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.


Fragments from a story of my life I’ll never write, by Ruska Jorjoliani

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.

Read “Fragments”

Pitch Dark, a story by Ruska Jorjoliani


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.

Read “Pitch Dark”



Wheeling toward

Departures now,

Turning for a last look at the

Land I loved, hard to know

Whether it’s the mood of this

Company, bitter-proud-angry-sad-

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.

The Translator’s Other Dilemmas

“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

Autismi (Autisms)


Autismi, just published in an elegant new edition by Miraggi, is one of Giacomo Sartori’s most original and successful novelistic experiments. In sixteen distinct but interwoven episodes  (or recitativi d’autore — “chants d’auteur” as the publisher defines them), the  unnamed narrator paints a tragicomic portrait of an awkward, marginal man, a creature frequently at odds with his late capitalist world, perpetually 4_Sartori_Autismi-coverpuzzled by the rules of the game that govern family, work and society. The narrative voice is painfully candid and naively poetic. Apparently unstudied, it can bring to mind Samuel Beckett’s savage absurdity or the monstrous hilarity of a Kafka.

The volume opens with perhaps the most perfect of these episodes, the brief, haunting Il mio lavoro, (My job) about a strange profession that in fact is pretty much the author’s own: Sartori trained as an agronomist and soil specialist (a surprisingly lively scientific topic these days). “My job consists of digging holes in the ground. Large deep holes a person can easily get into.  And in fact I do get in.  Inter myself, you might say.  But unlike a genuine interment, there is no one to shovel soil  between myself and the pit. Unlike a real burial, I can move my arms, breathe at will, come out when I’m done. I can see a rectangle of sky, I can speak, I can howl out my joy, always supposing I have a surplus of joy. Mine is a temporary, reversible interment. When I’m done, I come out and go home.” And the book closes with a rant on end-of-life instructions, Il mio testamento biologico (My health proxy): “If, despite the above dispassionate suggestions of mine, you are unable to wake me, then terminate me. Joyously, as you would lift a carrot from the earth, already thinking about the taste in your mouth. Do it knowing you have my full support. Tell yourself I would  do exactly the same in your place.”

Death is a guest here, invited or not, whether in the sarcastic Il mio primo infarto (My first heart attack) or in the masterful Mio suocero (My father-in-law), a stark portrait of the man, only briefly met and now already laid out in his bedroom for the wake, observed in part through the friends and acquaintances who have come to pay respects, in part through the disenchanted eyes of one of his non-conformist sisters. Épater le bourgeois is the order of things: the naughty vicissitudes of Il mio organo di riproduzione (My reproductive organ; a fiercely independent member, always getting into trouble) come right before the angry, chastening tale of Mia sorella (My sister), a woman whose conformist tendencies are enforced by her upper crust husband, dispenser of an appalling conservatism. But, says the narrator, he’s often told there’s a family resemblance. “At times even my wife accuses me of being the double of my sister, only a more easy-going version, more democratic if you will.”

In l pesci pescati (The fish fished), a boy finds a community of strangers, who like him, enjoy fishing. “I liked waiting for a fish to bite, just as even today I like waiting for something to happen. Certainly this pleasure is by no means real enjoyment, and even less celebration; rather it has to do with privation, and perhaps even with suffering.”

Among the most savage sketches are two devoted to the publishing industry, Il mio attuale editore and Il mio primo editore: mocking portraits of two figures, one from a major publishing firm, one from a small house, who are tremendously bourgeois and much wealthier than their writers will ever be, successful men who like the sound of their own voices and are evidently annoyed and embarrassed by this hapless author. Fascinated by the trophy-like “chair upholstered in famous writer skin” that decorates his publisher’s office, our hero is appalled, impatient and at the same time eager to please. Here and elsewhere, Sartori achieves a quiet, subversive pathos that always comes as a surprise.

Some of this material overlaps with that of another, earlier novel, Anatomy of the Battle, of 2005, composed of brief bursts of non-chronological narrative each one paragraph long. The account, of a boy growing up in a Trentino family led by an unrepentant fascist father, moves back and forth in time and mood with ease, culminating in a reflection on the cult of heroism and political violence in both Fascism and the extraparliamentary left of the 1970s. Although he doesn’t write conventional political novels, Sartori measures the worlds he describes politically, sometimes in historical terms (when he confesses the sins of the Fascist males in his line, or describes the extremist pied noir father-in-law of Mio suocero, mentioned above). And sometimes in class terms (Anatomy’s painful depiction of a snobby, bourgeois, would-be aristocrat mother, once much loved, of whom traces are found in Autismi too).  In other novels (Tritolo (TNT), Rogo (At the stake), Cielo Nero (Blackshirt heavens) readers are led inside the uneasy consciences of a Sud Tyrol bomber, three female infanticides, and a Nazi woman spy in love with Fascist Count Galeazzo Ciano.

None of ten books of fiction and poetry that Sartori has published to date is as well-known as it ought to be. His prose is eccentric and his writing has few of those qualities traditionally considered literary; they are stories without the self-conscious intellectual thread running through them that characterizes a sizeable part of what passes as “Italian literature” today. In Autismi, instead, we find no thoughtful premises, no meta-observations and no hint of a thinking author or any figure voicing superior authorial insights. The deep autobiographical vein to Autismi and the first-person voice—intimate, colloquial but never flat, at times baroque–are at quite at odds with mainstream, realist Italian fiction today.

Sartori, a native of Trentino, has made his home in Paris for many years, and permanence in France has shaped his style in more ways than one. Autofiction had its origins there, and the novel has evolved into shapes still mostly unfamiliar in Italy. In France, it’s easier to recognize what Sartori’s up to. There’s a comic vein running through everything he writes, although he is not a comic writer, nor does he deal in autobiography per se, although he draws deeply on the political and social elements of his family and his class—mixed, both bourgeois and renegade, abrasive fascist. An epigraph from Marguerite Duras points to the method: “One writes what one doesn’t know of oneself, of one’s mind and one’s body. This is not a reflective act but a sort of faculty that exists to one side, parallel to one’s person. Another individual that appears and comes forward, invisibly.”

Alas, neither humor or autobiography is very highly considered in Italian literary criticism. One could go further and say that humor is usually suspect, considered cheap and often found disturbing.

But as the exhilarating Il mio lavoro suggests, Sartori is one of those odd birds who comes to writing novels from a foreign country:  a background in science. Scientific and technical matters worm their way into his fiction, and his prose is marked by a scientific habit of preferring the concrete and the measurable. His standards of invention and knowledge are not quite those of the artist. In an interview with an American literary journal he said this:

“Even the humblest researcher knows the thrill of grappling with problems still in process, of entering untrodden territory. And such work tends to be undertaken with humility, from an awareness of one’s own limitations, and of the limits of one’s own knowledge. You always need others, since even Einstein wouldn’t have become Einstein without the help of other highly skilled mathematicians. And you never forget that your own discoveries will quickly be surpassed.”

Read an  excerpt in English