Language: Italian

“Old seams of the ancient world”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s manifesto against borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

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Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.

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Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

Simon Fraser University’s Cristina Serverius on Understanding Identity in Oral Storytelling Traditions

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

While the work of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is always situated between two cultures—Somali and Italian—it provides a point of access for students to learn about oral traditions, because despite the author’s long residencies outside of Somalia, these traditions remain present in her writing. Their ubiquity is testament to the very nature of oral stories, which creep into our lives unannounced and perhaps unnoticed, and travel with us. This is how they survive; this is how we survive.

The activities below focus on Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s use of the Somali oral tradition and the question of personal identity in the context of stories that are passed down and retold, and which have become part of the socio-cultural fabric of our being. Besides offering an introduction to these topics, the lesson provides practice for analysis of a literary text and use of a secondary source to enrich our understanding of literature.

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Asymptote Podcast

The Translator's Craft

In this week’s all new Asymptote podcast we’re getting crafty! We’ll be hearing from translator Roland Glasser about how he uses technology in his work, as well as getting sage advice from Susanna Basso who is featured in our new Spring Issue. We’ve also got a special dispatch from poet Suzannah V. Evans from the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, where she sat down with writers and artists Aurélia Lassaque and Tessa Berring to get the scoop on their translation workshop. Get ready to untangle a lot of French feelings: fear, dread, horror, terror, and finding out how marigolds inspire very different moods in standard French versus Occitan—and what exactly all this has to do with a giant fish.

Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James

Audio Editor: Mirza Puric

Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

UT Arlington’s Gabe Mamola on The Meta-Poem

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

Technology is changing the way we think about information. We not only collect data, but we collect data about that data, i.e. meta-data. By thinking about the patterns, concerns, images and word choices that we find not only in one poem but across several, we can use the language of information technology and meta-data as an intriguing and topical portal through which to access poetry. What does poetry or a poem become when we subject it to the kinds of processes we use to organize other kinds of data? Do we learn more about the poets or poems by comparing them to other poets and poems in this way? And what (if anything) is lost when we do so?

Underlying these questions is the more fundamental fact that all our thinking and talking and writing about poetry is itself a kind of meta poem: a new thing we construct with our insights, our speculations, our assumptions, and yes, the words and contexts of the poems. This exercise is an attempt to make this fact clear and accessible to students in a way that also touches on our current digital concerns about anonymity, technology, and data.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!

Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue! 

‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz

“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.

The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.

It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery.  Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund

“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.

So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”

—Blog Editor Madeline Jones

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Read More About Translation and International Literature on the Blog:

A Lexicon Like No Other

“The crushing of the Prague Spring was followed by another communist party crackdown. Dozens of translations...were banned."

Oľga Kovačičová, PhD is a Slovak literature scholar and specialist in old Russian literature and translation studies. She works at the Institute for Literary Studies at the Slovak Academy of Sciences where for the past few years she has been the driving force behind a unique project, “The Lexicon of 20th century Slovak translators,“ which she co-edited and contributed some 80 of the total 400 entries. She has agreed to share some reflections on the special role literary translation played in shaping Slovak language and culture with Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Julia Sherwood, who then translated her insights into English.

Translated literature necessarily plays a more important role in smaller countries compared with bigger nations where much of the reading public’s literary and general cultural needs are met by local literary output. When it comes to a really small country like Slovakia, even without citing statistical data it is obvious that the ratio of translated to domestic literary production is roughly the converse of that in Western Europe, where translations represent 12% (Germany) or 20% (Italy) of book publishing overall, let alone English speaking countries with the notorious 3-4% of translated books.

Lexicon cover

Another big difference is that while the major European cultures have had access to the great works of world literature in their own language for many centuries, in Slovakia the process of reception was basically condensed into the 20th century, since Slovak as a literary language was only constituted in the second half of the 1840s.  Volume I of the Lexicon of Slovak 20th century Literary Translators (Slovník slovenských prekladateľov umeleckej literatúry 20. storočia), published in 2015 by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (volume II is almost complete), provides a fascinating glimpse of this frantic catching up process.

