In a crowded corner of a SoHo bookstore, the audience begged for one more poem. Maria Negroni, the poet and SLC Spanish faculty member, smiled and conferred with her translator. They had brought no more poems in English, but the young translator insisted she could do one by memory: Negroni's poem was unforgettable.
The new book of poetry is just one of Negroni's recent accomplishments. A prolific writer and translator, she recently won the prestigious International Prize for Essay Writing from Siglo XXI, a publisher in Mexico City, for her book Galería Fantástica ("Fantastic Gallery"). Last year she helped launch Babel, a translation magazine, at Sarah Lawrence.
The following is an expanded version of the interview included in the print version of Sarah Lawrence.
SLC: What was the inspiration for your new collection of poetry, Andanza?
MN: I wrote three books that I call the Buenos Aires trilogy. The first is a book that I did with a visual artist, Jorge Macchi, called Buenos Aires Tour. It's a poetic guide to Buenos Aires. We broke a glass on top of a map of Buenos Aires, so it's a very arbitrary guide.
The second one is a novel, called La Anunciación, which deals with the political experience in Argentina during the '70s. And the third one is Andanza, which is a book of poems. It is inspired by the tango. It's a very erotic dance, but it's also a very sophisticated, intellectual dance. I took the eight basic steps of tango as my form. Every stanza is eight lines. I don't know which came first, the dance or the idea for the book. But they grew up together. My parents have danced tango all their lives; it's a very Argentine dance.
SLC: Is there a type of writing you prefer-poetry, nonfiction, fiction?
MN: I don't believe in genres. I believe in your perception of language. When I write, it is always as a poet who is making the decisions.
SLC: What was the inspiration for Babel?
MN: A few years ago, I began encouraging students to translate as a way of better understanding what they are reading and also capturing more of the richness of the language that comes forth in poetry. Then I realized that I had very talented translators among the students, and I started playing with the idea of having a magazine. This is the second year that we've published Babel. We recently did a reading at Cornelia Street Café in Manhattan. It was fantastic. We had French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish.
SLC: What are your goals for the magazine in the future?
MN: It will evolve. I would like to have more faculty involved. There are many faculty in the college who, in one way or another, deal with translation. I think it has a lot of potential.
SLC: Why is translation important in today's world?
MN: It is a very complex question. Translation has to do with diversity, difference, with the way different cultures perceive the world. And so that would be reason number one: It opens up the world and perception. You cannot go through a translation process untouched. It is a very deep process. You inhabit that other poet, and for the time that you work on her or him, you are that person. You cannot translate someone if you are not fully into the whole process of creation. You are creating anew.
Reason number two: when you translate, you work at a very deep level with language, and you inevitably become aware of the gap that exists between words and reality. Most people are usually not aware of that gap. In normal life, we think that language obeys us. But that's not true. And I think that awareness is a sort of antidote against dogmatic thinking. Poetry and translation help you move with that ambivalence, to recognize that there are no guaranteed, fixed, closed concepts. That there is always something that you cannot grasp. I think that the task of translating reminds you of that, constantly.
SLC: What are some of the challenges a translator encounters?
MN: The challenges that a translator can face are the same challenges that a creative writer faces because you have to make the poem work in your language. You always have to translate into your mother tongue. That's where you have more mastery of the language. It's not a question of a literal, word-by-word translation. You have to understand what the poem is trying to do, what the characteristics of the poet are. You have to get his or her rhythm, diction, and then the world of obsessions that is underneath what is written on the page. Then you can work with all that and come up with your own version.
For example when you have to translate an emotion, there are so many words that you can use. You have to make a choice that makes you aware that there is no literal meaning to words. "Obscure" is not the same thing as "somber"; it's not the same thing as "dark." It depends on how the poet is using them, the context. This helps you be aware that language is a creature; it's alive. It's not an easy instrument that you use at your convenience. Every word is a world made of sounds. The words are charged. They are energetic entities.
SLC: Can we get a little background on your life? Has the life of an expatriate influenced your work?
MN: I came to the United States in 1985; I did my PhD at Columbia. I stayed until 1994, and then I went back to Argentina. I came back to the US to work at Sarah Lawrence in 1999. Absolutely, living away from my country has influenced my work. The displacement, in whatever shape it takes, makes more evident that gap that I was talking about. Being far from your roots, from your family, from your culture, your society, opens up the lens a little bit. You have a slant look at both your own culture and the culture you live in. It has some disadvantages too, as you can imagine. But I think that it helps you to have a little bit of mistrust of what other people take for granted.