“Windows”: Pondering collaborative translation of Julio Monteiro Martins with Donald Stang and Helen Wickes – Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

May 28, 2021 | Colloquy | 1 comment

A prominent writer and cultural figure in Brazil, where he lived for the first part of his life, and in Italy, where he lived until his death, Julio Monteiro Martins’ final poetry collection, La grazia di casa mia (The Grace of My Home), was published in Italian in 2013 (Rediviva Edizioni, Milan). Widely published in both countries, Julio experienced the pain of exile as well as the difficult immersion into a new language and new culture. As a writer, a mentor to young writers, a teacher, and a publisher, he had a wide following, which we hope to widen by bringing his work to readers of English. To our knowledge, his work has not been available in the United States, except for the publication of several poems from this book.
In Brazil, Julio worked as a human rights lawyer and was among the founders of the Brazilian Green Party and the environmental movement Os Verdes. He published nine books in Portuguese, including short stories, essays, and novels; was the founder and director of the Anima press, which published Brazilian authors in the 1980s; and taught creative writing in Rio de Janeiro.
At a certain point, he made the painful decision to leave his homeland. He spent a few years teaching in Lisbon and the United States, before settling in Lucca, Italy, the place he called home for the rest of his life.
In Italy, Julio taught in several cities and directed an online journal, Sagarana, and a creative writing school of the same name. He published many works in Italian. He was also the author of theatrical works, and his writing in Italian prior to the final poetry collection had been published in many journals in Italy.
At Antonym, we are always trying to dig deep into the ways in which translation carries and metamorphoses a literary work. Each translation project, in essence, reinvents its rulebook. The fine balance of creativity and replication or transfer is experienced in its most molecular form, each time a translator sits to work. This week we had Helen Wickes and Don Stang, partners in poetry and life, speak to us about their journey in translating Monteiro Martins’ poems from Italian into English.

Bishnupriya : As it happens with art and humans, sometimes their eyes meet and a new chapter starts. I wonder if there is a poem of Julio that did that for you. What about it moved you to take up the translation project?
Donald Stang: It was a little like what you suggest: a kind of instant infatuation. This was a first encounter with his work in the poem “Finestre” (Windows), which I experienced as a real kick in the pants. Our friend and collaborator Pina Piccolo ( Poet, translator and editor of the Dreaming Machine magazine) had posted it on her blog, I believe (Pina had worked with Julio for years, and has since posted much of his work, including our translations, in various online publications). Helen liked the poem too, and we discussed attempting to translate it. We enjoyed the process, and proposed working on the entire collection in which it appears. Pina agreed to consult (the collection had been published only in Italian, only a year or so before Julio died. At that point, despite the fact that he was quite well-known and involved with many in the world of literature and teaching, virtually none of his work had appeared in English. This is still largely the case, and it has been a major motivation for us in our efforts to get the work of this major literary figure to anglophone readers).
Helen Wickes: Years ago, Pina introduced us to Sagarana, Julio’s wonderful online journal of literature, art, and essays. She translated one of my poems about Caravaggio into Italian. Julio published it with an image of the painting. We became fascinated with his work.

Windows

A poet has written
that poetry and windows
don’t get along well together.
Perhaps he was right.
Windows
are a subject
that is too poetical.
Too often they serve
as tired clichés.

Here’s one:
the gaze
is the window
of the soul.
Another:
this treasure chest
is a window
to the past.

In fact,
one can scarcely make
poetry in this way.
It’s clear
that there are no windows
that open into the soul
or doors
that swing open into the past.

There are, instead,
true windows,
and about those
one can in fact write poetry.
Or write nothing.
It’s the same.
They exist, that’s all.
The world is certainly not down on its knees
begging to be written about
by someone.
The world could care less.

One true window,
for example,
was the one my grandfather
locked with an iron bolt
every evening at eight,
even when the weather was brutally hot.

Today I understand
that he was not worried about
security.
He believed—
but he would never have admitted—
that through the open window
evil spirits would enter
and that they would infest
my childhood home.

He was paranoid, my grandfather.
A good man,
but paranoid.
In his delusion
evil was everywhere
but it only came in through the window.

Another actual window
had been crashed through
by a gang of youths
in the outskirts
of Rio de Janeiro.
It was the bedroom window
of my great-grandmother Herminia.
They wanted hidden money
that did not exist.
They beat her
to death.

