story behind the book | kate tuttle

A Portuguese writer who fell in love with Dickinson


In her native Portugal, Ana Luísa Amaral has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, along with academic works, plays, and children’s books, but “What’s In a Name?” is only her second book to be published in the United States, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

Many of Amaral’s books have been translated into Swedish, Dutch, Czech, and other European languages, and she herself is a prolific translator. The process itself fascinates her. Her first translations were of Emily Dickinson. When she read the American poet for the first time, she didn’t like the work. Amaral tried again, and “suddenly that night at three or four in the morning, it was like an epiphany! The following morning I called my supervisor and said, ‘I am going to do my PhD on Emily Dickinson,’ ” Amaral said. “I am still in love with her. The more I read her, the more fascinated I get. And to translate her: It’s an immense pleasure.”

Amaral is currently working on a translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “It’s not the same as writing, because you have to follow a script. But then what you discover, the way you connect the words, the images you create — that’s beautiful,” she said. “For me it is a passion; it is a pleasure.”


While writing her own poetry, Amaral added, she tries to feel the words inside her body. “I never use the dictionary to find a word. The word has to come by itself,” she said. “When we write poetry, we push that language, that alphabet, to a frontier. It has to play precisely with that moment where things can almost become unintelligible, and touch the realm of possibility. When we read poetry, we have to feel that this is a strange object that I have in front of me. Poetry is always written in a foreign language, in a way.”

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Amaral will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Brookline Booksmith.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at