Carmen Troncoso Interviews Ida Vitale
by Carmen Troncoso. Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Ida Vitale is a poet, translator, essayist, professor and literary critic in Uruguay. She is a member of the artistic movement called the “Generation of ’45” along with Mario Benedetti, Juan Carlos Onetti, Carlos Maggi and Idea Vilariño, representative of the current of “essentialist” poetry.
She has been given many prizes, among them the Octavio Paz Prize, Mexico (2009), the Alfonso Reyes Prize, Mexico (2014), the Reina Sofia Prize, Spain (2015), the Federico García Lorca International Poetry Prize, Spain (2016), the Max Jacob Prize, France (2017), the International Guadalajara Book Fair Prize, Mexico (2018) and the Cervantes Prize, Spain (2018), the most important recognition in Spanish-language literature.
Our meeting was scheduled for three in the afternoon. I arrived punctually, looked at the board of buzzers alongside the building and rang three times. Someone answered; I asked for Ida Vitale, and they answered that they were coming down to open. A few minutes went by and before me, joyful and carefree, Ida greeted me. She is a slight and agile woman, with a well-pitched voice. Her eyes are beautiful and she has a penetrating and intelligent gaze.
What was your life like at school, did they teach you poetry?
I went to the Argentine Republic Secondary School, which was a big secondary school in Montevideo. My aunt was the Director, which was a torture, because she expected me to be a model child, which was the most boring thing. They taught some poems, I think just like today, but poetry for me at that moment was not important.
How did you immerse yourself in poetry?
A trainee teacher at the secondary school in Year 12 year read us the poem “Peak” by Gabriela Mistral, a very simple poem for our age, but since she did not explain it,. For me it was very vague and I did not understand a thing: “The hour of the afternoon, that which brings / your blood to the mountains. / Someone at this hour is suffering; / someone loses, anguished, / in this dusk the lonely chest which it had held tight.”
They made us learn that poem by heart. I had it in my head for a long time trying to understand it, until I solved it. We worked with Spanish writers. We had to write in their style, for example. They assigned us two prose writers from the east of Spain: first Azorín, who gave a description of the chair, the wood, the grass, all short phrases, and the next month Gabriel Miro, lyrical and descriptive. Then came Ortega with a text called “Geography of the meseta”, a more complex text with dialogue, in which he asks a peasant “And where are the curves” and the answer is “In Castille there are no curves”. And after that, before Roa Bastos, came a young man who played roulette, Rafael Barrett, who spent the money that was given to him and since he was dying of shame escaped from Spain; he arrived in Argentina, to Buenos Aires, and turned into a writer, but they kicked him out and he made his home in Paraguay. If you join together grammar and literature you realise that there are very different laws for each piece of writing. This inclined me more towards prose.
How did you begin to write poetry?
I started the preparations to write myself, although afterwards I tore up everything I had written. That is why I do not have anything from this period, because I lost respect for it very quickly.
Did your parents encourage you toward the humanities?
At home there were many books in Italian and in French, but my parents did not me encourage me particularly in that direction. I was in charge of cleaning a little library on Saturdays, I think it was the way for me to do something for the home.
Were you reading in Italian?
Not at that stage. There was Eli Schicarelli, a teacher who was like someone out of a movie, who must have weighed some fifty kilos, who came here during the war wearing a little straw hat with tiny flowers. The first day of her class was about Mussolini and the fascists, but since half the class interrupted her, I started to clean the blackboard and winked at her. She, who was not a fool, understood and said to us: The truth is that since this is the first class, we are just going to chat. After that, the course was as silent as during a mass, there was not a single distraction; she was marvellous with grammar and made us work with the dictionary, and that was when I began to respect Italian. A short time after studying, I translated a book as a “ghostwriter” for someone, a work of translation about the theatre.
What part of Italy is your family from?
My grandfather was from Palermo, from a little town whose name I do not remember. His whole career was in Palermo as a lawyer.
Did you study Humanities?
I studied Law, because there was no Humanities. I studied with Carlos Vaz Ferreira, but after a short time I realised that the preparations for Law were a ruse. I studied Law for three years, memorising all of the codes, which began to interest me as a mechanism for writing. There, precision in writing was the most important thing.
Literature in university was united to action. Did you participate politically?
Uruguay was a democratic country with elections. Before, the world was divided into Blancos and Colorados. At that time the Broad Front did not exist. My grandmother and my father were Blancos, the rest were Colorados. One of my problems was that I thought, “What is the difference?” When I asked my grandmother, she told me, “Well, the Colorados came here to kill the Blancos.” Those were the beginnings of Uruguay, a country founded by José Battle Ordoñez.
In what period did you exile yourself from Uruguay?