My great-grandmother
had silver hair.
She also was good.
A strong woman.
She was the director
of the nursing home
that the gang had for some time
besieged.
Herminia
wasn’t paranoid.
But she should have been.
It would have saved her life.

When I wake up breathless
in the middle of the night
or in the early morning tired and dull,
I never know where I am.
So many times
I have changed countries and cities,
feathers and coat,
that I don’t always remember
my most recent move.

The walls are always the same.
Lamps, bathrobes, bathmats—
I find them everywhere.
Only the window remains
capable of explaining
things to me.
The things of my life.

I stretch my head out the window
in search of a tower,
a mountain,
a type of skirt,
a hat,
that might let me know
where the hell
I have ended up
this time.

A bus,
a fruit vendor
on the corner
reveal
the state of things.

From the window
one sees neither the soul
nor the past.
The window
is the present.
The room, instead,
is eternity.
And the present,
as we know,
we either see from eternity
or we do not see at all.

Finestre

Un poeta ha scritto
che poesia e finestre
non stanno bene insieme.
Forse aveva ragione.
Le finestre
sono un soggetto
troppo poetico,
servono troppo spesso
per metafore scontate.

Ne volete una?
Lo sguardo
è la finestra
dell’anima.
Un’altra?
Quello scrigno
è una finestra
verso il passato remoto.

Infatti
non si può mica fare
poesia così.
È chiaro
non ci sono finestre
che si aprono verso l’anima
né porte
che si spalancano verso il passato.

Ci sono invece
le finestre vere
e su queste
si può anche scrivere poesia.
O non scrivere niente.
È uguale.
Esistono e basta.
Il mondo non se ne sta certo in ginocchio
a supplicare di essere scritto
da qualcuno.
Il mondo se ne frega.

Una finestra vera,
per esempio,
era quella che mio nonno
sprangava con una barra di ferro
tutte le sere alle otto
anche quando faceva un caldo bestiale.

Oggi capisco
che non si preoccupava
della sicurezza.
Lui credeva
– ma non l’avrebbe mai ammesso –
che dalla finestra aperta
entrassero spiriti maligni
che poi avrebbero infestato
la casa della mia infanzia.

Era paranoico, mio nonno.
Tanto buono,
ma paranoico.
Nel suo delirio
il male era dappertutto
ma entrava solo dalla finestra.

Un’altra finestra reale
è stata sfondata
da una banda di bambini
in un quartiere periferico
di Rio de Janeiro.
Era quella della camera da letto
della mia bisnonna Hermínia.
Volevano i soldi nascosti
che non esistevano.
L’hanno ammazzata
di botte.

La mia bisnonna
aveva capelli d’argento.
Anche lei era buona.
Una donna forte.
Era la direttrice
dell’ospizio
che i bambini da tempo assediavano.
Hermínia
non era paranoica.
Ma avrebbe dovuto esserlo,
invece.
Le avrebbe salvato la vita.

Quando mi sveglio ansimante
nel mezzo della notte
o la mattina presto stanco e ottuso,
non so mai dove sono.
Tante volte
ho cambiato paese e città,
piume e pelame,
che non sempre riesco a ricordare
l’ultimo spostamento.

Le pareti sono sempre uguali.
Lampadari, accappatoi, tappetini,
li trovo dappertutto.
Resta solo la finestra
in grado di spiegarmi
le cose.
Le cose della mia vita.

Mi sporgo sul davanzale,
in cerca di una torre,
di un monte,
di un tipo di gonna,
di cappello,
che mi faccia capire
dove diavolo
mi sono cacciato
questa volta.

Un autobus,
un fruttivendolo
all’angolo
mi rivelano
lo stato delle cose.

Dalla finestra
non si vede l’anima
né il passato.
La finestra
è il presente.
La camera invece
è l’eterno.
E il presente,
lo sappiamo,
o lo vediamo dall’eterno
o non lo vediamo affatto.

His book, La grazia di casa mia—The Grace of My Home, in our translation—has many poems about the profound dislocation of leaving his native land with its complex culture, history, language, and natural beauty. The book title is a line from his poem called “Living in Exile”. In this poem Julio laments the loss of his homeland and expresses sadness, knowing that he will die far from where he was raised. The power of this poem was yet another compelling and inspiring push for us to translate the whole book.
I am in the poetry world, with four books published. In addition, I’ve been part of Sixteen Rivers Press, a small, non-profit poetry press, for 16 years. While I have studied Italian fitfully for years, Don has been a diligent student of the language, country, and culture for decades. We thought it would be fun to do this project together, as we have so many other separate activities in our lives. In addition, the challenging nature of so much of the work was appealing. It was hard work, immensely rewarding, and worth the effort.

