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.

Guido Morselli, a life

Linda Terziroli’s Un Pacchetto di Gauloises (Castelvecchi, 2019) is the first full length biographical treatment of the eccentric 20th century novelist Guido Morselli we have in Italian, and it represents ten years of research by a persistant scholar on the great loner and outsider novelist.

Terziroli visited archives around Italy in search of documentation on obscure chapters of Morselli’s life (his army service in Calabria between 1943 and 1945) and interviewed Morselli and his automobiledozens of people who knew him–or knew those who knew him– and a few who knew him well, among them his brother, a professor who first taught  in the United States in 1947 and lived there his entire  adult life. Documenting the author’s life was complicated by Morselli’s own habits of extreme privacy and solitude (his term “anthropophobe”, phobic about the human race, is surely self-descriptive) and by the fact he never published any of his eight novels in his lifetime–and therefore there is little correspondence, and only posthumous reviews, press reports and  gossip of the kind that help to round out a writer’s life story.

Un Pacchetto di Gauloises does not attempt to trace either a chronological or complete life of Morselli nor does it  comment much on his works. Terziroli presents the fruits of her research in themed chapters, beginning with meticulous account of the author’s suicide in 1973, and ending with observations on two things dear to him: a volume of Leopardi’s Canti and a packet of cigarettes–the Gauloises he evokes in the last sentence of the last book he wrote, Dissipatio H.G. just a few months before his death.

The figure that emerges from this collection of testimonianze (you might say eyewitness accounts) is a thorough intellectual who read widely and was well informed, and a prickly, diffident man with few intimates, but capable of kindness and generosity especially to children, the caretakers and farmers who looked after his house and fields, and a few of the villagers near his retreat at Gavirate in northern Lombardy.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the fact that the story sketched out here makes no pretense of  omniscience contributes an element of modernity. I found myself wondering why more biographers don’t arrange their material by themes (ranging here from the caffè in Varese where he met friends, to the writers and intellectuals who influenced him or with whom he corresponded, to a chapter on the Sasso di Gavirate wine he produced, a great favorite with high prelates of the Church in Rome). It’s an acknowledgement that even a thoroughly documented life is partial and in some sense fictional. And an appropriate form to depict a multifaceted figure like Morselli:  “farmer” as he always listed his profession on official documents, anthropophobe, thinker, and writer.




Andrea Camilleri

“Success,” growls Mr. Camilleri with the tarry croak of a man deeply acquainted with the pleasures of a cigarette. “Success is beside the point, you know. It leaves matters unchanged. It’s just one more very good thing to add to the pleasures of old age,” he says, defining those pleasures as “having a grip on objective reality” and “my four grandchildren. At my age, success is fundamentally indecorous.”

Sicilian novelist Andrea Camilleri, who died on July 17, 2019 at 93 years of age, was possibly Italy’s best-loved writer, not to mention the best-sellling. For days after his death, there was virtually no end of celebrations and commemorations.

camilleri con cigUntil a few weeks previously he was still appearing on TV, although by then blind,  in recorded segments made to accompany his latest Inspector Montalbano series, combining a bit of background on the episode with piquant criticisms of the powers that be, and the things they believe in. Born in 1925 and old enough to remember Il Duce, he never hesitated to denounce fascists and their fellow travelers in any of their guises.

I interviewed Camilleri about Sicilian identity and his surprising success nearly 20 years ago, when his novels suddenly shot up the best seller lists. It’s amazing  to think that this mature writer, then 73, was still going strong early this month.

I hope some day some ambitious translator will find a way to translate Camilleri’s Sicilian vernacular into English. That language, which plays on the grammar of Sicilian dialect (but is not strictly Sicilian dialect) and relies on a small vocabulary of non Italian  words,  helps draw the character of those islanders: shrewd, suspicious, sometimes dour, insiders. It’s one of the things Italian readers love best about his novels. But the difficulties of finding a similar argot  in English  proved too much for publisher and translator, and so the novels have essentially been stripped back to their plots. It wouldn’t do to replace the Sicilian with some English language local speech–Yorkshire, or Brooklynese. Every dialect has its own identity; that’s the whole point, in a way. They’re not interchangeable at all, they’re declaring their specificity. But one day, perhaps a translator with imagination will simply invent an English equivalent out of whole cloth.

Read the 1998 article: Camilleri Puts Mystery Into Italian Life

The turbo and the chiaro

Balancing transparency and obscurity in a translation, an essay I wrote about discovering “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.

read the essay

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”