Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.

Describe your current or most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it? 

I have several current translation projects. One is a translation of an “aeronovel or aeropoem” by F.T. Marinetti composed in 1944, amidst the German occupation of a divided Italy during World War II. It is a desperate, breathless, unpunctuated, and unstable text that—in a gasp of last-ditch fascism—imagines the resurgence of a tattered and war-torn Venice through its reconstruction as a kitschy female futurist colossus, forged entirely of Murano glass. That’s clearly as cool (to echo your term) as it is problematic. Though it isn’t a prize-winning tactic, I believe it is necessary to understand Fascists and misogynists/woman-worshippers from the inside, through their own writing, in an epoch such as ours. No channel could be more discomfitingly intimate, and potentially seditious.

I’m also translating selections from Reasonable Chesspiece, a collection of poetry by the art critic and founder of Rivolta Femminile (Female Revolt), Carla Lonzi. I am undertaking this project in collaboration with Judith Kirshner, who has studied Lonzi’s art writings for decades and will provide a historical introductory narrative, and Silvia Guslandi, a talented young translator who is working on the tape-recorded interviews of Lonzi’s Self-Portrait, a paradoxically titled collection of interviews with male artists from Lucio Fontana to Cy Twombly. We will bring the pieces together in the hopes of drawing more attention to Italian feminism—both in English-speaking countries and in Italy, where it lies inert, if not dead, and largely forgotten or dismissed.

I’m also curator of PennSound Italiana, an audiovisual archive dedicated to Italian experimental poetry and hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. I hope through this medium to make people more aware of the aural and performative register(s) of Italian poetry and, where possible, of translation.

Finally, I’m working on recording “broken choruses” of radical labor songs in spontaneous translation from languages such as Finnish and Italian. These are becoming incorporated into a mixed reality performance project I’m undertaking with code artists/electronic writers Judd Morrissey and Abraham Avnisan, called Smokepenny Lyrichord Heavenbred; Or, Last year / By constant penetration / Encroaching on the reserve. This work comes out of my research into the transnational circuits of copper exploitation; in the process of poring through the archives, I’m finding early twentieth-century labor lyrics such as those published and translated by the I.W.W. into a variety of languages to be disturbingly relevant to the current day.

What is the best translated book you’ve read recently? 

I am currently loving Anne Carson’s Antigonick. I’m reading it and rereading it as I pore through the form and problem of the chorus for my poetic work, alongside many “literal” translations of Antigone, including those by Hölderlin, Constantine, Brecht, and Judith Malina. Anne was my teacher, so perhaps I’m biased, but I find it endlessly fascinating to search for the pathways from the original that led to her choices like “you’ve nailed their tongues to the floor,” “when you lay yourself under a pleasure female / you take an open wound into your house and your life,” or “the house it takes to dust justice.” My Greek is extremely obsolete and incomplete, so the process is maddeningly slow, as if I were learning to make or unravel lace. But I think it very important to constantly be humbled and thrust outside of one’s comfort zone, linguistically speaking.

I am also teaching If Not, Winter, and my class is exploring the mysteries of Carson’s non-verbal markings of the Greek text: not only brackets but dots that indicate various kinds of uncertainty on the part of the interpreter. There are many levels of mystery in any translation, most of which go unnoticed by readers. I also have to say how much I appreciate publishers such as Action Books, Nightboat Books, and Litmus Press for all they do to support risk-taking work in translation. And in Canada, Book Thug. I would recommend all the works in translation from these presses.

What author would you like to see more popularized in translation, or translated in the first place? 

Like the question about my favorite translated book, this one makes me feel quite desperate, for there are so many, and in naming one I threaten to submerge the others—while it always seems that fewer than ten names are permitted into the marketplace from a seemingly peripheral language like Italian. I often think that I ought to translate and publish as a collection the essays of figures like Benedetta, Amelia Rosselli, Emilio Villa, Italo Calvino, Pasolini, and Andrea Zanzotto, which are as wonderful as their core works (and I have already translated lengthy excerpts, for scholarly purposes). I would like to see the women of the postwar Italian avant-garde, who were working in a charged and exciting political atmosphere that was nevertheless quite masculinist, translated. This includes figures who are translators themselves, like Giulia Niccolai and Milli Graffi. Most of all, I would like to discover writers for whom Italian is a second language, and foreground their experiences in a moment when xenophobia is on the rise in Europe and overseas. A lifetime isn’t enough for all this… If I could go back to school, I would study Farsi. We so desperately need to understand one another better—and not through facile orientalist or New Age appropriations.

How did you know you wanted to be a translator? How did you become a translator? 

I didn’t know this at all. I translated a poem by Eugenio Montale (“Sulla colonna più alta”) in college, where I was studying with Charles Wright. I loved this exercise, experiencing it as a way of tying so many ordinarily untethered parts of my existence together. It was the equivalent of learning the songs of Francesco de Gregori by heart. I took a course in translation with Anne Carson in the year 2000, and began—at my unwitting peril—to translate the multifoliate work of Amelia Rosselli. The rest is history that made my young years into history quick.

What is a recent translator puzzle you’ve overcome rather cleverly? (don’t be afraid to brag here!)

