Professor, Mentor, Friend: Doctor Williams’ Translation of Jorge de Sena

Professor Williams’ new book contains a selection of poems by Portuguese author Jorge de Sena along with their translation by Williams into English. Williams hopes to share his love of Sena’s work with a wider English-speaking audience.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 31, 2016)—Frederick G. Williams’ newest book, Jorge de Sena: 100 Poems and More, is a collection of 100 poems by the famous Portuguese author Jorge de Sena painstakingly translated into English. The book also includes a personal account by Williams of Sena’s teaching style and a discussion of his moral teachings. Not only is it the first time many of these poems have been translated into English, but the making of this book has been a labor of love for Williams that spans 30 years of work.

What started as a professor-student relationship between Frederick Williams, who was completing his graduate studies in Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin at the time, and his mentor and teacher Jorge de Sena blossomed over the course of dozens of years into a rich professional collaboration as Williams joined Sena as professor at the University of California Santa Barbara after completing his Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin.

It was at UC Santa Barbara that Sena asked Williams to teach a class on Brazilian literature in English translation. According to Williams, “There was quite a bit in English in prose, very little of poetry. Eventually what came of that is Poets of Brazil,” a collection of Brazilian poetry translated into English by Williams and published. “A few years later,” Williams said, “[Sena] asked me to do the same with Portuguese literature. And, of course, he was part of Portuguese literature, so I translated him.”

in-article imageIn addition to translating some of Sena’s work for his anthology of Portuguese poets, Williams also frequently accompanied him, starting in 1974, when he gave live readings of his poetry, translating the poems into English.

Williams explained that although Sena was completely fluent in English, he preferred Williams to translate his poetry because, “You need to be a native speaker in the language that you’re translating into. You have a greater capacity [and understanding of] your syntax, your vocabulary, your idioms.”

As Sena and Williams worked closely academically, they and their families became great friends. Williams has a large binder filled with letters that were written back and forth between him and Sena over decades. Williams remembers, “I was very close to him, and when he was near death, his daughter called me and said, ‘I think he’s going this time. And you’d better get here.’” His wife had asked Williams as well as two of his other students, a Catholic priest and a Jewish student – both of whom also went on, like Williams, to receive their doctorate degrees – to, “do whatever our religions do when someone is about to die. When it was my turn, I gave a blessing to him. Then, I was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral.”  After Sena’s death, Williams kept up a correspondence with his family; they are close to this day.

Williams said, “Even before he died, there was a great desire to have [Sena’s] work published in English translation.” Much of Williams’ work aimed to meet that desire, but this most recent collection of translations was specifically requested of Williams by Sena’s wife, Mécia de Sena, who wrote the foreword for the book.

The book also includes Williams’ own account of Sena’s teaching style and his analysis of Sena’s moral teachings. “I teach a seminar on Sena [at BYU] and I’ll be retiring in about a year. I’d like that class to keep going, so I’ve put it all together here,” Williams said, gesturing to a copy of the book. In addition to the book of translations, Williams is leaving the large binder with his correspondence with Jorge de Sena and his family to the Harold B. Lee library so other scholars and researchers can have access to the more personal side of the famous Portuguese poet and his friendship with one of his dearest friends.

–Olivia Madsen (BA French Language, ’17) 

Olivia Madsen covers events for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in writing and rhetoric.


Photos courtesy of Frederick Williams