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Literatura de Cordel: Literature on a String

Literatura de Cordel has a long tradition in the northeast of Brazil, where its presence is strongest, although there are Literatura de Cordel artists in other areas of the country as well. Literatura de Cordel has its origins in Portugal at the time of the Renaissance, when stories told in verse were printed into booklets, or chapbooks, and displayed on a thin cord or string—a cordel—for the perusal of prospective buyers. In Brazil, likewise, these chapbooks have traditionally been displayed on strings, but nowadays this is not always the case. Still, most chapbooks remain quite artisanal with woodcut images illustrating the covers.

The stories in Literatura de Cordel typically originate orally and are then printed as chapbooks. The themes in the stories range from everyday trials and tribulations, matters of the heart, and religiosity to local legends and historical figures and events. In Brazil, Literatura de Cordel is closely related to duelos de repentistas, duels between two singers playing their guitars and improvising their responses to each other’s challenges, often revolving around their skills as poets and musicians. (Videos of duelos de repentistas are available on the internet.) The connection between Literatura de Cordel and the songs of repentistas is that both are expressions of folk art and use fixed formats: the lines in each song/poem must consist of a certain number of syllables, and each stanza must contain full rhymes. Several Cordel patterns have developed, varying in number of syllables per line, number of lines per stanza, and rhyming schemes.

One of the most famous Cordel artists was Antônio Gonçalves da Silva (1909-2002), a poet, singer, and improvisor known as Patativa do Assaré. Patativa is a bird of powerful song, and Assaré is the poet’s hometown in the state of Ceará. Here are the first four of the nine stanzas in his Cordel poem O Poeta da Roça. In true Cordel tradition, Patativa's poems reflect the way people in his rural community speak, with its particular grammar and pronunciation. As usual, I offer a literal and a literary translation of the text.

In my literary translation, I took a few liberties to preserve rhythm and rhyme. I was able to come up with full rhymes, including the internal ones, in most cases. But my literal and literary translations fail in that they do not capture the register of the original. I don't know how to replicate it in another language and wonder if it would even be wise to try. I wouldn't know what form of English to choose and wouldn't be comfortable writing in a style in which I am not well versed. And I would be risking coming up with a version of the poem that is not respectful of the community from which it originated. I hope, however, that my translation serves as an introduction to the talent and wisdom of Cordel poets.

Literatura de Cordel artists and supporters work diligently to keep it alive and strong. Founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1988, the foundation Academia Brasileira de Literatura de Cordel offers cordel contests, woodcut and cordel workshops, opportunities for artists and researchers to connect and collaborate, and other activities in support of Literatura de Cordel.

In 2018, Iphan (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional/National Historic and Artistic Heritage Institute) recognized Literatura de Cordel officially as part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.

If you speak Portuguese but are not familiar with Cordel yet, I highly recommend looking up videos by Bráulio Bessa, a brilliant Cordelista who generously posts videos of himself reciting his poems and speaking about Cordel. And if you have any questions or comments, please use the contact link on my website to send me a message.

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