“Nitty Gritty” Lecture: The Creative Process of Translation

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday afternoon, translator Alexis Levitin presented the lecture “The Nitty Gritty in Poetic Translation.” The lecture used two of his own poetic translations of “A Rapariga e a Praia” by Sophia de Mello Breyner Anderson and “Retrato” by Cecilia Meircles from Portuguese to English to discuss his methods and ideas about translating poetry. The event, sponsored by the Interpretation Theory and Russian department, was held in Bond for all those willing to brave the snow.

Levitin has an impressive background in literary translation as editor of the literary journal of the American Translators’ Association, recipient of multiple awards and residencies, and currently a Professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. Levitin grew up with questions of translation: his father was a Russian novelist (“whose love was Russian”) and his mother, whose English was excellent, translated his work, despite his father’s protests.

Levitin opened his lecture by observing that what he was about to speak about was “the opposite of the theory of translation.” Concerned with questions such as whether a translator needed to use the same devices, rhyme, meter, etc., as the original author and how this should be handled when differences in language structure make these kinds of translation impossible, Levitin justified his own poetic solutions through his own translations. The bottom line? “You’ve gotta do what works.”

“If your poem works and is a successful poem and it moves people in the way that the original poem moved people, then it’s good.” Levitin advocated a “compensation” technique: if a translator needed to lose a pure rhyme in one instance, they could add a slant rhyme in another. He argued strongly against Venutti’s “Theory of Strangeness” in which some ‘foreignness’ is imparted in the translation to indicate how it is essentially unlike the language that it is translated into. “If you translate into English than it should read like it was in English.” Levitin also pointed out that it was impossible for a translator to avoid incorporating their personal interpretations in the translated poem. “You cannot be value neutral as an interpreter.”

Ultimately, Levitin argued for pursuing the essence of the poem. He argued for translating not so much the literal text, word for word, but “My existential response to what this poem provokes in me.” This, he pointed out, would inevitably lead to arguments as issues such as the sounds that words produce and the effects of specific rhythms are often lost depending on how they are translated, however, Levitin opened himself towards these criticisms, clearly believing that this too was part of the process of translation.


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