A Conversation with Suzanne Jill Levine
by Erik Noonan
When you read Latin American literature in English, there’s a good chance you’re reading a translation by Suzanne Jill Levine, who has been plying her craft since the early 1970s. Her versions of books by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortazar, and Manuel Puig (to name but a few) have enriched the lives of English-speaking readers, and her work has had an impact comparable to that of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s Proust or Constance Garnett’s Dostoevsky—not only literary but cultural. Levine also has had the vision and bravado to become a protagonist in the story of Latin American literature in English translation, and to change it in the process, not only publishing biographies and translations, but also creating a mashup of autobiography and scholarship that’s totally original.
I met Levine several years ago when we were both on a panel organized by the filmmaker, translator, and scholar Magdalena Edwards. We’ve kept in touch, and when she invited me to interview the Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel to help promote her book Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (Seven Stories Press, 2020), I agreed and sent a few questions for the translator as well. This interview is the result.
Erik Noonan: In Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival, a professor is conscripted to translate communications from an alien life form that has come to Earth to deliver a message. The pictographic script they use to try to communicate with humankind turns out to be the very thing they traveled here to bring us, because when you learn to use it, your perception of time changes and you become clairvoyant. The aliens are warning us, the translator learns, so that we can avert catastrophe, a message complicated by the fact that she can now foresee her abandonment by her lover and the terminal illness of their child. So: If you were an alien from the future of outer space, landing on the Earth of today, what new language would you bring to us humans?
Suzanne Jill Levine: Arrival was a very intriguing film, and it was stimulating to see translation represented so creatively. I can imagine a couple of steps relevant to the film’s “message” to avert catastrophe. First, SILENCE would be a good beginning to reduce the mindless noise signifying nothing, i.e., the utterings of Trump, Trumpites, and all the violent political noise from both left and right that followed as an aftermath. Second, eliminate the underlying and increasingly insidious censorship in public discourse. Third, language aside, the whole world, no group excluded, should work toward zero population, a vital movement that got shoved onto the back burner and then fried to oblivion. Also, could we save the Amazon (the region not the company) while we’re at it?
EN: The National Book Award for Translated Literature was discontinued for many years, but happily was revived a few years ago. I covered the 2019 prize and noted the books that made it to the short list all shared a certain sort of sentence, which one might say was balanced, neutral, tasteful—with one exception, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming (New Directions, 2019), translated by Ottilie Mulzet. And that book won. I drew some conclusions from this outcome as to what the prize says about the supposed market for literature and an industry in which many hands are on a piece of writing before it’s published. Do you pay attention to prizes and awards?
SJL: Well, I am a judge for the National Translation Award this year, an activity I have avoided for years. I was invited to be an NBA judge when I was quite young, in 1978, and even before, on the translation prize committee at Columbia University. And of course, I myself have received numerous prizes and awards over the years, but still, I would agree with you about the constraints of committee work. When I was on NEA and NEH committees (decades ago), there was more elbow room, and better choices could sometimes win out. I would say that at least half the time, prizes and awards are determined by cliques, identity politics, and/or what’s “trendy.” Every once in a while, a miracle happens—or used to happen, especially with the more significant prizes—but I have very little faith right now in these precariously chaotic times. Nowadays the danger is not only “neutral” sentences as you say but also alternative trends that confuse illiteracy with creativity. It seems to me that dogma, political agendas, or an impoverished sense of aesthetics have come to dominate the world of culture.
EN: In your biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), you ask, “Are we fascinated by the lives of writers because we want to be writers?” Am I fascinated by the life of a translator because I want to be a translator? What kind of writer is a translator?
SJL: As we know, there are all manner of writers great, good, and bad—and the same goes for translators. I think there are fewer great translators than “original” writers, though. This sounds a bit cranky, I admit, but perhaps the main point is that a true translator is (i.e., should be) a writer. When I wrote the question above, I was speaking about my own “(w)rite of passage” as it were.
EN: In The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Dalkey Archive, 2009), you anticipate the claim of a hypothetical reader that your translation of male writers recapitulates, symbolically and actually, the servile position of women vis-à-vis men in a misogynist society, and that it therefore furthers the oppression of women. You reply that our concepts of authorship and originality are inadequate to grasp what a translator does. You were on a mission to promulgate the work of outsiders back then, and now I think you’re translating more women than men. If that’s right, is this change programmatic, or is it just happening that way?
SJL: The context of my era was the discovery of a treasure trove of writers in Latin America, what was called the “Boom,” and I was translating some of the more original and non-mainstream authors at that time. Thankfully I continue, here and there, to discover new artists (which includes, from Puerto Rico, Eduardo Lalo and queer writer Luis Negrón) and I am glad to be working with such fabulous women writers as Cristina Rivera Garza, Guadalupe Nettel, and of course Silvina Ocampo, who I began to translate in the 1970s as an early U.S. fan of hers. I’m also glad to be working with poets like Marjorie Agosín, Alejandra Pizarnik and others, including outsider men as well as women. I have been drawn to outsiders always, maybe because in some ways I am an outsider. We definitely continue to live in a misogynist society, as the Supreme Court has unfortunately confirmed, and among the vast numbers of misogynists are, alas, some women. (Hence instead of Hillary we elected a madman named Trump.) Misogyny doubtlessly has plagued my life and career as it has so many hardworking women in the arts and various professions. Feminism, like the movements that protest all forms of racism, is about respecting and accepting women and otherness. My work as a translator has been very much about respect for difference. And exploring difference as an aesthetic path as well.
EN: Mario Vargas Llosa’s review of your biography of Manuel Puig is fascinating; he compliments your skillful portraiture and slights your subject at the same time. Was a certain snobbism at play there, perhaps? Or did he envy Puig? What can a writer even do with a reaction like that? Do you read reviews of your books?
SJL: I greatly admire Mario who is brilliant, prolific, brave and hugely accomplished, but, as you say, it might have been a mixture of envy (even though, of the two, Mario is the Nobel Prize winner!) and patriarchal “snobbism” or perhaps an incapacity to “get” the aesthetics and ethics of Puig’s works. It was a strong reaction, for sure, and I think Mario probably did the review in two minds, wishing to give me the credit he felt I was due, for which I am grateful, but at the same time defending the kind of writer he is as opposed to the kind of writer Puig was, even though, like others, Vargas Llosa has even been influenced by Manuel Puig.
EN: The Subversive Scribe can be read as the forerunner of a literary subgenre that should exist but doesn’t—books by translators that are equal parts autobiography and aesthetics. Jennifer Croft’s recent Homesick (Unnamed Press, 2019) comes close perhaps, but your book seems to be totally sui generis. Why aren’t there more like it?
SJL: An avalanche of books about translation by translators has followed mine, and even Gregory Rabassa finally wrote, toward the end of his career, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents (New Directions, 2005). Of more recent books, I think Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press, 2019) is quite perceptive, but to answer your question: Why my book is sui generis is because I undertook a laborious task. That is, no other writer on the topic had taken the time or the trouble to reenact or to retrace prose translation in motion, highlighting detail in a readable way. I showed both broad strokes and elusive details—a poetics of the particular, as it were—while distinguishing what effects in the original that translation was trying to bring to life.
EN: Your reminiscences of friends, scattered throughout your critical and theoretical work, are really striking. There are those of us who wonder if we have any right to expect a memoir or a novel from you—an abstraction or distillation of that world. Is there something in the works?
SJL: Yes---I have been working on it for some time, and have finally written a kind of “translator’s memoir” although it is really both more and less than that. Now all we need is a publisher with the ingenuity to bring it to press.
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