Bishnupriya: Has it been a joint/collaborative project since the beginning? How did the team come together?
Don: Yes, from the start, as I explained, it has been so. We are married and live together, so the choreography was not a problem.
Helen: Don and I decided to translate Julio’s book, needing first to get permission from both his heirs and the publishing company. We, of course, enlisted Pina to critique and advise.

Bishnupriya: Tell us a little bit more about the process. Between you and Don, did you choose separate poems to work with or each poem had you both working with them?
Don: We would each, separately, do a more or less literal translation, studying the terms with which we were not familiar and reacquainting ourselves with those whose meanings needed refreshing. Later, we might make notes on multiple definitions which could help with finding the right language to use. We then exchanged our preliminary drafts, and perhaps one of us would attempt a tentative synthesis of the two. Then we would struggle over the details. I was slightly more in charge of definitions; Helen, herself a published poet, had somewhat more authority on the poetic style and syntax which seemed most effective poetically. Once we completed a first draft that we could live with, we’d submit it to Pina (who lives in Italy, while we live in California) for her comments.
Pina, because she is a native speaker of both languages, having lived extensively in both countries, was extremely helpful in (1) understanding uses of Italian which might evade us in our reliance on dictionaries; (2) understanding cultural, political, and historical references that might not be at all clear to us, or that we might not even realize that we were not noticing and, (3) because she had worked extensively with Julio, understanding what he was driving at in passages that might seem obscure to us. We were extremely lucky to have been able to work on this with someone possessing all of those strengths.

Bishnupriya:  What where some of the challenges you faced during the translation?
Don: I have already alluded to some of these—mainly just understanding a whole history and culture expressed in the Italian text, and in Julio’s case also his history in Brazil during the first part of his life, as well as the experience of exile which was such an important aspect of his life and work (Julio had written extensively in Portuguese before leaving Brazil, and in Italy he produced a large body of work in Italian—essays, articles, theater pieces, and poetry).
Another challenge, and a major one, was some of his playfulness with language. There was one poem in which he invented much of the language, and there was no way we were able to translate this (it was literally untranslatable). We decided to create a poem of our own which would attempt to give the same feeling and create, hopefully, the same playful mood as the original; it was prefaced with an explanatory note. This was an uncomfortable decision, as translating the collection and omitting one poem would be unfortunate, while what we did was rather unprecedented and, perhaps, subject to criticism. It remains to be seen whether this experiment (not yet published) succeeds.
Here is a snippet of the poem, both in its original and translated version.

Spurious Regeneration

Loquaciously, bodaciously,
procrastinate, profligate,
not some old nerd, that mockingbird
(tell me,
how much do they please you,
these words?).

Frankincense, fraudulence,
fraternize, bowdlerize,
progenitor, profiterole,
anecdote, row that boat
(but tell me now
how much you enjoy
my Italian lingo!).

Palingenesi Fasulla

Borborigmo birbantello.
Procacciatore. Progenitore.
Profittatore. Profiterole.
(dimmi un po’,
quanto ti piacciono
le parole?)

Fatterello, mulinello,
turbinio, risucchio,
pescecane, pisciacane,
marzapane, piantagrane
(ma quanto ti piacciono
le parole
italiane!)