In translating Amelia Rosselli’s early work, I was confronted with a major problem: her centrifugal treatment of personal, impersonal, and possessive pronouns, cast into archaic, elided, foreign, and improper forms. This tendency is at its most intense in “Cos’ha il mio cuore che batte sì soavemente,” a short lyric in Variazioni belliche [Bellicose Variations] that plays in the space between archaism and neologism as it echoes the sounds and tropes of early vulgate love poetry, successor to the troubadour lyric. As I point out in the introduction, eo (from the Latin ego) is an archaic form of io (I), sometimes found in regional vernaculars, though Rosselli claims in her notes that it refers to egli (he) or esso (it), rendering the term almost impossible to translate “correctly”:

…tu [you/all?] Quelle

scolanze che vi imprissi pr’ia ch’eo [I/he/it]

si [reflexive or impersonal pronoun] turmintussi sì

fieramente, tutti gli sono dispariti!…


…lle Those

scomminglings therein ’mprinted fore Ille

be harrowed so

fiercely, alle hath evanished!…

Rosselli explained in annotations to Pasolini that the “tu” (you) opening this excerpt was a truncation of “tutte” (all), though given the pervasive presence of the phoneme “tu” and its echoes throughout the poem, readers are bound to see “you” where the poet allegedly intends “all,” rendering these pronouns mutual in some way. I translated this word, in turn, as “lle,” which echoes and truncates the pseudo-Elizabethan “alle” below it, while appearing as a Roman numeral II, or an I and e (‘e or hee, in archaic English speech) placed together at the same time.

I then chose to translate the phrase “pr’ia ch’eo” as “fore Ille,” as if “pr’ia” were an elision of “prima” ([be]fore) and “ch’eo” were “che io/esso” ([that] I/he/it). This “Ille” stands orthographically between “I’ll” and “egli” while being pronounceable as “eel” (“[h]e’ll) and becoming almost geometrical on the visual level, hovering between an I I I or a HE.

As you can see, there really was no palatable conservative way to preserve Rosselli’s meaning and intention, to the extent that one might manage to excavate them. Instead of making a single clarifying or rationalizing choice, I tried to preserve the ambiguities in a very erratic original text (and I could go on at length about the lexical choices made above!). One necessarily “errs” when doing this.

What’s your pet peeve about the translation and literary industries? 

I detest the desire to domesticate instead of retaining the rough patches of original texts, and worse still, to “improve” an original text by making it more palatable to the target tongue and culture. I detest even more the fact that so little room is made for cultural otherness in US publishing today, leading translators (and languages!) into the situation of being in a sort of competition for publishing books, when otherness is in fact all around us. The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration were, yet people in the United States routinely tune difference out and/or run away from it—and they are apparently willing to elect someone who wants to blot it out altogether. This is becoming more and more concrete with the introduction of the RAISE Act, which aims to radically reduce immigration levels by privileging applicants who already have a command of English.

What are you reading right now? 

I’m reading, for teaching, Kamau Brathwaite’s DS (2): dreamstories, the concrete poetry of Haroldo De Campos and Niikuni Seiichi, and Gail Scott’s The Obituary; for a scholarly project on multilingualism, Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language; and, for the poetic project on copper, Vallejo’s Tungsten, the I.W.W. Songbook, Virgilia d’Andrea’s Tormento, and Arturo Giovannitti’s Arrows in the Gale.

Where do you go for inspiration—translation, literary, or otherwise? 

I love to travel to new landscapes that defamiliarize me from my sense of what regulates a city. Most recently, this was to Porto, Portugal for the Electronic Literature Organization conference, and to Tijuana to visit the Escuela Libre de Arquitectura. I like to read things in languages I know only marginally, which always leads me to the fantasy of spending the following summer learning that language.

How has the industry changed in recent years (if at all)? 

I have no idea because I don’t approach it as an industry, but as an eccentric who needs to read and understand a mass of untranslated texts. That said, I guess translation is becoming more theoretically hip in the US—though the support for it seems mostly limited to likes and retweets on social media.

If you weren’t a translator, what would you be? 

A visual artist and/or full-time salsa dancer?

What language do you wish you could speak or read? 

Brazilian Portuguese, which I am studying. It’s one of the most beautiful languages I’ve heard at length, and there is an amazing museum of the Portuguese language in São Paulo. I wish I could really read Japanese poetry (I studied Japanese intensely when I lived in Japan for two years in the 1990s). I also wish I had a functional, living grasp of ancient Greek and Latin. I wish I were not so embarrassed to speak French outside of Marseille, and that I had time to study the Venetian and Neapolitan dialects thoroughly. And then Persian, and Provençal. I’m still hoping this is all possible.

What was your favorite book as a child? 

Green Eggs and Ham.

What might readers be surprised to learn you loved—or hated? 

I loved Whitman’s “O Captain—My Captain!” even though it meant nothing to me historically, or even semantically; I loved it simply because the thought that a real poet could have grown up in my banal home town was extraordinary to me. That was as a child. Readers might or might not be surprised to learn that I am now a devotee of Thomas May, Esq.’s 1628 Englishing of Virgil’s Georgicks.

What advice do you have for aspiring translators? 

Learn more languages, not fewer. Resist specialization. Resist eloquence. Resist xenophobia, above all.

What should every young translator be able to do?

I’m not sure I’m feeling prescriptive. I guess I wish that I’d simply had more time to compose in Italian from the start. Every young translator can learn a lot from self-translating; this was the first exercise assigned in my current translation workshop, taught in conjunction with a workshop in translation history and theory by the Sinologist and comparatist (and fearless translator) Haun Saussy. Every young translator should also be able to convince their teachers and students to spend some time discussing canonical texts in the original language, honoring the many souls whose lives were spent in torment to get those words across to us. And then to transmit that thankless energy of the ages into their own urgent tasks.

Allegra Rosenbaum is a former blog editor for the Asymptote blog. She has a degree in French Studies from Bard College. Allegra currently lives in Detroit, where she works in digital marketing.


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