A Life in Translation: A Conversation with Marguerite Feitlowitz

This interview was written by Caridad Svich, and published originally in the Contemporary Theatre Review.

Over twenty years Marguerite Feitlowitz has distinguished herself as one of the US’s most passionate translators of theatrical texts from the Americas. She is also one of an esteemed handful of activist-authors reporting with depth and convic­tion on dissension and its role in the cultural and civic dialogue nationally and internationally. Her acclaimed work A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (Oxford University Press, 1998) was named a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a Finalist for the PEN New England/ L.L. Winship Prize. It was based on six years of primary research with survivors of the ‘Dirty War’ concentration camps, relatives of desaparecidos, and human rights activists, and it is a significant literary as well as political achievement in the field of arts and letters. I first encountered Feitlowitz’s work through her astute translations of Griselda Gambaro’s plays: Information for Foreigners: Three Plays by Griselda Gambaro (Northwestern University Press, 1992); and La Malasangre {Bad Blood) (Dramatic Publishing Co., 1994). Feitlowitz’s singular ability to render into the English language Gambaro’s highly charged theatrical landscapes and wordscapes with precision and humor was an inspiration for me to continue to work as a theatrical translator. The difficulty of dramatic works from the Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan-speaking countries reaching production in particu­lar on US stages is one of the most perplexing aspects of the predominantly British-French-German-influenced US theatrical scene. So, the very fact that Feitlowitz was able to give Gambaro, one of Argentina’s and the world’s most innovative and highly regarded dramatists, voice in the English language was cause for celebration.

Our paths crossed earlier this year when my translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s La casa Ae Bemarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) was produced at Bennington College in Vermont. Feitlowitz, who has been Professor of Literature at the college since 2002, and I had the opportu­nity to sit down and talk about our very different lives in translation as well as our work in general as writers and dramatists interested in articulating voices of dissent. This conversation is an extension of our talk in Vermont and reflects Feitlowitz’s multifaceted approach to the challenges and demands of translation, an area of craft research and study that is rarely given a public forum. The conversation also speaks to her vigilant attention to language itself and how it can be used to create and corrupt social order. Feitlowitz’s numerous awards include two Fulbrights to Argentina, the Mary Ingraham Bunting Fellowship in Nonfiction, and the Marion and Jasper Whiting Award. Her theatre translations have been produced in England at the Gate Theatre in London, by the BBG, and at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond; in the US at River Arts Repertory, UBU Repertory, the Wo­men’s Project, and the University of Iowa.

CS: I’d like to begin with the subject of translation, since it is territory we both inhabit as prac­titioners. The craft and art of translation, des­pite academic protestations to the contrary, remains one of the most misunderstood in the field of theatre especially. The many philosophical, linguistic, cultural, and perfor­mative negotiations that occur when embark­ing upon the task of translating a piece of dramatic literature, let alone the negotiations that occur in the act of and reception of the translation itself are myriad and complex. Before we move directly into aspects of interculturalism and intralingualism, I’d like to ask you what draws you to translation as an art form in the first place? And what initial strategies do you have for approaching a work when you know you will be translating it into another language and culture?

MF: Translation is, as you say, ‘a territory’. A zone that is rich in, perhaps entirely made up of, correspondences, allusions, layers of refer­ence, not to mention characters, images, metaphors, stories—histoires, historias, already we’re translating between ‘histories’, and ‘stories’, a whole spectrum of narrative embraced, at least in Romance languages, by a single word. All of this is, as your question makes clear, intensely philosophical, since it brings us right up against the conundra of meaning. So translation is not only ‘a territory’; it also involves processes of ques­tioning—including interrogating, exploring, expanding the ways we read. Translation is not only questioning, it is also an intensely-focused meditation on the text at hand and on everything that radiates outward from the text and resides in its depths. But translation isn’t only questioning; at some point, we need to make decisions and here, I would say, translation approaches drama (melodrama, during some days of my working life). Translators (and actors, especially, perhaps Method Actors) will know what I mean by this, for every decision entails a host of other decisions, a serious/playful examination of motivation, and a consideration of the ramifications of every choice, including those pertaining not just to language on the page, but language in space, in the space(s) created by the words’ own echo. The choice, for example, between a two- and a three-syllable word can be of the utmost importance, not only in formal poetry, but also in drama and in literary prose, where questions of rhythm, though perhaps subtle, are critical.

