The Never-Ending Original: An Interview with Suzanne Jill Levine
by David Garyan and George Salis
(This interview was previously published in slightly different form on October 2nd, 2022, in The Collidescope)
September 30th, 2023
David Garyan: You’ve just finished a manuscript? It would be fascinating to hear more about it.
Suzanne Jill Levine: This is a project that’s been on the back burner for years. You know how life can be a series of detours, so it took a long time really to get to it. It’s a mix of memoir, biography, autobiography, and perhaps what they call creative nonfiction. I’m not entirely sure what pure memoir really is, though I think of it as a reflective piece on one’s life or particular aspects of a life. In the 90s, I wrote a biography of Manuel Puig, and found literary biography to be a major undertaking. Biographies are very difficult projects because they’re not fiction, though you have to write as a novelist as well as a scholar ….
DG: And a historian—
SJL: Ethnographer and journalist too. At that time, before Manuel Puig died, tragically and suddenly, I had been thinking of writing about my friendships with various writers I had translated—and looking at translation from a personal as well as aesthetic point of view, as a way of learning more about the people behind the original work and the translation. Novel writing is already always a translation as Borges says in “The Homeric Versions”; writers actually have a lot in common with the translator. The translator is basically someone who’s coming into the same project, but at a more advanced (again alluding to Borges’s humor) or different stage.
DG: That’s fantastic. Part of your response already anticipates a question I wanted to touch upon. You’ve translated monumental writers like Puig and Borges, and these are individuals you’ve also known. Do you find there’s a difference between translating friends versus strangers? Is there a difference in the way you approach a project when you’re translating someone you actually know, as opposed to someone you know a lot about?
SJL: There can be close affinities but there are many translators who have nothing to do with their authors, to avoid any authorial interference. In my case, I had the privilege to know as a very young person some of the amazing writers I went on to translate—partly because I was in New York at the time of Camelot, you know, the Kennedy era, a world that was about bringing cultures together, meaning that being an American was being someone who was interested in reaching out to other cultures.
I was a language student from early on. I began French when I was twelve, and that child was fascinated by the other persona in me speaking French. In some way I wanted to escape myself or find another me. When I went to college at sixteen, I took Spanish as a second language—second foreign language, that is—and then I spent a year in Spain, which had a great impact on my future, so immersed in the language, the culture. Because of the Cold War, Latin America was becoming very important. The Cuban Revolution was key to that globalization of interest in Latin America. So, not only reading and writing had to do with why and how I (and others) became a translator. That’s just one part of the story.
Now many of the writers are gone, the ones I worked with, the ones I knew: Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig, José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, the Boom, and of course Borges, Pablo Neruda—they’re all gone. I have wanted somehow to bring it all back. I guess that’s what really moved me. Translation is about recovery, resurrection, and so is writing. It had to do with my own life, of course, and the things I had been through. That’s how the memoir came to be.
I think there can be many connections between writer and translator. I began experimenting with translation before these writers were my friends. I met Cabrera Infante early on. At that time, he was in the process of translating Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers). He was in exile in London, and was working with a poet, Donald Gardner. It’s one of those “impossible” works to translate, described as a Cuban Ulysses. And Cabrera Infante did have a lot in common with Joyce, especially Joyce, the urban wanderer, and also knew English very well. He was a movie aficionado and journalist too; as a Cuban he was already exposed to a bilingual culture, which Cuba was at that time, at least in the cities. He was working on the translation of this book and was having trouble with translating spoken Cuban, a very lively, earthy, wise- guy snappy, spoken language—it wasn’t going to lend itself well to British cockney. That was one reason why he asked me to step in. The other reason was that Donald knew some Italian but only very basic Spanish, so he wasn’t quite the appropriate translator for this book written in street slang brimming with puns and allusions—and we also had to go over the whole text revising very basic mistakes.
I have continued in recent years to enjoy collaboration with younger writers, from Puerto Rico, for example, Luis Negron (Mundo Cruel: Stories), or novelist Eduardo Lalo (Uselessness, or La inutilidad). It was great working with these younger and especially women writers like Mexicans Cristina Rivera Garza, Guadalupe Nettel. But the experience of translating is ultimately a solitary experience. Yet, you’re always in dialogue, whether it’s with a person, or with the book itself.
