Fidelity Means a Million Infidelities
Translators Mark Polizzotti & Katrina Dodson in conversation with C. Francis Fisher
Translators are magpies. Writers are magpies, not just translators. And translation is about language in the same way that writing is about language. It’s all about finding those shiny bits that you see out the corner of your eye and picking them up.
“Colloquy: Translators in Conversation” is a new event series based in New York City and sponsored by World Poetry Books. On November 1st, Unnameable Books in Brooklyn hosted “Literary Giants: The Trials and Tribulations of Translating the Greats.” Mark Polizzotti read from his new translation of Arthur Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat (NYRB Poets, 2022), and Katrina Dodson read from two projects: Macunaíma, a 1928 classic novel by the Brazilian modernist Mário de Andrade (forthcoming in April 2023 from New Directions) and The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (New Directions, 2015). After the reading, we launched into the following conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.
C. Francis Fisher (CF): I wanted to start by asking how you came across these various projects. Did you pitch them? Were you approached by a publisher who was interested in a new translation? In essence, how did these projects come to you or how did you go out and find them?
Katrina Dodson (KD): With the Clarice Lispector, it was a mix. I was writing my dissertation in comparative literature and my last chapter was supposed to be on her. I had started to dabble in translation, working on short stories by two authors, Emilio Fraia and Vanessa Barbara, for Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue in the fall of 2012. I’d also published an excerpt of a novel they co-wrote in Two Lines. So, I had some short pieces.
Before that, I had been living in Brazil for a year and a half on a Fulbright-Hays dissertation fellowship. A friend of mine, Catherine Taylor, who runs Essay Press, asked if I could get the rights to do some Clarice Lispector translations for them. Around that time, a friend came to visit me in Rio de Janeiro and brought back a flyer that said that Benjamin Moser—the series editor for the new Lispector translations at New Directions—was going to be giving a lecture in Rio. We had a friend in common who gave me his email, and I wrote to him saying: “Hey, I’m a grad student in Rio, and I’d like to meet you. I wouldn’t dare get in on your series, but maybe I could translate some Lispector for this other press…” And he met with me! Maybe that’s a lesson, meet someone while they’re on kind of vacation with nothing better to do than go have breakfast somewhere.
So, we met and hit it off. He didn’t give me the project—he just said, “Oh, maybe you could do some letters or the children’s books sometime down the road.” We kept in touch and then, sometime between the end of 2012 and early 2013, Alison Entrekin, who’s a fabulous translator and had done Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart, was supposed to do The Complete Stories, but ended up not being able to. They were in a hurry so Moser basically called me and said, “How would you like to do the stories?”
I had to sit down. It was a huge opportunity. I felt like I was very qualified, but not necessarily on paper. It took me two years to do it. I felt like the stakes were so high, and I didn’t want to mess up. There were a lot of people who didn’t think I could do it, or that I wasn’t qualified to. It was a huge break for me. So that was a strange series of events.
After translating the Lispector I was so confident, I thought I could take on Macunaíma, one of the most important novels of Brazilian literature. I had taught Comparative Literature classes to undergrads for several years, and I’d always wanted to teach this book, but there was only a really terrible translation of it. So I thought that since it was only 150 pages—the Lispector was over 600—it would only take me a year. Now, almost six years later, I’m just finishing it. So, to answer your question, with that one, I pitched it to New Directions.
Mark Polizzotti (MP): For me, Rimbaud was a very early love and a very late translation project. It is one of the few that I actually did pitch. I discovered him when I was 17, which is the appropriate age. I was in France and I read him in French, and I’ve been reading him ever since. I did read some English translations, and part of wanting to pitch the project was that—and this is going to sound really obnoxious given all the giants who have tackled Rimbaud over the years, like Ezra Pound and John Ashbery—those English translations never had the voice that the French did in my head. That was the first part of it, that somewhere in the back of my head I had this nagging sense that I could do something different. Translation is a reading and a very personal act, so the idea of a definitive translation is nonsense. Mine will be superseded by somebody else’s, which will be superseded by somebody else’s, etcetera, etcetera.
The second part was that I was absolutely in love with the New York Review series of poets. Ron Padgett, who I greatly admire, had recently done one on Apollinaire, and I felt totally jealous. I wanted to have a project in that series too—among other reasons because the books fit in your pocket and they’re cool.
