hooded crowAbout translation, what it sets out to do,  and what it accomplishes. Literary sleight-of-hand and cultural transparency. And about Italy, my adoptive home.


Le pagine nere

I’ve been reading Daniele Petruccioli’s new study on translation, Le pagine nere (“Black Pages”, a play on words on the canonical “blank page” the writer must face every day at her desk.) Unlike the writer of original prose who fears not being able to fill up the blank page before him—allow me to alternate the pronouns–the translator has an equally demanding task, says Petruccioli.

She’s faced with pages all too dense with black print, words that must be rewritten, reinvented, in a second language. Judging whether the job has been done well is never pagine nereeasy. The reader of the target language, who at times will desire prose that’s effortless, other times something distinguished and “literary”, must be accommodated. But so must the reader who has a deep knowledge of the source language and culture and demands they be adequately reflected in the new language.

In his preface to Pagine nere, Enrico Terrinoni, who with Fabio Pedone recently published an Italian Finnegan’s Wake, writes that the act of translation, far from being a task for specialists, is one of humanity’s basic ways of knowing and sharing, not very different from speaking and writing, all activities of communication. It demands “application and seriousness, above all, moral,” says Terrinoni. The translator, he writes “is a sort of Charon in reverse, taking the damned to the land of the living.” Life is restored in the act of interpreting the text, for as Petruccioli writes, “interpretation is a process simultaneous with translation—indeed it may not even be distinguishable”.  His book is a plea for recognizing and condoning the act of interpretation as one of the translator’s primary task and responsibilities. The fact that a conservative “literal” translation that sticks very close to syntax and cognates is almost never the best way to express a text in a second language text is something many writers, editors and reviewers still have to learn.

Although nurtured by the works of various scholars of translation and cultural studies, Petruccioli remains appealingly concrete in discussing the pitfalls and dilemmas faced by the translator. I wandered around on what was left of my Zanax: how to convey the English phrase’s distinctive alliteration in a language that doesn’t have a W nor an X to confound it with? He writes about learning to hear the voice of the narrator; using Italian regionalisms and other mixed languages to convey place and character; creating rhythm in a second language when the first is strongly marked; syntax, punctuation and establishing rhythm. He’s particularly interesting on the conflicts that can arise between a translator and her publisher, for example, editorial pressures to produce a simple, well-groomed Italian in translation no matter how eccentric the original, and the contentious issue of regionalisms or language that will not be understood by every reader, often anathema to editors and publishers. The “interpretive” translator is the one bound to have the most hassles in the editing process, because he’s thought about the text harder and sometimes has a deeper understanding of the language.

In the past few years we’ve seen a surprising new public interest in translating and reading translations. The excellent Pagine nere couldn’t come at a better time.

City of Pigs

‘Supermeat that’s redder than red. Bloodier than a slit vein. Tenderer than a mouthful of petals. More nutritious than three whole meals. Humans eat it. Pigs find it revolting ← its sponginess, its smell. Pigs refuse PanCarnis. SuperMeat.’

“City of Pigs” tells of an ugly, heartless world to the measure of no one, in which the protagonist, a pig, learns he is not merely a cog in a machine but destined for the tables of the NormoLimbed, the bosses. The story appeared on the lit blog Nazione Indiana in March 2017. The author, Davide Orecchio, is one of those Italian writers whose originality and moral and esthetic seriousness aren’t always easy to convey in a brief translated excerpt, for his longer works of fiction also depend on subtle cues and a weaving of themes through a series of chapters. This, however, was a story that could be read and appreciated on its own.

Best European Fiction 2018, Dalkey Archive’s annual collection, chose “City of Pigs” for inclusion this year. It is an “extraordinary story of outright dystopia” writes editor Alex Andriesse in his introduction.  As different as it is from other works by Orecchio, the author’s bountiful imagination, his verbal artistry, and his tragic but not entirely pessimistic world view, so apparent in his full-length fiction Città distrutte: sei biografie infedeli (2011) and Stati di grazia (2014), were visible here too.

