<Previous      Next>
A conversation with translator Todd Portnowitz

Transom:
Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the translator?

Portnowitz:
The term reborn I think presumes some kind of propriety, that the poem translated would now be my poem, my child, something I generated. I don’t think of it that way. I think of the poem as belonging very much to its original author, in whatever language it ends up in. If a poem is something born by the author, a translator’s job, as I see it, would be more akin to the art of portraiture, to portraying that “child,” not conceiving it over again—the poems sits for you, finicky as any subject, and you try to get it right, to capture its features, its shape, its lineaments.

I might think of it as my baby, as a painter might a finished canvas, but that’s the pride anyone takes in a job well done. Writing “original” poetry, of course, is not much different a process—the author portrays things from life: people, nature, fantasies, memories—but portraying a text with text is not the same as portraying life with text. This is not to say that new poems aren’t ever born from old poems, that text is somehow infertile. Poets are famous for quoting, mimicking, reprocessing, digressing from and responding to other poems—Donald Justice is a great example—and their results I believe are something more like a rebirth, a regeneration, precisely because they are not portraying another text but using it as a seed. Donald Justice’s “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” is not an attempt to communicate to us Vallejo’s original text, but to revive its original impulse.

Translators aren’t so free—they have a task, a duty to render the original text accurately, to project the author’s voice, not their own. Of course, there’s always some creation there, some presumption, some vicarious sense of ownership but, well, I suppose I’m split on the answer…

Transom:
We find the intensity of the direct address in both of these poems to be particularly striking. To whom or to what do you think the “you” is directed, and is the addressee the same in both poems?

Portnowitz:
The question of the “you” in poems has always troubled me—an early poetry professor of mine insisted that the “you” in a poem must point to an actual subject: the reader, a historical figure, someone else mentioned in the poem or title. Like a good student I took this advice for some years, but let’s face it, we all use “you” so often in speech and song to mean a general “someone,” as a way of speaking out at the world, “I mean, whenever you go to Trader Joe’s you end up buying way more shit than you actually went in for because you…”—everyone knows this speaker is not talking about someone in particular but just about people in general. That’s how we talk. What’s so wrong with that vague use, and why should it be barred from poetry?
 
I wonder if these two poems might be self-directed: in “Nocturn,” Cappello seems to be addressing a younger self, and in “Nullity,” a former self who’s endured a dark period (such as a long stay in the hospital). I’m just guessing here, I have no inside knowledge, but he seems to be using the “you” as a way to speak threateningly to himself, to create distance between his present self and a past self, and ultimately to come to terms with that former self. To prove he’s grown. If, instead, there is a separate addressee involved, I don’t imagine it’s the same one in both works: the poems are from two different collections, with three years between them: “Nocturn” from Dentro Gerico (2002) and “Nullity” from La misura dell’erba (1999).