An Unbroken Chain

An Unbroken Chain

How Jeannine Marie Pitas became a translator of Uruguayan poetry.


Selva Casal | Pitas on Casal | Romina Freschi | Pitas on Freschi

Joshua Pollock: So how did you start translating?

Jeannine Marie Pitas: I was an undergraduate in college studying Spanish, and I had really great courses about Latin American literature taught in Spanish. The way of teaching was very innovative at Sarah Lawrence College, where I was in a class taught by a very good poet called Mariela Dreyfus on Latin American Surrealism. I found that in order to read the texts we were given, such as poetry by the Peruvian writer Blanca Varela, I had to start crudely translating just to understand them.

Pollock: How did you end up translating Marosa di Giorgio?

Pitas: In my senior year of college I decided to apply for a US Fulbright grant to Argentina. When I got a call from the Fulbright commission, they told me I had not been accepted, but that they had  forwarded all of the applications for Argentina and Chile to Uruguay, where they were just starting a program for English teaching assistantships. I was super excited and immediately said yes. It would involve teaching in the capital city of Montevideo and a smaller community in the interior of the country.

I needed a new project, because I had planned to translate this poet from Argentina, and María Negroni, my professor, said “I have just the poet for you.” She gave me La flor de lis, the last book by Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio—it’s actually one I have not yet translated, though I plan to. My Spanish at the time was not very strong, but it was good enough that I could really get enthralled with the beauty of the language and the images, and this material of childhood memory transformed into something very magical and fantastic.

On the Fulbright I ended up going to Salto, the city that di Giorgio is from, which is the second largest city in Uruguay. And I encountered so many people there who wanted to help me with the translation. I started out just sitting in their public library and reading everything that they had. 


Pollock: Wow, what luck to have María Negroni as your teacher and for her to introduce you to di Giorgio’s work…

Pitas: Are you familiar with María? Have you read her work at all?

Pollock: Yeah, I’ve read some of what Action Books has been publishing, I recently read her novel The Annunciation.

Pitas: I’m planning to review it. 

Pollock: I loved it.

Pitas: María Negroni is a gorgeous writer. Not only is she talented but she’s very disciplined. She was an intense teacher—she made us work! And she really opened doors for me, through her help with letters of recommendation and through her teaching. I took a class with her called “Art and Politics: View of 20th Century Latin America through Literature and Film”—it was a really excellent survey of the various revolutions that happened in Latin America throughout the 20th century and the experience of dictatorship. She had us read mostly poetry, although she did have us read prose as well, and she covered a wide range of countries. It had a big influence on me, and I’ve recently taught a course that was similar to that one. It really left a marked impression on me.

“Uruguayan poetry has this long tradition of women poets—basically an unbroken chain leading from the early 20th century with poets like Delmira Agustini, María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira, Juana de Ibarbourou—this generation of women who benefited from the country’s progressive reforms.”

Pollock: That sounds like a dream class to me. Let’s try to move the conversation back to your work. How did di Giorgio lead to your work with Selva Casal?

Pitas: Yeah! Thank you for asking that as well. That’s another little story. So, I got really into di Giorgio, and I ended up doing a PhD in Comparative Literature. My thesis was going to be on Delmira Agustini, who’s an early 20th century Uruguayan poet, pretty much at the root. Another person who’s really dedicated to translating Uruguayan poetry, my friend Jesse Lee Kercheval from Madison, Wisconsin, always says that Uruguayan poetry has this long tradition of women poets—basically an unbroken chain leading from the early 20th century with poets like Delmira Agustini, María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira, Juana de Ibarbourou—this generation of women who benefited from the country’s progressive reforms in the early 20th century that led to more equal rights for women, the legal right to divorce, education, things like that. So there’s this long, long tradition of women writing in Uruguay. It’s not an accident that many of the most famous Uruguayan poets are women.

Anyway, my thesis was on Agustini, Alejandra Pizarnik from Argentina, and di Giorgio. I went back to Uruguay in 2013 to look through the Agustini archives and to meet and talk with some critics. My thesis was almost done at that point and I was trying to get some last-minute inspiration to tie it all together. I had heard of Selva Casal, because I had seen her in some anthologies of Uruguayan poetry, and I was interested. When I went to di Giorgio’s family, her sister Nidia told me that the poet Selva Casal wanted to give me some books. Selva didn’t know who I was, but she had heard that I was the translator of di Giorgio, and they had been good friends. I was really excited, but I wasn’t committed to translating her at that point. I didn’t know enough about her. When I went to see her, it was kind of love at first sight. Selva Casal is very charming. She’s around ninety years old, and she was just extremely warm and welcoming, so lovely and hospitable. I was just impressed by her.

