“Literature in Languages Other than English. A Conversation among Joseph Brodsky, Raymond Federman, Jose Ferrater Mora, and Richard Kostelanetz.” Abridged.
Kostelanetz: With me are three major writers —American citizens all— who write in languages other than English. The first is José Ferrater-Mora, born in 1912, who left his native Spain at the end of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, settling first in Cuba and then in Chile before moving in 1947 to New York and then to Philadelphia, where he has lived since 1949. Raymond Federman, born in France in 1928 and then a Jewish refugee from the Nazi occupation of France, is presently Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The last is Joseph Brodsky, born in Russia in 1940, who emigrated to America in 1972, and he is presently teaching at New York University.
It should not be forgotten that America has always been a country of immigrants, and among those immigrants have been poets, novelists, and critics who have continued to write in their native language as well as their new language. One historical example that comes to mind is O.E. Rölvaag, who emigrated from his native Norway in 1896 when he was 20 years old. After attending college in Minnesota, he wrote, initially in Norwegian, a series of novels which are still read, the most famous being Giants in the Earth, published in Norway in 1924-25 and here in Rövaag's own translation in 1927. During World War II many of Germany's major writers lived in America, among them Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, who returned to their native countries after the war, while other Germans stayed here, such as Hannah Arendt, Erich Auerbach, Paul Tillich, and Herbert Marcuse. Vladimir Nabokov came to America in 1940 and produced a series of novels in English that we regard among the very best contemporary American fiction. And, the Portuguese writer, George De Sena, lived in Santa Barbara until his death a few years ago, and the Phillipine writer, Bienvenido D. Santos, has for many years taught at Wichita State in Kansas. The French novelist Marguerite Youcenar, the first woman ever elected to the august Academie Français, is an American citizen who has lived most of the past thirty years in the state of Maine.
In a large American city like New York, there are newspapers published in French, Russian, Italian, Greek, Yiddish, Ukranian, among other languages; and wherever you have newspapers you have a place for poets and fiction writers to publish in their native tongues. In fact, most of the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the internationally-known Nobel Prize winner, initially appeared in the daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper that has been published in New York City since the beginning of the century.
Let me ask, Mr. Ferrater, how you came to America and then what kinds of writing you have done since you've been here?
Ferrater-Mora: Well, I came to America in 1947, and it was a little matter of chance, as most events in our lives. I was living in Chile, and I was asked whether I would be willing to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship. I said yes without thinking much of it; as a matter of fact, I was quite pleased in Chile at the time. I got the Guggenheim Fellowship, and I came to New York for a year. I was going to go back to Chile or Argentina when two very good friends of mine, a Spanish poet, Pedro Salinas, who was teaching at the time in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins, and the great Spanish historian, Américo Castro, who was teaching at Princeton, suggested that I stay here where I would find obviously many more facilities, particularly bibliograhpical facilities for research.
I had at the time published a number of books in Mexico and Argentina. I had published a book in Spain before I left Spain when I was very young. (In this meeting today I am the oldest person by far. I'm 67.) So I had published a number of books including the first edition of a dictionary of philosophy which has been quite successful in the Spanish-speaking countries.
Kostelanetz: Which you wrote by yourself?
Ferrater-Mora: Which I wrote by myself, yes. It has been expanding, and now the last edition, published last year in Spain, has four big volumes of more than a thousand pages per volume.
Kostelanetz: So then it is a project that has been with you for 45 years.
Ferrater-Mora: Yes. Actually it is the only way of carrying on such a project. Namely, if you see the book now, if you see these enormous four volumes of more than a thousand pages each you ask the author, “Would you be willing to produce such a book?”, the author obviously would say no. The possibility of producing such a book is that you produce first a tentative, imprefect, small, disgusting edition, and then later you learn and you refine. You learn by mistakes, and then at the end you come out with something that is much more acceptable than the first time. That's what I had published mostly, and I also produced a considerable number of articles mostly in South American journals.
I came here in 1947, and by 1949 it was suggested that there was a vacancy in philosophy at Bryn Mawr. I visited Bryn Mawr; I saw the president. At the time things were easier in hiring people in this country. Namely, today you go through many committees, which does not mean the selection is better necessarily. But the fact is at the time it was quite sufficient to go have a visit, to see the president, and if the president liked you, if the dean liked you, if the dean of the graduate school liked you, if everybody else liked you, well, no matter how many committees there were, they hired you.