CF: Well, I think that’s a pretty natural segue to my next question, which is, I’m curious if you all read the existing English translations and if so at what point in the process?
MP: Personally, I think it’s a bad idea to look at other English versions while in the middle of translating, because almost inevitably something is going to seep in and there will be some level of unconscious plagiarism. It’s okay to look at them afterward. Every once in a while, I will confess, if something really has me stuck—and with Rimbaud, I couldn’t just call him up and say, What did you mean here?—in those cases, I might go back to other translations and look at what they did. It’s like a silent panel of translators conferring with each other: “Okay, you did that, and you did that, and you did that.” And somewhere in there I triangulate my own reading. But otherwise, I try to stay away from other versions.
KD: Yeah, I’m more or less the same. You don’t want to get someone else’s voice in your head because then you’ll start second guessing yourself or unconsciously picking up what they’re doing. But I do think in the beginning, when you are retranslating, you want to know why you’re retranslating and what you are going to do differently. So, I was aware of the other Lispector translators and the Macunaíma translation.
One of my favorite panels on translation was at Columbia, called “Retranslating Literary Classics” which Susan Bernofsky moderated. It had Edith Grossman who translated Don Quixote, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who were working their way through all the Russians, and Wyatt Mason, who was translating Montaigne. They got this question, and each confessed, “Oh, yes, I have it on my desk like a dictionary,” or “Sometimes I peek.” At that moment I knew it was okay.
With Macunaíma, the book was so difficult because it is filled with neologisms, and slang or non-Portuguese words that you just can’t figure out. No one can agree on what they mean. The dictionaries don’t even agree on what they mean. So in those really tough cases, I would look not only at the English translation, but also the French, the Spanish, the Italian, the German, and at one point even the Japanese. Sometimes in the hardest moments I could see that nobody agreed about what was happening, and when no one else has a clue, it frees you.
CF: There’s something that happens with retranslation of well-known authors where suddenly people are paying attention more than they do to other more marginalized translations. Is that something you think about that when you’re working? Or do you have to put the reviewer’s voice out of your head?
KD: I came from an academic background, so I have all the voices of different academics in my head saying, “That’s not how you do it.” I’m more stymied by thinking about scholars than reviewers. But some of the scholars are also reviewers. So, yes, I think I’m nervous about my translation approach being misunderstood.
In Macunaíma, I’m creating a kind of American vernacular which is not at all a one-to-one translation from the Portuguese. The novel can be so colloquial or slangy, and I often couldn’t do a similar thing in English in the exact same spot in a sentence. The languages are flexible in different places. So, there’s no way you can do a word-for-word comparison with this translation.
The reviews for the Lispector were pretty good, but a couple reviews wanted to nitpick and said, “Well, it wasn’t as good as Elizabeth Bishop’s.” But she only translated three stories! And had all the time in the world! I don’t know if I would have retranslated the stories if Bishop had done more. But Mark, you had to compete with John Ashbery…
MP: John was wonderful, but, you know, his Illuminations tend to sound more like Ashbery than Rimbaud. You really hear his voice. So that was a slightly different thing. But I think your distinction between reviewers and scholars is absolutely apt. On the one hand, as far as reviewers go, I would be delighted if they even noticed the translation. So many reviews don’t even bother to mention that they’re reading a translation. Just having that acknowledgement is already such a boon.
Scholars, well, their close-focused reading can sometimes be wonderful and exciting, and sometimes absolutely exasperating. Translation is an art of adaptation and an art of compensation. It’s not an art of replacement or a one-to-one correspondence: there’s no such thing. As the translator, you see what’s going on in the original language and you constantly look for places in the English where you can park that effect. It might not be in the same place as in the original. You might have to wait until the next sentence or the next paragraph and put it there.
The cumulative effect is what counts. Obviously you want it to be representative, and you want it to be accurate, whatever that means. But you also need to create an effect that is comparable to the effect the original would produce on the reader. That takes a lot of thinking and adapting, a lot of fiddling and moving things around. Fidelity means a million infidelities.
