Balancing transparency and obscurity in a translation, an essay about “what you didn’t even know was there.” Asymptote, spring 2019
In canto two of Dante’s “Paradiso,” Beatrice speaks of lo turbo e ‘l chiaro, rules that govern the heavens. Opposites: il turbo suggests obscurity or opacity and il chiaro, clarity or transparency. Translation, argued the Italian memoirist, professor, and translator Luigi Meneghello (1922–2007), is the business of negotiating between obscurity and clarity. Every written text is a mixture of Dante’s turbo and chiaro, he said, qualities that reflect the workings of the human mind.
[E]very text has clear parts and obscure parts, not only
superficially … but throughout its structure, because of the
way our minds work. I think the meaning of any text is
intrinsically difficult to determine. That is, no one, not
even the author, is sure what it means, everything that it means.
For me, translation shifts a text’s internal equilibriums . . .
which are stable in your immediate, direct comprehension,
and yet as soon as you begin to translate, something
emerges that you didn’t even know was there.
Luminous flashes from a childhood fractured by the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia. Written with great artistry in Georgian-born Ruska Jorjoliani’s adopted language of Italian. A joy to translate.
In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, seven-year-old Ruska Jorjoliani and her family fled the Abkhazia region of Georgia, then in the grip of war and ethnic cleansing that cost the lives of as many as 30,000 Georgians. From her birthplace of Mestia in the Causcasus, they became refugees in Tbilisi in 1992. The following summer Ruska and other children caught up in that conflict were sent to stay with Italian families, a humanitarian project to provide them with temporary safety, adequate nutrition and something like normality. That first summer Jorjoliani began to master Italian. Since 2007 she has lived in her adoptive city of Palermo, where she is pursuing a second university degree in philosophy. But her command of the language is not merely good, she’s an accomplished writer in Italian with a haunting, musical style. The author of stories and a novel, she’s considered a promising young talent in the language.
The story “Pitch Dark”, published in the FLR issue 4, autumn 2018 was written during Ruska Jorjoliani’s writer’s residency in San Gimignano and reflects an imaginative connection between that medieval Tuscan city and the border villages of her native Georgia, with their similar stone towers. It’s a somewhat enigmatic tale about a father and son, tyranny and resistance. The style is compressed in cryptic observations and unexpected metaphors, so that a reader must pause and reflect to absorb all that she’s saying. Those qualities– extreme compression and a pacing that can resemble a musical line, with invitations to pause and think– are challenges for a translator accustomed to the frankness, simplicity and rapid-fire narrative style of so much contemporary writing. Finding a voice for Ruska Jorjoliani also meant giving some thought to the register (slightly formal, no contemporary vernacular will do) and the structure of the sentences, which as she has noted, borrow somewhat from her native Georgian.
In Italian, she has written short stories and a novel that takes place over a century beginning in revolutionary Russia, La tua presenza è come una città (titled, in the German edition, “You, in the Skies with Me”, 2015). The novel garnered critical acclaim and a special mention for the Hermann Geiger prize in 2016, as well as Best Book at Librinfestival 2018. The German translation of her novel, from the Swiss press Rotpunkverlag, was named one of the ten best books of the year among titles published by the German language independent press.
Turning for a last look at the
Land I loved, hard to know
Whether it’s the mood of this
Pious-fatalistic, or the actual
Weather out there
Clots of yellow-grey
Haze, drifting like loose
Vapors from an oil spill or plastic
Waste that has broken
Free from the great
Pacific garbage patch, or the
Fog of war over our
Regions, nations, townships and
Condominiums. It’s not as
Pretty as I once thought, but then
Once is all you get
Time now for the
Children to step up, they’d better be
Better, braver, smarter,
Stronger. I think they are.
Sorry ma’m, say that again? It’s
Noisy out here.
“Italy is seen as a country of pleasures and beautiful things; there’s little interest in the intellectual life. That offends me, I guess. Over the years, I’ve developed that Italian chip on my shoulder. I’m like the British historian who said his studies of Italy were “reeking with bias.”
For a recent issue of The Translator, I spoke about Italian writers I’ve translated with Elisa Segnini, a lecturer in Italian at the University of Glasgow. Segnini is specialized in the translation and reception of Italian fiction abroad and the poetics and politics of multilingual texts. She’s written about the international careers of Elena Ferrante and Andrea Camilleri, among other things.
We talked of the stereotypes about Italy that afflict Anglophone publishing (perhaps now changing) and how they complicate the ability of English language readers to know Italy better and to appreciate unexpected literary modes, among them irony.
read the interview: Translating Irony in Two Writers from Italy’s Northeast in The Translator 24:1