Kostelanetz: Then did you teach in English or in Spanish?
Ferrater-Mora: Well, in the beginning I taught one course in Spanish and two courses in English, and I've been teaching only in English ever since. As a matter of fact, as far as philosophy teaching is concerned, it is easier for me to teach in English than to teach in Spanish after 40 or 35 years of teaching.
Ferrater-Mora: Well, just a matter of habit. It doesn't mean that I couldn't teach in Spanish. I can teach in Spanish perfectly well. I taught a seminar in Madrid and another one in Barcelona two years ago.
Kostelanetz: The books you've written in America, are they in Spanish or English?
Ferrater-Mora: Both. I have five books in English, three of which I wrote directly in English, one on Unamuna, one on Ortega, and one entitled Philosophy Today. And then there are two translations, which actually are my books in a way, because I was not very pleased with the translation so I rewrote the books in their entirety. These two books are Men at the Crossroads, and the other book is Being and Death.
Kostelanetz: Now these are all books of philosophy?
Ferrater-Mora: These are all books of philosophy. As a matter of fact, I never published a literary book until last year when I published in Spain a book of short stories.
Kostelanetz: When did you write the stories?
Ferrater-Mora: I wrote the stories in the course of the last four or five years.
Kostelanetz: And they're all in Spanish?
Ferrater-Mora: They're all in Spanish, yes. As a matter of fact, they happen in the United States, but they are in Spanish. It is difficult to write something on a place where you are not living. I can give one example of the possibility of doing that. In one of the shorter stories there is a South American writer, who comes to this country and wants to be a novelist and write a novel. He is teaching, but then he gives up teaching and tries to write a novel. He has no ideas; he has writer's block. He sees a number of things happening on the street, and that is the subject matter of his novel. He has the problem of finding the proper subject matter. The proper subject matter is something that happens in the country where he is living, not the country where he came from.
Kostelanetz: Let me ask, Mr. Ferrater, about your fiction. What kind of tradition lies behind your recent books of stories?
Ferrater-Mora: My fiction is a little ripple on a more important sea or river of whatever body of water, whic his the philosophical one.
Kostelanetz: True. But it was not written for nothing.
Ferrater-Mora: No, it was written a little bit because... The present situation in philosophy is rather complex, and it is not now the time to express it, but there has been a general diffidence in the philosophical undertaking from every quarter. I think I am doing nothing but what everyone else is doing in philosophy —namely, trying to find other ways aside from the traditional philosophical one.
Kostelanetz: So therefore your fiction is meant to be philosophical fiction as Unamuno wrote philosophical fiction?
Ferrater-Mora: No, it's not meant to translate into fiction a philosophical idea. What I am saying is something of a different character: it's that the philocophical enterprise as we have known it for 2000 years may come to a kind of, yes, dead end.
To come to a dead end doesn't mean necessarily to finish. It means that it has to change it considerably or transform itself considerably from the inside. And so I think it is quite normal that philosophers do try to find other ways of doing things aside from philosophy. I suppose that this is one of the reasons why, aside from my general interest in literary affairs, I have written these short stories.
Kostelanetz: Could you please read a sample?
Ferrater-Mora: No. I don't have a sample of the short stories at all. I'm just reading one paragraph from a book of mine entitled Being and Death, in Spanish entitled El Ser y La Muerte, which I wrote originally in Spanish, and then I rewrote it in English.
