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13 October 2023

Italo Calvino in translation – Part One

Francesca Rubini, Università “La Sapienza” - Rome

Since 1955, Italo Calvino’s books have been published in 67 countries, establishing his profile as a universal writer, read in 56 languages and recognised worldwide as one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century. This journey began in the mid-1950s, when Italo Calvino was presented as one of the most significant protagonists of new Italian literature, linked to the experience of the Resistance and associated with the figures of Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini. After the first translation of Il Visconte dimezzato was published by Albin Michel in 1955, Le Seuil became his main French publisher, Juliette Bertrand was translator into French for most of his works and François Wahl became his editorial adviser, introducing to the public the trilogy of I nostri antenati (1955-62), Fiabe italiane (1959), the short stories collected in Amori difficili (1964), La giornata d’uno scrutatore (1966) and Le cosmicomiche (1968-70). From 1956 (United Kingdom) and 1957 (United States), Italo Calvino was also present on the English-language book market thanks to the work of Archibald Colquhoun: his translations of Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1956-7) and I nostri antenati (1959-62) appeared simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, while the first edition of Racconti (1957) was printed exclusively in London and that of Fiabe italiane (1959, translated by Louis Brigante) in New York. In 1968, Le cosmicomiche was the first title translated by William Weaver, who established himself as Calvino’s English voice for the next twenty years. On the other hand, editions in Castilian are something of an anomaly, appearing from 1956 in Argentina and only from 1970 in Spain (although there were also two editions in Catalan in 1965). Aurora Bernárdez, wife of the writer and friend Julio Cortázar, whom Calvino chose as his trusted translator, is also from Buenos Aires. For very different reasons, from 1957 onwards, the large circulation in German was also divided in two: Fischer for West Germany, while in East Germany it was Volk und Welt, both of which were mainly interested in I nostri antenati and Fiabe italiane. Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, Calvino made his mark in Central Europe and Scandinavia, where he forged decisive publishing relationships: in Denmark (1959) with Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck; in Sweden (1959) with Bonnier and the translator Karin Alin; in Finland with Tammi (1960). While these countries showed a systematic and permanent interest, the first translations of his books remained episodic in Norway (1961) and the Netherlands (1962), and it would be several years before their renown became established. The same phenomenon often occurred in Eastern Europe and beyond the Iron Curtain, where success did not come until the 1980s, after a few sporadic translations in Yugoslavia (1959-66, in Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian) and Czechoslovakia (1959-65, in Czech and Slovak). While the response of Polish (1957), Hungarian (1957), Estonian (1959) and Romanian (1963) publishers was much more articulate and convincing, in Russia, from 1959 onwards, Italo Calvino was presented as a neo-realist and militant author, according to an ideological schema which, in 1968, also attempted to integrate Le cosmicomiche by forcing it into the reassuring framework of science fiction. The European picture is completed by the Portuguese translations that have been circulating in Lisbon since 1960 and in Brazil, from 1970 onwards, through new publishers and translators. The global dimension of Calvino’s distribution was enhanced by his debut in Japan (1964) and his first isolated editions in South Africa (1966), Iran (1967) and Cuba (1968).
Between 1955 and 1970, as Calvino took his first steps as an author and the public discovered his books, the perception of his work abroad was clearly unbalanced. In Italy, by the end of the 1960s, he had already undergone several “changes of direction”, from the vital charge expressed in the aftermath of the Resistance to the ambition to contribute to the construction of a new society through the building of a new culture; from the gradual overcoming of the realist and allegorical approach to a radical redefinition of the status of literary forms through contamination with other codes and fields of knowledge. The new paths taken by his writing are reflected in his moves from one city to another (the passage from Sanremo to Turin is extended to Rome and then Paris, with New York as his chosen hometown), and at the same time he matures in the conviction that he must confront every position, every relationship, every choice with a horizon that is no longer Italian but international. From this complex itinerary, or set of itineraries, foreign publishers select moments and absolute results, with an inevitable flattening of the thematic perspectives and experimental charge brought to bear by the author. With a few exceptions, the international corpus reveals the profile of an almost exclusively fantastic and allegorical writer, in the image of Italian commercial successes, as Calvino himself recalls in a letter to the American publisher Helen Wolff dated 11 March 1968: “…even in Italy, I must say that I have always had better luck with fantastic things (in terms of sales; the critics here, on the other hand, would have me deal only with ‘serious’ things)”. Among the “fantastic things”, we should highlight the 26 editions in 20 countries of Il barone rampante, a work which, at that point, was an absolute first that prepared the way for Il visconte dimezzato (21 editions in 19 countries) and Il cavaliere inesistente (18 editions in 17 countries). Fiabe italiane (14 editions in 12 countries) owes its fortune to a mixed combination of children’s literature and popular traditions. When it comes to the order of publications abroad, the chronology is often very different from that of releases in Italy: out of 29 countries, only eight (Argentina, Croatia, Poland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, the United States and Hungary) published Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno as their first book, unlike the 16 countries (Brazil, Cuba, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Iran, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) that began with one of the novels in the trilogy. As for Le cosmicomiche, it was published in 12 countries in 1965, before the first novel. One of the most significant facts is that the success of Le cosmicomiche (13 editions in 12 countries) tripled the number of translations of La giornata d’uno scrutatore or La formica argentina, and quadrupled those of the neglected Marcovaldo. This alternative selection in relation to the Italian corpus highlights a behaviour common to many publishers who, after introducing Calvino with his most successful titles (the trilogy and the collection of Fiabe italiane), tended, in the second half of the 1960s, to chase after the novelties (specifically, Le cosmicomiche) rather than recovering the post-Resistance production (only two translations of Ultimo viene il corvo) or the various collections of short stories. In some cases, this choice was favoured by the ease with which Le cosmicomiche could be placed within the science fiction framework, without worrying too much about highlighting novel elements in terms of stylistic research and critical and cognitive ambitions. Aware of this distorted image, Calvino sometimes tried to correct it (by complaining about rigid or superficial interpretations and calling for a more problematic reading of his texts), sometimes he seemed to want to consolidate his recognition on the international scene by building easier (more coherent and accessible) pathways for foreign readers. Whatever the case, confronting a different audience was a first-person experience, and one that he enjoyed immensely. Calvino discovered the need to take charge of his own biography, the structure, linguistic solutions and chronology of his works in order to optimise the possibilities of communication with the outside world. When circumstances allowed, he followed every stage of the book’s production, from translation to editorial choices, from the composition of paratexts to promotional strategies, including the collection of press reviews. While the attitude remains the same, the concern for control and participation takes on very different forms and proportions. France, the United Kingdom, the United States and, to varying degrees, Spain were the first countries where Calvino was able to work closely with translators, agents and publishers, personally checking the results of the translations.