I actually think that the art and experience of literary translation is all but impossible to describe. The only way to really get a sense of the art is to attempt it. The only way to make a garden is to get your fingers in the dirt. That’s when you see how wondrous are the roots, how silky or sandy or pebbly or chocolately is the soil, how complex an ‘ordinary’ fragrance can be. Even all those ants and worms—which you need to deal with!—inspire respect, even fondness, and if we let them, can lead us to inventive solutions.

Translation is in crucial ways intuitive, which is not to say that it doesn’t require many kinds of knowledge; but much of that knowledge needs to be internalised. Every text will send us to dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopedias, and other reference and lit­erary sources. There will be specialised kinds of information we will need to track down and learn. I’m a firm believer that we need to know how a language moves, articulates, stretches, contracts. In this sense, grammar may well be the soul of a language; it is not, in any case, merely the skeleton or ossified structure of a language. A whole set of apparently paradoxical relationships arise out of our close reading of the text we intend to translate: intimacy and critical distance; en­thusiasm and discipline; the arts of both fidelity and invention.

Some of my earliest memories—at least, the memories filtered through words—have to do with the competing narratives, con­flicting optics, and blended tones that co­existed within a single story, that complicated the telling of apparently simple anecdotes. I grew up in a highly verbal, contentious, polyglot family (our home languages, in New Jersey, were English, High Italian, Sicilian, Yiddish and French), and from a young age, I reflexively translated back and forth between our Jewish-Polish and Sicilian-Catholic relatives. The first time I saw my mother deliberately mistranslate Italian to serve her own ends in an argument was a startling revelation about the multiple possi­bilities, and powers, of interpretation. I gleaned very early that in order to get the ‘right’ story you needed the ‘right’ language. This lesson would loom large for me many years later, when I began A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture.

I could only have become a writer, and from the beginning my literary interests have had to do with languages-within-languages, and/or ‘pockets’ of culture within larger cultures: Catalan, Ladino (a language of Sephardic Jews, a marriage of Hebrew and Spanish). Liliane Adan, whose plays I have translated, writes in a French inflected with the dialects of her parents, who were Greek Jews. My earliest translations were of the poetry of Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire, who in their separate ways transformed the elements of French verse—iconoclasts who soon enough became classics. My years of work in Argentina, which involved a detailed study of the rhetoric of political terror and over six years of taking testimony from the survivors of the ‘dirty war’ concen­tration camps and relatives of desaparecidos arose from my work as a literary translator. My ‘lives’ as reader-writer-scholar-translator-traveler-teacher have always been inter­twined, at the root indivisible. Reading has inspired me to make translations; translations have impelled me to write articles, essays, and books. And writing, as we know, takes us everywhere—beyond borders of geography and gender, time and place, received notions of genre, form, and lyricism.

I came to be involved in late twentieth-century Argentine history through my work as a literary writer and translator. I had long been concerned with how disaster—and the memory and dread of disaster—affect our relationship to language: to narrative form, the making of images, the rhetorical framing of theatre. My introduction to Argentina—my initiation, let us say—was through that country’s writers, most particularly Griselda Gambaro, whose plays I have translated into English. One of the most important Latin American playwrights of this century, Gam­baro was forced into exile in 1977 when then de facto president Jorge Videla personally banned one of her books—which was, of course, a death threat. I wanted to get to the reality on the other side of her plays which, since the early 1960s, had been concerned with the theatricality of political violence. I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright and some other grants which enabled me to spend years working in Argentina.

