Welcome to Portugal at the tail end of her century of imperial splendor! Around the same time as Columbus — a Genoese under the patronage of the Crown of Castile and Aragon — sailed the ocean blue, a Portuguese, Vasco da Gama, sailed past Cape Correntes in modern-day Mozambique and into waters plied by Swahili fleets linking east Africa with western India. Much as the country that would become known as Spain did in the Americas, Portugal pounced on this wealth, carving for itself a maritime empire the hard way — at least until its king died without an heir in 1580, and control of the whole Portuguese empire was assumed by Spain, making her, c. 1600, the first true European superpower since the fall of the Roman Empire, a power that controlled nearly the entirety of the explored Americas as well as the trade routes throughout most of the world Ocean.
Luís de Camões lived in the tail end of this period — he in fact died the same year Portugal lost its sovereignty to Spain — and between his courtly and military doings found himself packed off to its far corners. Most of his major work — the epic Lusiads — were, in fact, written in Macau, a Portuguese mercantile colony near the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, across the bay from the much later British colony of Hong Kong.
Needless to say, a major Renaissance empire needed to have a self-glorifying epic, and Camões felt up to the task. He’d, as Sîn-leqi-uninni would’ve put it, “seen the deep”.
The Lusiads’ major plot is the final leg of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, where he sails up a hostile African coast until finally finding succor at the King of Malindi’s court, and procures there a pilot for the final leg across the Arabian Sea to Calicut. From this relatively more constrained plot than Camões’ classical models, he develops a synopsis of Portuguese history to that point as well as a mythological interpretation of da Gama’s voyage’s first leg, including an anthropomorphism of the Cape of Good Hope (known as the “Cape of Storms” at the time) in the form of the giant Adamastor — told, in the style of Odysseus’ narration in the Odyssey or Aeneas’ in the Aeneid — as a narration by the hero (da Gama) to his host (the king of Malindi).
After reaching Calicut, he moves on to the core of his plot, the maneuverings between da Gama and Indian Muslims who dislike this European intrusion into their trade monopoly, with the region’s Hindu king caught like a monkey-in-the-middle in this sudden intrusion of Mediterranean-style maritime politicking. Hearing that the Muslim traders have beseeched the Ottomans (or Mamluks) to send a fleet from the Red Sea, da Gama resorts to extreme measures to make sure he can make sail from port safely — namely, taking hostages.
Surrounding this core story, Camões adds all the ornamentation behoove a Renaissance interpretation of the genre: a council of the gods, an Aeneid-style oracle describing the events of Portugal’s subsequent century of grandeur, bickering between Venus and Bacchus, further stories of Portugal’s history, some attacks on other issues near and dear to Camões’ heart, an extended idyll on Venus’ Isle of Love, and finally, in Canto X, a wonderfully wrought (albeit obsolete) metaphysics followed by a showcase of geography within the Portuguese sphere of influence during Camões’ time.
From a Lusophone perspective, Camões’ Lusiads is foundational to their literary tradition (much as Virgil’s Aeneid was to the Latin literary tradition, or Homer to the Greeks and Shakespeare the English); from an Anglophone perspective, however, the Lusiads is very much a niche tale, one of interest to Age of Exploration nuts, lovers of Renaissance poetry, and of course, lovers of epic poetry.
It’s a well-written piece of the genre, and at a certain level an Aeneid fanfiction, but I’m hard-pressed to see any reason why the Lusiads would stand out to an Anglo-American audience, especially since we have Milton’s Paradise Lost and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso as far more influential works of the genre and period. That said … the conscious mythologization of historical material has something to be said for it, and there are plenty of incidents of the period that cry out for similarly mythological treatment.
If you read: The most easily available translation, even today, is William Julius Mickle’s Victorian-era effort into heroic couplets. Not only are about half of the Amazon hits this translation, but it’s the one freely available at Project Gutenberg.
A parallel-text version, also Victorian-period, from Sir Richard Francis Burton is also available. William Atkinson and John James Aubertin both offer boring prose translations.
In fact, the only recent (as in done in the last century!) poetic translation I could find is Landbeg White’s, who quite quickly starts off on the wrong foot (“…is my theme” instead of “I sing” in an obvious Aeneid allusion — I mean — W H Y ? ! ? )
The first major translation of the Lusiads into English was done in 1655 by one Sir Richard Fanshawe, who spent a goodly part of his career in England’s diplomatic service, working in Spain and Portugal, and made several translations. Fanshawe’s work actually turns out to be foundational to English translation theory, but I was stuck with this thing and … to be honest, he tries to do too much with the language, even for the period. Maintaining ottava rima over iambic pentameter in English is a difficult feat even in the best of times, and trying to do so while capturing the spirit of a source text? Fanshawe’s work might be interesting from a historical perspective, but for a modern audience it is opaque unto the point of being unreadable.