Those two earlier books, collections of stories that weave together to form a greater story, illustrate the author’s preoccupation with the workings and the judgments of history.  Orecchio, in fact, holds a PhD in European history. In the fall of 2017 came a third book, Mio padre la rivoluzione. (“My father, the revolution”) a deeply thoughtful, poetic, personal-but-not-really-first-person book that investigates the mythic power of the Russian Revolution, both as Soviet hopes and as the terrible reality of Stalinism. Once again Orecchio displays his special ability to animate history, a sort of meta-character acting beyond the reach of, yet also made by, the individuals in his three books.

While Orecchio’s other works focus on past and present, “City of Pigs” is located on the border between present and future.  A pig foolishly wanders into a supermarket from the ugly, alien urban environment outside and discovers that city pigs are the principal ingredient in PanCarnis, ersatz meat declined in pseudobeef, pseudoveal and pseudoturkey on sale to humans. The story is told from the porcine point of view: confused, lost and frightened. It’s not enough that the humans despise and exploit him, he now understands he will literally be consumed by these NormoLimbers who control the city.

Fascinated, horrified, he examines PanCarnis, this “substance that is nearer to orange than to red, shiny and phosphorescent, laid out in slices on the majolica tub.” “Chameleon-meat. That assumes the desired form. As desired. Like a prostitute.”

On a hologram he watches a mother feed her child slices of pseudoprosciutto:  “The flavor of meat. A new flavor. Mortality. Barbarity. Power. Window-dressing. Hypocrisy. The price of meat. I don’t want to watch. I don’t want to know. Astro Eclipse ™ white light. The dazzling color orange. The truth. Human taste, human gluttony. The condiment, the preserve. Pepper corns between the teeth, dregs of skin. Fat. Salt, thirst.”

The poetic quality of Orecchio’s writing  is matched in all his work by a concern with power, and often power that is exercised cruelly or unfairly. In “City of Pigs” he captures the anxiety and terror of the victim in a universe he neither comprehends nor controls.

read “City of Pigs”



The Voice of God

“Sono Dio” the novel begins. “I am God”. The opening chapters of this eccentric and exhilarating work of fiction by Giacomo Sartori, recently published in Massachusetts Review under the title “Sagittarius A*, unfold in some of the liveliest and wittiest Italian prose I’ve worked on. But not easy to translate.

The first chapter, and alternate chapters of the novel’s next 49, each very brief, is a monologue by the deity telling us, often brusquely and with comical effect, who he is, how he spends his time and what he thinks about religion, about Jesus Christ, about the various species, about human beings and their miserable husbandry of the Earth. The chapters in between, also narrated by God, are episodes in the life of a young woman who has caught God’s eye, Daphne (nomen omen, the nymph pursued by Apollo who was turned into a tree). She is a brilliant young Italian microbiologist who rides a motorcycle, has a punk hairstyle, and a poorly-paid short-term research contract. Oh, and she’s a proselytizing atheist. She makes ends meet moonlighting as an inseminator of dairy cows. God watches her shove an arm into the beast’s entrails and shoot the bull’s semen at a ripe follicle. He’s mildly annoyed, because all this could be done, you know, naturally, by the bull himself, as the Supreme Being set it up at the beginning of time.

We (and God) follow Daphne back to her lab, where we learn that her handsome, vain boss has had (consensual, sort of) sex with her and is vaguely worried she may make trouble for him. Daphne designs and carries out the lab’s genetic research, he takes full credit. And what is worse, he doesn’t even turn her on. Meanwhile God is developing a crush on Daphne, although he doesn’t admit that to himself. He’s the ultimate Unreliable—or rather Fallible–Narrator, and his point of view is very broad but sometimes a bit antiquated and well, masculine.

If Sono Dio works, it is because Sartori has devised a convincing voice for God’s musings in Italian, a voice that that careens between high and low registers, improvising with expressions he has overheard and only barely knows how to use. “I mean, we need to talk about this” he’ll say, colloquially, at one point, and then suddenly he’ll shift gears and go on about “the self-serving side of religious afflatus.”

“It’s a titanic struggle wrestling with a language that wasn’t made for a god,” God reflects. “It makes me say all sorts of nonsense I find repellent.”  Thus the author, in quasi-metafictional asides, has God comment on the distorting effect of using Earth language to tell his story (and by extension on Sartori’s problems in finding a voice for his narrator).

