José Leitão is best known for his translation of The Book of St Cyprian: The Sorcerer’s Treasure (Hadean Press, 2014). While working with him on his contribution to Cypriana: Old World, he allowed me to interview him about the complex background behind his translation of The Book. What initially was planned as a blog post morphed into a massive (and massively entertaining to conduct, I might add) conversation that my coeditors and I chose to print in our anthology. In the full interview, we explore the intersections of poetics and magic, the burden of translating magical tomes, and what we can look forward to from him in the near future. Here are some excerpts that illuminate some of the core themes we covered:
Jennifer Zahrt: […] So, for people new to working with St. Cyprian, what are the critical contexts for The Sorcerer’s Treasure; cultural, intellectual, economic, political?
José Leitão: First of all I just want to make it clear that to work with St Cyprian you do not need The Book, whatever version, mine or otherwise. They are ultimately different ‘entities’ and have an essential existence independent of each other. That being said, they are intimately related, and The Book is ultimately subjected to the Saint – like a dog to its master. It shouldn’t be about getting The Book in order to work with the Saint, but actually getting in touch with the Saint in order to be able to work with The Book.
From my experience with both of them, there is an inherent direction, purpose and morality to Cyprian (although it can become ambiguous at times). You can pray, talk and, if you’re skilled enough, even reason with him, but The Book is a whole different business. It is like an amorphous, amoral mass, built upon centuries of practice, with a certain dose of fear and fascination in the mix. I would go as far as to say that there is some kind of purpose, and even reasoning to it, but this is something very alien and abstract. You can’t really frame it in human terms. Spiritually speaking, The Book can be dangerous, and it can bite you in a very concrete way if you’re reckless or abusive with it. These are the situations when you should have the Saint on your side to put it back on its leash.
The important notion is this: ‘the book of St Cyprian’ is not ‘the book on how to work with St Cyprian’. If you allow yourself to be taken in by its own narrative, you may consider this as one of the books Cyprian used in his sorcerer days, one of his tools or, alternatively, an adulterated version of his magical diary. For that reason, it really makes no sense that explicit instructions on how to work with the Saint would be in The Book. Yet, one very concrete way a person can use The Book to supplement their approach to Cyprian is as a talisman of sorts. Taking to the notion that this is supposed to be one of Cyprian’s old magic books, it can be used very well as a focal point or altar piece in order to have the Saint come into your practice a little easier. Just be sure you are focusing on the Saint and not The Book itself, as that may lead you into other places.
JZ: I really like the way you are emphasizing keeping the Saint and The Book clearly distinguished. Working with the book as a talisman carries an important valence in this line of practice.
JL: Exactly. I have actually heard of several people from non-Iberian or South American backgrounds who nonetheless owned Portuguese or Spanish versions of The Book so they could better tap into this particular ‘current’ due to the complex spiritual constructions surrounding it. It should be kept in mind that this is a traditional magic book. Unfortunately the word ‘tradition’, in a magical context, has been given a very specific significance, and the type of tradition this book (and others) carry is often disregarded or shrugged off in modern circles.
The Book, the Sorcerer’s Treasure, is a cultural icon. It is a book that, in its current form or in some other, has been used and built up by practitioners for hundreds of years. There’s no bullshit here like what you get with claims of ancientness in systems derived from the nineteenth-century Occult Revival. This is the old school old. The magic it describes is not proper, clean, or hygienic. The people who used this book were not educated or clean; they were hungry, poor, and angry. You need to understand this if you want to work with this book; really understand it.
JZ: I’m not sure many people are aware of that context. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
JL: Nobody used this book for fun. Using it was always an act of transgression; when you picked this book up you were casting yourself outside of society; you were perfectly conscious of this, and this made you a dangerous person. There is no ambiguity here, in the old days (and these maybe ended forty years ago) the use of this book made you ‘evil’ in the eyes of society, for you had voluntarily cut yourself from the rules of civility. You had become something else, a person outside of the law and control; effectively a witch in its sociological sense.
