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


MK:  How is it possible to translate from a language you donít know? Can you describe the process that you go through in doing that?


AL:  I have only done that once, in the case of Georgi Gospodinovís And Other Stories from the Bulgarian. It is not a procedure that I would, in general, recommend. For me, it was an experiment that might have led to a whole new field of endeavor, in which case I would have, in my old age, done my best to learn Bulgarian. As it was, I relied entirely on my highly skilled Bulgarian co-translator for a literally correct translation of the contents, the words, of the original. Then we would struggle together over revisions, debating tone, dialogue, level of speech, and so on. Our efforts involved spirited confrontations in which my Bulgarian collaborator defended with vigor the nuanced eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the original text against my inevitably normalizing tendencies as the guardian of the English text. I sympathized with my co-translatorís desire to defend the special stylistic qualities of the original, but I often felt the necessity of sacrificing some of that specialness to avoid creating a strangeness in English which would leave the reader in a bewildering no manís land. For example, how do you represent an uneducated Bulgarian peasantís speech pattern in English without risking a gross misrepresentation? In such a case, I thought it more prudent to seek a kind of colloquial, ordinary spoken English rather than convert an aged Bulgarian into a stereotypical American hillbilly.


MK:  Without knowing the language, how do you deal with the cultural nuances?


AL:  By discussing such issues at length with oneís collaborator. In fact, I later went over every story with yet another Bulgarian of an older generation, so as to have further in-put. And finally, I accepted with gratitude some fine suggestions and corrections from the author himself.


MK:  Youíve done collaborations with other translators as well as with authors.  How does this process work for you?


AL:  I usually do not do collaborations. But when I do, there is always a clear division of labor, a mutual understanding of individual responsibilities. So, when I do Spanish poetry, as will be the case this January in Ecuador, my collaborator is the one responsible for understanding the Spanish language text and clarifying it to me, while I am responsible for producing an English text that is good poetry in English. That final text is the result of lengthy negotiations between the native-speaking collaborator and me.


MK:  What are some of the conflicts or tensions that may arise between the native speaker and the speaker of the target language?  How have you resolved them?


AL:  Usually, the native-speaker has confidence in my English, just as I have confidence in the native-speakerís command of the source language. So, usually there is no conflict. There is, however, a very helpful pondering, fiddling, reworking, rereading, rearranging, that we engage in with great mutuality. It always involves me reading and rereading my revised versions aloud for my collaborator to hear.


MK:  Has email changed the way you work with authors?  If so, how?


AL:  Although I am typing this interview onto a computer screen, I do not like the world of cyberspace. Yet, I am ruefully obliged to admit that e-mail is a useful tool. In fact, as recently as the past month, I have benefited greatly from e-mail exchanges with two authors: Georgi Gospodinov in Bulgaria and Astrid Cabral in Brazil. Not only did they both make excellent suggestions, but we were able to discuss changes via e-mail and explain to each other our reasonings. The process was extremely helpful in both cases.


MK:  What are some of the ways in which translating projects have come to you?  (Please give three or four examples.)


AL:  First of all, I usually choose something that interests me and just begin. The ďtranslation projectĒ usually precedes publication by many years. Publication is hardly ever a given. For example, as I mentioned, when I left Brazil, after teaching there for almost three years, my best student gave me a big box of books as a good-by present. Upon returning to the States and not finding a teaching job anywhere, I filled the vacant time and space translating both prose and poetry drawn from the wonderful carton of treasures. These activities resulted in numerous magazine publications, but only resulted in a book fifteen years later, when Brazilís great Clarice Lispector had achieved such fame in Europe that an American publishing house was finally willing to give her a try.  




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Per Contra Spring 2007