Mémoires of Translation
For more than thirty years I have worked as a literary translator. Not the most compelling gambit to open a memoir, I admit, even if frankness fits the genre. To introduce oneself as a translator is less likely to elicit rapt attention than a quizzical look, possibly a yawn. “Literary” might lend some glamour, but only if it raises the expectation of gossip about foreign writers or an inside track into their writing. Yet “translator” threatens to dull any glimmer of interest with a vague sense of drudgery, mere hackwork. Lurking at the back of readers’ minds, regardless of their education or their profession, lies a question that politeness alone stops them from asking: Why devote so much time and effort to something that is less than original, that is not your own writing?
Today originality continues to be a commanding obsession in every cultural form and practice, even though--or because--replication is everywhere apparent. Original authorship, the foundation of copyright law, is so closely linked to money that lawyers scramble to hunt down infringement even in a medium they can least control: the Internet. How can translators hope to achieve a presence to be reckoned with, whether culturally or financially, merely by translating? Their fate is to be the invisible men and women of literature. Unless, that is, they speak out about what they do and contribute to an understanding of its nature and value.
Especially in the United States, where relatively few translations are published, even fewer are reviewed as translations, and only an infinitesimal receive any recognition as literary works in their own right. When readers give any thought to translation, they tend to imagine it as mechanical, something that a computer might do, given the right software. Or they view it as esoteric, trafficking in a knowledge they don’t possess (namely a foreign language), uncertain whether to apply the term “art” or “craft,” honorifics that, in any case, fail to illuminate. Translation occupies a unique place in our culture: it is a kind of writing where, as a rule, misunderstanding meets neglect.
After translating fifteen books into English, mostly from Italian, after collaborating with many different publishers, large and small, commercial and university, after reviewing a steady stream of translations for newspapers and immersing myself in the growing academic industry of translation studies, certain truths have become self-evident. Translation is transformation. A translation can never reproduce a literary work, even though it is routinely read as if it were precisely that work. A translator offers no more than an interpretation, one possibility among others, which is both less and more than the foreign text. Merely to be readable, a translation must obviously be written in a language with which the reader is familiar. To go beyond readability, however, to enable a powerfully engaging experience, the language must somehow be appealing to the reader, who, it can’t be overemphasized, is not the reader for whom the foreign text was written. How can a translator avoid transforming it?
From this point of view, time-worn yet still unquestioned clichés prove to be utterly false. Take “traduttore traditore,” the Italian slur wherein the very name of “translator” is turned into a pun on “traitor.” Translation can be considered treachery only if one naively assumes that it can and should communicate a foreign text in some direct, untroubled way. Such loyalty is impossible, even if the translator consults a dictionary for every foreign word. That would just widen the spectrum of semantic possibilities, splintering the foreign words into so many scintillating chips of ice that start melting as soon as any interpretive heat is applied to them. Whereas the translator’s task is to freeze meaning in a form that is intelligible and interesting in another language and culture. The inevitable thaw occurs as the translation warms to the touch of different readerships, its charm dissolving with changes in literary taste, ultimately creating a demand for a new version.
Consider a more favorable image of translation, the idea that it is “a labor of love,” usually cited as the translator’s primary motive because the labor does not earn a subsistence wage. Although you can’t live off translation, the reasoning goes, you may still love a foreign literature so much that you’ll want to introduce it to your mother tongue. But what sort of love can this be when the translator is determined to replace every foreign word with one that makes sense in the translating language, when foreign phrases and sentences are dismantled and rearranged, their resonances replaced with those that echo in the translating culture, when different sounds, rhythms, and tones are substituted for those that distinguish the foreign tongue? “Love,” however laborious, is grossly euphemistic when used to describe translation: it mystifies the systematic violence and sheer hubris of rewriting the foreign text.
Translation is a form of passive aggression. In doing it, a writer chooses to forgo original authorship so as to play havoc with a foreign original in a process of imitation, zigzagging between the foreign and receiving languages but in the last analysis cancelling the first in favor of the second. Is translation a socially acceptable form of literary vandalism? Or does it just require a distinctively warped frame of mind, one that secretly nurtures a refusal to kowtow to the authority of a foreign writer or text, that prefers to deliver the kick beneath the table?
No doubt, other translators will refuse to recognize themselves in this account, less a portrait than a provocation, seeing it as untrue as well as unflattering. Yet translation is such an instinctively performed activity, so many choices are made without the translator’s full awareness, so many solutions found serendipitously, that the probability of unconscious motivation is very high--and too easily denied. The same might be said of what makes someone become a translator in the first place. I don’t mean the practical details, like coming across an interesting foreign work or receiving a commission from a publisher, but rather conditions that are properly psychological and cultural. What experiences, I increasingly wonder, have released and maintained my own irrepressible desire to translate?