As such, The Book has come to occupy a very specific place in Portuguese society. It is the forbidden avenue of transgression, a warning to your children to stay away, lest they be perverted and corrupted. It is also not surprising (and very entertaining) that The Book was actually forbidden during the Estado Novo (the Portuguese dictatorship from 1932 to 1974). Salazar was a known church mouse (former seminarian and everything), and his refashioning of Portuguese identity largely arose from his reading of Catholicism as an essential part of the ‘Portuguese soul’ (there are actually very good arguments for the consideration of Catholicism as a form of Civil/State Religion during the Estado Novo). Consequently, The Book was deemed a dangerous, subversive instrument that had concrete power to challenge the state’s authority. This preserved the aura of fear and danger surrounding The Book well into contemporary times; even if the Estado Novo claimed that no one believed in magic, they themselves nonetheless helped to maintain it in the public eye and mind.
Even if abandoning the dictatorship in a glorious revolution, the fact still stands that for nearly fifty years this book was vilified and denigrated by the highest circles of Portuguese power, circles with effective influence and time to culturally ingrain its fear even deeper into every layer of society.
JZ: So this informs the reasons you had difficulty coming to the book in the first place. You would have been declaring yourself an official outcast.
JL: In part, yes. I obviously never really considered myself to be a model Portuguese citizen (much less a model Catholic), but that consideration, I realized when I approached The Book, was mostly an intellectual construct. It lacked real substance and emotional significance, it was just skin deep. You can call yourself an outcast all you want if that makes you feel heroic, but to actually see in front of you the tool and path to actually become one in an unredeemable way is a terrifying thing. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but this is part of the context for anyone today picking this book up in Portugal in a conscious way (and unfortunately many pick it up in an non-conscious way). It is surely not legally banned, and in fact it can be found in most book stores, but to pick it up and buy it is still to directly attack the establishment (be it the Church, the State, your family or your identity). It is an actual act of civilizational protest.
Unfortunately, mere talk about such matters fails to transmit the emotional meaning of The Book to any reader; someone who did not come from my background will probably never feel the fear I felt the first time I picked this book up. They will not feel the powerful rise of breaking a taboo I felt (and feel) when I use it. These are emotional aspects which run pretty deep. They cannot be recreated or simulated in someone artificially, so in a tragic way I know that most of the readers will not have the same experience of The Book as I have, no matter the context I try to provide.
So, I guess if I wanted to offer some context, the best I can say is that, from where I’m standing, this book is condensed fear.
JZ: I think you’ve done a great job at getting us closer to knowing that fear. Speaking of fears, terrors, and other difficulties, translation carries a massive burden, demanding at once fidelity to the source text as well as interpretation of authorial intent into a target language that may not have literal words for the concepts. What are the major challenges you face as a responsible translator?
JL: Indeed, aside from the usual suspects you’ve already named, texts such as these impose another layer of difficulty to any responsible translator. If this was merely a professional or even purely academic translation the problem would actually be much smaller. In the case of an academic translation, you know that your target audience will consist mostly of other academics who are very much aware of the nuances of translating a religious text. They will likely read it extremely critically, which will enable them to identify any pitfalls or mistakes you might have made. A kind of silent agreement exists between you and your readers that, even though you did your obvious best, your best (or anyone’s best) will never be perfect, and everybody involved understands this. However, when you’re aiming at a more general audience the problem becomes different.
That someone might eventually engage with the text in a religious or spiritual way places an immense burden on you. You need to constantly measure where you, your emotions and your own personal engagement with the text are, and constantly keep them under control. It’s critical to do your utmost best to not impose your own vision and experience in the end result.
This becomes even more difficult because a text of this nature is actually supposed to be read emotionally. There are instances of sarcasm, dread, satire, judgmental reasoning, and Christian piety throughout The Book. So, how do you transmit these? Do you put the text down with the emotions it stirs in you, or do you try to extract yourself from the text and put it down in a way that the reader will be able to reach that emotion himself? Can you write down an emotion you’re not feeling? (Fernando Pessoa would have something to say about that)
JZ: I’d love to hear what Fernando Pessoa would have to say!
