Manuel Odorico Mendes



Considerations on the work of the translator, among others, of Homer and Virgil

“Maranhão is consoled, also Athens,/ which they took as an antonomastic, never/ never returned to the time of Pericles” (José Veríssimo).

Talking about Manuel Odorico Mendes (1799-1864) is reckless, because for part of literary critics, his name is no more than a footnote in a manual on the history of Brazilian literature or, at most, his restricted presence. if as an example of bad taste; on the other hand, for another part of this review, his name is synonymous with pioneering spirit, technical skill, audacity and artistic competence.

None other than Antonio Candido and Sílvio Romero joined the first group; to the second, Silveira Bueno, Haroldo de Campos, Antonio Medina Rodrigues, among others. In this sense, there is no way to base our opinion on the work of Odorico Mendes, basing ourselves on other people's opinions, since both groups demand respect and attention.

Maranhense, contemporary and friend of Gonçalves Dias and teacher of Sousândrade (In his wandering quesa, called him “rococo father”), left us little of his poetic work, properly speaking. This, if we imagine that the territory of poetic translation is not a literary genre that lacks the same attention and rigor that traditional genres receive from literary theory. As this issue seems to have been resolved, the work of Odorico Mendes must be considered enormous and worthy of careful observation.

Affiliated with post-Arcadianism or pre-Romanticism, he performed an unprecedented task in Portuguese literature: the poetic translation of Homeric epics – Iliad (1874) and Odyssey (1928 – republished by Antonio Medina Rodrigues, in 1992 – Edusp) and all the Virgílio that remains to us from Antiquity – The Bucolic, The Georgics e The Aeneid. This last group of works was named Brazilian Virgil (1854 – the only work published during his lifetime), something curious, as he renames classic works as if they were his own, and indeed they are. This masterful work, the Brazilian Virgil, was republished by a group of scholars led by Paulo Sérgio de Vasconcellos from Unicamp, in three volumes with extensive notes and comments and released in 2008, Aeneid and Bucolicas and in 2019, Georgics.

The translations of Homer and Virgil are still landmarks for classical studies in Portuguese-speaking countries. Firstly, for his dexterity with decasyllabic verse, secondly, for his conciseness, thirdly, for his indisputable knowledge of the source languages, Greek and Latin, as well as the target language, Portuguese.

It is worth making public here a much-commented case: Once, a person went to a renowned bookseller and ordered a translation of one of the Homeric epics, more than quickly, the bookseller, knowledgeable of Odorico Mendes' fame in academic circles, I brought the translations from Maranhão. A week later, the one who had ordered it, frighteningly, returned the work, stating that to read “it” it would be easier to learn ancient Greek.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the disagreements over Odorico Mendes. His Portuguese is difficult, very difficult, which makes him almost insurmountable, yet impeccable. This is so true that José Veríssimo claimed that his versions were very faithful, however difficult to read.

Calmness and persistence are needed to assimilate it – characteristics of good readers –, just as reading Guimarães Rosa, James Joyce, Saramago, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and Camões also requires the same qualities. However, after the initial adaptation stage, the reader comes into contact with unsurpassed poetic gems even today, more than a century after its publication.

Furthermore, there are passages where beauty and good taste far outweigh the slightest difficulty, such as, for example, the Homeric simile (Iliad, Canto VI) about the ephemeral nature of life: “(…) Like the leaves we are;/ That some the wind takes them withered,/ Others spring up vernal and creates them the jungle:/ Such is born and such ends the human people”.

In this way, the derogatory terms applied to Odorico Mendes seem excessive, especially when Sílvio Romero states that they are “monstrosities, written in macarroonic Portuguese”; or when Antonio Candido deems him “bestialogical” or considers his work “preciousism in the worst taste” or “archaeological pedantry”, or an “apex of foolishness”.

The strangeness on the part of these critics resides either in the decontextualization of Odorico Mendes' work, or, what is worse, in the application of anachronistic concepts that demand from the text a certain attitude that was not required at the time of its composition, or in the lack of comparison with the originals that makes fantastic translation solutions stand out.

Hence, Haroldo de Campos' consideration sounds perfect: “Odori's pioneering approach to the problems of translation (both in the practice of translation and in the theoretical notes he left on the matter) can only be properly evaluated if we emphasize, as a striking feature of the entire field work, the conception of a coherent system of procedures that would allow him to Hellenize or Latinize Portuguese, instead of neutralizing the difference of these original languages, restoring them syntactic and lexical edges in our language”.

On the same basis, Antonio Henriques Leal states that “his versions, strictly literal, were judged indigestible when not illegible; debatable opinion insofar as literalism can contribute to the forging of a new lexicon and adhere to the spirit of the original.”

What we observe, when we read the translations of Odorico Mendes, is a clear intention of the translation project, a fact that was only taken into account in Brazil many years after his death, when translators such as José Paulo Paes, Augusto e Haroldo de Campos, José Cavalcante de Souza, João Angelo Oliva Neto, Antonio Medina Rodrigues, Jaa Torrano and others began to produce translation works that strictly followed a translation project. In other words, Odorico is a master translator, avant la letter. This, of course, was not considered by his detractors.

