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

 

My first publication of Portuguese poetry came about by chance. I found an independent California publisher whom I called up through a misunderstanding. But he turned out to be interested in publishing a book of Portuguese poetry. Then, through another misunderstanding, the poet I intended to work with left Portugal for the whole summer and I was forced to work with someone else. The unexpected change resulted in my first book, Eugenio de Andrade’s  Inhabited Heart.

 

Another very interesting project also came my way by chance. Less than two years ago, I met a Portuguese poet whom I had not known before. She was in the midst of a book of Wallace Stevens translations. Since I teach 20th century American poetry, I offered to read over her mss. I ended up spending many days going over the translations with meticulous care. She published the book and gave me a very kind credit. She then said that her publisher would offer the two of us a second Wallace Stevens project: “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” It sounded like an overwhelming challenge one could not ignore. So, last summer Maria Andresen and I did that book together.

 

Yet another book came my way by complete accident. A few weeks ago I received an e-mail addressed to someone else, but sent to me by mistake. In it a poet asked the someone else if she would translate a book of twenty-two rhymed sonnets into English for a multilingual collection in Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, and Hebrew to appear later in 2007. I wrote back, tongue-in-cheek, suggesting that, although I had gotten the offer by mistake, I was really the best person in the United States to translate rhymed sonnets from Portuguese into English. Well, the poet wrote right back asking if I would indeed take on the project. And I agreed to do so. Ah, the joys of serendipity. I begin work on this project in about four months.

 

MK:  What are some of the satisfactions that come with translating work that hasn’t been translated into English before?

 

AL:  First of all, I only translate material that I assume has never been translated before. Sometimes I find individual poems from a larger collection that have indeed been translated by others, but I have never yet undertaken to retranslate an entire collection of poetry. The satisfaction of translating new material is that one brings a loveliness from one enchanting language into another, one translates one kind of beauty into another kind of beauty. It is very rewarding.

 

MK:  What draws you to authors whose work you have translated more than once such as Eugénio de Andrade?

 

AL:  You grow into your work. You come to understand it better and better. Eventually you come to be your author’s voice in English, or at least you think you are. It is hard to stop when you have found your tonal stride

 

MK:  Do you teach both literature and translation?

 

AL:  I mostly teach literature because it is not easy at my college to find enough students to fill courses in translation on a regular basis. This year I had excellent students in a translation of poetry course, but there were only eight of them. Administrators and chairmen cannot allow such luxuries very often.

 

MK:  What are some of the qualities to look for in a translation?

 

AL:  Is it a real poem in English? Can you believe that it was written in English? Is it vivid, is it a living thing, do its sounds and rhythms accompany and support its images?

 

MK:  Do you think some personality traits are more suited to doing translation than others?  If so, what are they?  Did you think about that when you began your work.

 

AL:  When I began my work, all I thought was “I don’t want to lose this new, deeply beautiful language I’ve just learned.”  So I started to translate, to keep Brazil alive in me, even though I had chosen to return to the USA. As for personality traits that suit one for translation, yes. It is very helpful to be convinced that one is intelligent, skilful, musical, hard-working, honest, but absolutely, above all, not a genius. It is that latter conviction that enables one to take one’s modest pride in a lifetime of almost invisible work in the almost invisible vineyard of invisible endeavor, the anti-mirage that is the terrain of the translator. 

 

 

 

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Per Contra Spring 2007