A Conversation with Translator Jeannine Marie Pitas by Jesse Lee Kercheval



Jeannine Marie Pitas is the author of two poetry chapbooks and the translator of several Uruguayan poets. Her first full-length poetry collection, Things Seen and Unseen, is forthcoming from Quattro Books. She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.
Jesse Lee Kercheval: The History of Violets, the first book, you translated by Marosa Di Giorgio was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010. Now, in September, Ugly Duckling will also publish your translation of a collection of four of her books, I Remember Nightfall. How did you first encounter her poetry?

Jeannine Marie Pitas: My encounter with di Giorgio was completely unexpected. I was an undergraduate student studying Spanish, and my professors regularly encouraged us to do literary translation as part of their classes. I translated a variety of poets, and when I graduated, I decided to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. I initially set out to translate an Argentine writer and travel to Argentina; however, I was unexpectedly awarded a grant to go to Uruguay. I approached my professor, Argentine poet María Negroni, and she urged me to consider working on Marosa di Giorgio. I read di Giorgio’s last book, La flor de lis, and was instantly enthralled. Twelve years later, I am still working on di Giorgio.

JLK: What would you like to tell us about her work?

JMP: Marosa di Giorgio’s work is like no other. She immerses her readers into a fantastic landscape where a family farm becomes a wild realm of gods, angels, monsters, and the sublime presence of nature. The poems express a vast range of human emotions, from joy to sorrow, boredom to astonishment. Di Giorgio believed that ¨The natural is supernatural,¨ that even seemingly ordinary settings and moments are loaded with meaning. This fascination with the world – most often (though not always) reflected through the perceptions of a child narrator, or an adult narrator struggling to invoke childhood memories – reveals that even the most seemingly banal settings and trivial occurrences are loaded with meaning.

JLK: Her life?

JMP: On the surface, di Giorgio’s life appears quite ordinary. She grew up on a farm outside Salto, which is Uruguay’s second largest city with 150,000 people. She completed a degree in law and acted for some years as part of a local theatre group, but by her mid-twenties she was eager to devote as much time as possible to writing. She worked for the city government, a job that gave her sufficient free time, and spent many hours sitting and writing in Salto’s cafés, an activity deemed strange for a woman of the 1950’s and 1960’s. She deliberately avoided marriage, stating that she did not want to devote herself to anything that would detract from her writing. She then moved to Montevideo, and later in life she received many grants to travel to Europe, Israel and the US.

One things that impresses me about di Giorgio is how widely she read – despite having no formal education beyond high school in literature. We see some of these references, like Edgar Allan Poe and Dylan Thomas, mentioned directly in the texts; others, like Lautréamont, Rubén Darío, and her compatriot Delmira Agustini, are present in subtler ways. She had a tremendous ability to immerse herself in literature and let it flood her own intellect and imagination.

JLK: What are the particular challenges to translating Di Giorgio’s work?

JMP: One challenge that always exists when translating poetry is finding the right balance between meaning and sound. Because she mostly writes prose poems, at the beginning I found myself focusing strictly on translating her images – which are themselves startling and unexpected – without paying much attention to the rhythms of the language, the odd syntax, and the deliberate usage of run-on sentences and fragments. The more time I spend on di Giorgio, the more I strive to get closer to the original text and seek ways to produce a parallel effect in English.

Other challenges relate to the distance of space and time between di Giorgio’s original writing and the perceptions of a 21st century English-speaking audience. I initially did not expect this to be an issue; after all, she was born less than a decade before my parents, and she died in 2004. However, a closer reading reveals certain gaps in understanding. When, in The History of Violets 5 , she states that a magnolia tree looks like a ¨black slave girl bearing immobile creatures of pearl,¨ should I intervene and try to explain di Giorgio’s choice to a US audience through a footnote, or should I simply let her words speak for themselves? These are questions I struggle to answer.

JLK: Your work on Selva Casal’s poetry is a newer project. How did you you first encoun-ter her poetry?

JMP: I first read it in an anthology; however, I really only began reading it more deeply in 2013, when the author herself gave me some of her books. One of the amazing things about Uruguay is the openness and generosity of so many people. Di Giorgio’s sister Nidia and niece Jazmín have been very kind to me, and on this particular occasion, when I was in Uruguay doing dissertation research, Nidia urged me to go and visit Selva. When I met her, I was instantly amazed – she has Parkinson’s Disease, is wheelchair bound, and cannot speak in a voice above a whisper, but she still writes and paints (though mostly recognized as a poet, she is also an accomplished visual artist) everyday. She and her husband Arturo offered me tea and cake, and then she handed me about six books that she had signed for me.

JLK: What would you like to tell us about her work?