JL: This seems like a bit of a detour, but I’ll gladly engage in it. Poetry is always worth the time.
So, this is a complex issue. You can maybe isolate it to the realms of writing – be it poetry or prose – but I think it largely stands true for most forms of witnessed existence (situations when you, or any part of you, are in the presence of other people or, more importantly, in your own presence). It has to do with the reality of sensation and the ultimate laminarity of identity, of which Pessoa was a mind-bending master. Anyway, I’m not going to go into too much detail, because otherwise I’ll just start rambling in circles, but the most immediate example of what I’m going on about can be found on the poem ‘Autopsicografia’ (Autopsychography), so I might as well just offer that and let people figure it out (translation by Richard Zenith):
The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.
And those who read his words
Will feel in his writing
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they’re missing.
And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.
JZ: Masterful. I’ll let that one float in the minds of our readers. Let’s return to the burden of translation…
JL: So, then there is the problem of language itself. As a purely literary object The Book is very complex due to its fragmentary nature. There are sections clearly inspired by French rationalist thinking while others have a clearly nineteenth-century romantic tone to them, resorting to language and culture-specific expressions and notions. All of this ends up demanding an immense deal from you, not only emotionally but also intellectually; I had to pull every single literary and linguistic muscle I had in order to make this as much as possible a ‘neutral’ text (of non-neutral character), and honestly that was often not enough. Obviously I tried to compensate for this with abundant footnotes and extremely lengthy comments, but there are plenty of instances where I was completely unable to do what I would consider exemplary work, and I ended up even admitting that in several of these footnotes and comments.
JZ: It sounds like this text forced you to grow to meet it halfway. What other specific challenges did it pose that other texts do not face?
JL: Honestly, there were a few instances where I genuinely believe the author of The Book was making up words. I’ve read a great deal of ethnographical reports, I’ve had contact with regional dialects and texts of various degrees of ancientness, but occasionally the text was too bizarre for reason.
There was one section in particular where I genuinely considered giving up on the translation. It was a string of apparent gibberish, but the words didn’t sound alien in a Portuguese setting. The only way I had to push through that was if I intentionally started ignoring words, and this made me incredibly unsatisfied with my own work.
JZ: Understandable (or not, as the case may be). My own Portuguese is only two years old, so obviously nowhere near you as a native speaker, but I’d love to be able to sense that linguistic resonance of the words that didn’t sound alien in context. I have come across similar things in early modern German texts. I’ve been fluent in German since 1998, and, as a foreigner, I ended up using mimicry to sound out my vocabulary, so spelling never mattered much to me, even though I use correct spelling. In graduate school, when I came across texts from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, which had no uniform orthography, they make perfect sense to me; whereas to a native speaker, they have to go back and relearn their own language. Do you think it could be something similar to this type of early modern play with language?
JL: Well, I don’t want to scrap that as a possibility (which never really crossed my mind, so thanks for that), but that particular part of the text didn’t seem to be all that old. Personally I do believe that section might simply be a well thought-out and intentional linguistic puzzle, which I had absolutely no capacity to solve, much less translate. I have no excuse for that. Translating is always a struggle, and in this struggle I admit I lost. Those particular pieces of text were, and still are, beyond my skill, and I’d really like to know the person who can figure them out.
JZ: Perhaps a non-native speaker could come in handy!
JL: Maybe so, I would certainly welcome the attempt. Personally I’d love to compare translations of that section with those of other people.
But still lingering on difficulties, underlining these technical issues was of course the emotional baggage that this text carried for me. Especially when you’re doing a devotional work, it’s very hard to draw a line between your emotional engagement with the text and your responsibility as a translator. Given the particular circumstances and history of The Book, one would even have to meditate on the very nature of The Book, if it even exists outside of the emotional engagement of the author or reader. What am I to this book and its centennial chain of versions and edition? A neutral channel of transmission (is such a thing even desirable?) or actually the next madman author who is not only allowed but actually expected to leave its mark on it? Can historians actually avoid making history?
