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.


Notes from a talk about Guido Morselli’s The Communist

Walter Ferranini, The Communist’s troubled but loyal man of the left, is one of those rare fictional characters you don’t forget. A farm coop organizer and Italian Communist Party (PCI) deputy from “Italy’s Kiev”, the agricultural heartland of Emilia, he’s a figure some might see as a simple party hack. In the fanciful mind of Guido Morselli, instead, Walter is a tormented and unexpectedly sympathetic human being. We both pity and like him–maybe The_Communist_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”.

 And Ferranini’s creator, Guido Morselli?

Morselli was unlucky as a writer, and his talent went unrecognized in his lifetime.

He was born into a prosperous bourgeois family in 1912 in Bologna, his father an industrial executive. Although Guido reluctantly got a degree in law, he was only ever interested in literature, and resisted all his father’s efforts to coopt him into the pharmaceutical business. In the 1930s he traveled around Europe and worked as a journalist, publishing a few things. He wrote a book about his beloved Proust. During the war he was stationed in Calabria and never saw battle. Because the South was under Allied control, he never had to make a choice between fascism and resistance, as many did.

After the war his father agreed to give him a small allowance and he built himself a house just outside of Gavirate near tiny lake Varese, between Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como. There he lived very frugally, without a refrigerator for many years and never acquiring a TV. On his identity papers he gave his occupation as farmer. He grew grapes and made wine, a red called Sasso di Gavirate. A few bottles of his vintage recently surfaced, now 50 years old.

He never married.

Morselli was a loner, prickly, proud. An outsider, both as a person and as a writer. “He was alone and afraid of nothing”, said his friend Maria Bruna Bassi, “but he had an atrocious fear of human beings.”

In a diary entry from the period he wrote: “Last night before going to sleep I saw myself as I had been a few hours before, walking along the road toward home.  Reliving the scene of that man, myself, crossing piazza del Mercato, I felt more pity, more mercy, for human beings than I had ever done before.”

Then one day in 1973 he returned from a holiday in the mountains and found a rejection slip from Mondadori. The book in question was the novel Dissipatio H.G. That night Morselli shot himself. He was 61. A note on his desk said “I bear no malice.” Today Dissipatio–about a man who, having tried and failed to commit suicide, wakes up to find all other human beings have vanished from the earth–is considered a masterpiece. The year after he died the distinguished publishing house Adelphi began to put out all his novels, one after another. There are seven, as well as several volumes of essays and his lengthy Diary, and they have established Morselli as one of Italy’s most brilliant and original 20th century writers. Not one of those novels was published in his lifetime.

So, a lonely, proud farmer –but also a donnaiolo, a womanizer, a ladies’ man, we are told by the leading Morselli scholar Valentina Fortichiari. For example, he might flirt with the woman selling tickets at the movies, the queue backing up for many yards as people began to grumble. And he was a proper bourgeois farmer, who cared about his clothing and his appearance, and kept meticulous track of his weight and waistline measurement in his diary.

Morselli’s sympathy for his Communist is all the more striking because the novel was written during the Cold War (set in 1958, written in 1964 and finally published in 1976) at a time when the Italian intelligentsia was pretty sharply divided between PCI and anti-Communists.

And Morselli himself was no Communist. (He is said to have voted, reluctantly, for the Christian Democrats and even struggled to be a proper Catholic.)  But he was no anti-Communist either. The fact that he made his troubled everyman a PCI loyalist, without throwing in any of the usual anti-Communist boilerplate, is part of the book’s drama. The novel’s premonition about the decline of communism is presented as tragic, not the welcome victory of capitalist “democracy” and the end of history. Remember, he wrote this at a time when the USSR and the PCI seemed very solid and destined to long life.

In a lengthy letter to Italo Calvino he said of himself, “So as not to be a complete stranger to you: I come from Emilia, I’m an autodidact, I live on a little piece of land where I do a bit of everything, even stone masonry. Politically I’m a mess, with just about no hope of resolving the matter.

Trust me,  Guido Morselli”.

