13 June 1888 – 30 November 1935
“I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . That’s me. Period.”
An increasingly eccentric Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher, and philosopher is found in Fernando Pessoa. Described as one of the most influential literary artists of the 20th century, Pessoa is one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language. Focused on Portuguese translation, this Famous Translators article is about Pessoa.
Fernando Pessoa is regarded as the center of Portuguese modernism, writing much more than poems. He had a legendary trunk that he obsessively filled with loose pages of writings on philosophy, sociology, history, literary criticism, short stories, plays, the treatise on astrology and several autobiographical reflections.
Pessoa often wrote and published under different names. While this publishing strategy is most widely known as writing under a pseudonym, Pessoa insisted on coining his own term for the practice - he preferred to call them heteronyms. This is just one example of the many ways Pessoa chose to distinguish himself as an eccentric. These heteronyms were not just names - he created individuals with their own history, biography, personal characteristics, and literary style.
Portuguese translation was also an occupation for Pessoa. In addition to translating from Portuguese, he also worked in translation with English and French.
Among the titles he is responsible for translating into Portuguese is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the short stories "The Theory and the Hound", "The Roads We Take" and "Georgia's Ruling" by O. Henry, the poetry "Godiva" by Alfred Tennyson, "Lucy" by William Wordsworth, "Barbara Frietchie" by John Greenleaf Whittier, "Catarina to Camoens" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and "The Raven", "Annabel Lee" and "Ulalume" by Edgar Allan Poe.
After his death, a large trunk was found amongst his possessions. This trunk contained twenty-five thousand manuscript pages, written by Pessoa himself. A testament to his graphomaniacal productivity, any and every kind of paper was found in the trunk, covered in Pessoa’s handwriting. Loose sheets, notebooks, stationery, on the backs of letters, envelopes; it seems any scrap of paper within his reach was a contender to house one of Pessoa’s ideas.
Fernando Pessoa’s trunk now rests in Portugal’s National Library, containing the masterpieces that acclaim him as the greatest Portuguese Poet of his century.
Pessoa’s graphomaniacal nature proved successful both during and after his lifetime. Not much is known about his personal life, but one can’t help but assume that someone with such a fervor for writing any time, anywhere, on anything - and hoarding it all in a trunk no less - he must not have had much time for any other voices other than his professional passions and their Portuguese translations.
Fernando Pessoa in numbers:
75 Number of heteronyms Fernando Pessoa created and wrote under. These figures were known to hold unpopular or extremist views.
5 Pessoa’s age when his father died. Two years later, his mother remarried a Portugues Consul and they moved to Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa would spend his formative years.
15 Pessoa’s age when he became completely fluent in English. This would be the year he would win the Queen Victoria prize for an English essay he wrote, chosen out of 890 entrants.
For The Guardian’s review of Fernando Pessoa’s most famous work, The Book of Disquiet, click here. For interviews with Margaret Jull Costa, one of the more recent translators of The Book of Disquiet, here.
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