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.

I took a year off after graduating and found myself reading more in Italian than when I was in school, watching more Italian films, googling more Italian art, listening to more Italian music, and I wanted more of all of it because I wanted more of the language, to speak it fluently, to think in it, to write in it, to masquerade. I was burnt out on writing workshops from undergrad so had more interest in an MA than an MFA and, again, I saw Italian as a way to expand my mind in several different directions while also improving my writing. I applied for an MA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. By 2010 I’d found my way to Siena on a teaching exchange and did my first translations: of CVs and cover letters for Italians applying to schools in the UK.

AA: Going back to what you said about your taste for Italian pronunciation, how does speaking Italian and translating from it inform your own writing?

TP: First of all, I feel much more confident writing in meter because my sense of music is better, even in English. It’s an ability that comes more naturally to me at this point. Second, I must say that when I am not sure about a line, I translate it into Italian to see if it works. Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing, as it were. I know people say that great poetry is untranslatable, but for me in some senses it’s the opposite: by translating my own poetry, I can see when I’m relying too much on puns or similar devices. I’ve become more skeptical of tricks.

AA: As an Italian living in the US, I have come to enjoy the variety and livelihood of literature in English much more than I used to, and I have become much more critical of contemporary Italian literature, which too often feels stale, stuck. No matter how hard we try to svecchiarla [‘make it less old’], it seems to me that we are still far from the results achieved in other languages; as an ‘insider’, though, I might be overcritical. What is it, in your view, that contemporary Italian literature can offer to a globalized readership in general and to an English-speaking readership in particular?

TP: While there may not be as lively an exchange of poems in Italy as there is in the US—in thousands of journals, at hundreds of MFA programs, and at various conferences—there is a very real exchange of poetics, which is just what we lack here. Of the poetry-addled friends I’ve made in Italy, nearly all are more willing than young American poets to write critically, to express their ideas of how a poem should be, which styles and techniques are overused, unexplored, or were simply done better in the past. And they actually debate these issues, with passion, at café tables and in online forums; there is less anxiety around it.

I’d have never expected the readiness with which Italian poets, young and old, have welcomed blogs and social media. Andrea Lombardi’s series “Scrittori e Facebook” published on the blog Le parole e le cose, where he interviews established Italian authors about their relationship to social media, is fascinating—from the very first interview, with Francesco Pecoraro. In America, we’re still holding on to the idea that real literature is in the print magazines—and in truth the quality in these is more consistent—but in Italy there’s no such illusion. It’s all happening on literary blogs. And in some ways what’s vecchio [old] about the contemporary Italian poetry scene—its close ties to scholarship and criticism—is what’s freshest to me, and I think the absence of MFA programs there gives poets more license to develop their own opinions and express them confidently.

Before spending time in Italy, I even thought translation was a cop-out, something you did if you couldn’t write your own verse, if you didn’t have your own unbounded, American, Whitmanian voice, no strings attached. It turns out the strings—history, texts, tradition, lexicon, grammar, syntax—can do a lot for poetry, so that a great poet is a sort of marionettist. To flail now and then is fun too, and a part of greatness, but don’t beginning poets do plenty of that? Although it seems some American universities are moving toward more comprehensive reading lists, in general the MFA programs here function as islands, as separate from the rest of the English department—a place to go and cut the strings and write, whereas in Italy, because they study the literature so deeply and with such intensity, and not only in college, but in middle and high school too, they are exposed to the texts in a way that, if you are writing, will certainly benefit your work.

There could be more variety in Italian literature, yes, but given the size of Italy compared to the US, and our wildly diverse population here, it doesn’t seem so bad. Meanwhile the September issue of Words Without Borders (There Is No Map: The New Italians) proves that the ground is fertile, with plenty of room for non-native speakers writing in Italian. I quote the issue’s editor Alta L. Price, in her introduction: “As Italy’s publishing scene welcomes more indie presses, and as literary festivals start to look beyond the established canon, many new voices are joining the chorus.”

AA: Speaking of new voices, who, in your opinion, are the new emerging voices worth reading? 

TP: I think that Lorenzo Carlucci is one of the young Italian poets who deserve a wider audience. I’ve been drawn to the work of Tommaso di Dio, Simone Burratti, Nadia Agustoni, though I’d have to quit my job and read blogs for a few weeks to give you a more confident answer.

AA: Carlucci is one of the poets that you have been translating. What has drawn you to him and the other authors you’ve translated?

TP: The first poet I translated, Pierluigi Cappello, was recommended to me by a Latin professor in Siena, Alessandro Fo, and again by the editor of Poesia  (ha!, the important print magazine!, among the last in Italy and barely staying afloat), Nicola Crocetti, who published Cappello’s work early on. I’d done some translations of American poets for Poesia—Amy Clampitt, Donald Justice—so had been in touch with Crocetti over the years. Eventually he mailed me Cappello’s 2010 book Mandate a dire all’imperatore (Go Tell It to the Emperor) and the work was as good as he promised. Carlucci, who I’m translating right now, I found in much the same way: through talking with Italian friends who care about literature, and also reading the Quaderno di poesia contemporanea (Notebook of Contemporary Poetry), a biennial publication edited by Franco Buffoni, which gathers the work of the best emerging Italian poets.

AA: What has been the most challenging translation for you so far, and why?

TP: The most challenging translations for me have been websites and promotional materials (for events, cultural organizations, businesses, etc.). Not because I don’t find the work rewarding or don’t appreciate advertising language, I simply find it difficult to translate. Without a broad knowledge of the industry lingo, or of exactly what the event entails, you’ll never find the perfect expression—and yet you know it’s out there, ready to win the hearts of potential clients and attendees. It’s torture.

AA: Is that how you began your career as a translator?

TP: Not quite. Basically after grad school I decided that I wanted to be a translator, and I moved to New York City and started knocking on the doors of every Italian institution in the city. One day I met with the president of the Casa Italiana, Stefano Albertini, and it turned out that someone from the publisher Einaudi had visited him the day before looking for translators. At first it seemed that I’d gotten the job, because they thought that the pregnant woman who was supposed to do the translation wasn’t going to be able to—but then, suddenly, she could, and she felt so bad for taking the job back that she put me in touch with another publisher, Mondadori, for which I translated two books for teenagers. It wasn’t exactly literature, but it gave me a ton of practice. And I needed the money, so I was translating everything I could—not because I’m shallow, but because I was broke!

AA: What are the next projects you are working on?

TP: As mentioned before, I’m working on a selected poems of the young Roman poet, Lorenzo Carlucci, gathering work from his three books, Communità assoluta, Ciclo di Giuda e altre poesie, and Sono qui solo a scriverti e non so chi tu sia. No publisher yet, just compiling it first and will then pass around to magazines and presses (a few of the poems are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, and in a new online journal launching this fall, Menage). I’m also translating a book by Nicola Gardini, Viva il latino: storie e bellezza di una lingua inutile (something like Living Latin: Tales and Pleasures of a Useless Language, though there’s no official title yet) which will come out in the next year or two with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  

Todd Portnowitz is a translator, poet, editor, and musician based in Brooklyn, New York. He translates both ways from English and Italian, and is the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. Recent poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Modern Poetry in Translation, Nuovi Argomenti, Copper Nickel, Transom, and PN Review. He is a co-founder of the Italian poetry blog Formavera and of the Brooklyn based reading series for writer-translators, Us&Them. You can learn more about him at


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