Helen: For me, as a published poet, getting the sound of the poems right was crucial; maintaining Julio’s rhythms, switches of tone, and mood, while also translating the best we could into our language. English, obviously, has a very different music and feel than Italian does, so honoring both languages was important.
I have a fairly decent background in American, Brit, and Irish poetry, but little of Italian poetry, so I didn’t know the poetic influences on Julio that might have given shaded meanings to his work.
An interesting challenge was working with Julio’s erudition, in terms of the challenges it presented. While Don and I are somewhat educated in our own fields, we are not scholars; and so, we did what most poetry translators do: learn a little about the subjects. For example, we needed to refresh our memories about Teilhard de Chardin and Walter Benjamin. For the poem called “Haiti”, there were a slew of Haitian deities to understand. In “Musica”, Julio refers to a Brazilian rainforest bird called the uirapuru, and Don even found an online recording of the bird’s song. There were places and historical events in both Brazil and Italy that warranted exploration.
Don: We struggled over what references in the poems needed notes. We wanted to use them only as sparingly as seemed necessary.
Helen: By the way, I have zero problem with how we handled the one poem which would have made no sense if translated literally. We did a riff on his piece, keeping the rhythms and line breaks, creating a similar word play in English, and then actually translating the stanza end lines, which serve as a chorus. If we ever get the book published, we will provide a decent footnote. If interested, I could send you a few lines from the poem and you could get a sense of what feeling we tried to convey, even if you don’t know Italian.
Which leads to the biggest challenge: getting our translation of Julio’s book published. Americans tend to have little hunger for reading translated work. They often go to Rilke or Neruda, but, unless they are immersed in the poetry world, they don’t often seek out other poets to read. Julio was not well-known in this country. Don and I don’t have status as translators, despite now having gotten all but one poem of the book published in a journal. There are simply not many contests, resources, ways to get this book brought into print. This has been both sad and frustrating. As we are both well into our seventies, we hope to live long enough to hold our actual published translation of Julio’s book in our hands.
This spring we will have a limited release of a chapbook containing five poems with both the Italian and our English translations, published by a tiny press which only publishes work by invitation. The poem “Living in Exile” will be in that chapbook. The title of our chapbook is World Without a Libretto, which comes from the poem “Musica”, the last poem in both the chapbook and in La grazia di casa mia. We chose that line as the title because it beautifully expresses Julio’s originality, musicality, wit, and sense of wonder.
As many of the translations have been published by online journals, they are readily available. Once poems have been published, we often send a few twice a year to Pina to republish in her online journal, The Dreaming Machine, thedreamingmachine.com, which can easily be found. When the next edition of TDM comes out, in May, “Windows” will be a featured poem. By the way, The Dreaming Machine is the English translation of Julio’s last book, published posthumously, La macchina sognante.

Bishnupriya: Everyone knows about the “losses” in translation but aren’t there gains too?
Helen: There’s so much argument in the academic world about translation, that I’d prefer to stay out of it. We did our best to bring a complex work from one language and culture into another. An obvious gain was personal: we got immense satisfaction from doing the work, conferring with Pina, and then having the pleasure of seeing individual poems accepted by journals. We certainly feel blessed by the opportunity presented by the work, and feel tremendous gratitude to Pina for all her support. An obvious loss is that we never had the pleasure of meeting Julio. Not being either Italian or Brazilian, there have to be many cultural subtleties we missed.

Bishnupriya:  Why did you think Monteiro Martins’ poems should be carried over to English?
Helen: After being smitten by the poem “Windows” and a few others, we discovered the wit, intelligence, range of emotion and life experience Julio brought to life through his words, and decided that his work deserved an English speaking readership. We hoped that people who dove into his poems would get some of the pleasure we felt as we encountered them for the first time, and then strive to bring them into our language.

Donald Stang is a long-time student of Italian. His translations of Italian poetry, with Helen Wickes and/or Pina Piccolo, have appeared or are forthcoming in Carrying the Branch: Poets in Search of Peace (Glass Lyre Press, 2017); Catamaran; Silk Road; Pirene’s Fountain; Ghost Town; Apple Valley Review; America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2018); and thedreamingmachine.com. Others have appeared in Newfound and Pirene’s Fountain. He was educated in a public high school and attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School; he practiced law for some years. He subsequently studied landscape horticulture and practiced as a horticulturist and landscape designer.
Four books of Helen Wickes‘ poetry have been published: In Search of Landscape (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2007); Dowser’s Apprentice and Moon over Zabriskie (both Glass Lyre Press, 2014); and World as You Left It (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2016). Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in The Dreaming Machine (thedreamingmachine.com) and Sagarana (sagarana.net), among many other publications. She attended Vassar College as an undergraduate. She was awarded a Ph.D. in psychology and practiced as a psychotherapist for some years. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminar. She is a long-time member of Sixteen Rivers Press, a small, non-profit poetry press. She was one of the Press members to put together an anthology entitled America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience, published in 2018, together with a video featuring nine of the poets reading their poems from the book, which aired on YouTube in 2020.
Both Helen and Donald began studying Italian language subsequent to their formal education, after several trips to Italy. Both began their Italian study at the extension program of the University of California Berkeley.

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing. 

1 Comment

  1. Ruth

    Thank you for this interview–it has made me curious to look up the individual poems on-line. I share the translators’ wish that they will someday “hold the book in their hands.”

    Reply

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