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This is from Baltasar and Blimunda (1998, p. 3), a translation of José Saramago’s Memorial do Convento (1982). Broader context: it’s the 1700s, an Austrian princess married the Portuguese King to “provide heirs for the Portuguese crown”; it's been two years, and she hasn’t conceived yet. The fictional narrator (warning: he holds deeply misogynistic views) goes on:

That anyone should blame the King is unthinkable, first because infertility is an evil that befalls not men but women, who for that very reason are often disowned and second, because there is material evidence, should such a thing be necessary, in the horde of bastards produced by the royal semen, who populate the kingdom and even at this moment are forming a procession in the square.

I’m asking this because it’s not clear to me that the passage in bold conveys the original meaning. (If you want to think about the possible interpretations of the English translation with a mind uninfluenced by knowledge of the original meaning, pause your reading now.) I appears to me that it does not. But first I speak English as a foreign language only, and second I cannot be sure of what I would make of the passage if I didn’t know the original; and lastly I find it strange that the translators should fail to convey the original meaning. The original is “e a procissão ainda vai no adro”, or ’and the procession hasn’t left the churchyard yet’, a Portuguese saying meaning that things have barely begun, which applied to our passage means that the King has barely begun fathering children out of the wedlock―we then learn he is only 22.

So my questions are:

  • What will an English native speaker make of the passage in bold? Will they understand Saramago’s original meaning?
  • Would a more literal translation, such as my and the procession hasn’t left the churchyard yet, convey the original figurative meaning?
  • If not (or even if so) what would be a good way of conveying the original meaning?
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  • EL&U isn't the place to ask for literary analysis (you might try our sibling site Literature), and it's also off-topic to ask questions that invite opinions rather than authoritative answers. Oct 26 at 18:56
  • @Chappo, what?! You’re saying that asking for the meaning of a sentence in context is off-topic just because it is from a novel? And is it not possible to give reasoned, if not authoritative, answers to my questions?
    – Jacinto
    Oct 26 at 19:03
  • Actually, I'm voting to close because your question is primarily opinion-based. Oct 26 at 19:10
  • Forming a procession suggests a long list. The procession hasn’t left the churchyard yet is more colorful and suggests the number is never-ending, or at least undefined and out of control. Oct 26 at 19:24
  • @SvenYargs, yes it should. Thanks.
    – Jacinto
    Nov 4 at 12:03
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In England, processions don't leave churchyards; it's a distinctly Catholic thing and the practice is now regarded as rather quaint if not definitely odd.

While "forming a procession in the square" can be recognised as a metaphor, it would be understood (it seems to me) as a procession of the royal children with a purpose. That purpose isn't stated; it could be that they are queuing up to be recognised/legitimised. It doesn't connote anything to do with the King, really.

"Barely begun" is good, but probably needs to be made more explicit:

...there is material evidence, should such a thing be necessary, in the horde of bastards already produced by the royal semen, who populate the kingdom — even though he has barely begun.

Note that what the King has barely begun is indicated by the added word already.

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  • Processions were relatively common in England during the Middle Ages, before Henry VIII broke with Rome.
    – Centaurus
    Oct 26 at 20:06
  • Andrew, thanks for this. So the translators did deviate from the original meaning. The original sentence (a procissão ainda vai no adro) is well known, and I suppose @Centaurus will agree that there is no ambiguity to what it means in that context.
    – Jacinto
    Oct 27 at 7:04
  • @Jacinto Oh, it may well be well-known in that context in Portuguese, and possibly other countries where such processions are more common. In England, such processions have largely died out; if a translation is actually to be understood, it may be necessary for it not to be literal. In this case, since the replacement isn't going to be well-understood either, something more radical is probably needed.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 27 at 8:40
  • Andrew, I agree. I was just expressig my surprise at the translators' failure to convey the original meaning.
    – Jacinto
    Oct 27 at 9:02
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Barring specialized cases like poetry and technical material, translation is best served by paraphrasing intent in the truest way rather than direct translation of phrases. With the disclaimer that I know no Portuguese and can only take your word for the original intent:

In modern tone I would probably translate the meaning as "...and he's just getting started." To match the historical tone that might become something like "... and he has as yet but made a start." Inserting either in the existing paragraph is a bit tricky since these phrases make the king an actor, whereas the original was a more passive construction, and they need a clearer reference to "a start to doing what?." If I give myself liberty to rearrange the material somewhat, I might choose:

... because there is material evidence, should such a thing be necessary, in the horde of royal bastards with which he populates the kingdom—and he has as yet but made a start.

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