I have learned foreign languages in drips and drabs, without the sustained attention that would eventually result in the achievement of native proficiency. In most cases, I have gained little more than reading knowledge, enough to conduct research or to translate, but far short of the ability to speak the language fluently. Perhaps this explains why I vividly remember pedagogical techniques, striking collocations, chance discoveries.
When I embarked on the study of Latin as a freshman in secondary school, the teacher insured that the class memorized the inflections by subjecting us to oral drills. These exercises often metamorphosed into chants in which meter and volume quickly detached sound from sense. Imagine some twenty teen-aged boys loudly declaiming in unison: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. Who cared what the words meant, what number or person was indicated by the endings, as long as we could pound out the rhythm on our desktops, growing louder with each repetition? When I took up French in my junior year, the method turned more restrained and subtle, a dramatic performance in a conversational situation, the kind of classroom experience that a dead language does not invite (except to the most antiquarian of classicists). Buying stamps or a newspaper lost its banality in the masquerade of doing it at the tabac.
Language learning, as any traveler knows, can also occur virtually through osmosis. After days of careful observation in a foreign setting, moving through markets and restaurants, movie theaters and bars, you can pick up a serviceable, even if formulaic, lexicon and from there acquire still more formulas (what else in the absence of real lessons?), mixing and matching them on the way to acquiring a passable accent. And so often words and phrases stick in the mind (and mouth) because of their acoustics. Like pastanaga, the Catalan word for “carrot,” so strange to a contemporary anglophone ear, resonant with the most absurdly irrelevant associations (pasta? gaga?). Or the Spanish adage, “algo es algo,” which can only be translated freely into English to make any sense, not “something is something,” but rather “that’s better than nothing.”
For me, the osmotic process has occasionally been literal, that is to say, cognitive and physiological at once. With certain foreign languages I took as my point of departure the names for foods, learning how to read a menu before a newspaper. As a result, I have not infrequently found myself in the situation of ordering a meal in a foreign restaurant, engaging in the fairly conventional exchange that this task requires, managing a decent replication of the local accent, only to be caught short when the waiter ventured into small talk. It was off the script, so I could do no more than retreat into pleonasm, muttering “Sì sì” (in Italy or in Spain) and flashing an uneasy smile.
Although most of my translations have taken Italian texts as their sources, I set about learning the language rather late, while pursuing a doctorate in English literature at a university in the United States. Doctoral candidates in English were generally required to demonstrate reading proficiency in two foreign languages by passing a brief translation exam. Not that any of us would have actually used it as a research tool: English Departments have long been sites of aggressive monolingualism, so much so their curricula never support foreign-language research in the study of anglophone literatures. I had managed to sail through the French exam, but foundered on the Latin. The passage put before me was unfathomable, apparently extracted from a medieval text. Jolted by the failure, I immediately shifted to another language, Italian. Not only would Italian support my research in English literary history (I was specializing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), but as an Italian-American with a literary bent I felt the need to stage an encounter with the language and its literature. The choice of Italian, however, was motivated less by a self-defining search for roots than by curiosity of a readerly sort, stoked by the determination to overcome a linguistic difference (and thereby satisfy a degree requirement).
I started in a typically academic way: in the fall of 1975, I enrolled in a semester-long course in rapid reading and translation, where graduate students in various humanistic disciplines aimed to learn enough of the language to pass the translation exam. What we learned was necessarily minimal, a smattering of grammar and some basic vocabulary, but how we learned it fascinated me: we translated literary classics, such as Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Alberto Moravia’s novel, Agostino. We would move through a text from beginning to end but at a snail’s pace, each of us reading aloud a rendering of a short passage which we had prepared beforehand or made on the spot. Class meetings could be excruciating as student after student struggled to turn unfamiliar, complicated constructions into felicitous English. In the process, remarkable literary and dramatic works disintegrated into disconnected words and phrases. Still, I began not only to learn Italian but to interpret its literature with a closeness I had never before felt in reading literary texts. My interpretation was not written up as a commentary but performed in an uncanny act of mimicry. I was translating.
