da Costa’s book and render it into a story that made sense in English and maintained not just the plot, but the Portuguese and Konkani elements that give the book its unique flavour. Regular consultation with Portuguese and Konkani speakers, and those familiar with Goan history, was crucial.
As for Orlando da Costa’s contributions to Goan literature, I think it’d be safe to say that ‘O Signo da Ira’ cements his place as one of Goa’s foremost novelists, even though he spent much of his life in Portugal. The wide array of critical responses to the book indicate that he really struck upon something essential to Goan life, and the continued interest in his work is evidence of its ability to speak to people more than fifty years after the publication of ‘O Signo da Ira’.

Q. How do you look at the role of translators who in many ways bring out the hidden literary gems to wider audience?
Translation is always going to be important if there’s to be any hope of sharing a culture’s literature with those who may not speak its language. Sometimes it’s easy to find the major works of a language translated into other tongues, but in the case of lesser-known works, or languages with smaller numbers of speakers, the translator’s work is all the more important. Translation can save obscure works from extinction – albeit in a different form than the original—and it can bring attention to languages and works worthy of greater consideration by a larger public.
In the case of Goan literature in Portuguese, there’s a lot of material out there waiting to be made accessible not only to Goans, but Portuguese speakers around the world. Translating it into English makes it easier for non-Lusophones to not only enjoy Goan literature, but to simply be made aware of its existence, which is the first and biggest hurdle. To me, publicity of the original language, and translation into English, is one of the best ways to preserve literature and share it with as many people as possible.