In other words, Walter Ferranini c’est moi.

Today, Morselli is recognized as one of Italy’s most original post-war novelists. Why did his novels fail to interest publishers and critics in the 1960s?

The short answer: he was unclassifiable. He was a literary outsider who conformed to no late modernist school then recognized in Italy. He didn’t belong to the realist literature that came out of the Resistance and was largely about fascism, the writers who dominated Italian letters for two decades after the war. And he wasn’t of the Gruppo 63-Neoavantguardia either.

A brief list of the qualities that distinguish The Communist (and most of his other novels) would include:

*A complex structure. The story moves nimbly back and forth in time as appropriate for a writer who’s stretching the boundaries of history. Morselli was “a master of irony and a deft juggler of tenses”, as one US critic said.

*A strong point of view. The novel returns again and again to Walter’s perspective, achieved through free indirect discourse and via the meticulous documentation Morselli undertook in order to represent the Communist universe in Emilia and Rome. To prepare himself, he cut news items from the papers for years and read all the classic Marxist texts. To Calvino he said: “You will have noticed that the party is always viewed at an angle, as Auerbach would say, always through the eyes of Ferranini, in his passionate, anarchico-autodidactic perspective. Not even in a single sentence does the author represent the judgments of others, or his own.”

I studied the book in vain trying to figure out exactly how he achieved that intense focus. I never quite understood it.

*A distinctive, ironic style. Morselli’s Italian is subtle and sophisticated, never workaday. He’ll toss a single word that calls attention to itself into a sentence, force the reader to stop in her tracks and take notice.  For example, quite early on, the author uses the word lepido (witty) in connection with Christian Democratic politician Giovanni Leone, one of the novel’s many real figures, in 1958 the president of the Camera dei Deputati. Lepido is a word that stands out. It’s uncommon. Used here to characterize a man not held to be particularly witty, it not only heightens the irony, but reminds us we are hearing this with the unimpressed ears of Walter Ferranini.

In 1965, when Morselli finished the novel, he sent it to Einaudi, traditionally close to the PCI. Italo Calvino read and rejected it. “Too many people know this world (Italian Communism) for you to invent it,” he told Morselli. A non-Communist writing about the party was suspect and could not be considered credible even if accurate.

Furthermore, “when it comes to political fiction I entertain no hopes at all”, Calvino told Morselli. Was Calvino right to view this as a political novel? I don’t think so. Because it was set in nearly contemporary Italy (written just 6 years after the events told in the story) the historical aspect to the novel wasn’t immediately obvious. Even today, when hindsight makes it easier to appreciate the novel’s apocalyptic mood and eerily prophetic premise—ie that the Communist faith would fail–the Communist is still often called a realist, a naturalist, novel.

I think instead that like his other novels—Roma senza Papa, about a corrupt capital city abandoned by a principled pope, or Past Conditional, in which Germany and Austria win World War I and Nazism is averted—The Communist shares something with alternative historical fiction; Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. Morselli’s novels, however, are more fanciful and poetic.

How else to account for The Communist’s improbable characters and bizarre plot twists? In the space-time of 300 pages, Walter flees Fascist Italy and goes to Spain to fight in the civil war (immediately landing in a hospital with pneumonia), spends a hungry winter in Paris, travels to the U.S. to visit the graves of Sacco and Vanzetti, gets a job in a New Jersey grocery business and marries the boss’s daughter, a nativist and a racist. He stays there seven years, returns to Italy, works as an organizer, gets elected to parliament, is invited to Leningrad (where he again falls ill), makes a nightmarish return to the U.S. (despite the fact Communists were forbidden entry at the time) and then back to his home region of Emilia.

