Alexis Levitin: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
Alexis Levitin is one of the most respected—if not the most respected—English-language translator of Portuguese and Brazilian literature, as well as literature from Ecuador. In addition to 20 books of translations, including eleven collections of poems by Portugal’s foremost living poet, Eugenio de Andrade, Alexis has published translations in approximately 25 anthologies and 200 literary journals such as Grand Street, Partisan Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner. His numerous prizes, awards, and grants include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, Columbia University Translation Center, and, in Portugal, the Camões Institute, the Gulbenkian Foundation, and the Book Institute. He has also received a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency.
Alexis is one busy man. In response to a question I posed in February about his current projects, he replied, “I am currently working on quite a few, taking advantage of the freedom I have gained via a kind of experimental half-time status in the English Dept. at SUNY-Plattsburgh these past couple of years. So, I spent December and January in Guayaquil, Ecuador, working on an anthology of five contemporary Ecuadorian women poets. I will start sending out all those poems in about a month. The previous winter I collaborated on a co-translation of an anthology of fifteen contemporary Ecuadorian poets, mostly from Guayaquil. I am quite in love with Guayaquil and intend to spend three months there next year.
“In April and May, I will be in Brazil, working on three projects: a new book of poems, The Anteroom, by Astrid Cabral, an Amazonian poet; Bloody Sun, stylistically iconoclastic poetry by Salgado Maranhão, from the impoverished, racially-mixed Northeast, and Twenty-two Sonnets by Leonor Scliar Cabral, a collection in which one sonnet is devoted to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This latter project is intended to be published in Brazil in its original Portuguese, along with translations into English, French, Spanish, and Hebrew. Here in the USA, I hope to find a publisher willing to publish it in English, Portuguese, and Hebrew.
“Meanwhile I am rather desperately searching for materials for an anthology of Brazilian short fiction that I am editing for Whereabouts Press. This book will be part of a wonderful series called The Literary Travelers’ Companion, which provides regionally-based fiction for the literary voyager.
“In July and August I will probably return to Portugal, where I have worked almost every summer for the last thirty years. I will try to complete work on one or two collections by either Sophia de Melo Breyner Andresen, Antonio Ramos Rosa, Gastão Cruz, or Rosa Alice Branco.”
How did he find himself concentrating on writers in Ecuador, Brazil, and Portugal? “I was drawn to Ecuador,” he said, “of which I knew nothing, by an Ecuadorian colleague, Fernando Iturburu, a poet, writer, critic, and professor at SUNY-Plattsburgh. Having compiled an anthology of mostly Guayaquileño poets, he asked me to join him as co-translator. We went down to Guayaquil a bit over a year ago to work on the project, and I fell utterly in love with the city. This winter I returned on my own, and I intend to continue to do so.
“As for Brazil, purely by chance I got a job setting up a graduate program at the Federal University of Santa Catarina back in 1972. Upon returning to the USA, I started translating Brazilian literature in order to retain the wonderful language I had just learned. Now, after a hiatus of many years, I have started to revisit Brazil and have already worked fruitfully with the three poets mentioned above.
“As for Portugal, I first went there in 1977 and have gone back almost every year. I have published fifteen volumes of Portuguese poetry in translation since then (eleven of them by Eugenio de Andrade) and have another dozen backed up, waiting for a publisher.”
Given Alexis’ broad literary interests, how does he select which writer to translate? He replied, “Manuel Bandeira and Cecilia Meireles I chose because they were major Brazilian figures and I liked both their content and style. All in all, over the years, I would say that what has attracted me most is a limpid, transparent style, where the challenge is how to convey apparent simplicity without allowing the translation to become vapid. However, though I began in Portugal working with the clean lines of Sophia de Melo Breyner Andresen and Eugenio de Andrade, I later spent years struggling with the intricacies of texture, imagery, metaphor, and syntax of Herberto Helder and Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão. I hope I have been able to catch the richness of both transparency and complexity in these very different poets.”
Since his primary translation focus is poetry, how did Alexis come to translate the short story collection Soulstorm by Clarice Lispector, generally considered the finest short story writer in the Portuguese language? “Indeed,” said Alexis, “my preference is for poetry. However, Clarice Lispector is a true poet writing in apparent prose. All the complexity of poetry is there, all the difficult choices are there. The sound of every word matters. In effect, she is a clandestine poet hiding on the shelves of Latin American fiction.”
Among the many authors Alexis has translated, he found Herberto Helder the most challenging. “He sees his poetry as lava surging up from a substratum of magma,” Alexis explained, “and its bubbling energy is much more important to him than the illusion of clarity. Hence, translating him is an exciting voyage into the unknown, where one encounters provocative images, disturbing distortions of syntax, and a deliciously rich sense of indeterminacy. However, I do not feel that the challenge springs from any inadequacy in the English language. Rather, perhaps, from an inadequacy in my own, relatively pedestrian imagination.”
Does Alexis prefer to translate authors who read English fluently—and who can, therefore, offer comments on his work-in-progress—or those who know little or no English? “Marvelous question,” said Alexis, “to which there is no clear answer. One problem is that very few people know English as well as they think they do. For example, a Portuguese-language poet who knows English has a tendency to prefer the polysyllabic Latinate cognate in English, not realizing how stuffy, clinical, pretentious, or just unnatural the cognate often will sound to us. In any case, whether the poet knows English or not, the bottom line for me is reached when I read aloud the revised translation and the poet finally says: ‘Soa bem! It sounds good!’”
As a professor of literature, does Alexis find that his translation work influences his understanding of English-language literature? “Definitely yes. In fact, I can go further. Translating a foreign language text into English deepens your understanding of two languages at once. Translation always broadens one’s sense of English itself, its possibilities, its limitations, its cadences, its stillnesses.”
I asked Alexis to talk a bit about ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association, a professional organization in which he is extremely active. “I love ALTA. It is my family. The annual three- to four-day meeting, wherever it is, feels like home. And those few days are always the best days of my year, every time. I think the main purpose of ALTA is to allow us literary translators, so peripheral to both the hectic consumer world of getting-and-spending and the often artificial academic world of post-modern solipsism, to feel that we are not utterly alone. I am not the best person to speak about how ALTA has changed, since I have been happy with it from the beginning. I cannot really say whether it has changed a great deal or not. What I can say is that the people I encounter at the annual meeting are the people I am most happy to be with, both the old-timers (like me, haha!) and the newcomers, guaranteeing our future.”
What does Alexis see as the future of literary translation in the U.S.? “I am basically a very happy pessimist,” he explained. “I keep on translating, I keep on lecturing, I keep on discussing literature and life with everyone I can find. But at the same time it seems to me that America is becoming more and more deracinated from both the earth, the world of the basic elements, and from the strong cultural roots of our Western tradition. At my college, in a classroom of forty students, there is usually only one who has ever heard of Cain and Abel. It makes it a bit difficult to discuss that wondrously complex and deep-rooted sin we all have tasted, envy. So, I find myself slipping into the Slough of Despond at such times, and that too is an interesting sin, isn’t it, sloth, or more familiarly despair. As for translation, it does seem to be gaining some visibility at a few campuses, at least. And there are a number of valiant small presses scattered across our country that are tenaciously dedicating themselves to the publication of literature in translation. So, can we slay the dragons of commerce and technology? No. But we can go on living in the valley of our making. It is a good place.”
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
, and his web site is here.