That course was the sum total of my formal education in the language. I continued studying Italian on my own, holed up in the Casa Italiana library when I should have been writing my dissertation, poring over contemporary Italian fiction and poetry instead of early modern English literature. Gradually I reached an advanced level of reading comprehension along with limited conversational ability, my accent too often misplaced or barcollante, as I liked to call it, staggering. From the very beginning, my work with Italian has been governed by translation. And so early on I realized that the translator must be squint-eyed, looking in two directions at once but unable to focus on both with equal clarity and emphasis. In the end, the eye that must close, or wink, is the one directed at the foreign language.
My first translations took as their source texts modern Italian poems, which I translated partly to advance my knowledge of the language, partly to understand the poem themselves, and partly to write relatively autonomous poems in English. At least I believed I could turn them into interesting English-language poems. I was especially attracted to the early work of Eugenio Montale, and at the end of that rapid reading course, the instructor suggested I submit what I had done to a little magazine that was planning a special issue devoted to Italian poetry. My submission included a version of Montale’s poem, “Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato” (in a close rendering, “Often the evil of living I have encountered”), from his 1925 volume, Ossi di sepia (Cuttlefish bones). Although hardly a straightforward translation, my piece was accepted and, in 1976, became my first publication. Here is the Italian with my English:
Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato:
Bene non seppi, fuori del prodigio
Often I have encountered the evil of life:
Good I knew not, except the prodigy
At a few decades’ distance, I can’t possibly reconstruct the reasoning that lay behind each verbal choice I made. I remember I proceeded intuitively for the most part, seizing upon what seemed effective in producing an English poem but consulting dictionaries to establish a correspondence that was lexical and, as far as possible, syntactical. Prosody was clearly important to me. Although I made no deliberate attempt to reproduce Montale’s stanzaic structure, rhymes fortuitously emerged in my version, and sound effects proliferated. I marveled at the appearance of the slant rhyme, “life”/”leaf,” and at how the roughness of the Italian phrase “il rivo strozzato che gorgoglia” was intensified in my English, in the dense clustering of consonants and stressed monosyllables: “the gurgling, choked brook.” My departures from the Italian unexpectedly resulted in iconic alliteration and rhythm. The word “l’incartocciarsi” might be rendered as “the shriveling,” but since “incartocciare” can mean “to put in a paper bag,” I experimented and happened upon a sonically rich line that caught a more comprehensive sense of the Italian: “the papery wrinkling of the parched leaf.” With “stramazzato” I went farther afield. The verb “stramazzare” means “to fall heavily,” but I made explicit the suggestion that the horse had been injured or killed, and the position of the word in the last line of the stanza invited a more climactic treatment. I recall hearing at the back of my mind Keats’s ballad stanza in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” particularly the abbreviated fourth line where the rhythm evoked an abrupt finality: “And no birds sing.” This became the metrical model for “the horse felled harshly,” although again the last unstressed syllable in my line turned out to be a surprise, an echo of a fall.
After I wrote my draft, I consulted a published version to see how far off I was: George Kay’s 1964 selection of Montale’s poetry for Edinburgh University Press. Kay’s “Translator’s Note” describes his translations as “faithful mirrors.” Here is his version of the first stanza from the text I translated:
Often have I met the ill of living:
it was the choked stream that gurgled,
it was the parched leaf’s curling
tight, it was the horse that fell to lie.
This can serve as a guide to the Italian insofar as it adheres to Montale’s word order right down to the repetition of “era” (“it was”). It even inverts the verb phrase in the first line (“have I met”) as if to imitate the poet’s positioning of the object (“il male di vivere”) before the verb (“ho incontrato”).
But I found Kay’s rendering distasteful. Although we had chosen some of the same words, in my view he showed no interest in writing a translation that might stand as a poem on its own: his version seemed not only unconcerned with rhythm and sound, lacking in music, but clumsy in phrasing. It was of course my own choices that had exposed these limitations in his work, and in hindsight I would say that we just had different ideas of what a poem is. But as a beginning translator, insecure in my knowledge of Italian yet bold enough to tackle the work of a great Italian writer, I couldn’t grant that, couldn’t allow another translator his own interpretation. I much preferred a modernist economy of means--pared-down language, taut rhythms--a decision that seemed far from arbitrary with a modernist poet like Montale. And I took Kay’s rendering as incontrovertible proof that I was on the right track. His was a text to translate against.
I also questioned his assertion that “where I have taken liberties it has been for a truer correspondence.” Typical of literary translators, he didn’t bother to explain what concept of equivalence might be capacious enough to encompass “liberties” or what he meant by “a truer correspondence.” Besides, I thought, how could he believe that his slack, ham-fisted lines corresponded to Montale’s stylistic elegance? I was acutely aware that while I had tried to stick to the meaning and word order of Montale’s lines, my choices reflected a purely English-language poetics, even an ensemble of ideas that much occupied me at the time, drawn from my reading of anglophone texts.
