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Professor links Bob Dylan to hearts, minds of Italians


UH Director of Italian Studies Alessandro Carrera was fascinated when he uncovered a type of music that did not indulge in the classical tradition; Bob Dylan awakened his curiosity. | Courtesy of Alessandro Carrera

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize is a source of immense pride for many Americans, but particularly for the University of Houston—because Dylan’s translator is a professor here.

Alessandro Carrera, social sciences professor and director of Italian Studies, has never met Bob Dylan in person. He, however, has translated almost all of the singer’s poetry, songs and prose into Italian.

“To be engaged with a demanding text is the best thing that can happen to a translator,” Carrera said. “You go through the frustration of not being able to reproduce the original texture in another language, but occasionally you feel elated because you finally ‘get’ the line that has eluded you so far.”

Major impact

Carrera, who is also the graduate director of UH’s World Cultures and Literatures M.A., arrived at UH in 2001. He has been the recipient of the Montale Prize for Poetry in 1993, the Loria Prize for short fiction in 1998 and the Bertolucci Prize for Literary Criticism in 2006.

Carrera has published countless articles and books with diverse topics ranging from politics to music to Italian cinema.

He is now seemingly at the height of his career, since Dylan, 75, became the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Following the announcement, Carrera was called for interviews about his work with Dylan.

“I felt great,” Carrera said. “I have given (Dylan) so much time of my life that when the Third Channel of the Italian state radio called me at six in the morning for an impromptu interview, I felt vindicated of all the condescending smiles I have received now and then from people who thought that I would be better off putting aside my teenager crushes.”

During the interview, Carrera argued with an Italian poet who did not agree with the decision of bestowing the most distinguished award in literature to a songwriter. Carrera said that Dylan may not belong to “literature writ small,” but he surely belongs to “poetry writ large.”

Carrera isn’t the only Dylan fan on campus.

Richard Armstrong, the UH coordinator of international programs and Honors College associate professor of classical studies, has assisted Carrera in a few lines of his translations.

“Translators historically have lived in the shadows, but that is changing,” Armstrong said. “There is a real recognition now of the vital role they play in cultural mediation.”

The ‘marvel’ translator

Armstrong said that he is endeared by how Carrera, born in Italy and therefore not a native English speaker, has devoted so much of his genuine interest and time to the American culture. Armstrong also said Italians are “lucky” to have someone with so much zeal tirelessly working on meta-phrasing lyrics into Italian, which requires tremendous effort and patience.

David Mikics, an English professor in the Honors College, is similarly outspoken about his admiration for Carrera. He wrote an article about Dylan a few years ago that Carrera translated in a collection of Dylan-related essays for an Italian publisher.

“Alessandro is a marvel — a jack of all trades, a scholar and writer of imagination and vast knowledge,” Mikics said. “My Italian is not good enough to comment on Alessandro’s translations of Dylan, but such translation requires enormous inventiveness and subtlety. Just imagine trying to find an equivalent for the ‘jingle jangle morning’ of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ or the whole of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.'”

During his time at UH, Carrera has even implemented Dylan’s work in his curriculum.

He taught and discussed Dylan’s song about civil rights struggles, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” in one of his cultural studies classes. He finds the diversity of Dylan’s subjects — and, sometimes, the subsequent controversy — a productive learning experience for himself.

“I learned from Dylan that you can use pretty much everything you meet along the way,” Carrera said. “That has been a very useful lesson as I moved from one place to another and from one appointment to another, until I came to UH.”

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