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Fernando Pessoa – Portuguese Poet

Fernando Pessoa Statue
Location: Lisbon, Portugal

It was Robert Frost who said that poetry is the one that’s lost in translation. A poem is best read in the original language it was written. Of course, good translators abound, but even the best of them would come up short. For instance, how can a poem’s original rhyme be translated?

One motivating factor to learn Portuguese is to delight in reading Fernando Pessoa’s poems in the language they were written. I didn’t know about his works until my recent trip to Portugal. Reading several of his poems, I was completely taken by the magic of his prolific pen.

According to the poetry international web site, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) represents the four greatest Portuguese poets of modern times. It was because he wrote in three other personas whose styles were completely different from his own.

Saudade is the word that can describe his poems. It’s a Portuguese word that can’t be directly translated into another language. It speaks of a longing for something once experienced or cherished. It’s for a person, event, or place that may have been forever lost.

To give you a taste of his writings, I’m posting a couple of his poems translated by Richard Zenith below. More of his works can be read Here where these poems were taken.

* * *


Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I was happy and no one was dead.
In the old house even my birthday was centuries-old tradition,
And everyone’s joy, mine included, was as sure as any religion.

Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I enjoyed the good health of understanding nothing,
Of being intelligent in my family’s eyes,
And of not having the hopes that others had for me.
When I began to have hope, I no longer knew how to hope.
When I began to look at life, it had lost all its meaning for me.

Yes, that person I knew as me,
That person with a heart and family,
That person of quasi-rural evenings all spent together,
That person who was a boy they loved,
That person – my God! – whom only today I realize I was . . .
How faraway! . . .
(Not even an echo . . .)
When they used to celebrate my birthday!

The person I am today is like the damp in the wall at the back of the house
That makes the walls mildew . . .
What I am today (and the house of those who loved me trembles through my tears) —
What I am today is their having sold the house,
It’s all of them having died,
It’s I having survived myself like a spent match.


I got off the train
And said goodbye to the man I’d met.
We’d been together for eighteen hours
And had a pleasant conversation,
Fellowship in the journey,
And I was sorry to get off, sorry to leave
This chance friend whose name I never learned.
I felt my eyes water with tears . . .
Every farewell is a death.
Yes, every farewell is a death.
In the train we call life
We are all chance events in one another’s lives
And we all feel sorry when it is time to get off.

All that is human moves me, because I am a man.
All that is human moves me, not because I have an affinity
With human ideas or human doctrines
But because of my infinite fellowship with humanity itself.

The maid who hated to go,
Crying with nostalgia
For the house where she’d been mistreated . . .

All of this, inside my heart, is death and the world’s sadness.
All of this lives, because it dies, inside my heart.

And my heart is a little larger than the entire universe.

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June 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm 15 comments

From The Book Thief

i have hated the words and i have loved them, and i hope i have made them right.

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