How Do You Translate “Italy”?

by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Translating Elena Biagini’s poetry, one surrenders to sharp unexpected shadows in what often seems to be a domestic but not clearly Italian landscape. Given her interlocutors, Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson, in Biagini’s most recent book, Da una Crepa, the location arises inside literary borders where art’s importance is questioned and verified through time. Her language physically picks its way through dark, tight tunnels in our hearts and minds and disorients us with flashes from mirrors, and blessedly, shards of daylight. The nouns are concrete: soil, clods, spit, needles, glass, ears. Inside of dislocations, ears seeing, mouths listening, her language hosts significant events of thrilling strangeness.

In Italy today, outside of most cities, one finds plowed fields pebbled with clods. Modest size red or yellow tractors cross them. Irrigation systems arc jets of water catching light. Vine-terraced hills, seen from freeways, are rarely far from urban centers. Biagini’s clods have a place in modern Italian poetry. Soil is a real reference, as are clods, still wet from burials in the small walled cemeteries flanking every village. These words resonate differently if I think of them in English. The words mean more in Italian.

Translation may seem an act like a trucker’s transporting of goods from one place to another and delivering them, but what makes it fascinating and complicated are all the steps that remain unseen. Ultimately these are a highly conscious set of decisions about whose mind is being translated. Is place being shaped with the new destination in mind, or is it being constructed to reflect differences innate to its origin? Is soil the same word that Americans use: dirt?

Italian words, like the life I live here in Parma, brim with nuances, unstated innuendoes, double meanings that make words a complex game. Literature is rarely about truth as a straight path from a self. Literal is not an option. Words and the meanings attached to them are bound to the culture in which they developed. Italian language is its history: soil, painting, palace, Cathedral. Italian words have thickness, opaque “spessore.” In Italian, terra breathes. Like a matryoshka, earth, as a planet, is the first meaning of terra, then terra becomes soil. Clod adheres to its past lives. In English, these words, like agriculture itself, began sounding archaic by the mid-nineteenth century. Today in English, earth has spun off into Star Wars. Mother Earth is more likely to be called our planet. Its association with soil is gone. Clods are people, with no links to plowing, trenches or death. Thus the challenge.

Italian words are complex to touch, wonderful to hear and maddeningly difficult to bring across. Making choices about finding equivalents in another language, there is an inevitable sense of impossibility. A translation of a poem assumes its new body and rises, leaving behind some of the original complex reality of sound, shadings, double and often opposing meanings.

It is not always true, though, that the translation is a shadow of the original. More often, assuming that the matrix of the poem has been understood, it can be quite close, except for the sensuous, and often ambiguous economy of the original. We don’t necessarily have high regard for copies of works of art. Yet a good translation often is that which reflects the same patient willingness to learn and reproduce the original. There are many ways to discern if a copy is a good one or not. Many translators are writers themselves or become writers having done this apprenticeship.

The most recent suggestion about the identity of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante is that she is Anita Raja, a translator, whose Bulgarian mother immigrated to Naples after being interred in a German concentration camp. Raja translated the novels of Crista Wolfe from German into Italian. In an interview Raja describes how dwelling in Wolfe’s work in such an intimate way gave her insights into writing, structure, new understanding about how to approach fiction. The anonymity required of a translator, the willingness to serve another’s ideas and feelings, has this symbiotic kickback. Almost against one’s will one becomes an interloper—not a thief so much as someone who has allowed another mind to take over one’s own for a while. That totalizing effect is probably why I could never be a full-time translator. I empathized too much. If Dino Buzzati’s story led me into an airless trap, I got pneumonia. I wanted to write my own books. I didn’t want always to be a vessel carrying someone else’s voice.

Yet, if Raja is Elena Ferrante, she made anonymity a necessary condition for putting her books into the world. Asserting her need to write her own material seems physiological to me. As a professional translator she lived a mental life as an invisible presence. The ambiguous serving attitude of a scribe or one who channels are part of her way of handling words. When it came her turn to write, perhaps she felt strange using words without that specialized, complex angle of symbiotic identification or eavesdropping. I don’t mean to push an esoteric point. It is easy to imagine more practical reasons for her mysterious decision to take cover. However, if she is the sole author of books so closely reflecting class, women, corruption in Naples, maybe she didn’t know how to change the vicarious part of knowing things, the double vision. Too exposed and naked as a writer, she needed Elena Ferrante in order to write as a translator of herself.

The writer and translator Tim Parks and I share common concerns as writers in English living permanently in Italy. Occasionally we exchange emails. There are differences. He is British, male, and extraordinarily productive. I am American, a woman, and, in that lens, interpreted as everything from “a burning cauldron of a mind” to “a whiner about the lack of washing machines.” Our last email was about Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write a book in Italian and have it translated into English by a well-known professional. Both of us had entertained the idea to write in Italian at one time or another. Both of us had rejected its results, finding that our memories, our sense of self, resided in the English language. Our power is greater.  The experience of living in Italy allows us to feast on abundance at the richness of an Italian table. We are neither guests nor outsiders. Looking among the hand-written place cards, it could be no other way. Our names are written in English.

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piola1Wallis Wilde-Menozzi has published two memoirs: Mother Tongue, An American Life in Italy (North Point Press) and The Other Side of the Tiber, Reflections on Time in Italy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She has published a novel, Toscanelli’s Ray, with Cadmus Editions. Her poetry, essays and translations have appeared from Granta to Kenyon Review. “The Oneness of Music,” originally published in AGNI 53, was included in Best Spiritual Writing 2002. Find out what else she’s published in AGNI here.

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