Jamie McKendrick’s translation of Valerio Magrelli were released in the UK by Faber in 2009 as The Embrace, then re-released on the other side of the Atlantic this year as Vanishing Points (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). The volume has since won the Oxford-Weidenfield Translation Prize. McKendrick is an award-winning poet himself, whose most recent collection, Crocodiles and Obelisks (Faber & Faber, 2007) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. As Jamie’s friend and former student I’m undoubtedly too biased to say much more with any critical integrity, so I offer our conversation as proof positive of his talent as a translator whose work is distinguished by its wit and creativity.
I know you’ve been working on this selection of Magrelli’s poetry for a long time. How did the project change over time? How did your own understanding of—and relationship with—the work evolve?
The length of time says a lot more about the intermittency of the work than about any virtue of steady application, but I take it as a good augury that at no point during the dozen or more years did I feel any lessening of enthusiasm. The first poems of Magrelli’s I translated were one-offs, and I only gradually began to see the possibility of a whole book. The admiration I felt for the originals at the outset is the same I feel now, though an increased knowledge of Magrelli’s overall work has deepened it.
Each new poem you try to translate presents its own problems, but there’s a chance that with a growing knowledge of the poems, and more practice at confronting them, you begin to have a quicker sense of what direction to take, how to find the right tone of voice, the right pace – things of immense importance in Magrelli’s often very short and compact poems.
In your introduction you talk about your process of putting “Parlano,” a poem that didn’t rhyme, into rhyming English, to “intensify the acoustics.” Can you expand on that idea, perhaps with any other examples from the text?
A presumptuous point to have made, given the perfect acoustics of the original! Better to say that I’ve tried to find another way of making the sounds work – it’s a poem besieged by noises and voices, so it really matters how these are made to resonate. It’s a case, among many, where the translator has to make a decision about what’s most important; and often enough with poetry, presenting an exact phrase-by-phrase equivalent is not the most important thing. In the introduction I gave another example showing the various changes that occurred with the untitled “Amo i gesti imprecisi” – which I called ‘The Tic’. But to take something I haven’t mentioned before, one of Magrelli’s early poems:
D’estate, come i cinema, io chiudo.
Il pensiero mi vola via e si perde,
il segno si fa vacante,
l’aria è calda
la tavola piena di frutta.
My version is:
Summertime, like the cinemas, I shut up shop.
Thought flies off elsewhere and evaporates.
Billboards write white,
the air’s warm,
the table weighted with fruit.
Though there are small changes throughout, the third line is where I’ve taken the most liberties. I’ve imported a well-known phrase from Henry de Montherlant (“Le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches” – or “Happiness writes white” as it’s cited in English). This may look a slightly impertinent solution, but I think it’s in key with the unhooked, lazy air of the poem, strangely happy and blank. I went astray, or further afield, because “il segno si fa vacante”, which works so economically in Italian, in literal English becomes dull and abstract. The prompt to use “write white” may also have had to do with sound – in keeping with the dentals of shut/Thought/evaporates/weighted/fruit – effects not necessarily conscious but which give a tone and tenor to the translation.
Do you think that working on Magrelli’s poems for that long has affected your own poetry? If so, how?
One of the great attractions of translating is to escape from your own – and learn about someone else’s – voice, concerns and habits of mind. Magrelli’s poems are very different from my own, though there’s a definite sense of affinity which spurred me on.
I love the way his writing dwells on a perception, and slowly turns it round until you find that it’s been utterly reshaped by the end of the poem. The almost forensic patience with which he stays with a thought and explores it is something I would very much like to have learned. Also the way each of his books has a formidable coherence.
Unsatisfactory as it may be, the answer is I really don’t know. In my last book, I have one poem, ‘Typtographia’, which is dedicated to Magrelli and would not have been written without his third book Esercizi di tiptologia. (Typtology, I learnt the word there, refers to communication by rapping or knocking.) But mine is about Kropotkin’s escape from the Petropavlovskaya Fortress and doesn’t have a direct connection with any of Magrelli’s poems. Except as a homage, at a slant.
I’m interested in your process of translation—in how it’s different or similar to your process of writing an original poem. What is the rough ratio of your creative time spent engaging each discipline?
Translating’s very similar. You just have to stay with it until you get there.
What’s so different is that someone else has done it first, and so I can see it’s worth staying with, whereas with my own poems I have no such guarantee.
There used to be a good ratio. Over the last few months, though, I’ve just finished a translation of a verse play by Pasolini (Affabulazione) and am spending several hours a day working on a translation of Giorgio Bassani’s Gli occhiali d’oro. In the meantime only one poem, with a possible two others I might hold on to.
What are you working on now? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
Apart from the Bassani novel, I’ve also been translating more poems by another contemporary Italian poet Antonella Anedda. In a similar way to the Magrelli book, I began translating her more than fifteen years ago, because I found myself haunted by the poems, and have just kept going. What I’d like – and am not far off – is a book of them.
Watching too much late-night junk TV. Listening to the usual random tapes – blues, folk. Recently, Mompou playing his own Cançons i danses and a brilliant recording of Alexandre Tharaud playing Couperin, thanks to my partner who knows about music. Re-reading War and Peace, after more than thirty years. What’s odd is that the stuff I like best this time through – like the description of battles and the day-to-day events in soldiers’ lives– was what I once trudged through, bored; and vice versa: soul-searching conversations between Pierre and Prince Andrei, for example, I now find tedious.