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Norman Di Giovanni, the master’s translator

Norman Di Giovanni and Jorge Luis Borges, pictured together in this file photograph.
Norman Di Giovanni and Jorge Luis Borges, pictured together in this file photograph.
Norman Di Giovanni and Jorge Luis Borges, pictured together in this file photograph.
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By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald

Former editor-in-chief Andrew Graham-Yooll pays tribute to a true friend

Norman Thomas di Giovanni will be remembered by friends in Buenos Aires for his wit and for his brash manner in all that he set out to do. He must also be remembered for his brilliant literary training, his high quality as a translator and his capacity to move from his hard-knocks managerial style to his kindness as a friend to all of his friends and for his often excessive generosity. Di Giovanni wanted to help the whole world. He was a sponge for attention and affection from all those he befriended or was close to at any one time.

However, Di Giovanni would probably want to be remembered simply as the best translator that Jorge Luis Borges ever had.

Di Giovanni died last week, on February 15. He had reached the respectable age of 83 last October 3. He died in his sleep, in hospital at Bournemouth, in southern England. He had been unwell for some time with heart and kidney problems, and had difficulty walking in part due to a knee surgery which had not worked well. Norman was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1933, and was named after the leader of the US Socialist Party, Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas (1883-1968). Di Giovanni graduated in 1955 from Antioch College, a studies centre he remained linked to through its excellent literary magazine, The Antioch Review, for several decades.

Shortly after graduation, Di Giovanni started to work with Spanish poet Jorge Guillén (1893-1984), then at Harvard to deliver the Eliot Norton lectures in 1957 and 1958. Norman was the editor and translator into English of 50 of Guillén’s poems with a group of translator-poets. From that start he grew into a trenchant, but still kind and patient editor. He was amusing to watch at work, squinting at the screen (or paper in times of typewriters), ready to be distracted by every woman that passed his way.

Ten years later, in 1967, Norman was to meet Jorge Luis Borges who, in turn, was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and proposed that they collaborate in a style like the bilingual production of Guillén’s poetry. Borges returned to Buenos Aires and suggested that they work together. First published in The New Yorker, the translations appeared in book form in 1972 as Selected Poems, 1923-1967 with the Spanish and English versions on facing pages. Di Giovanni and his wife and their two sons, Derek and Tom, were to spend two years in Argentina.

The Herald was a direct and early beneficiary of the association, which some in Buenos Aires were tempted to call a “Johnson-Boswell” arrangement. However, the monumental volume of the posthumously published diaries of Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999) knocks down that bit of gossip. Among the early translations completed by the author and translator was The Book of Imaginary Beings, a selection of which the Herald published in 1970, illustrated by Hermenegildo Sabat, and reprinted by permission of Borges’ widow, María Kodama, and Sabat in 2006. Another piece of gossip held that in an interview at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in April 1980, Borges said that Norman di Giovanni claimed his translations were better than Borges’ originals. Funny, I had heard Borges, not Norman, say that he thought some of his poems sounded better in English than in the Spanish original. Probably each had misquoted the other.

In 1971, Norman and family left Buenos Aires for England. His feeling was that Argentina was stumbling toward chaos. He was divorced and, later, with his second wife, Susan Ashe, formed a literary translation partnership that includes several books, among them Hand-in-Hand Beside the Tracks (Constable, London, 1992), a collection of contemporary stories by Argentine writers, and many more translations, of course.

After the death of Borges in 1986, Norman’s relationship with María Kodama went on a collision course, with legal arguments and much unpleasantness.

Norman’s books included: Celeste Goes Dancing and other stories (Constable 1989), translated with Susan Ashe, the above-mentioned collection of stories, and The Lesson of the Master, On Borges and his Work (Continuum 2003), among others. He also has three books due to come out this year, one a novel he wrote years ago, an autobiographical book about his life in Boston as a young man, and the last a collection of short pieces about the place where he grew up in Boston in the 30s and 40s. Di Giovanni also wrote the novel Novecento, published in the US and UK as 1976, based on the similarly titled film by Bernardo Bertolucci.

He led a rich and productive life and his style of charm and friendship will be missed by those who knew and worked with him.

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