There are lexicons and then there are lexicons. Unlike pragmatic manuals of the “Who’s Who” type, the profiles of some 400 translators featured in The Lexicon aim to chart the trajectory of literary translation in the 20th century and through this, the history of reception of world literature in Slovakia. Individual entries are between three and five pages long, and apart from basic biographical details and each translator’s bibliography, they look at the works each of them translated and how he/she translated them.  The fruit of the painstaking labour of over 30 linguists and translation studies scholars, the book includes Katarína Bednárová’s comprehensive introductory essay on the history of literary translation in Slovakia and its international context, a bibliography of secondary sources, and an index. Volume II will feature an illustrated supplement, showcasing a selection of around 200 book covers, which doubles as a comprehensive survey of the evolution of Slovak book design, as well as lists of translators by source country.

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Risotto alla Milanese: A recipe by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Most important is to assign to the rite a mind fearful of the gods...grant entry...to only the finest of ingredients.

Welcome to the Asymptote blog’s new monthly column of recipes in translation! We’ll feature incredible dishes from around the world that are a joy to cook and an adventure just to read. 

The preparation of good risotto alla Milanese requires quality rice of the Vialone variety, with a wide grain somewhat harder than that of Carolina rice, which has an elongated, almost tapered form. A rice that isn’t entirely hulled—that is, not entirely stripped of its pericarp—finds favor among the true connoisseurs of Piedmont and Lombardy: the farmers who use it in their own kitchens. A careful observation of the grain reveals a coating of the residue of its shed film, the pericarp, a tattered walnut- or leather-colored garment of the lightest fabric. When cooked properly, it makes for excellent risotto that is nutritious and rich in the vitamins that distinguish common wheat and seeds with their shell-veils. Peasant-style risotto from these types of rice turns out particularly exquisitely, as does risotto alla Milanese: somewhat darker, it’s true, after and despite its golden baptism in saffron.

The classic receptacle for the preparation of risotto alla Milanese is a round—or even oval—tinned copper pan with an iron handle: the old, heavy pan that, after a certain point, we stopped hearing anything about. It’s a precious fitting of the old and ample kitchen: it was an essential component of the “kitchen copper” or “coppers”—one that the old poet, Bassano, did not fail to enumerate in his poetic “interiors” where, more than once, with lunch digested, the gleaming coppers hanging from the brick backsplash soak up and refract a ray of the setting sun. With the old copper abducted, all we can do is put our faith in its substitute: aluminum.

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Asymptote Podcast: Opera and Translation

Translating opera is a multimodal undertaking.

Starting off the new year fresh, we’re taking a look at opera, an art form that purports to have it all: poetry, music, costumes, and lots of drama. Opera in translation is ubiquitous, and what originally started as a private performance for Florentine nobles quickly spread beyond the palace walls and around the world with the aid of translation. With so much going on, translating opera is a multimodal undertaking. Our new podcast editor Dominick Boyle talks with Lucile Desblache, a professor at the University of Roehampton in London who led the project Translating Music. She guides us through the history of opera, explaining that translation has been there all along—just in different costumes. We also talk to Amanda Holden, a practicing opera translator who specializes in creating sung translations. She talks about how our image of opera as a boring and staid art form is a problem of translation, and how its true power can be revealed. With enough twists and turns to fill an opera, this is the Asymptote podcast.

Podcast Editor and Host: Dominick Boyle

Music provided under a Creative Commons license from freemusicarchive.com and copyright free from museopen.org and europarchive.org.

Recovery in Ruins: A Review of Bella Mia

Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin.

In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.

In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.

Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary updates for the turn of the year from Brazil, India, Mexico, and more!

Before we jump into our weekly world news tours of 2017, here at the blog we wanted to look back at the waning days of 2016 and give the literary achievements that closed such an eventful year their full due. There is already so much we’re looking forward to in the year ahead, but no piece of writing or writer exists in a vacuum; each new publication, reading, and translation takes from and makes space within the existing cultural consciousness. To be able to understand the developments in the literary scenes around the world this year, we have to see the full scope of 2016’s progress. Luckily, Asymptote has eyes and ears in every hemisphere!  

