My experience of translating Raul Brandão’s The Unknown Islands was bookended by two events that had a profound effect on this country. The translation was undertaken and delivered to the publisher in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum result and the ensuing deep divisions, and it eventually saw the light of day in the brief return to semi-normality between the spring lockdown against the Coronavirus pandemic and the second one, which is about to end. These two events inevitably influenced the way I interacted with the text at an emotional level, even though the translator should never acknowledge such an invasive influence upon his or her craft.
Brandão’s book is an account of a journey the author undertook from his native Portugal to the Azores in the summer of 1924. It has long been considered a classic of Portuguese travel writing, and was crucial to the way a later generation of Azorean intellectuals set out to view their homeland. At the time of Brandão’s visit, the Portuguese parliament was debating a statute of autonomy for its remote archipelago which, because of the coup in 1928 and subsequent dictatorship some years later, would remain shelved until the late 1970s. Remoteness, poverty, and negligence by Lisbon form the backdrop to Brandão’s account, and nowhere is this impression more deeply etched onto the author’s mind (and therefore our own) than in the time he spent on the island of Corvo, separated from its nearest neighbour, Flores, by fifteen miles of choppy seas, and over a hundred miles from the central cluster of islands that make up the main corpus of the archipelago. At the time, the population of Corvo was over six hundred, although emigration to America had diminished this by some three hundred, the birth rate was low, infant mortality high, and inbreeding rife, leading the author to surmise that the island would soon be uninhabited. Nearly a century later, the population still numbers over four hundred, nowadays sustained by remittances, niche tourism and a small airport, which is nevertheless subject to the whim of the weather. The fate of Corvo was therefore not that of Saint Kilda, remote, but not quite remote enough to keep its dwindling population of shepherds and seabird hunters from being gawped at by day trippers from the Scottish mainland at precisely the time that Brandão was visiting the Azores. On Corvo, Brandão was at once fascinated by the apparent solidarity, community and self-sufficiency of the islanders, leading him to comment that this is a “Christian democracy made up of farmers”. Yet he was also horrified by the fatalism induced by their religion, allowing them to accept unquestioningly and even cherish what lies solely within their gaze. Brandão concludes that it is their Christian Catholicism which enables them to withstand their solitude, while stifling any individual need to express dissatisfaction with their lot. It is left for him to feel anger on their behalf, with his knowledge of the injustices of the world. He concludes that he could never be like them, but on the other hand he suspects that at the hour of his death, he “would like to be one of them”.
The year following on from the referendum found me busy translating what would become The Unknown Islands, while trying to discover or rediscover islands of my own: Lundy, the Scillies, and then Guernsey and the Faroes, both of which lay outside any supra-national jurisdiction to which their mother countries belonged, apparently as unconcerned as the inhabitants of Corvo about the world beyond their limited shore. But of course, the fallacy was mine alone: islands may be a world in themselves, but they are intricately linked to the world. Brandão had met islanders who had worked on whalers in the Pacific, on schooners fishing the cod banks off New England, and had even heard tales of Azoreans who had migrated to other distant Atlantic islands. The islands were full of natives who had returned from overseas, where they had earned enough to build themselves houses overlooking the ocean that had once constituted their road to freedom. Youthful islanders were rooted to their land while lusting for a wider world beyond the horizon. Girls from Corvo leaving for America, “even bid farewell to the rocks, hugging them as they do”, the author commented. The Azores were unknown to Brandão, but the islanders were aware of Brandão’s world. The Azores he described were both real and a metaphor for his romantic search for the sublime and a long-lost Portugueseness, the remnants of a Lusitanian Atlantis, rammed home to him as he stepped ashore during his return to mainland Portugal on the relatively sophisticated, sub-tropical Madeira, which lay on the world’s shipping lanes, and where, somewhat to Brandão’s macho distaste, lone English ladies from the colonies sat on bar stools quaffing the local wine before being summoned back on board by their ship’s siren. Over-exposure to the outside world had served to erode the traditional skills of Madeirans, making them dependent on what that outside world could bring to them: foreign travellers and tourists. Madeira had been corrupted in a way that the Azores had not. Our own twenty-first-century referendum debate seemed to be playing out in Brandão’s mind as he wandered across Madeira and thought back to the islanders of the Azores, proud in their time-honoured isolation.
By the time I was reading through the final proofs of my translation, a new virus was bearing down on us, and as I waited for the printers to get to work, we went into our first lockdown. Once again, my thoughts turned to islands, not least because large swathes of the Pacific seemed to be escaping the effects of the pandemic, while even in the Atlantic, island clusters like the Azores appeared to have far fewer cases of coronavirus than on the continental land masses to the east and west. Were isolated lumps of volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean – places like Corvo – once again the ultimate sanctuary, just as they had been the previous year? If so much of Brandão’s experience of these remote “unknown” islands seems to bear out Donne’s now proverbial statement that “no man is an island”, it also gives us a different kind of message for the extraordinary times in which we now live, with lockdown, social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, and even the advice not to laugh, shout or sing with friends in case we spread any bacteria that may be lurking within us. Brandão’s evocation of life on the islands causes me to question Donne’s old adage and to suggest that “every man is an island”. In these fraught times, every man is like Corvo, divided from the outside world, not by a tempestuous channel – which, in Brandão’s day, forced the islanders to light beacons to communicate with Flores, their nearest neighbour – but by a windowpane, on one side of which an ancient, veined hand waves at a son or daughter outside in the street. Or at best, we are like the Azores themselves: in the widest sense, we are allowed to live within our own archipelagic bubble, in the narrowest, we are completed by the island that lies immediately in front of us, our next of kin within an extended family. Let us leave the last word to Brandão as he contemplates Corvo, the remotest of all the Azorean islands: “Words end here, the world I know ends here: here, in the midst of this terrifying isolation where life’s artifices are reduced to the minimum, only the eternal survives. One cannot flee the monotony of existence, the solitude that encircles us, the massive architecture of the hills that squeeze and crush us. Ever-present the harsh, restless expanse of the waves and the forlorn loneliness of the village.”
27 November 2020