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Guest Blogger Idra Novey on Translation and Bad Girls

[caption id="attachment_197" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="Idra Novey. BOA translator."]Idra Novey. BOA translator.[/caption] We're pleased to introduce our first guest blogger: Idra Novey! Idra translated The Clean Shirt of It by Paulo Henriques Britto. The Clean Shirt of It is the first English translation of a full-length poetry title by acclaimed Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto. The book was published in a bilingual edition of English and Portuguese. As Idra wrote in her translator's introduction, "No other contemporary Brazilian poets write like Britto. At least not with such a keen sense of the relationship between form and content, or pop culture and high art. However, the artistry of Britto's poems is that a reader doesn't have to recognize the allusions to appreciate the freshness of the imagery and layered meanings suggested in the poems." BOA Editions is proud to introduce American readers to the powerful poetry of Paulo Henriques Britto. And now we're thrilled to share this guest blog by Britto's translator, Idra Novey, with the intriguing title:

Translation and Bad Girls

When I tell people I’m a poet, they often make jokes about how that probably doesn’t pay the rent, but I can usually tell the word poetry has intrigued them. If I mention I also translate poetry, their intrigue and humor often evaporates. Their faces turn serious and business-like, as if I’ve just forced them into a press conference at the United Nations and may ask them any moment to recall the capitals of all the countries in South America—as if translating poetry couldn’t possibly be as weird and interesting as writing it. Whenever this happens, I think of an interview I read a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine with the writer Mario Vargos Llosa about his novel The Bad Girl. In the interview, Vargos Llosa explains that he made his main character a translator to explain the man’s lack of personality and why he’d need to go groveling after the Bad Girl. A translator, according to Vargos Llosa, is an inhibited “intermediary” whose life is “curtailed” and “mediocre.” My question after reading this was how many translators does Vargas Llosa actually know? In the poetry world, I’ve found translators usually are the bad girls—the poets most likely to put themselves in dodgy situations in other languages and enjoy it. To disappear for years into other cultures and live in situations that would make their parents cringe but that also leaves them aware of the world in a way that makes them live, think, and take risks they never would have otherwise. Take W.S. Merwin for an example, who spent most of the sixties in France and has translated poetry ever since. In the introduction to his 1992 book containing his second four collections of poems, he describes his years outside the U.S. as the time when his “insistent awareness of the human wastage of the rest of life was set against a daily existence, and friendships, sights, sounds, the associations of a place that I regarded as a scarcely credible good fortune.” You can feel that insistent awareness of different “fortunes,” of multiple worlds in his amazing collection Lice—which he wrote while he was in France, and it’s also present in the many lasting translations he’s produced since then. I’ve heard other translators describe a similar kind of awareness—an attraction you might call it—to unusual friendships, sights and associations, to experiencing the larger world not just through books but with the body, to know as many sounds, smells and places as possible. Hardly what you might call a life “curtailed.” The artful transport of poetry from one language and set of fortunes to another demands the same talent for reckoning with nuances and ambiguities that all good writing requires. It’s a great line of work for bad girls and boys. In his poem, “Shading Exercise,” BOA translator Charles Simic says, “The sun doesn’t care for ambiguities,/ But I do. I open my door and let them in.”


  • I am struck by the passion of this profession. Her success surely mirrors the joy she extends in this noble effort.

    Lawrence Rosenberg on

  • You made some good points there. I did a Bing search on the topic

    Gilbert London on

  • Hi, I was browsing the web and I saw your web site. Keep up the awesome work.

    Enriqueta London on

  • […] at the BOA Editions blog there’s a guest post from Idra Novey—poet and translator of The Clean Shirt of It by Paulo Henriques […]

    And In Case You Weren’t Already Enamored With Translators . . . | Agência de Notícias da Livraria 30PorCento (Blog) on

  • Idra, we had an ALTA panel about translators in fiction, including the Vargas Llosa novel, but no one brought up this perspective. How great! I’m proud to be a bad boy.

    Matt Rowe on

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