Translation is essentially the closest reading one can possibly give a text.
– Gregory Rabassa
Some time back my eldest daughter, who spent four years studying Latin in high school, was moaning to me that is was pointless to learn that language because of the way in which it was taught. According to her, her lack of interest in Latin did not contradict her growing interest in learning other languages, French in particular (because we lived in North Carolina for seven years, she was already fluent in English).
I tried to convince her with the usual argument: Yes, Latin was difficult to understand, but in the future it would find its place and its meaning in her life. While I was trotting out this cliché, I started thinking about how my own relationship with Latin was marked by ambivalence. Even though declension wasn’t easy for me, I never skipped Latin class; my professor was very attractive and, as she lived close to my parents, sometimes she would give me a ride to school in her white Fiat 600. The real usefulness of that learning experience, which at the time was veiled by eroticism, only appeared when I started to find my way around French and Portuguese in order to read the classics in the original.
Later, translation burst into my reading life, and Latin became the instrument that gave me access to the mechanics of the text, a discovery that went hand in hand with my training as a writer. But before I go down that road, let me step back to where I come from and my first experiences learning languages.
I grew up in an environment where various languages were spoken: Italian, spoken at home; Spanish, used with friends; English, the language of my bilingual school; and French, which I chose as an elective subject.
At the time, not all foreign languages had the same prestige in Argentina. Italian was a lesser language than English or French, for example. But at home these categories did not apply. My father had emigrated from Italy after the Second World War, when he was close to forty years old. Until he died, he believed that Argentina was a land of barbarians. The contempt he felt toward Argentine culture in general and toward its society in particular was part of his discourse, which I had to endure throughout my childhood and youth. His imposition of Italian as the language spoken at home delayed my awareness of my difficulties with Spanish: as Mario Trejo used to say, I was ignorant of my own ignorance.
The fact that my father imposed Italian and referred to Spanish with indifference forced me into a long struggle over my own form of expression: In which language does my narrative occur? This decision became more dramatic when I started writing. I had to use Spanish, a language that had no value at home but was at the same time my mother tongue.
This slice of personal history might help explain my interest in translation and how it became a key element in my work as a writer. As most people who translate, I am an amateur. I have published a dozen books and other curious texts, including my own introductions, in the Buenos Aires press. There was an F. Scott Fitzgerald letter to Zelda when she was convalescing in a Swiss clinic; an essay by Gore Vidal on Paul Bowles when Bowles was practically unknown; a Hemingway piece, published by Esquire on the art of writing. They were other texts by writers or about writers whom I admired and whom I believed should be known in Argentina.
At the beginning of the seventies, the Argentine political situation became dangerous. Inspired by Borges’ reading of English literature, I packed my bags and, in March 1972, moved to London. There I started reading Ezra Pound, who had also gone to England with a similar purpose: specifically, the study of literature through translation. There I discovered that Yeats had described Pound, his secretary at the time, as “a brilliant improvisator translating at sight from an unknown masterpiece.”
After a year in London, I organized a bilingual translation group with writers and academics. It consisted of seven to ten people, both bilingual Spanish and English speakers. We would take a poem by Pound or by Vallejo and each participant did his or her own version in his or her language, a version that was later discussed by everyone else. Our enthusiasm led to the publication of Ecuatorial, a small magazine that, as Tono Masoliver said, “No estaba tan mal.” (Wasn’t that bad)
In the 70s, I threw myself into U.S. literature, which at the time I found very stimulating. When I discovered Pound I was 18 and, much like him, I felt I’d come from a distant and savage land. I tried to follow his footsteps. The Italian names and Medieval references he used sounded very familiar to me, given the fact that my father (born in 1910) used to casually quote Dante, as all slightly cultivated Italians of his generation did. But the most revealing aspect of my reading of Pound was that he showed me the road to China and to Japan. This was a very particular China and a very particular Japan, of course: He knew neither Chinese nor Japanese and he based his translations exclusively on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa and the work of professors Mori and Ariga. This probably explains why, when Pound refers to Chinese poet Li Tai Po (or Li Po as he is generally called), he calls him Rihaku, which is his Japanese name. In Japan, Chinese classical literature served the same role as Greek classical literature did for the Romans and does now for Europeans.
Pound’s eagerness was an incentive, as were Walter Benjamin’s arguments about the sisterhood of languages and how that sisterhood surfaces in translation. This works with close languages, but when one faces Chinese or Japanese, the possibility of finding similarities disappears and cultural references impose themselves. However, Benjamin’s bread-brot example can also be understood in a culture where bread doesn’t exist, as rice and the innumerable ways of naming it signify the same human staple.
