Clara Burghelea, Editor of the Translation Po-Int column, talks with talented translator, Alexis Levitin about his early influences, current projects and the pursuit of le mot juste.
Clara Burghelea: Did you grow up in a multilingual household?
Alexis Levitin: Yes. My mother and her husband (my step-father) spoke to each other always in Russian. My mother and her sister (on the phone) always spoke in German. My grandfather (who came from Siberian imprisonment to Rego Park in the late forties) shared my room and spoke German with my mother. With best friends, Denis and Simone de Rougemont, they spoke French.
Clara Burghelea: When did you decide to be a translator?
Alexis Levitin: In 1974, when I returned to the USA, after two and a half years running a graduate program in literature at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil. I did not want to lose the beautiful language I had been immersed in during my time abroad, so I began to translate immediately upon setting foot in the United States. I was very lucky with the timing, since everyone was interested in South America’s literary boom at the time. It took more than half a year before I received my first magazine rejection.
Clara Burghelea: Does the translator ask themselves certain questions when they’re translating culture?
Alexis Levitin: Yes, but this is a much greater concern in fiction or non-fiction and is generally less of a dilemma when one is translating poetry.
Clara Burghelea: What forms does research take when in the middle of a translation project?
Alexis Levitin: I don’t normally have to do research when I am translating poetry. However, I try to do all projects in conjunction with the poets, assuming they are alive. In addition, I had the great good fortune to discover the perfect translator’s informant, Clara Pires, way back in 1983. She is Portuguese, but her English (and French) are profound and sophisticated. Her linguistic sensibilities provided tremendous support for complex decisions concerning nuance. She also cleverly caught errors of ignorance, such as my embarrassing failure to see that “O morro dos ventos uivantes me chama” meant “The wuthering heights are calling me.”
Clara Burghelea: You have translated forty-six collections of Portuguese poetry and prose into English, including Rosa Alice Branco’s Cattle of the Lord, Salgado Maranhão’s Blood of the Sun, Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm, Eugénio de Andrade Forbidden Words. Do you hold any of these the dearest to your heart?
Alexis Levitin: That’s a tough question. Salgado is not just a great poet, but he is my best friend. Rosa Alice Branco is an excellent poet and a close friend. On the other hand, Clarice Lispector is the most individuated voice I have ever encountered. Reading her, one is immersed in another world, a world of shockingly transparent truth. She makes one feel that normal life, normal discourse, and normal prose are simply convenient, comfortable stand-ins for the sharp edge of the real thing, lived life. My greatest professional regret is that I declined to do a second Lispector book for New Directions when they asked me to. I loved her, but grappling with her truly unique style had stretched my translation of Soulstorm into a decade-long project and foolishly, very foolishly, I refrained from a second such commitment. It was a big mistake.
Clara Burghelea: Do you have projects going on in other language than Portuguese?
Alexis Levitin: Yes. I translate poetry from Ecuador, but with full knowledge of my severe limitations in Spanish. I try to compensate by working very hard with the poets themselves, laboring over problems of idiom and nuance. It is my love of Ecuador that has propelled me into these projects. I have published four collections of Ecuadorian poetry so far and hope to do further work, once our modern plague allows me to return to that wonderful country and its people. I have co-translated, as well, one book by the great Spanish poet, Carmen Conde, and one book And Other Stories, by a leading contemporary Bulgarian writer, Georgi Gospodinov.
Clara Burghelea: What was it like to grow up in a family of translators?
Alexis Levitin: We were not a family of translators. My mother translated V.S. Yanovsky from Russian into English because he was her husband. Her only other translations involved some prose for W.H. Auden into German (her native tongue) and a co-translation, with W.H. Auden, of a Czech poet, Ondra Lysohorsky, from his native dialect, Lachian, into English for Poetry back in 1970. But I can say that growing up in the midst of the soothing babble of many languages was a great joy to me. I bathed in the sounds, happy enough to only half understand, at best. Language approaches the ideal of music best when the language is not understood.
Clara Burghelea: I want to ask you about the translation process and the rabbit holes you fall into while translating. Living in this hyper-informational age where you can get on your phone and Google something and actually even translate a line, does this make your work easier or more complicated?
Alexis Levitin: Google can certainly help the translator avoid overt mistakes. Rarely can it assure the triumph of le mot juste. That can only be found in the translator’s own ear. In any case, since I focus on poetry, Google is less relevant to me. After all, of all levels of discourse, surely it is poetry that google understands least well.
Clara Burghelea: There’s the process of sitting down and writing. Then there’s also creating the context or creating the concept. Are those two things part of the same effort, or are they two different processes? How are they reflected in translating different authors?
Alexis Levitin: I simply see the need to read many poems by the same author and to read them more than once. One must grow close to the style, the music, of the original. But questions of context and concept are not part of my experience.
Clara Burghelea: In a time where there is an abundance of misunderstandings, perhaps due to a lack of a common language, what do you think is the role of the translator?
Alexis Levitin: To show that we are all human, for better and for worse, and that language can uplift us, even if it cannot save us.