DG: In a 1973 article comparing Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, you talk about the “need of the New World to create its myth, to create a mythical place for itself in the universe, a place that cannot be destroyed by time and circumstance.” Indeed, we often forget how ancient this New World is—the Olmecs, for example, flourished in Mexico two-thousand years before the birth of Christ. And so, Latin American literature does share many similarities to what’s been produced in the European tradition. Yet how has the trajectory of European literature itself changed as a result of its “encounter” with authors such as Márquez, Neruda, and Puig, for example?
SJL: I do believe great literature, great writing, always has a mythic dimension. With regard to Rulfo and Márquez, I was struck by the dialogue between their books—and how García Márquez is totally Borgesian, in the sense that he takes lines and ideas from writers before him, and yet he does something completely original. This shows that each new reader is a new interpreter. In some ways what made the Latin American writers finally become themselves—not only anthropologically or historically interesting—was both European and American modernism. That’s what made them come into their own, and you see Borges as a model, almost the father of the new Latin American novelists. They took what had been developed in Anglo-American writing, or in French, and made it their own, but in the end it’s something completely different. Readers continue to discover echoes relevant to their own realities or context.
DG: Talking about Borges, his reservoir of knowledge was unsurpassed. He could draw from all kinds of traditions, and he was so well-read. You rarely saw that back then, let alone today. In a 1992 essay about him and his epics, you talk about how he adhered to a “Poundian spirit of translation,” where the essence of the text, not its original language is captured. In this way, you write that “Borges (following Pound’s injunction) makes the old new.” In addition, you state that he “did not use existing Spanish translations.” Do you agree with Borges, or do you find that a translator must be more of a medium, rather than an “artist” herself?
SJL: I don’t think it’s either/or: it’s both. You have to be a medium, and you have to be an artist. You’re kind of an actor, really. You’re performing the other’s words and meanings in your own language, but basically you have to have an instinct for what’s going on in the original. True artists are medium because part of why they are great is a unique capacity for observation, their capacity for seeing something that nobody else sees. I recently saw one of the most beautiful films ever made, which is Death in Venice, adapted from the novel—an incredible Visconti film—and I decided to reread it in various translations. Michael Cunningham in his introduction to Michael Heim’s translation—basically what he says about translation and original writing is exactly what Borges said in 1932 in “The Homeric Versions”. He said the only difference between the original and the translation is that it can measure the translation against the translation. Because the original has originals. What is an original but the final draft of a series of thoughts and experiences, images, feelings, and historical information, and all that’s digested by this writer, that is, whatever idea, or image they want to capture?
What Michael Cunningham says is that translators are always preoccupied with the rhythm of sentences, the register of the language, issues of the musicality of language. Well, writers are concerned with that too. He says “sometimes I really get it, and sometimes I don’t, but what I can turn in to the publisher is the best I can do, and at some point, I have to stop.” And so, an original is never the end of something that could be. In that, Borges, who of course thought of the Poundian spirit of “making it new,” certainly said it so directly, and so brilliantly, and I’m sure many people have been stealing from him since, which is right, because he does that too!
DG: It’s kind of difficult, even then, to be original. So much has already been done and written—what else can you do?
