The Surprise of Being
Translated from the Portuguese by James Greene and Clara de Azevedo Mafra; introduction by Jaime H. da Silva
Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), Portugal’s greatest poet since Camões, is a central figure of European Modernism and its perception of a collapse of the post-Romantic ‘I’ and of Western culture. Deeply introspective, seeking objectivity through ‘depersonalisation’, he wrote in various distinct personae. This selection is the first in English to concentrate entirely on poems written in Pessoa’s own name.
Jaime H. da Silva writes in his Introduction: ‘The translators have poetically presented a faithful version of the most confounding of Pessoa’s personae. Moreover, they have organised a collection which is representative of Pessoa’s themes and styles, and shows an evolution in his poetry and a summing-up. Insight into Self and into Self’s self-deceptions becomes the constant of those poems which deal with the problem of Being and Non-being… It is naïve, even primitive, awe, not understanding, that Pessoa magically conjures…’
The main body of these translations was awarded the British Comparative Literature Association’s Translation Prize for 1985. With others now added, they are published in parallel with the original texts.
‘The translators are faced with a daunting task indeed – to render this most brilliant and complex of poets into inventive, readable English. This they have done admirably.’ – Daniel Pires and Margaret Tejerizo, New Comparison
‘A welcome compilation … The Surprise of Being is undoubtedly indispensable.’ – John Pilling, PN Review
FERNANDO PESSOA was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935. His father having died when he was five, he was brought up and educated in Durban; some of his early poems were written in English.
Returning to Lisbon aged seventeen, he earned a meagre living translating commercial correspondence from English and French. Many of his poems were published in literary reviews, but the only book he published in his lifetime was a volume of poems on patriotic themes, which won only a consolation prize in a national competition.