Meet our alumni: an interview with Julia Pelosi-Thorpe
Julia Pelosi-Thorpe completed her Master of Arts (Thesis Only) in Italian and classical studies in 2020. Her project focused on the reception of Ovid’s Heroides in a seventeenth-century genre of Italian baroque poems known as epistole eroiche (‘letters of heroines/heroes’).
Julia also translates poetry. Her English versions of Latin, Italian, and Parmesan dialect poems appear in publications such as Modern Poetry in Translation, The Poetry Review, Asymptote, the Journal of Italian Translation, the Griffith Review, and the Australian Multicultural Writing Project.
Monica interviewed Julia to learn about her academic, creative, and professional journey.
Your career spans the worlds of academic and creative writing. Can we start by hearing a bit more about your masters project on the epistole eroiche?
The lines between my academic and creative writings feel very blurred. The literature I’m drawn to research inspires me. Epistole eroiche, for example, engage provocatively with a host of other texts and traditions in a way that really appeals to me. They are a form of fan fiction, based on letters between characters from well-known narratives: mythology, the bible, early modern works of fiction. There are even some with historical protagonists like Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Henry the Eighth and Catherine of Aragon. My project focused on the strong presence of the works and legacies of Ovid in this genre. There was so much to notice and unpack!
This focus on Ovid’s reception additionally led me to explore translations in the more traditional sense (that is, renderings from Ovid’s Latin into the Italian vernacular) which informed the epistole eroiche’s more experimental reworkings. I loved comparing different styles and practices of textual adaptation. They taught me a lot about my own techniques!
How did you come to this topic? I’m particularly curious to hear how your previous studies, language skills, and creative interests informed your project.
I had a pre-existing fascination with Ovid dating back to my Bachelor of Arts in classics. My Honours thesis examined his Dido in Heroides 7 as she refracts previous Didos, including Virgil’s in the Aeneid. After working full-time as a language teacher (of English, Italian, and Latin), I was interested in returning to study translation as a form of reception. I wanted to encounter groundbreaking texts that retained active and self-conscious bonds with the classical world. Being Italo-Australian, the Italian department immediately appealed to me. I found wonderful supervisors in Andrea Rizzi (Italian studies) and Andrew Turner (classics), who have rich experience in translation and reception studies. Both supported my pursuit of intriguing baroque adaptations, and I eventually discovered the epistola eroica genre through the work of Julie Robarts (who was in SOLL working with Andrea Rizzi on her brilliant PhD thesis at the time).
You had the opportunity to conduct field work in Italy as a part of your masters project. Can you tell us what that was like and how it contributed to your project?
In 2019 the Cassamarca and Dino De Poli scholarships from the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies supported an exciting two-month research trip. I visited ten libraries across the north and centre of Italy, consulting early modern vernacular Ovid translations and Latin editions with commentary, as well as, of course, epistole eroiche. This was my only chance to access these texts, which were not digitalised. The trip was therefore vital to the completion of my thesis. But the experience also enriched my ideas, research skills with early-modern printed texts, and understanding of the history of the book. Physically handling so many volumes helped me really feel their power as dynamic objects, as well as their ongoing contribution to a long and complex tradition. An example of something that moved me was when, in Rome, I found some flowers pressed between the pages of a sixteenth-century edition of the Heroides.
A flower found in the margins of the Heroides, printed in the sixteenth century. Photo by Julia Pelosi-Thorpe.
I had the pleasure of attending your completion seminar in 2020, where many attendees commented on how much more there is to learn about your field of research. Are you considering undertaking a doctoral project building upon your masters thesis?
Thank you for attending! I’ve recently enrolled in a PhD in Italian studies and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania and am looking forward to starting. I’m thrilled about the experiences these two programmes can offer me. Among other aspects, I really enjoyed working in two schools (SOLL and SHAPS) during my MA, and it’s great that the University of Pennsylvania is similarly open to interdepartmental collaboration and exchange.
Graduates from research programs are increasingly looking to build careers outside of academia. I know you wear many professional hats, so I’m curious to hear how your research background contributes to the work outside academia you currently do. What do you think you uniquely gained from your masters studies?
I view my work inside and outside of academia as intrinsically linked. My appreciation of the rewritings I encounter across time stimulates my own active practice of reception, which, in turn, informs my intellectual interests. This circular process of practising what I study and studying what I practice is integral to the way I understand things.
This is an equilibrium I’ve felt in recent years. I’m not sure what my future career might look like, but I think everything I do generates a unique spark that I can bring into future projects.
Academic systems as they are today can make things really hard for people, no matter how interesting their ideas are. The disenchantment from what I’ve seen has helped me visualise hybrid and non-academic futures with as much vibrancy as my old fantasies of the academy.
The idea of translating literature is a kind of pie-in-the-sky dream for many language learners – or at least me! Can you speak a bit more about how you got a foot in the door of literary translation? Do you have any tips for people interested in literary translation?
I wonder at what point I will feel I have a foot in the door… The majority of my submissions are rejected or receive no response. But I love translating, and this diminishes the pain of rejection. For me, it’s therapeutic, didactic, artistic. This is a cliche to say, but it nourishes my soul. Something else that helped thicken my skin was setting myself a goal to be rejected 100 times. I don’t know whether this is a good strategy, but I tried to push away fear.
Of course, my other sources of income allow me to approach things like this. I found it useful to view alternate sources of income without feelings of failure. In the two years post-MA, I’ve supported myself through a mix of translation projects, academic editing jobs, Latin teaching, the ACIS-Save Venice research fellowship, and administrative work. When finances are steadier, I have more time to devote to translation work. When they aren’t, I try not to worry. I remind myself that translating is something I’ve done my whole life (I grew up in a trilingual family) and will never stop doing, regardless of who might publish what and when.
What projects are you currently working on and what projects are you planning in the future?
I am currently in Italy on the ACIS-Save Venice Fellowship, which is proving an incredible experience. I’ve had the opportunity to consult poetry collections in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and other libraries in the Veneto region for some papers I’m writing that look at baroque receptions of classical mythology.
I’ve also had the chance to attend Lugano’s literary festival Poestate. The magnificent Stella N’Djoku (whose poetry I have the joy of translating) lives there, and we crafted a tribute to Pier Paolo Pasolini. Across readings of his poetry and our own, we explored the theme of mothers, motherlands, and mother tongues. We read in Italian, English, two Friuli languages (those of Pasolini’s mother and N’Djoku’s mother), and the Parmesan language (my mother’s mother’s native tongue).
Our idea came from a set of cotranslations I completed last year with Marco Sonzogni for the Fondazione Pordenonelegge’s project Pasolini undici#ventidue. The eleven dialect poems by Pasolini we transformed into English will appear in the Journal of Italian Translation later this year.
But the most important plan of mine for the coming month is rest, because then the PhD begins…
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Julia. All the best for the next part of your academic and creative journey.