Vinicius de Moraes: The Return of the Prodigal Son

A Volta do Filho Pródigo

(Tentative translation, corrections and suggestions welcome).

I will waken the birds who, for fear of darkness,
Have gone silent in the nighttime branches
And sleeplessly await the break of dawn.
I will rouse the drunkards in the doorways,
The sleepwalking dogs, and the ambient mysteries
Which fill the night. Shouting, I will beseech
The winds to violate and the sea to lay waste
The white beaches thick with prudery.
With laughter and song I will torch
God’s habitual nighttime silence,
So intimidating to man. May the city
Put a lunar shawl over its face
And come out to receive its poet
With jasmine branches and memories.

This hour is for beauty. In every stone,
In every house, in every street, in every
Tree there still lives a kiss made
For me: me, the urban lover,  more than
Urban, superhuman, in the wild nighttime city.
Probably I won’t come mounted
On any horse, nor in armor, since this — Poetry –
Will protect me best of all, with its chain mail
Of silence. Very possibly I’ll arrive drunk,
And if it’s January, wearing a sports coat.

What’s important is the arrival, the unity
Of me and the city, the city and me –
And to hear once more the sea shattering
On rocks, or roaring in the ocean,
Lonely like a god…. Beloved Rio,
Woman petrified into buttocks and breasts
And knees of millennial stone, with green
Pubis and armpits and unbound hair,
Fresh and scented with chlorophyll –
I love you, woman, sleeping
By the sea! I love you in your utter nakedness
In the sun, and your peacefulness in the moonlight.
I feel you next to me — your light
Does not harm my silence, my silence
Is yours. I know that, protected
By the beings moving within your arms
Your eyes have visions of other spaces
Past and future. Just as at times
Above the moonlit Niemeyer street,
Amidst the clamor of the whipped waves
The mountains will ponder. What silence
Can be heard settling there, what solemnity
Of nature! I know, and it’s the truth,
That under the Sun, Rio is completely bright,
All too bright, and without mystery.
I know that in the glare of January
Secrets die the way birds die, gladly.
I know all of this.

Now I see with these my tireless eyes
Ideas exploding like flowers
In the rays of the sun, now I see
Mathematical castles collapsing like cards,
Philosophical systems losing their daytime logic
At night, unfinished works of art getting lost
In fron of a sweaty armpit, in the noise of creation,
And crowds of saints made rabid by
The healthful properties of ultraviolet light.

Whoever has the nighttime habit,
Whoever lives in intimacy with silence,
Whoever is able to hear the music of darkness
When life reproduces itself there –
For them, the city offers itself
As a common zone of eternity
In counterpoint to the movement of the sea
And the millennial metamorphoses of the rock,
In its infinity of infinities….

For them, Dos Irmãos tells an astonishing
Story, a story of forces erupting
From the earth, producing sudden forms:
Viúva! Pão de Açúcar! Corcovado!
Further south is the tomb of the Sun –
The huge mesa, where can be seen
At sunset, should you be able to see,
The silhouette of primitive man
(The same who, even today, transformed,
Crosses the mosaic of the Avenue)
And even, who knows?, fan clubs of Nature
In their rows of seats, watching
Sea serpents in blind struggle
Rouse tidal waves with their duel
In the natural stadium of Guanabara….

I’ve been checking out Vinicius de Moraes for awhile, and this is the poem I was looking for. The occasion of the poem is Vinicius’s return to Rio after an absence, probably during the  period when he was in the ill graces of the dictatorship. It begins in the silence of dawn, and contrasts of light and dark and silence and noise are scattered throughout. Rio is compared to a sleeping woman and is placed in its physical context of sun, moon,  mountains and rocks, and the sea, with the immediacy of the city contrasted to the long time spans of geology producing the surrounding mountains. The poem rushes along, mimicking the state of mind of the author upon his return, and if it doesn’t quite make sense in a few places you don’t want to stop and ask questions — just take it as part of the characterization of the excited poet and follow the rush of ideas so you don’t miss anything. The word “Rio” seems to mean both the city and “river”, and the poem is set in January (the Brazilian summer) which is probably a sort of pun on “Janeiro”.