In turn, coming up with that voice in English was tricky not only because the literary quality of the novel depends so much on it, but because God’s character is almost entirely evoked in the way he expresses himself. He must sound both imposing (sometimes pompous) and oddly vulnerable, even a bit clueless at times (for example in his inability to contemplate that Daphne might be attracted to a woman).  I had to write and rewrite to get something that resembled a large-minded but love-struck Supreme Being.

There were other demands, too. Sartori makes abundant use of diminutives, augmentatives, approbatives and pejoratives, all expressed by suffixes in Italian. The verbal energy and pleasure these words supply are far from being adequately represented in a language like English without them, just by putting a “little”, “big” or “big bad” before the noun. Not to mention the fact that those adjectives soon become repetitive.  In the first half of Sono Dio, God doesn’t name any of his characters; they are referred to by a series of descriptive terms using suffixes “the tall one”, “the little one”, varied often to keep the narrative lively. Hoping to preserve the playfulness and freshness of those terms, I tried mightily to invent nouns that play on the basic concepts  defining the characters, and Daphne in particular: the beanpole, the giantessa, the tall atheiette, the lanky microbiologist. This aspect of the translation is still a work in progress; in any case, translator’s fidelity aside, I’m all for attempts to stir up the target language by trying to reproduce linguistic mechanisms native to the source, but absent from the target. It  makes writing English more fun.

Here are the opening chapters of the story, in English. Read the excerpt, “Sagittarius A*”



Notes from a talk about Guido Morselli’s The Communist

Walter Ferranini, The Communist’s troubled but loyal man of the left, is that rare, fascinating fictional character both intensely present and oddly allegorical, a figure who lingers after reading, even when you have forgotten the details of his story. A farm coop organizer and Italian Communist Party (PCI) deputy from “Italy’s Kiev”, the agricultural heartland of Emilia, he’s a man who might have been a simple party hack. In the fanciful mind of Guido Morselli, instead, Walter is a tormented and unexpectedly sympathetic human being. We both pity him and identify with him–maybe paradoxically especially today when the Soviet bloc, along with western Communist parties like the PCI, is good and dead and capitalism has triumphed.


Ferranini is melancholy, earnest, an autodidact. Lonely, searching, a true believer. His father was a railway man and anarchist; he starts as a lowly freight loader and years later, before election to parliament, has risen to labor organizer. It is two years after the XX Soviet party congress in 1956–when Khrushchev for the first time denounced the Stalinist dictatorship—and the man is having a sort of nervous breakdown.

He’s begun to question every tenet of his faith, and soon he will run afoul of party doctrine. His health worries him. The puritanical PCI disapproves of his affair with the married Nuccia, a delightful character herself, intelligent, quizzical, mother and working woman.

By the way, the protagonists of nearly all of Guido Morselli’s novels go by the name “Walter”.  Read More

from a talk at John Cabot University, Rome, October 18, 2017

When a translation over-adapts a foreign text to English style, isn’t that cultural appropriation?

Is it fair to weigh in on a translation I haven’t read much of in a language unknown to me–but also to most of the rest of the world?  Maybe not. But the continuing controversy about the English version of a prize-winning Asian novel I won’t name here (so as not to personalize matters beyond the translation community, already aware of the case), does provoke some unavoidable questions and convictions about the business of translation.

The translator is young and like most of us probably still has more to learn about her craft. Success has brought her attention, and she’s given quite a few interviews in which she talks about her theory and practice, interviews readily available online to anyone interested. Her translation has been criticized in the novel’s country of origin, and it’s suggested she decisively changed the register and the tone to meet the expectations of Anglophone readers. Those critics have in turn been attacked by scholars and translators who know the home country and language, on the grounds they reflect the intense male chauvinism of its patriarchal society. Women, particularly have risen to the translator’s defence in a way that reminds me of the outrage at attempts to identify the author behind the novels by Elena Ferrante.

There’s good reason for this: women translators, like women writers, have long been ignored, neglected, underestimated, criticized, patronized and pounced on for making trivial errors that might be grandly overlooked in a male counterpart.  In a long-ago essay Vladimir Nabokov classified translators into three types, of which “the well-meaning hack” devoid of all creative genius is personified by a “laborious lady” (his guilty party, who goes unnamed, was certainly Constance Garnett.) I’m sure male chauvinism is driving some criticism of this present, contested translation too.

And yet.      more