I had grown obsessed with the question of point of view, not only in fiction as with free indirect discourse or with narrators possessed of varying degrees of reliability, but also in poetry that foregrounded a speaker’s visual perceptions or the projection of a psychological state onto a setting. Examples seemed to occur in every period of British and American literatures, although given the course of my doctoral study I dwelt on seventeenth-century poets, like Andrew Marvell. In his poem “The Mower Against Gardens,” the title character complains about lecherous “man” who “to bring his vice in use,/Did after him the world seduce,” corrupting “plain and pure” nature through the art of gardening, growing plants by grafting, for instance, so that they propagate without seeds. Yet the very lines where the Mower voices his complaint display an intriguing--and contradictory--artfulness through a metaphorical representation of gardening:
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo;
And in the cherry he does Nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
The Mower, it turns out, is just as corrupt as the gardener he condemns, except that it is his sexualizing perceptions, his dirty mind, that he imposes on the landscape instead of gardening techniques.
I had read Montale’s second stanza in similar terms. Instead of rendering the phrase “era la statua” closely as “it was the statue,” I wrote “it was sculpted,” making explicit the poet’s own creative imagining, his revelation of “divine Indifference” in a set of images that he had selected. In a sense, my rendering questioned the notion that any divinity, let alone an indifferent one, might exist apart from poetic invention. It rather suggested that the very idea of god was conceived by human art, and it was only the “somnolence” of the moment that colored the idea with “Indifference.”
Montale won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, the very year that I initiated my apprenticeship as a translator. Do all such initiations involve an act of aggressive interpretation such as I performed, strongly rewriting the text of a canonical writer? Or perhaps a gendered dynamic was at work here. Was I professing a love for my mother tongue and its literature in striking out against a foreign poet, father-like in his literary authority?
An editor’s approach to a translator’s choices, regardless of how reflective or calculated they may be, can vary widely from unquestioning acceptance to intransigent opposition. Put a page before most editors, of course, and you can expect it to be altered. Still, translations seem to invite the most extensive sort of editing. When my version of Melissa P.’s 2003 memoir, Cento colpi di spazzola prima di andare a dormire, had been copyedited, I received back a manuscript that was heavily marked up, almost every page containing some change. The editor at Grove/Atlantic spelled out her agenda in a cover letter: everything must be made “smooth and natural for the American/English reader.” I was shocked that she would describe her editing in these terms. Her experience with translations was limited, since she had spent most of her time selling foreign rights. Worse, she hadn’t a clue that her approach was now regarded as disreputable.
For the Italian title she preferred a virtual word-for-word rendering: 100 Strokes of the Brush before Bed. “It feels a bit more evocative,” she explained, “perhaps slightly more poetic” than “brush strokes.” Yet since the title refers to hair-brushing, her preference is surely poetical rather than poetic, a straining for effect that suits only one aspect of the Italian text: an adolescent self-absorption that romanticizes banality as well as degradation. Did my editor share the author’s sensibility?
Melissa is more sophisticated. Her book, which she published at age seventeen, is a sexual coming-of-age narrative. Presented as the diary of a Sicilian teenager called Melissa, it deploys various genres, notably the Bildungsroman and the fairy tale, Gothic and romance. It alludes to classics from the Odyssey and Caesar’s Gallic Wars to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Nabokov’s Lolita. Given this literary self-consciousness, it can only be read as a fictionalized memoir, perhaps “ninety percent real,” as Melissa told interviewers. The desire she depicts is tricked-up, at once naïve and decadent, spontaneous and narcissistic, etherealized and sordid, expressive of teen angst and derived from erotica.
Why translate this book? I was attracted by its status as a pop-culture phenomenon. With over one million copies sold in Italian, it was saying something about Italy, even if that something was up for interpretation. The controversy aired in reviews, on chat shows, and across internet blogs dredged up a tangle of ideas about youth and sex, women and writing. The most telling refrain: the book couldn’t (read a subliminal shouldn’t) have been written by a girl. Popular literature can offer a revealing glimpse of a foreign culture. Yet until very recently anglophone publishers customarily neglected it in preference for the elite aesthetic. I wanted to confront readers with a current craze that, for Italians at least, was rivaling the value assigned to high-brow works.