First stop on the map: India, where we check in with our first contributor this week, PhD student of postcolonial literature Tanushree Vachharajani:

2016 saw a huge uprising across India for Dalit rights. The suicide of Hyderabad PhD student Rohit Vemula in January 2016 and the assault of a Dalit family of cow skinners in Una, Gujarat in June 2016 have led to a resurgence of Dalit identity in social and literary fields, along with much dissent and unrest about the government’s attitude towards lower castes. The Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Ahmedabad issued a special edition of their literary journal Hayati, on Dalit pride this fall under the editorship of Dr. Mohan Parmar. Also in September, under the editorship of Manoj Parmar, literary journal Dalit Chetna published a special edition on Dalit oppression, featuring works written by Dalit as well as non-Dalit writers.

The well-documented human rights violations continue to inspire a flood of responses. For the first time last month, Delhi saw a literary festival dedicated entirely to Dalit protest literature, offering a platform for Dalit regional literature and its translations into English, French, and Spanish to increase accessibility and broaden the demographic of its readers.

Dalit literature is also no longer in the realm of the purely literary. Inspired by the death of Rohit Vemula, three young activists from Mumbai—Nayantara Bhatkal, Prem Ayyathurai, and Shrujuna Shridhar—have set up the unofficially titled Dalit Panther Project for which phone numbers were collected on December 6, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Through the popular social messaging app WhatsApp, they will transmit four videos on the origins and legacy of the Dalit Panther literary movement. The videos were shot at the homes of Dalit Panther supporters, and are in Hindi. The creators are also looking to bring out a full-length feature film on the subject this year.

Hearteningly, the Dalit community is pushing back strongly against abuse of any members of the lower castes. From threatening a sanitation strike to bringing Dalit literature into mainstream circles and creating inclusive literary institutions and awards, Dalit protest movements across India only seem to be getting stronger as the New Year begins.

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Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote Team (Part III)

More reading resolutions for 2017

Anna Aresi, Educational Arm Assistant

At the cost of sounding corny, I will say that my reading resolution for 2017 is more than partly informed by the prospect of becoming a mother this forthcoming June. As our baby will grow up in a trilingual environment, with Italian and Cantonese spoken at home and English everywhere else, doing research on trilingualism has intensified my awareness of the absolute need of being global citizens and global readers of the world, not only for one’s own benefit, but also as a major responsibility towards future generations.

To begin with, then, I wish to fill my own embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese literature —my husband’s from Hong Kong—perhaps beginning with Tong Xian Zhu’s play The Peony Pavillion, my father-in-law’s all time favorite, and moving on to Tong Xian Zhu’s Not Written Words, which figures in World Literature Today’s list of notable translations of 2016. Xi Xi’s work has been characterized as a portrayal of the “constantly shifting urban space of Hong Kong—between tradition and modernity—as well as the multilingual zones created by its Mandarin and Cantonese speakers;” I can’t wait for literature to do its magic and transport me to a land that I haven’t, so far, visited in person but to which I already feel deeply connected.

anna

Moving from my family’s terrain to the world at large, but staying in Asia, Korean literature will also be a protagonist of my 2017: if reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was a defining existential experience of my 2016 and Jung Young Su’s Aficionados, featured in the Autumn 2016 issue of Asymptote, made me laugh my belly off, I can only expect good things from Korea, perhaps beginning with poetry. The anthology Brother Enemy, curated by Ji-moon Suh, is a collection of poems written by twenty-one authors during and following the Korean War, attractive and promising by virtue of its very humane title: what could change if we recognized the enemy as our brother? I hope to find some illuminating words in this volume.

Finally, I wish to follow Daniel Hahn’s appeal and read more children’s book in translation (again, also in preparation for future evenings of bedtime adventures). A simple peek at Pushkin Press’s Children Books page, to name but one, opens up a whole new world; in this case I let my inner child pick the book by its cover and my attention was caught by Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass (another Asian book! I promise I didn’t do it on purpose!). The scene opens in a dusty library in a Tokyo suburb…what beginning could be more auspicious?

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Read More Recommendations from Asymptote Staff:

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Flies in Winter” by Eugenio Baroncelli

Some said he suffocated on a mischievous piece of meat… some said he died of solitude, which is no less mischievous.