SJL: And as John Barth and others were writing back in the 70s—the literature of exhaustion: “We’ve done it all. Well, that was fifty years ago.“ A bit ironic, maybe. But getting back to translating Borges according to some method or philosophy of translation—I first became fascinated by Borges’s what you might call “neo- Baroqueness.” As a young man he developed one of various surrealist movements called ultraísmo—there were many “ismos” in the first decades of the century. He was trying to do something new with language as poetry. That’s what fascinated me about his style, so witty, ironic, and paradoxical in the way that it so elegantly deals with words and the world. A wonderful project I did in 2010 was a sort of fulfillment of a lifelong interest in Borges: I was the general editor and also one of the translators of Penguin’s five-paperback volume spin-offs of Borges’s poetry and nonfictions, called nonfictions because there are not only essays, but also prologues, reviews, condensed biographies of writers, and so on—the nonfictions and his poetry. For this project, I had a dream team. The people who worked with me made it the project of a lifetime. Borges but also my collaborations made this a thrilling and illuminating project. Efraín Kristal, enormously erudite like Emir Rodríguez Monegal, almost a young version of Borges—the only one I know in this current generation of academics. He’s teaching at UCLA. He was born in Peru, but he’s from a European family. His family came because of the Holocaust. He was working on the poetry for us, but he was someone you could consult on so many things, because he just knew everything. And then there was Alfred Mac Adam, a close friend from many years back, also a very fine scholar, and he did the Argentina volume—if anybody knew Argentine literature who wasn’t Argentine, that was Alfred Mac Adam, who was also close to Emir, and had learned from him as well. We also had a poet who translates—Stephen Kessler. He did the sonnets. We needed somebody who knew their technique, because sonnets are challenging. His enthusiasm was inspiring and he did a superb job. I did an impossible volume called “Borges on Writing.” It’s impossible because everything Borges says is on writing. In particular I loved translating his really impossible, early pieces from the 20s. I could decipher how he throws a punch with the most complex sentences. In the essay “After Images” I realized that “God, this sounds like Milton!” And it did. It had an intense, elegant rhetorical Miltonian build-up. It was fascinating to see how some of these resonances came into English.
DG: You’re fortunate to be working in a literary tradition that hosts a diverse array of perspectives and voices, from poet-diplomats like Paz and Neruda, to the fantastic (in all senses of the word) Márquez. Yet, not only is this fascinating tradition composed largely of men, that tradition is also situated in a very macho culture. Puig’s homosexuality complicates the aforementioned sentiment, but he remains a man. How do you navigate this tension, and do you see your translations, perhaps, as an act of resistance—a woman transmitting great literature to individuals these authors could never have reached themselves?
SJL: That’s a good question. And this is perhaps the question that animated me to write the memoir especially because I am a woman—and consider women’s issues to be important to me as well as to the world. In some ways, a writer, as Virginia Woolf said, needs to be both or all sexes. You can get into any character. You can feel any possibility in yourself. But the point of the matter is, yes—at that time when I started, it was a world dominated by male writers. And when I wanted to translate women writers, publishers didn’t seem interested. For example, early on, when I was publishing Bioy Casares, I also admired his brilliant wife, the writer Silvina Ocampo. I did a few of her stories for magazines, but the authors I ultimately ended up being asked to translate were male.
There’s another aspect to it—I felt there was a certain kind of machismo that dominated, along with so-called magical realism. At the same time, there were men who were on the margins and weren’t much thought about, too eccentric. It was very hard to get them as well as women published. I thought Bioy Casares was a bit like that, because, first of all, Bioy was so self-effacing that, as his name showed up in an early story, he was considered an invention of Borges for many years. The general reader didn’t even think he was a real person, until late in his life. And what’s interesting, as you mention, is that I also identified with certain gay writers. Two of the three writers who are the basis of my theoretical book, The Subversive Scribe, are gay writers: Sarduy, who was a very difficult and interesting Cuban writer, and Manuel Puig.
As the years have gone on, I’ve been doing more work with women writers, poetry as well as prose. I did Silvina Ocampo for City Lights, and then, as I mentioned, Cristina Rivera Garza for a wonderful small press called The Dorothy Project. Also, Guadalupe Nettel for Seven Stories Press (Bezoar: And Other Unsettling Stories), a press for which I had previously done Mundo Cruel. I think one of the most important concepts that will help the world get beyond all its problems—if it ever can—is the tolerance for difference, no matter what it is, sexual or whatever. There are so many kinds of marginalities. In many ways, I’ve always felt like an outsider myself, being Jewish, I came from an assimilated family. We weren’t typical in many ways because we didn’t have money. My mother died when I was very young, my father shortly after. These tremendous losses were hard to get over and in some way I never did. I guess the way I related to the writing that I translated is that it was somehow a way of telling stories through another’s writing that were relevant to me. They had to do with feelings I had too—a sense of loss, and the exile story many of these writers had. The whole 20th century was about the condition of exile, and maybe it’s the same for this century as well.