The Communist is also a 20th century allegory. A man is being tested by events and people symbolic of greater forces. It’s a Cold War allegory in which Morselli reflects on his times and the two great faiths of his day, capitalism and communism.  Allegory also explains the symbolic heightening of some of the novel’s characters: Mazzola, a young party member from Turin who runs afoul of PCI discipline and is harshly reprimanded in an episode that terrifies Ferranini; Lamoureaux, the Afro-American he meets on the transatlantic flight, a man who has been so cruelly treated at the hands of whites he no longer sleeps at all. The unnamed Hispanic wino in a phone booth who saves Ferranini during an epic Philadelphia snow storm. His American wife Nancy, a John Birch Society militant who improbably becomes a wacky liberal and repudiates her past.

These invented characters inhabit the Communist along with many real-life Italians, from PCI party secretary Palmiro Togliatti to novelist Alberto Moravia, who has a cameo role as a writer and editor of the review Nuovi Argomenti–which he was. The fictional Moravia is in fact the man responsible for Ferranini’s being blackballed. At one point Morselli wrote to the real Moravia asking if he minded him using his name in the novel. The great man’s reply was curt and condescending. It was fine to use his name but Morselli should be aware that “it’s usually difficult to introduce living persons in a work of the imagination.”

It’s a revealing judgment that makes it clearer why Morselli was unlucky with publishers. Today we’re no longer surprised when a novel has characters both living and invented. Morselli was simply ahead of his time, bending the rules of the novel. But not all his difficulties were due to being misunderstood. When Einaudi said no to the novel, he sent The Communist to Rizzoli, it was accepted and proofs were set. Then there was a delay, due to the arrival of a new press director. Proud, prickly Morselli withdrew the book, and that was the end of that.

Why translate this novel, written 50 years ago, today?

Well, it’s the centenary of the Russian Revolution this year–this month, even.

And back in the day, one third of Italian voters put their X on the hammer and sickle. Yet many who appreciate Italy and its literature remain fairly ignorant of those Italians.

The PCI made Italy a distinctive country. In the 1990s, before it retired the word Communist to become a progressive left party, then a center-left party, the PCI was often accused of Stalinism but rarely of the corruption that destroyed the old Christian Democrats and Socialists.

In 1958, when the story takes place, numerous Italian artists, filmmakers, journalists, writers and intellectuals were members of the party, and some had just left it when the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was put down. The neoliberal creed that exalts capitalism and individualism has always had a sturdy opposition here.

Above all,  The Communist deserved to be translated because it is a great neglected novel of modernist invention and psychological acuity. It’s a brilliant exception to the long- term antagonism between pro- and anti-Communists.

Perhaps I also hoped that an English version might serve as an antidote to the kneejerk anti-Red hostility that underlies so much U.S. public opinion.

Morselli floated the paradoxical suggestion idea that communism would finally flourish in one country–the USA.  In Past Conditional, the Germans urge Lenin to go to America to realize his Marxist dream.

The challenges of translation

Well the first difficulty had to do with the anti-communism pervading U.S. culture that I’ve already mentioned. The problem with this novel is the title, somebody told me. The Communist: in Italy the term’s descriptive, someone who belongs to the party. In the American imagination, Communist is an epithet for a political enemy anywhere to the left of the speaker. I was a child during the McCarthy years, when that word took on a meaning it still has for many Americans: ugly, drab,  sleazy, deceitful and dangerous.

So one of the challenges of translating into a hostile language was to be sure Walter Ferranini retained all the sympathy Morselli has bestowed on him. That meant always being alert to Walter’s point of view, and channeling it.  You’d be surprised how an inadequate translation can blur that; it’s sometimes a question of finding a single right word.

Take the novel’s opening sentence.

Dibattito (e riposo) in parlamento. Si stava discutendo un’interpellanza sulle condizioni, cattive, delle ferrovie dello stato….

 And my translation:

Debate (repose) in parliament. It was question time and the conditions, dreadful, of the state railways were the subject at hand.

“Conditions, dreadful” is how I’ve rendered condizioni, cattive, although “conditions, bad” would be more faithful. Why? Because with “dreadful” I hoped to make the sound of an opinionated human voice audible. The word cattiva is blander. I want the reader to know that this is not just a narrator talking, but words echoing in the head of a listener, Walter. It’s our very first introduction to Ferranini, and it seemed important to project his voice and capture his distinctive perspective.