A Lexicon of Terror brought together everything I’d worked on to that point: research and testimony; argument and de­scription; character and place; pacing, framing, and the orchestration of a multitude of voices in an overarching narrative that moves

CS: through time—with an absolute fealty to the rigors of primary research, original scholar­ship, writing, and translation—of oral testi­mony and other kinds of interviews, of a whole range of texts from high-flown rhetoric to sinister sleight-of-hand to the banal everyday to the slang used in the concentration camps as one more instrument of torture.

Translation is not something we do only between languages; a tremendous amount of our lives is spent in translating within lan­guages. This is especially true under repressive regimes, such as the Argentine ‘Dirty War’, whose juntas were sophisticated linguistically and used language with great (I mean, nefarious) psychological acuity for the pur­poses of denial, persuasion, paralysis, and outright terror. I remember in one of my early interviews, Renee Epelbaum, one of the first Madres de Plaza de Mayo, telling me that the language of the Junta ‘made you psycho­tic. We could barely “read”, let alone “trans­late” the world around us. And that was exactly what they wanted.

I would say that at this moment in the United States, we need to be highly alert to the administration’s use of language. The Nation has actually published a dictionary of signature phrases—it has its comic aspects, but underlying it, we see a cynical, hypocritical, indeed brutal, attitude toward those who see the world in terms different from those of US President Bush and Co.

Despite the feet that there is a significant Latino/a population in the US, the transla­tion of dramatic works from Spanish and Catalan-speaking countries is minimal at best, unlike say, for example, the translation of ‘imported’ works to Spanish-speaking coun­tries. When I was in Buenos Aires two years ago, I was struck by the number of British, US and even Catalan plays being presented on the city’s stages, and native work was hard to find or playing for extremely limited runs. And while I found this alternately troubling and encouraging (in terms of intercultural ex­change) here in the US great works from the past and present from Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, etc. are rarely seen, if at all. The exchange, thus, is not two-way but one-way (from North to South) for the most part. And yet if we are to truly embrace our hemispheric theatrical identity it seems to me it is important to acknowledge the writing of playwrights and companies on the ‘other’ side of our borders. Would you speak to your own position as European, South American and North American (by virtue of residency) in a climate that has gone through a sea change in terms of recognising the voices ‘over there’ and the responsibility you feel as a working practitioner to make these voices re-live in new territory?

MF: In comparison to other countries, the United States publishes a shamefully small amount of literature from beyond its own borders. Of all the books published in a given year, only about 2 per cent are works in translation. The percentage is probably even lower for the production of plays. To me, this is a terrible commentary on how blinded our country is with respect to other cultures, and how, consequently, deprived. I won’t polemicise on that situation here, because I could go on and on about it. I’ve never been able to comprehend how an individual, let alone a nation, could live in only one language, within a single culture. I am not being a snob here; there is simply so much to experience, to express, one language cannot do it all. We discover new parts of ourselves, and of course the world, when we discover and learn new languages. There is an expansion of our selves and this, when considered in larger terms, has huge repercussions in the public, trans­national, realm.

I am always fascinated by which works ‘travel’ and which, apparently, don’t. As you know, I’ve translated a number of major plays by the Argentine writer Griselda Gambaro. While we have had some excellent produc­tions in the US, and particularly in London and the UK, it has not been an easy road. Griselda’s work does not correspond to con­ventional notions of what ‘South American’ work should be: it has absolutely nothing to do with ‘magic realism’, is not costumbrista, but is instead full of what is called elgrotesco, a genre full of black humor, irony, popular culture, meta-theatricality, and encoded re­ferences to history. Interestingly enough, Griselda has, since the 1970s, always had a following in Eastern Europe.