JMP: It is hard to discuss Casal’s work without referring to her life. Casal was a penal lawyer by profession, and this had a major influence on her poetry. Much of her writing deals with injustice and human cruelty, the harsh realities that she has encountered while working in the legal system. She is also a very courageous person – the publication of No vivimos en vano (We do not live in vain) during Uruguay’s military dictatorship in the 1970’s led to Casal losing her position as Professor of Sociology at the University of the Republic. I admire Casal so much for her commitment to the pursuit of justice. She is a professed Christian (though a questioning one), and for me she is truly someone who ¨hungers and thirsts for righteousness. What astounds me is the contrast between the violence and deep sorrow present in her work and the gentle, loving demeanour of her personality. In some ways, it seems that writing is what has allowed her to cope with the harsh realities she has observed and experienced. When I met with her on a recent visit to Uruguay in March 2017, I asked her how she can keep such a positive attitude while being fully aware of humanity’s cruel, selfish side. When I asked that question, she looked at me quite seriously and said ¨Todo alimenta la poesía¨ (¨Everything feeds poetry.¨) This becomes clear when reading her work – she draws on her entire experience, as well as that of those whose suffering she has encountered, to offer a holistic view of reality in all its wretchedness and beauty.

JLK: Selva Casal was born in 1930 and Marosa di Giorgio in 1932 and so are part of the same poetic generation in Uruguay, which is a very small country. Did they know each other? Each other’s work?

JMP: Yes, they did know each other very well and were close friends. Casal remains good friends with di Giorgio’s sister Nidia, who is still living and is also a poet. And yes, they certainly read each other’s work.

JLK: In what ways are their works similar or different?

JMP: At first glance, their works probably seem quite different to most readers. Indeed, di Giorgio’s writing is so unique that really it is hard to compare her to anyone. As I mentioned before, literary critics (myself included) love to compare her to other writers and seek influences in the works that she read, but really, there is no one else who does quite she does – taking a family farm and transforming it into a fantastic landscape, bending the conventions of genre to mix poetry and prose, shifting rapidly between past and present tense.

In contrast, at first glance Casal’s writing may seem less unusual to Anglophone readers, particularly in its direct denunciations of injustice. However, Casal also uses very odd imagery and unexpected twists of phrase. Therefore, I would argue that these two poets share more in common than they may seem.

Both writers present us with a nondualistic worldview, where goodness and evil, sacred and profane, beauty and ugliness exist very close together, sometimes to the point of seeming indistinguishable. Both often lapse into a wild, almost stream-of-consciousness style. According to those close to di Giorgio, she did not edit or correct much of her work; she published it in a form quite close to how it first emerged on the page. As for Casal, to this day she is constantly writing; she drafts her poems on looseleaf paper or in a notebook, and then she simply hands her rough manuscripts to her granddaughter to transcribe. It amazes me how the work of both these writers emerges so close to fully formed.

I’d say that both authors’ work has a kind of internal consistency. Of course there are certain developments and alterations over time. But on the whole, di Giorgio’s late work inhabits pretty much the same universe as her early work, and Casal reflects the same concerns now that she did when she was young. Also, both writers are very political. With Casal’s writing this is quite clear; indeed, when I read her work I easily understand why the dictatorial government saw her as a threat. With di Giorgio it is much more subtle, but nevertheless present. Various literary critics, such as Anna Deeny, KA Kopple and Hebert Benítez Pezzolano, have commented extensively on the ways in which di Giorgio resists the language of totalitarianism through the creation of a new, alternative vision of reality.

JLK: What are the particular challenges to translating Casal’s work?

JMP: I sometimes find it challenging to deal with Casal’s flowing, stream-of-consciousness style. Her writing can sometimes feel like an overwhelming river of images, and it can be hard to maintain a sense of that power in the English. At times I feel pulled to rein Casal in somewhat; for example, I tend to add commas in English when there are none in Spanish. An editor who recently read some of my Casal translations suggested that I avoid doing this – if those commas are not present in Spanish, what makes them necessary in English?

JLK: Are there other Uruguayan or Latin American poets you would like to recommend to Tupelo Quarterly readers?

JMP: There are so many. In terms of Uruguay, I would recommend Circe Maia (translated by you, Jesse Lee Kercheval) and Amanda Berenguer (whose translated work is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in a collection edited by Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson). I would especially recommend Argentine writer Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Yvette Siegert), Chilean Raúl Zurita (translated by Daniel Borzutsky and Anna Deeny), and Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez (translated by Kristin Dykstra). Meanwhile, I have a special interest in the generation that came before di Giorgio and Casal – the Latin American modernista poets who, writing at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, expressed many similar concerns to those we have today: the rapid growth of technology and its impact on society, the imperial ambitions of the US, and a decline in meaningful human connection. I would recommend the work of Cuban poet José Martí, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, and Uruguayn poet Delmira Agustini – who is an influential forerunner of the two poets translated here – as powerful exemplars of the modernista movement.