Eugenio Baroncelli’s macabre, erudite vignettes of 271 historical and literary deaths won the 2011 Premio Supermondello, one of Italy’s highest literary awards. He catalogues accidental and premeditated deaths, illness, hypothermia, suicide. Each of his sly, epigrammatic sketches of dying is an object lesson in living.

Umberto Boccioni

Sorte, Verona, 17 August 1916. Never end up in a place called Sorte, or Luck. War had thrust him there, only for him to die in a stroke of misfortune. He had enlisted voluntarily, dressed hurriedly in uniform, and now he was dying, aged thirty-four. He had fallen from the horse he was learning to mount, struck his head full of colours, and would never get up again. That was how Maria Malibran died, and she was barely more skillful than he was; Genghis Khan, too, and he was born on a horse. He died with a dream: not of vanquishing his enemy on the battlefield, but of riding with her under the moon that bleached the lake white.

The gods looked down at him from the sky. He had the distinctive hand of a future great artist and the agile body of a seducer. A vexed Margherita Sarfatti, who had been in bed with him, would deplore the sharp escalation of his targets, from seamstresses to the wives of bank managers.

Three weeks beforehand, on the bank of Lake Maggiore, he had met Vittoria Colonna and fallen in love for the last time. Beautiful, married, impulsive, and greedy for life, she fell in love instantly too. They went swimming in a lake filled with water the hue of cobalt blue, the same colour his palette was wandering towards when he painted the master Busoni. Lazy as cats, they sunbathed on the terrace of the villa, that little strip of earth that she had transformed into a Garden of Eden. They dined alone by candlelight. Her last letter was found on him. He had taken it with him from their paradise.

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Todd Portnowitz on Music, Language, and Italian Literature

Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing.

Todd Portnowitz is a poet and translator from the Italian, and the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets which allowed him to translate the work of Pierluigi Cappello (featured in the Asymptote Winter 2015 issue). In this interview, he converses with our Educational Arm Assistant, Anna Aresi, about how his love for language and music converge in the writing of poetry and how speaking a foreign language can make you a better poet.

The following interview was conducted via email and over Skype.

Anna Aresi (AA): You work as a translator, poet, editor, and musician. I was wondering how all these are related for you, especially if and how your work as a musician affects your writing.

Todd Portnowitz (TP): My sense of music determines my syntax, where I choose to break a line, what vocabulary I use—sometimes I grope for a word by its syllable count or shape. This is particularly useful in translations of poetry, where a definite syntax and vocabulary are already there before me in the original text and hunting for the right words and rhythms is the central activity. Writing poems, translating poems, editing poems—all are an art of decision making, and music best informs those decisions. What a writer has read of others’ work, her knowledge of cultures, histories, languages, politics, family, love, death, faith, all of that comes to a terminus in the language, the sequence of words chosen—music best reflects the sum of that knowledge in verse.

Apollo could slay/flay on the lyre for good reason. Not every poet has to also be a musician, but a poet with an untrained ear, with no cultivated sense of phrasing or meter, is like a basketball player who has never practiced dribbling: able to shoot, but immobile.

AA:  What sparked your interest for Italian literature? What has your journey been like?

TP: My interest in Italian literature began with an interest in the Italian language. I took Italian 101 my sophomore year of college, and the language made immediate sense to me, most of all the pronunciation: the purity and regularity of the vowels, the value of every consonant on the page (penne [pens] is by no means pene [penis]). I was writing songs and singing for a band at the time and Italian expanded my cultural knowledge, my linguistic knowledge (in English as well, because of the Latin roots), my historical knowledge—all of which helped with lyric writing—while also challenging my vocal abilities, cleaning up my vowels, forcing me to roll my r’s and make whatever you want to call the sound that “gn” makes (as in gnocchi). It was fun, in other words. After a study-abroad in Italy, the decision to stick with Italian got easier. I got a minor in Italian and took as many classes as I could. When I graduated, the department named me Italian Graduate of the Year—one of those awards that might look banal on a CV but that has since determined the course of my life. Maybe this is what I’m best at, I started thinking. READ MORE…