In 1978, I decided to leave England and, through some Catalan contacts, I reached Tokyo. Just as I had travelled to London to understand what Borges wrote about literature, I went to Japan to see what Pound was referring to when he spoke of Japanese poetry. I taught languages to earn money, but I also had time to study Japanese. I tried my hand at translating hai kú with the help of Blyth’s edition (which included the kangi). I also used bilingual dictionaries and eventually I produced some decent Spanish versions.
When I returned to Europe I realized that if I wanted to write in Spanish, I had to get close to the language and systematically study it. Following my belief that movement inspires the traveller, I settled in Barcelona, where I eked out a living with translations for Brughera and journalism. In 1979, I ran into Mario Trejo, who was an enormous help on the road to writing. When I met him, he was a sort of hybrid between a beatnik and Pico de la Mirándola, an extraordinarily euphoric and stimulating person who had nourished the beginnings of many young writers. Trejo introduced me to another Mario, Mario Pellegrini. (In Barcelona at that time there was an infinite number of Marios: Vargas Llosa, Muchnik, Eskenazi…) At the time, Pellegrini was running a small publishing house that had been started by Aldo, his father, a Surrealist promoter and friend of Breton. He offered me my first editing and translation job.
He suggested we compile all existent letters, conferences, and articles that concerned the friendship of Italo Svevo and James Joyce, and translate them into Spanish. The book did not exist in any language and he wanted to publish it.
Immediately I jumped on a train to Milan (it is curious how at that age, one can start a trip on short notice) and I went to the offices of Dall’Oglio, Svevo’s publisher. After Dall’Oglio learned the purpose of my visit, he gave me the four volumes of Svevo’s complete works (publishers are no longer what they used to be). As Svevo had died in 1928, his rights were in the public domain and Mr. Dall’Oglio couldn’t make any money with my modest project.
The only material that existed in translation was the conference that Svevo had given in Milan in 1927, which had been translated by Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, and published by the poet James Laughlin in 1950 as a Christmas gift from New Directions. In 1969, Ferlinguetti’s City Lights had published it again.
Joyce had taught English to Italo Svevo, whose name was the pseudonym of Ettore Schmitz, a Triestine of German Jewish origin. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Trieste—a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was a subjugated city, and these two complex men met at a crossroad braided by a linguistic and political weave. This relationship evolved into something close to a friendship, one where the younger man stimulated the older one. At the time, Svevo, disappointed by the meager attention the critics had given his first two novels, Una vita (1893) and Senilitá (1898), had completely abandoned writing. Joyce read the books and pushed Svevo to keep on writing, and Svevo’s third novel came out in 1923. By then Joyce had published Ulises in Paris and was able, through his own connections, to interest French critics in Svevo’s work.
When I started working on the Svevo texts on Joyce, I realized that I was invading another human being’s privacy; I felt increasingly uncomfortable because I felt I was exposing Svevo’s private devotion to Joyce.
Translating Italian into Spanish offers very unique difficulties due to the proximity of the two romance languages. In this case, my effort was twofold; while I was translating, I was also learning to write in Spanish. But what kind of Spanish was it? What kind of writing?
This brings me to comment on the inevitable effects of English on my writing. I must mention Borges’ influence—a true Argentine fate—and although in my beginnings it represented an impediment, as the years went by my writing acquired a concise texture that I believe expresses my saga and how it is informed by contradictions.
In my experience, the learning of languages and the study of literature occurred simultaneously. In that sense, I am inclined to say that translation was an integral part of my literary upbringing, a vehicle to access another reading. It reminds me of the train trip I took from Barcelona to Milan: When an author journeys from one country to another, bathed by different semantic waters, the meaning of words change and drift. How much of an original work is left in a translation? How much dies? Is something new revealed, something that the author had not imagined in his work?
If we live in a period of history when information is readily accessible, the adequate quote or the necessary reference always at hand, I suspect that now more than ever it makes sense to circulate between languages. No, I do not know, nor did I knew how to explain to my daughter, the importance of Latin. But a very Borgesian reference, by Borges to the Venerable Bede, keeps returning to my mind, insistently as a sutra. I quote it from memory: “Translation is the most selfless job of the writer.”
ALEJANDRO MANARA is an Argentine writer and translator who has lived in London, Barcelona, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Palma de Mallorca, New York, Durham and is currently living in Buenos Aires. He studied literature at King’s College, London and studied for a Ph.D. at Duke University where he taught until 2001. His books are Martita (2013), Tigre Hotel (1993), Bebiendo tristes, bailando graves (1998), and Pasión de fondo (2006). He has edited and translated the correspondence of Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, and that of Italo Svevo and James Joyce (1990), and Leonardo Sciascia’s essays on Stendhal (2005), among other books.