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“A devastating downshift”: Paula Bohince on translating Corrado Govoni

An Interview with Paula Bohince, winner of the 7th Annual Jules Chametzky Prize for Translation

Krzysztof Rowiński: First of all, congratulations on winning the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize! Thank you for taking the time to talk about your work. Could you start by telling me about how you came to translation? Was it something that was a result of your own writing, or was it more about the love for Italian language or literature?

PB: I began in 2015, after my third book of poems was finished but before it was published—in that kind of blank space. That collection, Swallows and Waves, was based on Japanese Edo-period artworks, and I approached those poems as a kind of erasure of self—there is no “I” in the book—and I (as the poet) felt transformed by that process of disappearing into looking, into feeling diffuse, in feeling like a vessel for the poem to pass through. And so, when that years-long experience was finished, I was kind of dazed. I didn’t exactly know how to inhabit a poem again. So I began reading poems in translation. I’d already felt “elsewhere” and wanted to keep going. I think, though, that this seed was somehow planted decades ago when I first started writing, when I read Jane Kenyon’s translation of Anna Akhmatova and learned how she came to them, after Donald Hall suggested she find someone to translate as part of her own growth as a poet. I have always loved Jane’s poems and sensibility and these translations over the years. So, I think that thought was always rumbling around in my mind.

KR: Could you elaborate on the relationship between translation and your own writing? Do you find that one helps the other—or does it stand in the way? How do you balance the two activities?

PB: Well, I’m definitely a beginner translator, and it feels good to grow and learn and approach it as a new art form, one that is informed by my own practice, but really (as with my ekphrastic poems) a new way to situate my writing self differently within the process. As with those artworks, translation provides a kind of companionship. I like the conversation I feel I’m having with another voice, another vision, across time and language and geography and mortality. It’s incredibly interesting to me to see all of the choices that are available in translation and to be truly thoughtful about word choice, line break, the tension of meaning against music, and to feel comfortable with a perhaps necessary “gap” between the original and the translation, and even find that space to be poignant.

I already enjoy revision as an extension of the creative process, and the challenges of translation—the puzzling and striving and pleasurable anxiety—just lights up all of these areas. As for the balance between my own work and translation, I go back and forth over periods of months. That creates a nice bulk of time for concentration, and then one well is exhausted and the other gets filled.

KR: I’m interested in the behind-the-scenes of this particular translation. How did you approach it, and what were some of your strategies? Did you read aloud, for instance, to focus on the original’s rather characteristic rhythm?

PB: I had to approach it rather slowly, assembling a rough working draft, and then adding lots of offshoot notes, going forward (and back) between versions, refining images, trying to balance my vision against his intention. I read the original aloud and then the translation at various stages as a mode of revision. Something that I struggled with in the beginning was understanding that Govoni’s rhythmic play and end rhymes were just not going to be recreated in my translation. There’s the emotion of the poem beneath the mechanics of its form, and it’s that undersong I wanted utterly at the fore of my translation. At times, in my own work and in the work of other poets (in English), a driving rhythm can be kind of distancing. Loosening that knot can allow for a reader to participate more fully in the poem and not merely observe it enacted. As if I’m watching the plates spin and can’t feel close to what is being said. When it came down to it, I wanted the poem to feel surprising, almost spontaneous, clear, with its emotional core—that delicateness—intact.

KR: Tell me more about your discovery of Corrado Govoni. You said you feel kinship with Govoni—what kind of resonances did you find while reading his poems? How do you think his poetry resounds today?

PB: I discovered Govoni through Geoffrey Brock’s terrific FSG Anthology of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry. I was immediately drawn to his images, to the freshness and almost naiveté there, in the way that Elizabeth Bishop or Sylvia Plath can appear naïve (appear being key). I saw shades of James Wright and other Deep Imagists. There was the childlike wonder that I love in Stevie Smith, a kind of seeing-the-world-for-the-first-time quality, of true strangeness. It felt restorative, non-cynical. The poems made me happy, and it made me happy to think that I could be of some use in bringing them to a wider audience. As I learned more about him—growing up in the country, struggling with depression—I thought, I know him. As for resonance, I think of the pleasure-principle first—they felt restorative to me. Maybe because they feel so timeless, so out of time, and with images at the fore, easy for an audience to connect with.

KR: And how did you decide on this particular poem—was there a central image that made you decide to translate "Il palazzo dell’anima"?

PB: The White City and its roaring bee—those images together took my breath away. The movement in size (huge to tiny), abstract to specific, silence to noise, cold to hot, grand to quotidian—it’s incredibly dynamic while appearing effortless. And have we not all experienced that “roaring bee” inside of us? That amplification shook me. The entire poem is telescopic (like Bishop), and I felt I was following Govoni’s poetic gaze, completely enraptured. The poem itself is like the burning river, with its turns and surprises. I love the brazen quietness of the last line. That direct address of “you,” the sound of “see the sea,” the looking outwards to the regular world. It’s a devastating downshift.

KR: What are your next projects? Are you working on other poems by Govoni, or moving on to other authors?

PB: I’m continuing to translate Govoni and work on my own poems. His poems have been such a gift in terms of renewing my energy and giving me an appreciation for slow, pleasurable work on the level of word and line. I love feeling outside of myself with translation and, in some way, of service. I'm trying to take that spirit alive in my larger life. As far as my own poems go, I’ve recently finished a manuscript, so I’m just letting that rest for a while in order to see it with new eyes in a few months.

PAULA BOHINCE'S most recent poetry col­lection is Swallows and Waves, published by Sarabande in 2016.

KRZYSTOF ROWIŃSKI is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is working on a dissertation titled “Never-lasting Effects: Failure in Twentieth-Century American, Italian, and Polish Literature, Film, and Performance,” a study of non-redemptive yet generative failure in the works of John Williams, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Bruno Jasieński. His chapter on Pasolini’s early films in Pasolini Framed and Unframed is forthcoming with Bloomsbury.

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