The Most Intimate Act of Reading
Jeannine Marie Pitas on translation, influence, and work still to do.
BY JOSHUA POLLOCK
Joshua Pollock: You mentioned your work on Argentine poet Romina Freschi. Do you want to talk a little bit about how that came about?
Jeannine Marie Pitas: On the same trip to Uruguay in 2013, when I met Selva, I also went to Buenos Aires and met Romina. At that point, I had no idea that I would end up translating her work. Roberto Echavarren, a poet and writer from Uruguay who has worked with Freschi on the Flauta Magica publishing house connected us and I went to her house to meet with her and talk about Alejandra Pizarnik and poetry in Argentina in general. I never thought I’d be translating her work, but it’s just the way things go; sometimes you get asked to do things. I started translating an earlier book of Freschi’s called Redondel—the best way I’d translate it in English is “Little Round Thing.” I’ve put it aside for the moment, but I hope to finish the whole book. It’s this very satirical, hyper-realist sort of poetry, and it’s making fun of a lot of elements of media, like movies, television, and video games. It’s a little bit bombastic and wacky, and very fun. Anyways, I was just doing a few excerpts of it for something, and somehow, independently of any of my efforts, Michelle Gil Montero from Eulalia Books had discovered Freschi and wanted somebody to translate Echo of the Park. Since I was already working on Freschi, I decided to get on board. Echo of the Park is a very different kind of book than Redondel.
Pollock: You also write poetry yourself, yeah?
Pitas: I do! Yes.
Pollock: Do you approach language differently when you’re writing your own poetry? Do the voices that you’re translating ever begin to infect your own writing?
Pitas: I’d say that it’s impossible that they don’t, but I don’t see how that is different from any other act of writing, especially poetry writing. One of my teachers, the poet Vijay Seshadri, said that all of the poems that we write are essentially building upon other poems, almost as if you hold a piece of paper and read a poem on that piece of paper, and then flip it over and write your own. I believe that firmly. We’re still infected by this certain brand of Romanticism—an individualistic idea of the creative genius. But even the British Romantic poets were part of a community and subject to mutual influence.
I really think that writing develops in community, and all poets are influenced by other poets. I feel very fortunate because in addition to drawing on the Anglophone world I draw on the Hispanophone world, especially the writers I’ve translated. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who translated Derrida, said that “translation is the most intimate act of reading.” I love that. I told you at the beginning that I started translating because I just wanted to read Latin American poets, and so it’s really just a closer kind of reading. As poets, we’re all inspired by our reading. So yeah, I do think I’m influenced by the poets I translate, and I see that as really lucky. I don’t have too much anxiety of influence. I feel lucky to be able to read them and translate them and learn from them.
Pollock: Yes, that makes perfect sense. This is probably parenthetical to the interview, but have you read Johannes Göransson’s recent book Transgressive Circulation?
Pitas: Not yet. I really need to, though. I know Johannes. He’s been really supportive of my translations of di Giorgio and he actually had me come read from di Giorgio two years ago at Notre Dame.
Pollock: I think it relates to what you’re saying, in that the book troubles the idea of some essential, original poetry that exists in a vacuum, and I think he sees translation as having the capability of flooding poetry with different voices that undermine the illusory purity of a so-called national literature or canon in a generative way.
Pitas: There’s this idea of imitation and representation that goes back to classical times. If you start with stories in the oral tradition, this person who may or may not have existed called the poet Homer was able to write them down in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a little while later along comes Virgil, and he basically imitates Homer, but also represents him, transforming him into a new form for a new time. And then other writers followed upon that, with other sources like the Bible. Think of someone like St. Augustine, who drew on the Bible but also drew on classical sources, and then someone like Dante draws on Augustine. That’s just sort of how discourse works. I mean, we’re social creatures. We have the experience of subjectivity where we’re individuals living these limited lives and also accessing knowledge through our senses, but that knowledge comes to us from a larger community. And yeah, this larger idea of tradition, I totally agree that it’s a human construct. I once taught a class on canon formation. How does a literary canon get formed? Harold Bloom would say that if works are good, they’ll find their own way in there. Since Bloom, many other critics have questioned that assumption. How many amazing poets have fallen by the wayside of this canon formation? So much of it happens by chance. The works that get in, sure, they are very good, but we don’t know how many good works get left aside because of the people who control publishing, the choices professors makes about their classes, the things that translators translate… All of that determines what gets into this canon, and that’s why every canon is imperfect and is missing a lot.
Pollock: Do you think it is part of the role of the translator to muddy those waters or break down those walls of the canon or whatever? To bring in new voices that wouldn’t otherwise be heard?
Pitas: I certainly hope so. It’s a tough thing. Even today, when people in the U.S. hear Latin American literature, they might think of someone like Borges or Neruda or Gabriel García Márquez. I think those are some of the first names that come to mind. I love all three of those writers, but the problem results when people here think that that’s all that Latin American literature is. Opinions about Gabriel García Márquez within Latin America are mixed. Some people see him as writing largely for an audience of U.S. academics and perpetuating stereotypes of Latin America in his work—that’s just one criticism. There was a reaction in Latin America against the Boom. There was a whole generation that wanted to work against ‘magical realism’ and the romanticism of the rural that went for this very tough, urban, ironic, even at times snarky writing. In some ways I see Freschi’s book Redondel as kind of like that.
There’s a huge amount of good quality work being written in the Spanish-speaking world. If I was independently wealthy and didn’t need a day job, if I wasn’t also trying to do my own writing and maintain a personal life, if I was just going to translate poetry morning to night every day of my life, I wouldn’t even be able to get through all of the material that I want to translate in a lifetime. We need more readers and translators to engage with this wealth of material, and we can try to discover and open things up for some of these wonderful writers who otherwise might not get noticed. That especially includes women, it includes writers of diverse sexual orientations, it certainly includes indigenous writers—right now there’s hardly anything that has been published in the English-speaking world from indigenous writers from South and Central America. There’s so much more work to do.
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.