There is in his work, therefore, a guiding line that is operated in the entire set produced. It's coherent. Moreover, there are, in his translated texts, an endless number of intertextual references that make his universe of reading emerge, his paideia. Poundically speaking, your paideuma becomes visible. Thus, it can be said that the translated result offers more than the simple transposition of a text from one language to another, rather, it enables a certain critical rescue. It would be him, Odorico Mendes, poet, critic and translator, simultaneously, in the way that today we recognize this triple task. Which would make him, in literate jargon, a transcreator or recreator.

Antonio Medina Rodrigues rightly points out: “The notes [to the translation] include not only observations on the complete works of the great epics, but also on poets such as Camões, Ariosto, Milton, Tasso, Filinto Elísio, Chateaubriand, Chénier, Voltaire, Madame Staël, etc. ., as comparative references, almost always linked to the clarification of problems directly or indirectly related to translation”.

However, to avoid a touch of critical anachronism, Odorico Mendes simply rescues the ancient concept of emulation, insofar as the inventive process, mimetic par excellence, observes previous textual production and recycles it as a reflection of the model to be followed. Often, even the citation is immediate, ipsis litteris, such a technique, foreseen rhetorically, creates a certain complicity between author and reader, as the first quotes so that the second recognizes, playfully.

In this way, both for the most modern and for the oldest, Odorico in this is perfect. In the first case, acting as a transcreator that operates tradition, formatting its critical universe. In the second case, a translator who recognizes the rhetorical-poetic practices that go through the trinomial: invent, imitate and emulate.

From another point of view, Greek in more moments than Latin, both languages ​​of origin within the source of translation of Maranhão, offers an interesting curiosity: the composition of words. This makes the Homeric texts extremely concise and with a significant load, since a single word is composed of many others. Thus, within a translation, we would have to use a phrase in Portuguese to translate a word.

Odorico was the first to solve this problem, creating numerous neologisms to bring the Portuguese text closer to the Greco-Latin originals. Thus, arise: “barless sea”; “altipotent Jove”; “celeriped Achilles”; “Greek smart eyes”; “nubicogo Saturn”; “arciargent Phoebus”; “Aurora dedyrrosea”; “Argentipede Nereid”; “Aurythronous Juno”; etc.

Such epithets, far from the “bestialogy” given by Candido, are delicately inserted in the context, contributing to the fluidity desired by the epic, as in this speech by Calypso in the Odyssey (Canto V) “(…) Freme Calypso responds quickly:/ 'You are all cruel, invidious, jealous/ That in her bed, in the open, a goddess/ Mortal admits and loves and accepts a husband./ Stolen Orion from Aurora dedirósea ,/ You envied him, you gods, Phoebe/ Chaste and Auritronia threw him down in Ortygia/ With gentle arrows”.

Another lapidary skill is handling the decasyllable verse. Both Homer's epics and Virgil's works had been written using dactylic hexameter verse (six metric feet whose minimum unit is the dactyl or spondee), a measure that approaches alexandrine (twelve poetic syllables). Odorico Mendes, however, in Renaissance molds, opts for the decasyllable (ten syllables) – typical verse of epics in Portuguese (The Lusiads, Prosopopoeia, Uraguay, Caramuru, Vila Rica, O Guesa etc.). Silveira Bueno states on this issue in 1956, “He gave the decasyllable all the fluidity possible in such a small extension of ten syllables, moving the caesura from the fourth and eighth, even accentuation, to the third and sixth syllable, odd accentuation”.

This option brought you a significant problem: the decrease of versed space. That is, the poet-translator, in addition to adapting his version to a less concise language than Greek and Latin, still claimed the right to reduce the space to carry out his translation. This is not all. Translations of it, limited by the type of verse chosen, are still more concise than the original. Odorico Mendes manages to fit a size 42 foot into a size 40 shoe and the result is exceptionally comfortable. This is the translated result that has nothing in content and its size is smaller than the original.

Thus, when making a comparison with the original, one can easily observe the non-linearity between the source text and the final result (the Odyssey in the original has 12.106 verses, while its version has 9.302). This feat, if, on the one hand, makes the comparison operation difficult for those who do not have access to the source language, on the other hand, it asserts the indisputable skill of the master translator with the metering system and with what is expected of good poetry, conciseness.

The world of translation in Brazil, despite sparse attempts, is still incipient today, especially if the Greco-Latin classics are observed. In other countries, especially the central ones, there is what we call a tradition of translation. Diachronically, series of translations of the same text are added together. In this way, imperfections, mistakes and hesitations – and after all, as Horácio would say, even Homer sleeps – are corrected from generation to generation.

This has not yet occurred in Brazil, given that we have few verse translations for Homeric and Virgilian works (Odorico Mendes and Carlos Alberto Nunes, who were followed by Haroldo de Campos, Trajano Vieira and Christian Werner, to name a few). In this sense, even if the derogatory statements about the work of Odorico Mendes are true (and I do not believe they are), their relevance would already be put to the test, since he was the first to perpetuate in the vernacular the founding works of Western civilization, in addition to presenting paths important in the difficult life of the translator.

Furthermore, let the aurora rosewood make your texts speak, for only time and letters can prove their primal importance; furthermore, fiat iustitia et pereat mundus! (Let justice be done even if the world perishes!).

Paulo Martins he is a professor of classical letters at USP. Author, among other books, of Representation and its limits (Edusp).

Originally published in the Saturday Journal of Jornal da Tarde, on January 30, 1999.


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