In 1974, when the military arrived, because there were many strikes.
Were you already working then?
At that time one started to work through family, or with good professors like Emir Rodríguez Monegal or José Bergamín, or as a volunteer. The way to start to give classes was to join a professor who had you in good standing, and who at some point told you to prepare a class. I had two wonderful friends, one the wife of Felisberto Hernández, and the other Laura Escalante, who was a Theatre Director. Her classes were incredible, the analysis of texts, the psychology of each character. I was at the Secondary School for two years to give classes. Since I had applied to give classes in the interior or in Montevideo, in a call for a competition with three hundred participants, I had great luck since I ended up staying in Montevideo, four blocks from home.
What was it like to work with Octavio Paz, did you know him from before?
No, I didn’t know him. I had written an article for Mito, a Colombian magazine, and a cousin of my husband, who had started to work with Octavio on the magazine, introduced me. I had started to work for a newspaper supplement that appeared on Sundays, which was Plural. I started to work there because it was directed by someone else in the group. Octavio was very friendly, very dependable, and since I knew what I wanted, when we were talking I would say to him: “Do you agree with this?” or “How does it seem to you?”
I had written two articles about books, and Octavio asked me for an article about the French magazine Change, which had an issue dedicated to Latin America. The first thing I noticed was an erotic poem by Lezama Lima in which the word “la espalda” [the back] had been badly translated as “la espada” [the sword]. I said to myself, Octavio wants an article about this for Plural magazine, and this is a magazine I support. What do I do, write about the error or forget it? I was in a jam, but obviously I decided to tell him what had happened. Octavio paid me for the article and did not publish it. I thought, well this is over, but for the next issue he called me again.
The magazine Plural was not independent. It belonged to Excelsior newspaper, which was one of the oldest and best in Mexico. The newspaper was very much in the orbit of Echeverría, the president of Mexico, who was a very good president in some things and very authoritarian in others. Since Octavio when he spoke always said what he thought, Echeverría had never thought of giving him a blank check. Instead of that, a meeting linked to the magazine was surrounded by security agents, the civil commission, which arrived with orders to suppress it. From that moment “Plural” was liquidated. Those who knew Octavio supported him, and in one month people with money had gathered and the decision was reversed. He called me there again to work. After that he proposed me as an adviser to the magazine Vuelta. That went on for a long time, although I never wanted to abuse his friendship.
The same was true with Gabriel García Márquez, who was intimate with Álvaro Mutis and Carmen, and it was as if we had known him our entire lives. Álvaro was a great friend of ours, very open, very charming. Gabo had always been involved in literature but never directed a magazine. Octavio, in addition to being an amazing writer, was a tremendous literary power. I knew Gabriel García Márquez better, I had even read him more, but my husband Enrique and I never wanted to go past that, or ask him for anything when we met him at Álvaro’s house. The idea that Álvaro could think we were using him to get to Márquez terrified me. I remember the time Marquez said to me: “Something that I dream of doing is translating Leopardi.” He told me this as a courtesy, because he knew that I translated from Italian and handled myself very well in that language.
When did you start to translate?
All of my life I have worked on translations, ever since I was in Montevideo. The first was a book that I liked and which came out under another’s name. I was a naïve little girl, really. I translated a lot for Buenos Aires, I translated from French, from Italian, from English, a lot about theatre and philosophy. The last thing I translated was from Portuguese. From German, I translated the songs from Mother Courage by Brecht.
Your poems are innovative within their formal limits.
I base myself in the norms, this is the vice of the translator. I do anything to avoid Gallicisms. Classical Spanish fascinates me, the Golden Age, Quevedo, Garcilaso who is curiously more simple, and the sonnet. I began to write sonnets, and a professor said to me: Give me those that can be published, and he published three or four sonnets of mine. I never wrote any more until my last book, in which they do appear, because the form delights me. It’s something that forces and helps you to be more concise and not go off on a tangent. You have to try to say everything in fourteen verses, and even to follow the tradition there has to be a punchy ending. I greatly admire a Spanish poet from the generation of Alberti, Gerardo Diego Cendoya, who wrote perfect sonnets.
America has produced some marvellous sonnet writers. There is a poet from Cuba, Orlando González Esteva, who composes exclusively in ten-line stanzas and only uses octosyllables, he has never published anything that does not have octosyllables. He has profited from this enormously, because in Cuba the ten-line stanza is very popular.
What interests you about the exercise of translation?
I once translated an entire book by a gentleman. When I finished it, he asked me what I was going to do with it now. I said to him, I am going to see if I can publish it in Spain, and he answered me emphatically, “Ah no, not in Spain! Because it was already translated there.” And this is how I was left with the book and the exercise.