The US just released its latest census last week and the results are arresting: ‘Hispanics’, noted as a highly diverse ethnic group, rather than as a racial category, account for about half the growth in the US population since 2000. Hispanics have the most rapid growth rate of any other racial or ethnic group in the country, more than three times the growth of the national population. One in five children under 18 is Hispanic. This perforce will have effects, hopefully expansive, pluralising ones. The whole notion of Latinidad is viva, unsettled; Spanglish is coming into its own as a literary language, Killer Cronicas: Bilin­gual Memories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) by Susana Chavez-Silverman, being a wonderful case in point. Han Stavans has recently done a major work on Spanglish—Spanglish; The Making of a New American Language (Rayo, 2004).

CS: Part of the sequence of understanding a text from another country and re-imagining and re-positioning it in a new one and for a new audience/reader is understanding at both intuitive and rational levels the multiplicity of meanings alive in a text as text as well as within its cultural, specific context. Whenever one makes a choice as a translator you are both limiting necessarily the full range of possible meanings and uses of a word in the original, and at the same time you are opening up new meanings to exist in the original by virtue of the translation. The choices can be purely formal but they can also be political. The political aspect of the act of translation and of making art on the whole is one that I find consistently invigorating and difficult. A play offers a world-view, and thus, an order to the world. Systems of order (alphabetical and otherwise) determine and sometimes dictate how we view and interpret the world. In art, composition and order are inherently political. How do you enter into an imaginative world and its order on the page? And have there been instances when the world you were translating was antithetical to your own, and moreover, personally and politically upsetting? And yet, as a translator, doesn’t one need to pretend to have distance and indeed be ‘objective’?

ME: I have been drawn to highly-charged, poetic (though not necessarily lyrical) texts in which politics are complicated, history is an abiding reference, and meaning is often encoded. Let me cite but one example, from Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners. Written in 1971-73, the play prophetically foretold an era of government-sponsored terrorism not only against persons whose activities were deemed subversive but against those whose thoughts were grounds for kidnapping, torture, and death. Gambaro hid the play in her house, then smuggled it out when she fled into exile. In a wildly kinetic, even hysterical scene, there is the verse:

violin violon es la mejor razon

which I at first took to be some kind of inspired nonsense. In fact, as I learned from Griselda, it was a reference to the bloody reign of caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas (1829-52), who had violin music played during the decapitations of his enemies. Argentines would immediately get the allusion and make the connections to the present. But I needed specific instruction.

I translated this work in 1986, soon after the trial of the ex-commanders of the ‘Dirty War’, and their convictions on numerous counts of kidnapping, murder, forced disappearance. Yet at the same time, just after the return to what Alfonsín felt was a fragile democracy, there were two laws passed (Punto Final and Due Obedience) which sharply limited the number of human rights trials that could go forward—one set an arbitrary date, and the other allowed military men to plead innocence for obeying (illegal) orders. Thousands of lower-ranking torturers, kidnappers, and mur­derers in this way avoided justice. This week, as we do this interview, those two laws were ruled to he unconstitutional by the Argentine Su­preme Court. It took nearly 20 years, but it has happened. And we may be seeing a whole new series of trials in Argentina.

CS: There is an increasing level of dramatic writing that is verbatim, based on testimony and/or interviews, or inspired by recent news events. This work is squarely positioned against entertainment. It is a replication of the news or a dramatic place for the unspeakable to be heard. And yet concurrently in the most ironically glamorous of these cases (The Exonerated, Guantanamo) stars are brought into the work to boost box office sales. There is a disjunction, thus, between the stars’ presence and the enacting by the star of an ordinary citizen victim of or perpetrator of torture or violence. I ask this because there is a current debate within and outside the academy about the relationship between performance and human rights. What is the role of performance in producing a social and a personal space? And how does performance, both text and on stage, shape our understanding of what it means to be human?