CF: I’ll ask one more and then open it up to the audience. In Imaginary Homeland, Salman Rushdie says something along the lines of, everyone is obsessed with this idea that something is lost in translation, but he wants to cling also to the hope that something might be found. When I think about that, I always remember the English translation [by Richard Seaver] of Marguerite Duras’s novel Le Ravissment de Lol V Stein, in which the narrator’s identity is meant to remain hidden from the reader for as long as possible. But in French, the gender of the speaker is known right away because of the mechanics of the language. Meanwhile, in English, where adjectives don’t have to accord with the speaker’s gender you’re able to hide even more about the speaker from the reader. So there’s these moments when in translating English can actually enliven or enlighten something that in the original language was more difficult. So I’m wondering if either of you came across such a moment when you were doing your translations.
MP: I’ve come across many such moments. I think we need to maintain a distinction between respect and awe. Respect for the text you’re translating is absolutely essential. Awe, on the other hand, can paralyze you and give the impression that nothing in the text can possibly be equaled, let alone improved upon. And that’s not true. The fact is that a translation can sometimes be an improvement on the original. It’s not always the case. It’s often not the case. But there are times when the resources of English are such that the translator has options and opportunities that the original author simply didn’t have.
KD: As a translator you have to contend with how you define fidelity, and what’s lost in translation. You can kind of roll your eyes whenever these clichés come up, but they are important questions—people keep asking them for a reason. Of course, things get lost: the music gets lost, the original humor gets lost. But you also gain a new reading, you set the old text at a new angle, and it opens up all kinds of new ideas for people.
With Clarice Lispector, she pushed me to push English in new directions that I wouldn’t have done on my own. She was doing such strange things like, “I love you so much that I die you”—and “to die” (morrer) is not a transitive verb in Portuguese or English, but all of a sudden she’s inventing this new way of using “to die.” We don’t know what it means, but I felt like I had to match her music. It’s like how Emily Dickinson—or the best poetry—pushes English into these uncomfortable but exciting contortions.
With Macunaíma, something happened that I didn’t anticipate: it took me on this whole journey through American language and culture. I’ve always been less interested in American literature, like Mark Twain, but I learned a lot in going back to some of these classics. It was important for me to remember that for Brazilians this book is an uncanny mix of familiar and strange. The strange is all of these Indigenous words for different flora and fauna. Some are very familiar because they are integrated into Brazilian Portuguese, but when you have a list of ten kinds of monkey or eleven kinds of palm tree, the average Brazilian reader is only going to know one or two.
But then the familiar part is a very colloquial, very funny Brazilian Portuguese, and sometimes quite regional. So I was looking at things like the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). I was watching Coen brother movies and old screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s, just writing down bits of language that were funny and exciting, that made me say “Oh, I’m going use that.” At one point, I was reading this anthology, A Treasury of American Folklore, by B.A. Botkin, and there’s this phrase in one of the folktales: “it broke all to smash.” So of course I thought, “Oh my god, that’s amazing I have to use that,” in this part where a pumpkin gets smashed. This book was suddenly all about American language in a way that the original is not, but there’s no way to make the translation about Brazilian language.
MP: Or if you did, it would be completely unreadable, because, in English, it’s not about that.
KD: Exactly! So, it’s unintentionally very American. Or, I mean, intentionally. But when I first set out on this project, I didn’t expect it to end up that way. But now there’s so much Mark Twain, some Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman, even a bit of Ulysses when the hero learns to write proper European Portuguese.
MP: Translators are magpies. Writers are magpies, not just translators. And translation is about language in the same way that writing is about language. It’s all about finding those shiny bits that you see out the corner of your eye and picking them up.
There’s an undercurrent in some translation studies that amounts to almost a hatred of English. Of course, if you equate American English with American politics and hegemony, then the reasoning becomes quite clear, and there’s plenty to criticize. But this is language. If you don’t love your language, and if you don’t love the possibilities and exploring what those possibilities are, and pushing the boundaries of them, and inventing new words and phraseologies, and finding those little shiny bits and putting them together, then don’t become a translator. Because the most important gift you have is the language you’re translating into. You have to embrace it and all of its possibilities. In the end, that mindset will better serve the author you’re translating than this attitude of, “I’m really sorry I’m putting it into English.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m wondering how much you let your knowledge of the writer’s biography inform the translations, and if you think it’s necessary for fidelity in the translation.