Brazilian poetry has always seemed to me to be out of the mainstream and somewhat archaic, but more in a good than in a bad way — I doubt that a poem like this could be written in one of the tough-minded modernist or post-modernist nations of the world.  When I first read this poem I was completely enchanted, but after wrestling with it for three days I have no idea whether anyone else will like it at all

I am a completely opportunistic translator with just a passable knowledge of Portuguese, so I welcome corrections. I’ve translated rather freely and  will continue to be tweaking the English version for some time (I’m an opportunistic poet too).


A Volta do Filho Pródigo (also called O poeta em trânsito ou o filho pródigo)

I found this poem in Gedichte und Lieder (Piper,1989), a bilingual selection of Vinicius’s poetry. It isn’t in his Obra Poetica of 1968 so I suspect it’s from ” Poesias Coligidas” in Poesia Completa e Prosa (Editora Nova Aguilar, 1998). I have corrected the version in Gedichte und Lieder according to the website above. In the line “Lonely like a god…. Beloved Rio,” the ellipsis represents seven lines which I found untranslatable, and when I found that the version at the link above leaves these lines out, I felt justified in doing so too.

Vinicius de Moraes: Works


Marcelo Ramos of Brasilia has provided the annotation below:

In the last part of the poem Vinicius is describing the skyline of Rio, dominated, in that time as today, by the huge gneiss rocks that contain the city sprawl. The “mesa” cited in this verse is the “Pedra da Gavea”, the last mountain of the Tijuca Range that you can see from Ipanema (what probably is the preferred viewpoint of Vinicius). The square shape of Pedra da Gavea forms a “mesa”, but also looks like an human face from some angles. The “esse” in the verse is better understood as “one”, the person who can see:

“E mais o sul, sarcófago do Sol
A Mesa imensa onde, êsse, pode ver
Se acaso souber ver, no fim do dia
A silhueta do homem primitivo”

“Sarcofago do Sol” = “Sun´s sarcophage”

The sunset sometimes takes place behind or near Pedra da Gavea:

“A silhueta do homem primitivo” = “Primitive mans silhouette”

As I said, Pedra da Gavea can remember a face:


A Volta do Filho Pródigo

(Hand transcribed by me, and I’m sure there are errors)

Acordarei as aves que, noturnas
Por mêdo à treva calam-se no galhos
E aguardam insones o romper da aurora.
Desperterei os bêbados nos pórticos
Os cães sonâmbulos e os gerais mistérios
Que envolvem a noite. Pedirei gritando
Ao mar que mate e ao vento que violente
As brancas praias de pudor tão fundo.
Quebrerai com risadas e com cantos
O silêncio habitual de Deus na noite
A intimidar os homems. Que a cidade
Ponha a chale da lua sôbre a fronte
E saia e recibir o seu poeta
Com ramos de jasmin e outras saudades.
A hora é de beleza. Em cada pedra
Em cada casa, em cada rua, em cada
Arvore, vive ainda uma carícia
Feita por mim, por mim que fui amante
Urbano, e mais de urbano, sobre-humano
Na noturna cidade desvairada.
Provàvelmente não virei montado
Em cavalo nenhum, como soia
Nem de armadura, que essa, a poesia
Mais que nenhuma me defenderia
Numa cota-de-malhas de silêncio.
E bem possível até que chegue bêbado
E se em janeiro, de camisa esporte.
O importante é chegar, ser a unidade
Entre a cidade e eu, eu e a cidade
Ouvir de novo o mar se estilhaçando
Nas rochas, ou bramindo no oceano
Sòzinho como um deus. [Ou no varão
Quando, também adiante na metafora
Queima a cera da lua sôbre a noite
O Sol, o enorme Sol do imenso estio
Ver -- oh visão! -- Venus morrer nas ondas
a pura, a loca, a grande suicida
Cujo esvanicimento cria a vida
Na ilusão do tempo.
] O bem amada
Rio, como mulher petrificada
Em nádegas e seios e joelhos
De rocha milenar, e verdejante
Pubis e axilas e os cabelos soltos
De clorofila fresca e perfumada!
Eu te amo, mulher dormecida
Junto do mar! eu te amo em tua absoluta
Nudez ao sol e placidez ao belongs to youWhen.
Junto de ti me sinto, tua luz
Não fere o meu silêncio. O meu silêncio
Te pertence. Eu sei que resguardada
Dos seres que se movem entre teus braços
Teus olhos têm visões de outros espaços
Passados e futuros…. Como às vêzes
Sôbre a lunar estrada Niemeyer
Entre o clamor das ondas fustigadas
Meditam as montanhas.  Que silêncio
Se escuta ali pousar, que gravidade
Da natureza! Eu sei, é bem verdade
Que sob o Sol o Rio e muito claro
Muito claro de mais, e sem misterio.
Eu sei que ao reverbero de janeiro
Morrem segredos como morrem aves:
Contentes de morrer. Eu sei tudo isso.
Já vi com êsses meus olhos incansáveis
Idéias explodirem como flôres
Entre résteas de Sol; já vi castelos
Matemáticos ruirem como cartas
Sistemas filosóficos perderem
A lógica do dia para a noite
Obras de arte nascentes se desviarem
Do rumor da criação ante uma axila
Suada, e muitos santos se danarem
Sob o acção salutar do ultra-violeta.
Mas pra quem tem o hábito da noite
Quem vive em intimidade com o silêncio
Quem sabe ouvir a música da treva
Quando no treva reproduz-se a vida
Para êsse, a cidade se oferece
Num clima universal de eternidade
No contraponto do mover do mar
E no mutismo milenar da pedra
Em sua infinidade de infinitos…
Para êsse, os Dos Irmãos contam uma historia
Fantástica, de fôrças irrompendo
Da terra e se dispondo em formas súbitas:
Viúva! Pão de Açúcar! Corcovado!
E mais o sul, sarcófago do Sol
A Mesa imensa onde, êsse, pode ver
Se acaso souber ver, no fim do dia
A silhueta do homem primitivo
(A mesma que ainda hoje, transformada
Transita no mosaico da Avenida
E até, quem sabe, natural “torcida”
Assistindo de sua arquibancada
As serpentes do mar em luta ignara
Movendo maremotos, à porfia
No estádio natural de Guanabara.

Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 8:46 pm  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have no Portuguese but I think this reads well in English. (I mean I read it aloud and found it suitable for doing so.) There are a number of places where I think it would be more sonorous to use the simple present instead of a participle but I am told this is the standard way to translate the “personal infinitive.” (Which I am also told is unusual in Brazilian Portuguese.)

    In an entirely respectful spirit—I don’t bother to criticize unless I’m impressed—I would make a few suggestions. Rock having “transformations” startles me; perhaps “metamorphoses” would be better. “Come drunken” is an odd usage. Why not “arrive drunk”? The original repeats the same verb; why introduce an awkward variation? More tentatively, although “health-giving ” is good, it’s unidiomatic; I would suggest salubrious, which is a little inkhorn, but natural for the popular-scientific reputation of exposure to something being healthful. Even more tentatively, to my ear tsunami has not quite settled into the English language; I find tidal wave more vivid, and I think it better suited to convey the etymology. I have no Portuguese but I think this reads well in English. (I mean I read it aloud and found it suitable for doing so.) There are a number of places where I think it would be more sonorous to use the simple present instead of a participle but I am told this is the standard way to translate the “personal infinitive.” (Which I am also told is unusual in Brazilian Portuguese.)

  2. Thanks. I’ll take most of your suggestions. I’m still holding off on “salubrious”, because I’m always suspicious of cognates when translating from Romance languages or German, because even if the meanings are the same, often the cognate of an idiomatic word int hose languages will be technical or literary in English.

  3. [...] Two questions about Vinicius de Moraes’ poem Poem here. [...]

  4. How do you (or do you bother to) justify dividing the poem into stanzas when there aren’t any divisions in the original? One thing that sort of plagues me with my prose translations is feeling like I need to adhere to the sentence and paragraph divisions in the original, which sometimes means monster sentences that maybe don’t work as well in English as Spanish…

  5. Yeah, A feature of the original is this dizzying continuous surge from beginning to end, and I didn’t feel I could bring that over into English. In the end I might rejoin the parts.

  6. Similar: Bolaño’s story “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” is all one paragraph, and a dizzying, driving rush — the English translation is divided not only into paragraphs but into sections.

  7. Are any of deMoraes’ books of poetry available in the US? Thanks much.

  8. I found it very difficult to find anything either in Portuguese or in English translation. It’s quite a bit easier to find something in Spanish translation, and the bilingual German-Portuguese book I worked from was excellent.

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