MF: I have not seen either of the two plays you mention, so I can’t comment on them. One of the plays I translated by Gambaro, Information for Foreigners, incorporates testimony, news­paper clippings, original writing and appro­priated texts in a way that might seem to be formally ‘post-modern’, but which actually was prophetic of the coming state terrorism, and which takes us back to the original Greek notions of theatre, in which the sacred and profane, the political and social, all came together in a charged, ritualised public space. I guess my feeling is that anything which serves to inform, touch, and mobilise us is a good thing. The danger is that, after having a catharsis or an intense experience in the theatre, we fall into believing that our dis­comfort, or even emotional pain, was our ‘contribution’. That state of alarm needs to be the starting point for whatever action is appropriate to us as individuals and as mem­bers of whatever group(s) we connect with.

CS: The discourse on multiculturalism has moved away from identity in recent years and toward the presentation of the hybrid self almost at the expense of gender and race, both of which have been represented as old-fashioned socio-poli­tical constructions of self, and yet race and gender still affect how we present ourselves in the world, how we are treated and how we treat others. The act of writing to paraphrase Virginia Woolf requires an ‘androgynous’ self. When you write, you can be anyone on the planet or even an extraterrestrial! Writing is about invention in the most liberating and non-socially constructed sense. And yet, wri­ters do have a public self or create one at some point in their career and/or life. There is the identifiable I that faces the page to create, and there is also the I that translates across sex and language and race and centuries the works of other Is. Would you talk first about gender and race as factors, if at all, in making art and translating it? And also would you address the many Is that face the page when you work?

MF:Je est un autre’, we sense as we work, as different narrative voices surface, as different narrative strategies take form. I believe that, at least on some level, we are what we imagine. It occurs to me now that perhaps our readerly Je, our readerly I is also an other, a host of others invited to the surface by the powerful texts we encounter. I don’t mean this in a dark alienated sense, but rather in an inclusive, even festive, one—and hoping that Rimbaud, who famously articulated the point, would not disapprove.

On a more practical, lived-life sort of way, everything I’ve ever done has its roots in my being a writer. Reading, translating, traveling, teaching—for me it is all very fluid, continuous. I never would have predicted—given my hardcore, even effete, literary background—that I would have spent all those years doing primary research in Argentina and then writing extensively on questions of torture, human rights, transnational justice, war crimes, crimes against humanity. But one thing leads to another, one question leads to another. And curiosity is a very hard thing to resist.

CS: You spend a great deal of your time working with students. The classroom is a place of refuge and also a place where long-term impact can occur. What is your goal or goals in working with students? What lessons have you learned from them?

MF: I’ve taught literary translation at Harvard, at Bennington, where I’ve been a literature professor since 2002, and at the Writers Center in Washington, DC. I love to teach translation; it’s thrilling to see how often the experience turns out to be transforming for the students. Last year one of my Bennington undergraduates won a Fulbright to gather and translate oral tales in Guatemala; in addition to perfecting her Spanish, which was excellent, she is now learning Chuj, one of the Mayan languages. At Bennington, students are in­creasingly incorporating translation into their Senior Theses and Projects, embarking on book-length manuscripts accompanied by Translator’s Introductions in English and scholarly essays in the original language of the work in question. My students work in all genres and all periods; this year, I’ve been struck by the political import of their choices: one student has begun an extended project on Italian writers of the Resistance to Fascism; another has been working on Sartre’s account of the Occupation; several have begun to ex­plore African theatre, especially from Rwanda. What I see in my students is an immediately sharpened sense of being citizens of the world; I participate in PEN Freedom to Write activities and together we keep track of cases of imprisoned and/or censored writers. I want to emphasise though that all kinds of projects can facilitate that feeling of cultural citizenship: one of my students is translating Louise Labe, and her introduction of, and experimentation with, the Italian sonnet form in seventeeth-century Lyons had enormous cultural repercussions. Groups like Theatre Without Borders are very exciting to my students; they find out about playwrights, productions, festivals, and can compete for jobs, commissions, and assignments. The co-founder of that organisation, Roberta Levitow, teaches part-time at Bennington, and her visit to my class was electric. You were there. Your too-short residency at Bennington was also important. Our students got to work on a new translation of La casa dc Bernarda Alba, with you, the translator, at some rehearsals. The back-and-forth between you and director Jean Randich was illuminating for them. Four out of the seven students in my translation seminar were connected to that production, three as actors.