A question that arose with my editor was how an Italian labor organizer of the period would have spoken. He wondered whether I hadn’t made Ferranini sound too formal and proper in English. My instinct, I said, was that he was a man of polite diction. Not a tough guy, not Jimmy Hoffa.

I persuaded him of that and he in turn persuaded me that the novel’s slightly old-fashioned formal language could be somewhat loosened up and modernized for a translation fifty years after the fact without losing its characteristic decorum.

Last of all, let me say that for me, this is the most enjoyable kind of novel to translate. It’s a tale steeped in Italian social life and history, of the kind I think it’s especially important to translate.  And it’s one with a strong voice that calls on all a translator’s acting and performance skills. That makes the work a lot more entertaining than when you are just devising English equivalents for page upon page of beautiful Italian sentences.

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

Short Fiction from Giacomo Sartori in The Timberline Review

If I could, I would just dig holes in the ground. Wind or rain, under the blistering sun when every breath sends fire into the lungs, when winter cold gnaws at the fingers. What matters is that it’s just me and the earth, no distractions, no interlopers. She and I have a good rapport, always did. I do what I have to do, and she lets me.

The Timberline Review is a young Oregon-based literary review. When I told Giacomo Sartori they wanted to print a couple of what we might call timberlinehis flash fictions, he was delighted, because the agronomist in him particularly likes the English word “timberline” and what it connotes: the point on a mountainside above which soil and climate do not support the growth of trees.

Sartori was born in 1958 in the city of Trento in the Alpine northeast of Italy. An agronomist who specializes in soil analysis, he lives in Paris and works in Europe and abroad. He’s also a prolific writer with a dozen volumes to his credit: novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. His subjects range from the beleaguered biosphere to the dark sides of Italian history, and he handles them without melodrama or fatalism. The language is concrete and vivid, crafted, never dull.  In The Anatomy of the Battle Sartori writes of his childhood in a family of convinced Fascists. His work has been lauded for the way it transcends the usual limits of both psychological and the historical fiction.

The two brief tales in Timberline portray a man struggling to cope with the baffling expectations and hypocrisies all around him. The voice is that of Sartori’s collection Autisms.

“There are a freaking 7 billion of us here,” says the speaker in  “My Death”, “we’d be in a bad way if everyone staged a Greek tragedy when they died.” Human beings are rattled by death, he thinks, they don’t know how to behave.

“What Earth Costs” tells of the pleasant  sides of his solitary love affair with the soil, and the unpleasant: his galley post at the computer, the stony bureaucrats he must call on to beg for funding.

My Death

What Earth Costs

The Story of a Brief Marriage: Something Other than Contemporary English

Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) is a first novel by a young Sri Lankan about the final months of his country’s long civil war that ended in 2009. It’s written in English, a lyrical, plain, slightly odd English that immediately drew me in. The voice speaking is alien, not one of the “us” we are accustomed to hear in English language novels, including those coming from Asia.

“Didn’t dying in the end mean being separated from other humans, after all, from the sea of human gaits, gestures, noises and gazes in which for so many years one had floated, didn’t it mean abandoning the possibility of connecting with another human that being among others always afforded?”

The character Dinesh, whose thoughts these are, is a young man, as is the author, 28, but there’s nothing very youthful or contemporary about either the language or the thought. The Story of a Brief Marriage

Young Dinesh is part of the Tamil population being harried to the sea by the army as the desperate rebels of the Tamil insurgency try to co-opt every last civilian in the battle. The last member of his family still alive, Dinesh does not expect to survive long himself. A chance meeting with a man in a camp for displaced persons presents him with an unexpected companion, the man’s young daughter Ganga, and overnight, they become husband and wife.

All of Dinesh’s experience–which is mostly suffering–is expressed in physical, bodily terms. The absence of any psychological register to his thinking is one of the things that puts him at a distance from the contemporary Western voice and makes him interesting and worthy of our attention. Nothing that is happening to him is simple or ordinary, but the terms we might reach for to describe his reactions—grief, fear, anxiety—are inadequate. His vocabulary is that of ingesting, expelling. Breathing. Eating rice and dhal. Moving his bowels, sweating, weeping uncontrollably.

