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Alexis Levitin, the Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin


MK:  How long have you been translating?


AL: I began in the summer of 1974, after returning to the States from a two-and-a-half-year visit to Brazil. I went to Brazil, a country I knew almost nothing about, in order to help establish a new graduate program in English and American Literature and Language at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, on the southern coast of the country. My classes were all in English, but I learned Portuguese from daily life, from poetry, which felt closer to me than the ordinary prose of the newspapers, and especially from a charming friend who knew no English. I did not want to lose this lushly attractive language upon leaving the country, so I began almost immediately, in New York, to translate both modern poetry and prose.


MK:  What appeals to you about translating? How did you decide that you wanted to make it a life work?  Was there a particular experience you can point to?


AL: I have always been a para-literary person, surrounded by writers all my life, yet never writing myself. Translation gave me the joy of a deep engagement with language, an anchor to cling to (the original text), and the rewards of literary activity, without that overwhelming and terrifying leap into space that primary creative writing requires. In a word, I never had to face a blank page alone. A few mundane factors, of course, conspired to nudge me toward translation: a big box of marvelous Brazilian books given me as a good-bye present the day of my departure, my failure to find a teaching position for a full year upon my return home, leaving me with vast expanses of free time, and the blatant good fortune of receiving nothing but acceptances during the first six months of my new career. After that, there was no turning back.


MK:  You’re especially known for your translations from the Portuguese.  How did you decide to work primarily in that language? From what other languages do you translate?


AL: Although I had learned French at school and from my travels, Portuguese was the first language that I had ever lived in on a daily basis, so it was natural to begin with Portuguese. Also, I am sure a cultural and nostalgic commitment through memory contributed to my loyalty, first to Brazil, then to Portugal. In fact, I have never on my own strayed into translating from any other language. Many yeas ago, a colleague from Cuba enticed me to co-translate with him a marvelous, proto-feminist collection of poetry, Mujer Sin Edén (Woman Without Eden), by Spain’s Carmen Conde. Working with this close friend was a great pleasure. Now, a quarter of a century later, I am embarking once again on a co-translation from the Spanish, this time with my Ecuadorian colleague Fernando Iturburu. We are going this January to Ecuador to work with poets on an anthology of modern Ecuadorian poetry. No such collection has ever appeared in English before.


 There are two other projects I ought to mention. The first, a co-translation with Maria Andresen, a Portuguese poet, of Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” is being published in Portuguese right now by Relógio d’Água in Lisbon.  It had never occurred to me to even attempt such a thing, translating away from my native tongue, but working in close collaboration with a sensitive and dedicated Portuguese poet made it all possible. The greatest joy for me was rereading the finished Portuguese text and feeling that the cadences were indeed those of Wallace Stevens himself. The second project, to be released in July by Northwestern University Press, is a collection called And Other Stories by the young Bulgarian writer, Georgi Gospodinov. This was truly an experiment. Although I have heard Russian my entire life, Bulgarian was unknown to me. However, I met a highly trained Bulgarian translator at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre during a summer residency and we decided to see what we could do as a team. It wasn’t easy, but I think the final result is pretty good. And Gospodinov himself seems pleased, so that is quite encouraging.


MK:  Your family does translation, too.  Would you tell us a bit about that?  Did that influence you?


AL:  One of my earliest memories is of me, perching like a prairie-dog on the edge of its hole, trying to get my mother and step-father, the Russian writer V.S. Yanovsky, to understand what that alien creature was. They had encountered it in Willa Cather’s My Antonio, which they were translating into Russian, and they had no idea what it was. I was five years old and I did my best. My mother went on to translate many of my step-father’s novels into English, so translation was indeed an activity going on around me. Over the years, my mother also translated a number of poems for W.H. Auden into German, her own native tongue. Perhaps more important than actual translation, is the fact that I grew up in a world where I was always surrounded by only half-understood foreign languages: Russian, French, and German, and learned to make my way silently through that partially perceived adult world.






Let's see:


- rent

- food

- bus and subway fares

- my new watch broke

- health insurance

- one month past due on credit card bill

- now I'm out of money




- get new watch

- put kids in better school

- free up time to spend with kids


How will I make enough to get what I need?


There are many different ways to improve your financial situation.  Some are better than others.  Jobs take time away from your family, goals and interests.


Why work 80 hours a week?


Get connected to a funding source for Per Contra and learn how to free up time and money to enjoy your life-


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Per Contra Non-Fiction Spring 2007

Per Contra Spring 2007