Ferrater-Mora: The original version in Spanish is in 1950, and then there is a new version, quite different, in 1965. The English edition is 1967. So I will read in Spanish this paragraph, which I hope will not take more than a couple of minutes. It refers to the experience of the death of a person:
La muerta del familiar, precisamente por hallarse éste tan “prójimo”, no lograba producir por entero esa sensación de soledad completa ante la muerte que otras ocasiones suele revelarnos el morir humano. En este respecto me resultó más alecionadora la muerte de un hombre que sólo en el sentido entido corriente, y harto vago, del témino, podia llamarse “un prójimo”. Asi me ocurrió un diea cuando, en el curso de una journada sangrienta, vi caer, seguado por una bala, el cuerpo de un hombre. No hubo aquí dolor ni —excepto en un sentido muy general—congoja. Parecia que la muerte ajena era una muerte ajena —algo acontecido “fuera”, algo por asi decirio, “objetivo”, un “mero hecho” —? No era por lo pronto, sólo el cuerpo de un semejante el que caia, como un muñeco a quien le fallaran de subito los resortes, con un ruido sordo y seco, sobre el duro empedrado de la calle? Contribula a esta impresión la patética escenografia sobre la cual se montaba el hecho: la luz incierta de la alborada, los secos restallidos de los disparos, la calle solitaria, y bajo el foco de la mirada, como alumbrado por un respandor invisible, el especto final de estatua del caido.
As a matter of fact, it is a philosophical piece, but it is quite literary because it is a description.
And then I tried to in the English translation —and I don't know how faithful it is. I'll just read a couple of sentences from the end of this.
Was it not, to begin with, only the body of an unknown fellow creature that fell, like a marionette whose strings had suddenly been cut, with a dull and muffled thud, on the stone covered field? Enhancing this impression was the somewhat dramatic setting in which the even occurred: the dim light of dawn, the abrupt crack of rifle fire, the desolate landscape, and, within my gaze, as if lit by an invisible projector, the quiescent shape of the fallen man.
Kostelanetz: What about that “pathetic stenography”?
Ferrater-Mora: I beg your pardon?
Kostelanetz: You have that expression about the “pathetic stenography,” patética estanografia or whatever it is. How does it go in English?
Ferrater-Mora: Yes. Well, I don't know whether I have it in the English text. As a matter of fact, it changed a good deal here and there. Yes, you're right that there are some places where the word “pathetic” is here and it's not in the English text.
Kostelanetz: That's terrific English, terrific verbalization.
Ferrater-Mora: The difficulties that there are —when we compare one language to the other and when we want to say something in one language that we assume can or cannot be said in another language— occur mostly on the conceptual level, I think. I have an example. Brodsky just asked me wether I found in English anything like the expression patética estenografia, and I found it. In English it reads dramatic setting. What happens here? Let me give an example. I heard a number of times the Argentinian writer Borges being interviewed. He always makes the same claim that you cannot say much in Spanish. He always deplores that he is not an English writer, and he always claims that you cannot say in Spanish a number of things that you can say in English. Well, I would say that he is right but you can reverse the case. You cannot say in English a number of things that you can say in Spanish. And that particular passage, I think, is interesting. I mean, it is an insignificant passage, but I think it is linguistically interesting. There is something you can say in Spanish here and it's perfectly well and it's quite ordinary, patética estenografia, which in English would be ridiculous. So in English you have to say something like a dramatic setting. On the other hand, in Spanish you have sobre la cosa montaba el hecho; in English you have to say something to translate the concept —something like the dramatic setting in which the event occurs, which is literally not interesting at all. Well, I have found, my experience is that sometimes it goes both ways. I mean sometimes I find something in English which I find absolutely impossible to say in Spanish with the same degree of vividness and color. But also the other way around. And that happens on the conceptual level rather than on the descriptive level.
Kostelanetz: Are there other non-English writers working in America now who you greatly admire, Ferrater?
Ferrater-Mora: Well, it happens that at present none, but there have been a number of very distinguished poets in the United States. Jorge Guillen, for instance, was here for many yeasr. And Salinas was here for many years. This is the Generation of 1927, and this generation is now either back in Spain or they simply died.
Kostelanetz: Generation of '27 —people who left in '27?
Ferrater-Mora: No, the Generation of '27 is so called... In Spain there is a tendency, which comes from a German tradition, of calling a generation a certain number of people who flourished, had their acme, as they say in Greek, at a certain period, and it was in 1927. There was Ramón Sendor, a great novelist who was very old and went back to Spain. I think there are very few people really now.
Kostelanetz: So the phenomenon of Spanish writers coming to this country has passed.
Ferrater-Mora: Yes, I think so. As a matter of fact, most of the Spanish writers that were not living in Spain were living in South America rather than in the United States.
Brodsky, Joseph, A Part of Speech. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1980.
American Writing Today, vol. 2, 1982, p. 103-127