What makes the novel so rich is that “Dinesh’s “otherness” is expressed not only in his story, this fable about the briefest of marriages and the small hopes it can inspire, but also in the novel’s language. As a translator, I long to find a register in English that can point at those elements of a text from another language that are not quite the same as their “equivalents” in English, the points where a culture’s imagination is different from the Ur- culture of our era, the Anglophone. My translations are from the Italian, a culture closely linked to Anglophone culture, and yet not identical. I’m often searching for a language that will convey the difference while also sounding plausible, and even fresh and lively, in English. If the issue arises for a translator from the Italian, it is so much greater for someone writing in English whose mother tongue is Tamil, and that is the case with Arudpragasam, although he grew up far from the war in Colombo and comes from a privileged family.

In one of the most memorable chapters in a novel full of seen and unseen violence, Dinesh does something from a perfectly ordinary life, he bathes. It’s for the first time in weeks, a long and thorough cleaning process that occupies almost 25 pages, of which the following is just the briefest excerpt.

Taking the bowl again with his left hand he began emptying out the water in little parcels over his body, scrubbing meticulously with his right hand at the same time. He began with his feet, scouring the slightly ticklish areas between his toes with his index finger, scraping away with his newly cut nails at the patches just below the bumps of his ankles, where the grime had grafted itself tightly to the skin…Layer after layer of dirt collected into little pleats and fell off his wet skin as he kept scrubbing…”

The bath, when Dinesh washes his clothing, cuts his hair and nails, then scrubs with slow attention every inch and corner of his body, noting the particular qualities of the dirt that each of these crevices harbors, is one of the most beautiful passages in the novel. Not much could be more banal than taking a bath, except for a human being so filthy and neglected he is barely human, so fatigued he can no longer rest his muscles or allow his tight, caked skin to relax. The buckets from the well, the ritual wetting of his limbs, the “parcels” of precious water, the grime that comes off in pleats: Arudpragasam finds an English style both familiar and strange to render this epic bath vivid. It is writing  we translators can learn from as we struggle not to betray the otherness of our source texts.

Most reviews, although they praised the book, seem inadequate to it. This one from the FT was the best I saw.

Read the review

An interview with the author

From Lezioni di tenebra by Helena Janeczek

Helena Janecek, an editor, poet, and prize-winning author,  is one of several influential transcultural figures writing in Italian today who bring a welcome depth of experience to a national literature sometimes in need of fresh inspiration. Lezioni di tenebra (Mondadori 1997, Guanda, 2011, pp 199) tells of the author’s visit to Poland and Auschwitz in the 1990s with her mother, a survivor of the camp. Helena’s Polish-Jewish survivor parents brought her up in Munich after the war, bequeathing such unspoken uneasiness about Germany to their daughter that she fled Bavaria for Italy at age 18. She writes in Italian.janeczek

Lezioni is an extended reflection on what the daughter absorbed, through her skin, her senses and her feelings, of the inferno the mother had lived. It’s a reflection on memory as it is passed down in things, bodies, gestures, as much as in words or history, written in a nervous, colloquial, engaging style. “A precise,  stubborn, dry voice that can shock but also intimate, and the controlled language of someone who’s succeeded in becoming a ‘writer in Italian’, something more interesting than an Italian writer,” observed Erri De Luca.

Her novel The Swallows of Monte Cassino, 2010, about the foot soldiers of many nations who fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, also draws on autobiography and is written in a similar style.

“Lessons from the Darkness”, as the attached translated excerpt is titled, is a literal, but inadequate translation of the elegant Italian title, Lezioni di tenebra,  borrowed from the French Leçons de ténèbres, a type of French baroque music based on the polyphonic lamentations of the Tenebrae  service at Easter. François Couperin is perhaps the best known composer in the genre.

Read the excerpt