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12 December 2023

Italo Calvino in other languages – Part Three

Francesca Rubini, Università “La Sapienza” – Rome

In the years following his sudden death, Calvino entered the Mondadori catalogue and the Meridiani collection in Italy. For the next thirty years, his wife, Esther Singer Calvino, continued to follow the worldwide distribution of his books. Between 1986 and 2020, the author was translated for the first time in six European countries: Macedonia (1995), Latvia (1997), Ukraine (1997), Iceland (2002), Montenegro (2003) and Georgia (2007). The big novelty was the expansion eastwards into no fewer than nine Asian countries: South Korea (1987), Taiwan (1993), Hong Kong (1994), Malaysia (1995), Indonesia (2004), Vietnam (2004), India (2005), Sri Lanka (2005) and Thailand (2006). We should also mention the start of Arabic translations: in Iraq (1987), Jordan and Tunisia (1988), Syria (1992), Lebanon (1997), Kuwait (1998), Egypt (1999), Morocco (2008) and Saudi Arabia (2017). While there was only one publication in Mexico in 2010, twenty-four new countries complete the picture of Calvin’s worldwide distribution.

In the international debut season (1955-1970), eleven of the most active countries (i.e. those with more than five editions) were European, second only to the United States and Argentina; from 1986 to 2020, of the nations publishing at least thirty titles, seven were from the Old Continent, while six (China, Brazil, Iran, the United States, Japan and Korea) were Asian and American. The pace of growth seems particularly rapid if we consider that Calvino had been a household name in the European market since the 1950s and 1960s, whereas in countries such as China, Brazil, Iran and Korea he was unpublished or had a minimum number of titles at the time of his death. So, these countries began to translate the writer when all his works had already been written, when critics and the global market had already identified the turning points, the bestsellers, the must-have titles, when Calvino’s image was already a discourse that had been constructed and negotiated within a supranational horizon. Finally, when this image can no longer be controlled or contradicted by the author himself. Japan is an important case in point, where the commitment of several publishers and translators, including Tadahiko Wada,enabled access to the author’s main titles. In Brazil in the new millennium, Calvino travels under the iconic covers of Companhia das Letras and thanks to the new translations by Maurício Santana Dias, which also present readers with non-fiction texts and letters. But the most emblematic case remains that of China, where the Yilin publishing house in Nanjing launched several far-reaching publishing initiatives: Calvino’s complete works were first presented in five anthological volumes between 2002 and 2003, then in a series of fifteen volumes in paperback inaugurated in 2006, and finally, from 2011, in an elegant series entitled “I classici di Calvino” with updated notes, prefaces and postfaces. 

In this climate of accelerated change and new protagonists in the publishing world, certain elements of continuity remain. First and foremost is the role played by France, the United States, the United Kingdom (where the new translator, Martin McLaughlin, works) and Germany, the only countries that have traversed the entire history of Calvino’s translation without any slowdown or discontinuity, allowing readers to follow the course of his works with discreet synchronicity, collecting and ordering his memory as a heritage shared by several generations. In Spain, Siruela acquired the author’s rights in the early 1990s, bringing together his Castilian translations in a single publishing project for the first time. In 1998, the Madrid-based publishing house launched the “Biblioteca Italo Calvino”, a collection devoted entirely to the writer which, by 2020, included thirty-six titles, some of which have passed their thirtieth reissue.

Above all it is the works that maintain the sign of continuity, since the six most-published titles after the author’s death correspond exactly to those of the 1971-1985 period: the three volumes of the trilogy (109 editions of The Baron in the Trees, 89 The Cloven Viscount and The Nonexistent Knight), Invisible Cities (97 editions in 45 countries), If on a winter’s night a traveller (87 editions in 42 countries) and Italian Folktales (85 editions in 25 countries). Among the posthumous works, Six Memos for the Next Millenium is the only non-fiction contribution to have a significant international impact (65 editions in 34 countries). The data therefore confirms the centrality of the 1970s and early 1980s, a period during which a canon was defined that was destined to last over time, at least from an editorial point of view, a perspective that does not take into account the recognition in critical or academic circles of less popular titles. The phenomenon is amplified by the needs of the book market, which increasingly favours cautious investments (thus tending to push the most successful products), while its scale is increasing exponentially: the number of foreign editions published in the first twenty years of the twenty-first century has almost reached the number of volumes put into circulation between 1955 and 1999. These quantitative data characterise the latest season of international fortune, but they are not enough to clarify the status of the writer, defined above all by the ways in which he is received and revived by editorial and cultural mediators the world over. 

In March 2018, the rector of Seoul’s Hanyang University chose Why Read the Classics? as compulsory reading for first-year students in the 2018/2019 academic year, commissioning the publisher Minumsa to supply five thousand copies personalised with a special box featuring the university’s logo. Around five thousand Korean students thus began their university course by reading (in their own language, in Soyeon Lee’s translation) a text dedicated to reading the classics and written (originally in a different alphabet) by one of the greatest classics of world literature. This is the great turning point that has opened up the prospects of the new millennium since the 1990s: the recognition of Calvino as a universal classic. The proof of this, in terms of distribution, is the choice of publishers who include the writer in prestigious series of classics: In Romania, “Clasicii modernităţii” by publisher Polirom and “Clasici ai literaturii moderne” by Univers; in Spain, “Clásicos del siglo XX” by El País publishing house; in Germany, Fischer’s “Klassik” series; in France, Seuil’s “Librairie du XXe siècle”; in the UK, Penguin’s “Modern Classic” and Vintage’s “Vintage Classic”; in Russia, the series “AST: Astrel Классическая и современная проза“; in Croatia, “Moderni klasici” by SysPrint. The decision to re-translate Calvino in the 2000s, as Ann Goldstein in the United States and Martin Rueff in France are beginning to do, bears witness to this difficult and unresolved issue of linguistic rendering, in order to give a contemporary voice to a classic that continues to question the present.

Calvino’s works in translated editions are held in three major library collections. The first was assembled – on the initiative of Paolo Fabbri and thanks to a donation from Esther Singer Calvino – at the Italian Cultural Institute in Paris in 1995. A second nucleus has been kept since 1999 in the collection of the Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale (A.L.I.) at the Fondazione Arnoldo e Alberto Mondadori in Milan. In 2015, Esther Singer Calvino and Giovanna Calvino donated all the first editions of Italo Calvino’s works published abroad and kept in the writer’s private home to the Department of Documentary, Linguistic and Philological Sciences at Rome’s La Sapienza University (now the Department of Modern Literature and Culture). This collection of over 1,100 copies is part of the holdings of the Calvino Laboratory (La Sapienza University, Rome) and is housed in the Calvino Room of the National Central Library in Rome.