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


MK:  You translate poetry and fiction.  What differences are there for you in doing these genres, if any?


AL:  I deeply enjoy the process of translating poetry, of wrestling with all the possibilities of sound in every word, every syllable. For me, translating fiction is more laborious and less rewarding. Of course, the only book of fiction that I have published is by Clarice Lispector and her prose style is so personal, so elliptical, so dreadfully unique, that one feels that one is really in the realm of a poetic voice far beyond prose. I think the biggest reward for me in general, when working with fiction, is when the task is done and I read over the final version. Then I can relax and enjoy it. But the electric reward of the hands-on grappling with sound and sense that occurs in the translation of poetry cannot for me be matched by the vaster, sweeping force of fiction, with its longer periods and slower pace.


MK:  What do you do about rhyme and meter?


AL:  First of all, I listen carefully to the original, often with the benefit of a live reading by the author. Then I listen carefully to my own text, reading it aloud time and again, as I hone it towards a rhythmically cohesive whole in English. My greatest loyalty is to the success of the new text in English. I am perfectly content to do iambic pentameter in English when the line in Portuguese may be hexameter. Such a change does not bother me. I feel that you owe an allegiance not only to the original text, but also to the traditional norms of poetry in your own target language. My goal is simple: to produce a version in English that sounds as if the poem really had been written in English.


MK:  What balance do you make between the demands of vocabulary and the sonic requirements of a poem?  Can you tell us how you decide where to make such trade-offs—and are you willing/able to give an example of one such?


AL:  Luckily English, with its dual roots in Anglo-Saxon and Latin (via the Norman Invasion), gives the translator rich realms of synonyms. For that reason, the interesting struggle, from my point of view, is rarely a question of vocabulary per se, but rather of which vocabulary word will sound right. Sonic strikes me as rather technical, rather scientific, but if, as I believe, we are speaking of the good old basic categories of Sound and Sense, my aesthetic and emotional inclinations clearly favor Sound. And yes, I will give you a seemingly simple example: Speaking of his own body, described with a rich sensuality, Eugenio de Andrade, after a heavily erotic passage, suddenly declares  “Corpo para morrer,” then begins the next stanza with the simple words “Corpo para beber ate ao fim.” In Portuguese, the simple, ordinary verbs for to die and to drink rhyme in the simplest, most uncontrived way, just through their shared infinitive ending. Now, semantically, a proper translation of these lines ought to rely on the ordinary words to die and to drink. So the lines in English ought to be something like this: “Body meant for death/Body to be drunk right to the end.” However, as translator I must first be a reader, an interpreter of the original. And as interpreter I see that the latter line is contingent upon the former, in effect, a response to the former. That is to say, we must drink our body to the very end exactly because it is destined to die. Now to emphasize that intimate linkage, I wanted something approaching a rhyme, so that as in the echoing sound of the original two infinitives the deeper meaning would be underscored: that death is inevitable, but we can respond to that fact with our own rhyme, that of life lived to the end, the glass drunk to the lees. So, my version reads: “Body ripe for death/ Body for imbibing to the end.” The assonance of “ripe” and “imbibing” was worth, I felt, the stretch into the slightly clinical diction of guidance counselors generalizing about college students. But you need not agree. I give this example exactly because it can be argued either way. Perhaps I went too far just for an echo. But the echo was important for me.


MK:  Have you ever translated authors with whom you haven’t been able to work directly?


AL:  Yes. Usually when separated from the author by that last contingency, death. I prefer working with living authors and discussing my work with them, if possible. Such discussions can be very fruitful, even with authors who do not know English. One of the most important things I can do is listen to them read their own poems. The other important thing is for them to listen to me reading the translation. When they say: “Soa bem,” (“It sounds good”) I assume things are going well. 



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Per Contra Spring 2007