KD: I don’t think biography is irrelevant. I like to know about the author’s life, but it’s not the most important thing for me. Writing is so personal, you can tell so much about a person through their writing without knowing what they eat for breakfast every day. I think with Clarice Lispector it did help to know her family history of being Jewish refugees, and that she was a mother, and that she’d had a painful divorce. A lot of her work is biographically adjacent.
With Mário de Andrade, it’s interesting because I can see the ways in which the book is personal, but it’s not a psychological novel—there’s no interiority. People call it a “novel,” but it’s more like the form of an epic; it’s all external action. I think knowing that he was a mixed-race person, and that he was queer, I can just feel it in the text. To me, it is a book that’s so much about the impossibility of cultural or racial purity. There are a lot of boundaries being crossed and a lot of confusing gender identities.
Translating Lispector I was emotional the whole time, but the first time I got emotional translating Macunaíma is when I went to Mário de Andrade’s archive at the University of São Paulo and saw his piles and piles of notebooks and research and all of his excited exclamation points when he was taking notes. I realized how obsessed he was with language and music, and how much he loved all this stuff. The book is very irreverent; it’s almost a farce. But going through his drafts and notes, I could see how much passion there was in it for him, and I teared up.
It’s very easy to dismiss this book as a series of jokes and about nothing. Going to the archives and seeing his research helped me fight that assumption. That’s an argument you don’t have to have when translating a French author, that is, someone from a more respected literary tradition. Publishers or critics would say, “Oh, it’s Dada,” or, “Oh, it’s avant-garde.” But with a Brazilian mixed-race author, I had to convince people that the book was serious and important and seriously playful at the same time. Understanding his thinking and his intensive research methods as he was writing this book was important for me to be able to advocate on his behalf.
MP: The nice wishy-washy answer to the question of biography is: it depends. For someone like Rimbaud, I gave a little mini biography in the introduction to the book because his work is in a way such a roadmap of his life. The road poems, for example, were written while he was running away from home to Belgium, sitting at the side of the road, sleeping under the stars, happy as a clam, totally free, and scribbling these things out. There really was a Green Tavern, he really did stretch his legs under the table, he really was happy having this food and beer served to him. There really were three sisters who picked lice out of his hair. These poems describe things that actually happened to him. There are also political poems that are based on events during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871. All these pieces reflect biographical moments, and it was helpful to be able to draw on over a century of Rimbaud studies in figuring out how to translate them, because otherwise some of these poems can be intimidatingly obscure.
CF: We have to stop there to allow these lovely bookstore workers to close up shop. I want to thank you both so much for engaging in this conversation. Also, thanks to Ely Watson of Unnameable Books, to my co-curator Matvei Yankelevich as well as the whole World Poetry Books team, and Stacy Skolnik for making this event available on the radio and in the archive of Montez Radio. You can find out about our upcoming events by following World Poetry Books on EventBrite and I hope to see you all again next time!
C. Francis Fisher is a poet and translator based in Brooklyn. Her writings have appeared or are forthcoming in the Raleigh Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books among others. Her poem, “Self-Portrait at 25,” was selected as the winner for the 2021 Academy of American Poets Prize for Columbia University. She teaches undergraduate composition at Columbia University and is the curator and moderator of “Colloquy: Translators in Conversation.” Her translation, In the Glittering Maw: Selected Poems of Joyce Mansour, is forthcoming from World Poetry Books in 2024.
Mark Polizzotti’s books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, monographs on Luis Buñuel and Bob Dylan, and Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and recipient of an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature, he has translated more than fifty books, including works by Arthur Rimbaud, Gustave Flaubert, Patrick Modiano, Raymond Roussel, and Marguerite Duras.
Katrina Dodson is the translator of The Complete Stories, by Clarice Lispector (New Directions), winner of the PEN Translation Prize and other awards. Her translation of Mário de Andrade’s 1928 Brazilian modernist classic, Macunaíma: The Hero with No Character will be published in 2023 by New Directions and Fitzcarraldo in the UK. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, Triple Canopy and elsewhere. Dodson holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley and is an affiliated scholar of the Brazil LAB at Princeton. She teaches translation at Columbia University.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, December 13, 2022