The following question is from George Salis: How do you think you’ve grown as a translator since first publishing your translation of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig in 1971? Since that has just been reissued, I wonder if you’ve revisited it and had some qualms with a word choice here or a turn of phrase there, or were you pleasantly surprised with that early effort as a whole?
SJL: I rarely revisit my translations except when there is a new edition, such as the McNally edition of Puig’s Betrayed by RH, or Cortazar’s All Fires the Fire, reissued by New Directions, and you certainly hit the nail on the head. Qualms about word choice here and there, but mainly a pleasant sense of accomplishment about early efforts, as you say. Borges was right when he declared the concept of a definitive text to be the result of either exhaustion or religious belief. That being said, I do think I have grown as a translator; I always had good instincts even as at the young age of 23, but I also can see how life and years of practice and experience have refined and amplified my resources. I do believe literary talent develops with time and maturity, an opinion which may not be popular in today’s world.
DG: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. Over this impressive span, which book presented perhaps the greatest challenge?
SJL: It is a difficult question, one of those which would require a book, or several books. As I see it now, my many translations were challenging and remarkable adventures, each in its own way with its own particular and marvelous subtleties. It’s much more pleasurable to translate a book that you feel has a place in your life, but it can also be very challenging.
Ultimately, I believe that everything is untranslatable and nothing is untranslatable, because once you translate a book, you’re moving away from the original language, and you’re never going to replicate the original. It will be hopefully an inspiring version that makes the reader think about the genius of the original, making them want to learn that language in order to read the ur-text, as it were.
This is another question from George Salis: What is a translation you’ve read and think deserves more readers? Why?
SJL: Two translations I have read this year are Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Birnbaum and Gabriel, and Houlellebecq’s Submission by Lorin Stein. Houellebecq’s more mature work is worth reading (the earlier books were a bit much) and Stein did an excellent job creating the satirical effect. Murakami’s Underground is very moving in subtle ways, with different voices well delineated by the translators. As most readers have probably not encountered Pepe Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale for which I received the PEN West USA Translation prize ten years ago, I am taking the liberty to recommend this book, as a partial reader of course. Its many translation challenges included finding equivalents for arcane architectural terms; based on his posthumous manuscripts, it is an intense and prescient novel about the dangers of global tourism within the confines of a medieval hill town in northern Spain. Donoso was brilliant but always one of the less visible of the Boom writers. It’s a fun read too: the characters and their passions are completely engaging.
DG: I’m interested in talking about the relationship between the writer and the text. In a 1983 article you talk about how Garcia Márquez “wrote his One Hundred Years in parody of History, as an affirmation of Fiction’s truth over History, or of History as an infinite series of contradictory stories.” And you go on to describe how Virginia Woolf, similarly, directed her “satiric Orlando against the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical biography.” The idea of fiction being as true or even more true than history is certainly fascinating. Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, immediately comes to mind in relation to Donald Trump. At the same time, we’re in an age where the authors you knew and translated would probably be canceled for their radical views. When selecting works to translate, do you view authors as intrinsically tied to their personalities and histories, or do you tend to separate the genius from flesh and time?
