Cantigas are poems sung by Portuguese and Galician troubadours. They are the local expression of that great flourishing of European medieval poetry that began in the courts of southern France, ramifying outward to Italy and Germany and the Iberian peninsula, and which was crushed, largely, by the murderous rampage—they called it a crusade—conducted by the Catholic Church against the Albigensians and their culture, a culture that had just the right mixture of openness and curiosity and sensuality to allow the flowering of a new and more sophisticated, more personal kind of poetry. Most of it was meant to be sung aloud.

For centuries the Iberian cantigas were lost. In the nineteenth century they began to come to light, but only in the twentieth century did they get translated into English, and only in the twenty-first have they been rendered—by the great translator of Pessoa and many other Portuguese-language poets, Richard Zenith—into the kind of song-like English that does justice to their eerie ribald music, their fetching and graceful rhythms.

By “does justice” I mean makes an approximation, in English, that feels like it might have something of the incantatory power of the song in the original language. Translation, especially of poetry, is essentially impossible. The art is too embedded in the original language to be fully transmittible across the borders of languages. What a translator like Zenith knows is that you have to “balance your losses,” as Eliot Weinberger has said. One of the ways that Zenith, who grew up in Virginia and has lived in Lisbon for decades, transmutes the magic of the music of the cantigas is by paying careful attention to the way this is an art of “changing parts,” an art of taking the same phrase, often deceptively simple, and varying it slightly from stanza to stanza—sometimes doing that across multiple phrases in a single short composition. There is as much passion as obsession in such a formal device, and it takes the lull of cadences and shifts them in ways that seem small but echo and deepen the rhythms and meanings. (In one especially original kind of cantiga, the female-voiced cantigas de amigo, there’s often parallelism, repetition with a difference—so the music of changing parts is intensely present in these.) And while all art is a chemistry of change against variation, variation within change, these cantigas, in Zenith’s hands, remind me that a poetry’s message is its music.

Here’s an example, by the singer Meendinho. Nothing is known about him. All we have is this one song. It’s a kind of persona poem from the perspective of a woman, a cantiga de amigo—written and sung, of course, by a man—

Sitting in the chapel of San Simón,
   soon I was surrounded by the ocean’s waves,
       waiting for my lover, still waiting.

Before the altar of the chapel, waiting,
   soon I was surrounded by the ocean’s waves,
       waiting for my lover, still waiting.

Soon I was surrounded by the rising ocean,
   without a boatman, unused to rowing,
       waiting for my lover, still waiting.

You can see the playfully slight variations in the original language, a kind of play that belies the fortitude and staved-off panic the poet ascribes to the hapless young woman:

Sedia-m’eu na ermida de Sam Simion
e cercarom-mi as ondas, que grandes som.
   Eu atendendo meu amig’, eu atendendo.

Estando na ermida ant’o altar
e cercarom-mi as ondas grandes do mar.
   Eu atendendo meu amig’, eu atendendo.

E cercarom-mi as ondas, que grandes som.
Nom hei eu I barqueiro nem remade.
   Eu atendendo meu amig’, eu atendendo.

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JESSE NATHAN: The language on the back cover of the book says that the cantigas reflect “attitudes both alien and familiar.” What are some of those?

RICHARD ZENITH: The Galician-Portuguese cantigas were written in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a time when Roman Catholicism was not so much a set of dogmas as it was an organizing principle of life. The area of Andalusia ruled by the Moors was shrinking. Jews suffered increasing discrimination and were forced to live in “juderías” (“judiarias,” in Portuguese). One Jew, named Vidal, is known to have written a couple of cantigas, but the other 150 or so troubadours making up this poetic tradition were all ineluctably Catholic. What I want to suggest isn’t that these singer-poets were especially religious, but that their religion—along with nationality and social class—was baked into their identity, making for a mindset that was rather different from our own.

Or was it so different? I helped write the description of Cantigas appearing on the book’s back cover, with its reference to “attitudes and behaviors both alien and familiar,” but upon closer consideration, I can point to very little in these troubadours that strikes me as “alien.” The economic system, social customs and rites of courtship of thirteenth-century Iberia were of course not like those of modern Portugal, Spain, and much of the rest of our globalized world, but the medieval Iberians’ anxious feelings when smitten by love, their ambivalent attitudes toward those in positions of power, the bonds linking them to friends and family, and their worries about what the future might hold are all things we ourselves have experienced or else observed in people around us.

Catholic Iberian society was less repressive that we might imagine, and stricter codes of behavior did not prevent people from expressing their diversity. Besides the hundreds of cantigas about requited and unrequited heterosexual loves—narrated very often by women, not just men—there are cantigas that make fun of homosexual encounters, and this ridicule was at least a form of recognition, a first step toward acceptance. Other satiric poems mock lascivious women, particularly those who worked in the entertainment industry, a clergyman addicted to pornography, cowardly soldiers (recruited to do battle against the Moors), corrupt ecclesiastics, and avaricious aristocrats. One lampoons a rich nobleman who, having no practical skills, is worthless to society, using his money only to buy more and more land. The poem’s narrator, if he were living today, would no doubt complain about billionaires whose “work” consists of clicking on computer keys to purchase stocks and bonds that augment their wealth, while wage-earning laborers become relatively poorer.

Although a number of the cantigas were political, moralistic, or playfully slanderous, a large majority were love poems. Whatever their subject matter, all of these were written to be sung, and while nearly all the original melodies have been lost, the surviving lyrics—poems—are themselves exquisitely musical. Like the troubadours from Occitania who preceded them, the Galician-Portuguese troubadours were ultimately more interested in crafting finely wrought verses than in conveying political messages or giving vent to their aspirations and frustrations in love. In fact, the amorous scenarios were often sheer inventions, existing nowhere but in the cantigas that describe them. The songs themselves were what mattered, and any pretext—real or invented—would do.