Alexis Levitin has translated over thirty collections of Portugese poetry and prose into English, including Rosa Alice Branco’s Cattle of the Lord, Salgado Maranhão’s Blood of the Sun, Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm, Eugénio de Andrade Forbidden Words. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Commission, the Witter Bynner Foundation, the Gulbenkian Foundation, and Columbia University’s Translation Center, which awarded him the Fernando Pessoa Prize. As a translator, he has benefitted from residencies at the Banff International Translation Centre in Canada, the European Translators Collegium in Germany, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center at Bellagio, Italy. A Distinguished Professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, he has given readings and lectures on translation at well over one hundred colleges and universities in the USA, as well as institutions in Brazil, Portugal, Ecuador, the Czech Republic and France.
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Books translated by Alexis Levitin
Author Q & A
How long have you been translating?
I began in the summer of 1974, after returning to the States from a two-and-a-half-year visit to Brazil. I went to Brazil, a country I knew almost nothing about, in order to help establish a new graduate program in English and American Literature and Language at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, on the southern coast of the country. My classes were all in English, but I learned Portuguese from daily life, from poetry, which felt closer to me than the ordinary prose of the newspapers, and especially from a charming friend who knew no English. I did not want to lose this lushly attractive language upon leaving the country, so I began almost immediately, in New York, to translate both modern poetry and prose. [Read more at Per Contra]
What appeals to you about translating? How did you decide that you wanted to make it a life work? Was there a particular experience you can point to?
I have always been a para-literary person, surrounded by writers all my life, yet never writing myself. Translation gave me the joy of a deep engagement with language, an anchor to cling to (the original text), and the rewards of literary activity, without that overwhelming and terrifying leap into space that primary creative writing requires. In a word, I never had to face a blank page alone. A few mundane factors, of course, conspired to nudge me toward translation: a big box of marvelous Brazilian books given me as a good-bye present the day of my departure, my failure to find a teaching position for a full year upon my return home, leaving me with vast expanses of free time, and the blatant good fortune of receiving nothing but acceptances during the first six months of my new career. After that, there was no turning back. [Read more at Per Contra]
Your family does translation, too. Would you tell us a bit about that? Did that influence you?
One of my earliest memories is of me, perching like a prairie-dog on the edge of its hole, trying to get my mother and step-father, the Russian writer V.S. Yanovsky, to understand what that alien creature was. They had encountered it in Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which they were translating into Russian, and they had no idea what it was. I was five years old and I did my best. My mother went on to translate many of my step-father’s novels into English, so translation was indeed an activity going on around me. Over the years, my mother also translated a number of poems for W.H. Auden into German, her own native tongue. Perhaps more important than actual translation, is the fact that I grew up in a world where I was always surrounded by only half-understood foreign languages: Russian, French, and German, and learned to make my way silently through that partially perceived adult world. [Read more at Per Contra]