Students are often interested in theory and we do some reading in this area. But, interesting as it is, theory is of absolutely no help to us when we’re in the act of (the throes of!) translation. However, I do believe it is important for us to have a sense of how translation has been thought of, written about, and practiced throughout the centu­ries, in different places and cultures.

The history of civilisation can be told through a history of translation: which texts are translated when, by whom, in which countries? This tells us a great deal, not just about the transport of knowledge, thought, and creativity; but also about what cultures feel they lack in a given time and context. Questions of politics, religion, and power loom large. In the second and third centuries, the Chinese sent the first missions of transla­tor/poet/scholars to India in order to physi­cally bring back the essential Buddhist texts and translate them from Sanskrit. These were excursions of great bravery—not only did they have to contend with radical weather, danger­ous geography, rigorous travel, but also bandits …; upon their return to China, these scholars were set up in palaces with extended meditation gardens and treated like royalty, provided every comfort for the completion of their work.

All through history, translators have been heroes and heroines for their art. In times of repression, literary translation is extremely important. It gets out the news, and can help keep writers safe since publication abroad keeps them in the public eye. We mustn’t forget that the fatwah against Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses also endangered his translators: on 3 July 1991, Ettore Caprioli was stabbed in his Milan apartment, but ultimately survived; less than two weeks later, on 12 July, Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in his office at Tskukuba University in Tokyo. No arrests were ever made in either attack.

CS: Most of my life as a writer so far has been involved in navigating areas of risk in one way or another: the risk of writing in the first place, the risk of presenting behaviors and sentiments that will perhaps not sit well with a mainstream audience, the risk of working primarily in the alternative area and not in institutions, and thus the risk of living day to day as an artist, a mobile artist, in this country in particular. As an artist at work in both creative and critical discourses that investigate the importance of human rights in a time of war and globalisation, and simply as a working artist at this time, how do you traverse risk as obstacle and/or as enabler?

MF: I think that for those of us living in the United States at this time, the greatest risk is in not speaking out. The dominant discourse of the present administration is that dis­agreement with, or dissent from, their policies is unpatriotic. As citizens, of this country, as citizens of the world, we have a responsibility to listen carefully to what Bush and his cohorts say, understand the text, and translate the subtext. We have many forms available to us—PEN, for example, actively opposed the nomination of Alberto Gon­zales to be Attorney General (PEN actually posted an essay of mine from Salon on their site along with a piece by Mark Danner and these were brought to the Senate Judiciary Committee); the Core Freedoms project has been extremely good on addressing worri­some aspects of the Patriot Act. There is MoveOn.org, People for the American Way, the American Library Association has been brilliant on upholding readers’ rights to privacy. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many other groups. I am terribly upset about the state of our country and the effects of its policies around the world; I’ve never lived through a darker time in which the government systematically, hypocritically, went after those least able to defend themselves. Their economics are in every way pitched to abet the rich and ruin the poor; there is so much contempt. The violation of the separation of church and state is extremely dangerous, especially as we see the narrowness, bigotry, and cruel upholding of ignorance that comes in its wake. The present administration and, espe­cially the organised Christian right, is at war with the cultural fruits of modernity; they want to turn back time, to replace science with what they call ‘faith’, to slice away at layers of human and social complexity and call it ‘moral clarity’, One thing I think Americans have not understood is that governments sometimes despise the people. Argentines understand this very well, so do the populations of many, alas so many, other countries. There will be the historical record of this period; I wish to be part of it, I want my expressions of dissent to be public as well as private.