Her life is fairly limited due to her age and physical condition. She lives with her husband, and they both have various health limitations. She has Parkinson’s Disease, and she’s wheelchair bound. She also can’t speak above a whisper, so I can’t really talk to her on the phone. One thing that struck me about her is the contrast between how she is as a person—just this very gentle, loving mother of four and grandmother of many—and her poetry, which is really intense and at times very dark. It goes to the bitter core of human nature. For her, there are no good people and bad people; we are all people with elements of goodness and evil within us. That attitude comes from her professional experience as a criminal lawyer—she was used to working with people who have done bad things and had bad things done to them. Her law career has had a huge influence on her writing.

Uruguayan poet Selva Casal.

Uruguayan poet Selva Casal.

The poems that you have are from her 1975 book No vivimos en vano / We Do Not Live in Vain, which she wrote and published against the dictatorship in Uruguay in the ’70s. And it cost her. In addition to being a lawyer, she was also a sociology professor, and she was fired because of the book. I mean a lot of other people paid worse for their activism—they paid more dearly with their lives, or by being jailed, by being tortured. Thankfully that didn’t happen to her, but she still lost something. She lost her job and she had to be very courageous to write that and put it out there, because worse things could have happened to her. So she’s someone I admire greatly, and she draws on all of these experiences. One of the things she said to me the last time I spoke with her is that “everything in life nourishes poetry.”

Pollock: No Vivimos en Vano was published two years after the coup, so when you were translating those poems, did that knowledge about the political context of her time influence how you approached her poetic intent in your translation?

Pitas: I would say it certainly influenced my choice to translate that particular work. She has a lot of material. She started writing when she was young and she’s still writing and publishing books today. She writes everything long-hand, and then her daughter transcribes it for her.

But yes, knowing that context certainly influenced me to choose her work. This isn’t exactly the answer to that question, but sometimes I feel like, at least at the beginning, when I was first trying to get her work out there in the US, and maybe I’m not correct in my interpretation, but I think that part of the reason why she’s a hard sell is that people feel that they’ve heard this story before—this story of Latin American dictatorships. Maybe it feels like old news or something? But I would say, since the 2016 US election, really? Is this old news? Look at what’s happening all around the world today. It’s not exactly full right-wing dictatorships, at least not yet, but there is definitely this move to the right in many countries across the globe. I think this might be generating some more interest in Casal.

My way of translating is to get very close to the text. I start out by reading a poem several times; I use a dictionary for words I don’t know and for words I do know, just to see all the possibilities of what they could be. The actual translation process for me is to stay really close to the text itself, but I think all texts need to be understood in their context, which is why I was eager to get to know Marosa di Giorgio’s family and her city when I was working on her poetry. And I was very fortunate to do so.

As for working on Romina Freschi, I’m fortunate that Romina herself is a fluent English speaker and is able to be actively involved in the translation process. With Selva, because of her age, and because I can’t call her on the phone to ask questions, there are obstacles that make it a little bit harder. I would still like to get more context. My dream is that I’ll be able to go to Uruguay and give her a copy of the book when it comes out, but I don’t know if that’ll happen.

But I definitely read the text with knowledge of the context, even if it’s sort of beyond my imagination because I’ve never lived in a dictatorship. I can try to imagine, and that’s definitely the idea that I’m trying to bring to the translation.

Jeannine Marie Pitas is a writer, translator, and professor of English and Spanish at University of Dubuque. Her translation of poetry by Uruguayan writer Marosa di Giorgio, I Remember Nightfall (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017), was shortlisted for the National Translation Award. She has three translations forthcoming in 2019: Materia Prima (Ugly Duckling Presse) by Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer, translated collaboratively with seven other translators, Echo of the Park (Eulalia Books) by Argentine poet Romina Freschi, and Carnation and Tenebrae Candle (Cardboard House) by Marosa di Giorgio.

Jeannine M. Pitas es escritora, traductora, y profesora de inglés y español en la Universidad de Dubuque. Su traducción de la poesía de Marosa di Giorgio, publicado como I Remember Nightfall (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017) fue finalista para el Premio Nacional de la Traducción en los EEUU. Tiene tres traducciones que saldrán en 2019: Materia Prima (Ugly Duckling Presse) de la poeta uruguaya Amanda Berenguer, traducida en colaboración con siete traductores; Eco del parque (Eulalia Books) de la poeta argentina Romina Freschi, y Clavel y tenebrario (Cardboard House) by Marosa di Giorgio.

Joshua Pollock is a poet and translator in Portland, Oregon. His translation of Salvador Elizondo’s novel The Secret Crypt was recently published by Dalkey Archive Press, and his translations of José Vicente Anaya appeared in Asymptote and Chicago Review.

Five Poems by Romina Freschi

Five Poems by Romina Freschi

Five Poems by Selva Casal

Five Poems by Selva Casal