Melissa’s writing uniquely suited this task. The shifts in style and genre allowed me to depart from standard English, the most familiar form of the language and the most likely to foster the cherished illusion that the translation isn’t a translation, but the foreign text. Melissa’s Italian ranges from slang and obscenities to purple prose and poeticisms to porno cliché. Mimicking these nonstandard forms promised to frustrate any reader’s expectation for transparency. I aimed to foreground the strangeness of the book, calling attention to its artificiality, although the titillating material guaranteed that my choices would not be unpleasurable.
My editor thought otherwise. I had to use “beautiful” instead of “lovely,” since “American teenagers generally don’t use this word to describe things.” Likewise “pants” instead of “trousers,” “crying” instead of “weeping,” “totally” instead of “utterly.” Archaisms provoked disagreement, even in a Gothic sex dream in which the cold enters the “finestrello” (embrasure) of the castle cell where Melissa lies naked, and she smells her “umori” (humors) on her monkish companion’s face. Ethnic dialects were out. For the “sugo” on the spaghetti eaten by Melissa and her parents I chose “gravy” precisely because the word is Italian-American for this meal. It was changed to “sauce.”
Occasionally my choices met with obtuseness. “Some people have plans that are linear and orderly,” Melissa is told at an orgy, “while others prefer a rococo caprice.” That curious phrase is my calque of the Italian (“un capriccio rococò”). My editor judged it “so obscure as to be meaningless,” so she consulted colleagues at Grove/Atlantic, who concurred. Yet Melissa is simply using an art historical metaphor to distinguish between conventional sex and kinkiness. Amazing that a publisher of erotic classics doesn’t employ editors who could get the point.
The drive to naturalize foreign texts in translation, to rewrite them in a language that is the lowest common denominator, is not new in English-language translation. It has long been motivated by commercialism, a bid to appeal to the widest possible readership. When I told my editor that her changes amounted to no less, she took offense. Her “concerns with this translation,” she insisted in an email, “have to do with the text itself, its literary value, and whether or not the voice is being successfully replicated.” Did she really believe that Melissa’s voice was an American teenager’s?
The translation became an arena where my editor and I applied conflicting standards of equivalence. She believed that, to be readable, a translation must hold up a mirror to the language with which readers identify at a deep, unconscious level. I rather sought a readability that enabled a compelling engagement, faithful to the spectrum of styles and genres in the foreign text but also to a broader representation of the foreign culture that included its pop fascinations. I wanted the mirror of my translation to reflect my reader’s taste too, although bent into an unusual shape, occasionally with the kind of distortion encountered in a funhouse. The translator can’t ever bring it all back home, I reasoned, so why not try to send readers abroad by tampering with their images of Italy, even with their own identities as anglophones, especially when these have grown so comfortable as to pass for common sense?
The publisher of Serpent’s Tail, who bought the British rights to my translation, was quite clear about his commercial motives. He told me that he had recently made money with his edition of Catherine Millet’s memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., and he hoped for the same success with Melissa’s book. His motives underlay his editing as well. He altered one account of a sexual act by mistaking Melissa’s “dentro” (inside) for her “dietro” (behind), crossing out my correct rendering and scribbling in his error. When money is involved, some books can’t be sexy enough.
Reviewers were quick to acknowledge the shock value of Melissa’s memoir, but they didn’t care much for her style or my attempt to develop an English analogue for it. “Cringe-inducing euphemisms abound here,” wrote the reviewer for The New York Times, who then supplied a list that documented Melissa’s familiarity with pornography as well as my scrupulous adherence to her lexicon: “lance, stake, scepter, Secret, River Lethe, erupting volcano.” Inevitably I was faulted too. “Perhaps these words are more euphonious in Italian,” the reviewer added, “than in Lawrence Venuti’s translation.”
Fortunately, the great majority of readers are not reviewers. Since 2004 my translation has sold over 100,000 copies while most translations are lucky enough to approach 5,000. Sex undoubtedly sells books, as the publishers knew when they made their investment (their commercialism seems the only explanation for their refusal to pay me a royalty). Nonetheless, my choices have apparently not stood in the way of a readerly pleasure, whether the source of that pleasure was sympathetic identification or masturbatory fantasy, moralistic pity or voyeuristic gawking. Did any response realize my aim of defamiliarizing representations of Italian culture as well as the anglophone reader’s relation to English? I can’t be certain, but I think it improbable. For the fact is that mere translating can’t teach readers how to read a translation as a text in its own right, different from the foreign text it translates. And that, finally, is why I have decided to write about my work.