SJL: Certainly, Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig had a very organic relationship with their works and with the political and social issues of their time, which is part of what makes them so original. Manuel Puig’s work is himself. He’s in many ways my favorite because he was a brilliant entertainer yet empathized with the world he satirized, so groundbreaking, so daring in a Latin American context. Thinking about García Márquez, writers often have political ideas which are not expressed in their writing. In many ways, that’s true of García Márquez. His was a notable case. He maintained very close ties with Castro until his death. Yet, his novels are basically very skeptical of revolution—One Hundred Years of Solitude, his most famous one, is very skeptical. In some ways, politics and writing don’t always go hand in hand. In the case of his admiration for Virginia Woolf, when I did meet Gabo (García Márquez), I asked: “Well, it seems that you mention Virginia Woolf quite a bit, what is it about her that you really like?” And he told me at the time I met him that it wasn’t Orlando, which, of course, is an extraordinary book that had an impact on many writers, Borges, for example. Orlando is a type of book where the idea of the book is perhaps better than the book itself. García Márquez said to me: “Well, you know what struck me were certain images.” It’s so interesting how writers take images and see a whole world through these images. He said: “I was struck in Mrs.Dalloway by this one scene in which she is seated inside a coach or carriage and all you can see is her waving hand as she goes by, or rather the white glove on her hand. That made me think of all the generals or dictators who go by protected in their armored cars, waving to the crowds.” A totally different image from Mrs. Dalloway, but, after all, like the dictators, she had a privileged position, emblemized in her upper-class white glove. He used the image in one of his novels—I think The Autumn of the Patriarch. Having known Bioy Casares, having known Manuel Puig, I see them in their books, and that’s a pleasure. It has really been amazing, and Silvina Ocampo too. She’s really something.
DG: What you say there is fascinating, because this ability to see the author in their books is an art in and of itself. We tend to focus on the translator as someone who sits there with a book and transcribes it, but it’s really not that way. The translator is an artist. And this is something you touch upon in The Subversive Scribe, writing the following: “If somehow we learn to de-sex the original vis-à-vis its translation, particularly in our postmodern age, when originality has been all but exhausted, if we recognize the borderlessness or at least continuity between translation and original, then perhaps we can begin to see the translator in another light, no longer bearing the stigma of servant, of handmaiden.” Indeed, many people tend to see translation as a “secondary” art, in the sense that more respect is given to novelists and poets, since they’re working from nothing, while translators always work from a source. People view novelists and poets as building wells where none existed before, while translators draw from those wells. Why is such an analogy ultimately flawed and in what way are translators not like servants or handmaidens at all?
SJL: Rather than a servant, the translator is an interlocutor—a fellow artist who is having a conversation with the work. The way Pollock, for example, communicated with his brush—that was his way of translating his physicality into the metaphysical realm of art. One thing I will say about your question is that the book I am writing now is, like the biography of Puig, a challenging and certainly longer process. For me a translation is almost like a meditation, like weaving—it takes you out of yourself which is always a good thing. The blueprint is given to me, and what I have to do is elaborate on it, and I don’t mean in the way of making it longer, but bringing it to the reader. From experience, I think it’s much more of a struggle to write an original book, but for some people, this may be the opposite. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, can write a book like it’s nothing. Maybe for her it would be a lot harder to translate books, because she would have to confine herself to the original.
DG: This idea that translation somehow isn’t an original act finds a lot of purchase with a lot of people. I don’t think that’s really the case. Thus I wanted to ask: You’ve written across a wide spectrum: Translation, biographies, and a collection of poetry. How do these activities inform your translation, and, conversely, how does translation complement your other creative projects?
SJL: The short answer is that there is a continuum between translating and writing one’s “own” poetry and prose. All these activities are one activity, are the manifestations of one who is many and many who are one. The biography I wrote of Manuel Puig was the result of years of work and of life. You mentioned the poetry chapbooks. One was a curious project, which I called Reckoning, the title of a poem by Severo Sarduy, a writer whose complex intensity and witty articulations have always inspired me to write. It was interesting because sometimes the poems I translated felt more autobiographical than the poems I wrote. Which brought home, yet again, the symbiotic relationship between original and translation.
Suzanne Jill Levine is the author of numerous studies in Latin American literature and the translator of works by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig, among other distinguished writers. Her translation of Luis Negrón’s 2010 debut, Mundo Cruel: Stories (2013), won the Lambda Literary Award for Fiction, and her translation of José Donoso’s posthumously published 2007 novel, The Lizard’s Tale (2011), won a PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation. Levine also edited the five-volume Penguin Classics editions of Jorge Luis Borges’s essays and poetry. She is a professor emeritus in the Spanish Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.