A short time ago I was reading a publication, more journalistic than literary, about those who had won a prize in Mexico. The language was ordinary and not very dense, but it was badly translated. To be a translator is to know the destination of the text, and this makes you more careful when you are translating.
As a translator do you leave an influence, or are you invisible?
One can be faithful word for word, which is very difficult, or one can be faithful to the meaning. Many times the words lend themselves to following the same order, and sometimes you have to invert them, as is the case with French for example. The way you do so when the following verse has no solution in Spanish, however, is where I try to follow the meaning as closely as possible. In my translation of Max Jacob, where all of his verses rhyme, I felt that if I tried to do the same I would be falsifying it. In Russian poetry, the translators try to maintain the music, and that vulgarises it a lot. Sometimes the poet tries to be strange or original, but if you are going to rhyme house with mouse, it looks very clumsy; when there is a doubt, there are people with whom you can easily translate everything as free verse, but when you work with a poet, say Apollinaire or other formalists, things are more complicated. A very strong trap you can set for the author is to change the style. I think that the best thing is to be faithful to the meaning.
An idea for a book I have is to gather a number of poems in different languages. As soon as I have time to organise something, I will put it together.
I would like to ask you about Dictionary of Affinities, in which you recreate your childhood so wonderfully.
That was a book I began to write at a moment when I had some ideas, and suddenly it occurred to me that the most free way to arrange them was in alphabetical order. That was how I put together some texts I had written. There was a little of everything, and I put them in order by their title. A number of little poems could “enter with the other foot” that way, and it created another sense to include them. It was a book that could have continued infinitely.
What was the place like where you lived in Montevideo?
My first house was very big, and had a garden. The first immigrants who arrived in Montevideo went to the Prado, which was a very green area with very pretty mansions from the 19th-century. In that period the beach still did not exist.
My grandmother had fourteen children, three girls with the youngest named Ida. She went to Buenos Aires to study as a teacher of deaf-mutes. My grandfather was very liberal, in the sense that girls had to study just like boys. The other two were teachers, and one of them, Clelia, who was very beautiful, married right away and went to the interior. She was one of the older ones. Débora was Director, and founded the women’s section of the national high school José Pedro Varela, and later a women’s college with the same name. When my grandfather died all of a sudden, my grandmother, who was not working, asked Ida to return, but she said no, there were only three months left to finish the degree and she was going to stay. During that period she contracted tuberculosis. When she returned she began to work as an assistant to the founder of the Botanical Garden, and perhaps she did not realise she was ill. At home there were many rare plants which she brought home and which grew and grew everywhere. When my aunt died, my grandmother did not want to stay there ever again, since she adored her.
There is a poet whom I like a lot, who died years ago, named Enrique Casaravilla Lemos. He has a poem called “The Mansions”, and he said that El Prado had been lost because Pocitos is a very well-located neighbourhood. In Pocitos, chalets began to be built, and the fashion for the beach began. That was how El Prado began to be left behind.
Enrique was a very solitary poet; he published a book when he was very young, and when he died, the poet Esther de Cáceres published that book. He was a very sober man, the counterbalance to Juana Ibarbourou. Juana was brilliant, and very pretty, and she had written very well since she was a girl. She was the most important poet in Uruguay. Alfonso Reyes, the cultural attaché in Mexico, became very excited about her and talked about her as “Juana de América”; he invented her and also promoted her a lot.
What is the next book that you will publish?
It is a book about Mexico, a book of Mexican memories and gratitudes called Shakespeare Palace. Between 1970 and 1980, I lived on Shakespeare Street in Anzures, a neighbourhood in the centre of the Mexican capital. The house was a ruin to which we gave the name Palace. That house had already withstood several earthquakes, because it was very solidly built.
In retrospect, what has been the compensation for doing this job you have done all your life, literature, to which you have dedicated yourself with such passion and vocation?
The same as if I had made many sweaters because I liked to knit. I have never done anything for nothing. Even translating, I did it because I liked it. I believe that I have been lucky, because at the same time as I have worked, I have had a certain freedom. I have always worked; when I gave classes, I was passionate about giving classes, and when I translated, I was not writing but it also delighted me to translate. The important thing is that whatever you do, you do it over the course of a long time, and that in addition it allows you to change.
With all of the movement I have had over these past four or five months, I have been jotting things down on a paper or in a notebook. The mess will come when I have to find everything I wrote, because afterwards I have to give myself the time to correct it. It doesn’t always come out perfectly, and I have to dedicate time to it.
We said goodbye to one another with great joy for having shared her experiences, told in the form of a long and pleasant conversation. I was impressed with and happy to have met this extraordinary woman of an exceptional talent and incredible vitality.
Originally published in the Romanian magazine Horizonte Literario Contemporáneo.