JZ: I’m not sure neutrality is ever the goal. Smacks too much of Enlightened idealism to me. In a way, producing a neutral text would err on the side of deifying, or reifying the book, much in the way you suggest one should not do. It’s much better to exist in the frenzy of textual history, than attempt to erase yourself entirely. Shifting tacks a bit, I know you also have a passion for poetry (incidentally, paixão is one of my favorite Portuguese words!). Can you tell me more about that? To what extent does it play a role in how you translated this work?
JL: Paixão? That’s a gutsy choice, a word with a tilde/nasalization and a letter that can be read in four different ways. But yeah, poetry is something fundamental for me. I’ve already mentioned Fernando Pessoa a couple of times as one of the writers close to my heart, but since we’re talking about it I would also like to drop the names of Teixeira de Pascoaes, António Nobre and García Lorca (besides the nameless folk poets). Even back in the day when I was searching for my own path, poetry was the one thing that consistently triggered an extraordinary inner experience for me (that and martial arts, or both at the same time). Even if I was lacking a concrete formality for its approach, for a long time poetry was the only magic in my life.
Apart from folk culture, there isn’t a very strong Portuguese literary tradition of magic or even philosophy. Somehow, poetry seems to occupy these niches: you never just have a philosopher, you have philosophical poets; you never just have a mystic, you have mystical poets. So you find most spiritual thinkers and practitioners expressing themselves through poetry. This is basically the Portuguese philosophical, mystical and magical tradition (in literary circles, again, I’m not talking about folk/oral aspects of culture here).
So, in my formative years, poetry was basically all I had if I wanted magic or mysticism in Portuguese. That’s actually why my favorite Crowley book is The Vision and The Voice. I had visions and waking dreams while reading that book, and this was due to the sheer evocative beauty and mastery of the language. But, in more recent times, there is a completely human aspect to poetry that makes it very significant for me. Lots people like to look at poetry from its divine or sacred position in some cultures, but under this it has a forcibly tragic and disturbing side connected to its irreducible humanity.
It’s like comparing Pessoa with Mário Sá-Carneiro. Pessoa is an absolute genius, and on top of that he’s a magician; his poetry aims at a certain transcendence (well, in part… it depends on the heteronym). Sá-Carneiro on the other hand has no magic, he is simply a genius, so what is he aiming for? His poetry is no less evocative or transformative, but if it is purely human, you are forced to meditate on what exactly the poem is evoking and transforming in you. It offers no solutions or escapes; it just drives you further down into your humanity. It can be dark or luminous (or both at the same time), but it has a chilling realization to be made. Only mortals, worms of the earth, can create art, only mortals can love, because such things are only worthwhile if you know you’re going to die (it leads you to that or suicide, which was Sá-Carneiro’s solution). That is what García Lorca called Duende, the sudden confrontation with the inescapable reality of death, which yanks you from any state of divinity (the Angel) and imbues your actions with a monstrous and beautiful earthbound significance. If you are a (bull)fighter, this is when your form loses its grace and acquires an imperfect roughness superior to perfection; if you are a singer you lose your pitch and your tempo and your voice becomes course and frightening. This is when you stop manifesting some alien divinity in yourself and manifest nothing but your own self, the human with wounds and imperfections and who is about to die. Your transitory nature is actually your ultimate source of power; it in fact places you above the angels and the gods. They may be perfect but you are beautiful. Their light is nothing compared to the dirt on the soles of your feet.
Now… going back into The Book, this is a point I managed to find in it and which framed some of my comments and much of my current feelings towards it. True, it’s a magic book, but its magic is so distressfully human. It’s petty, greedy, pious and compassionate, and somehow, that’s all heartbreakingly gorgeous.
JZ: ‘Distressfully human’, I love that. If you could give advice to other translators of material such as this, what would it be?
JL: You know, I could go through a whole list here… check your sources, check the context, stay sober, don’t read into the material, read everything around the text you can find, all that cliché stuff. But if we are talking about ‘material such as this’, much better advice would be to eat well, get enough rest and do plenty of physical exercise. You’re about to get beaten up.
Our interview continues in
Cypriana: Old World
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