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10 November 2023

Italo Calvino in other languages – Part Two

Francesca Rubini, Università “La Sapienza” – Rome

Between 1970 and 1985 Calvino’s translations reached 11 new countries (totalling 40 by 1985) concentrated mainly in Europe: in Turkey and Greece, where the publications of Il barone rampante (Istanbul, 1971) and Il cavaliere inesistente (Thessaloniki, 1972) only represented false starts and the author began to be read in the 1980s and 1990s; in Lithuania in 1975; in Bulgaria in 1979; in Albania in 1981. The author’s success was also significantly influenced by the first volumes published in Israel (1978), while episodic reprints of the American editions began to be printed in Canada (1981) and single volumes without any follow-up appeared in Burma (1980), Armenia (1984) and Colombia (1985). In 1981, the first volume was presented in China, the first sign of a success that only started to manifest itself in the following decade.
In this highly uneven picture, the prominence of France, the United States, the United Kingdom and the two German republics is confirmed, which, together with Spain, sold out more than half of the editions produced. Compared to the 1950s and 1960s, the rapid rise of the Spanish context is one of the most evident phenomena: Madrid and Barcelona not only replace Buenos Aires as the main centre for the dissemination of Castilian translations, but also impose themselves as the realities in which the largest number of works (16 in 29 different editions, printed mainly by Alianza Editorial and Bruguera) are offered. The second piece of evidence is represented by an initial decentralisation with respect to the European axis, with the emergence of Japan (present with 15 new editions and enjoying a visit by Calvino in 1976) to reaffirm the now fully global dimension of his fortune. In terms of editorial placement, a series of publishers distinguished themselves by building extensive exploitation projects around the author: Seuil in France also recovered the first forgotten works (the first edition of Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno appeared in 1978) and worked in an increasingly close relationship with the writer; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich established itself in the United States by sharing translation rights with Secker & Warburg in the United Kingdom; Volk und Welt and Hanser were active in the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany respectively; and then Bert Bakker in the Netherlands, Bonniers in Sweden, Tammi in Finland, Sifriyat Po’alim in Israel. Among the translators, important new presences were established, such as Francesc Miravitlles for Castilian, Burkhart Kroeber for German, Henny Vlot for Dutch, Lene Waage Petersen for Danish, Gayo Sciloni for Hebrew. The publishing initiatives of Central-Northern and Eastern Europe were decidedly more discontinuous, with the emblematic case of Russia resisting the entry of works subsequent to Le Cosmicomiche.
The trend of translations was also uneven, with almost two thirds of the volumes printed between 1980 and 1985 showing a general decline in publications over the previous decade. After the peak of attention for the new author at his international debut, there was a slowdown in many countries between 1971 and 1979, a delay that began to be bridged in the early 1980s due to new interest from France and, in particular, the United States. These are the two countries that contributed most to defining his identity abroad and in which the author is established as a continuous and rooted presence, organic to the system, no longer precarious, extraneous and incomplete, as is the case for many translated authors, and as continues to be the case for Calvino himself in other contexts. For different reasons and in different ways, in France and in the United States there was a coincidence of prestigious critical exposure (by Gore Vidal and Roland Barthes, among others), success with the public, stability of intellectual relations and editorial promotion (including through the overwhelming print runs of the paperback series), and strong integration in the cultural panorama of reference. In particular, an image of Calvino as a postmodern writer began to take shape in the American context, author of three books considered exemplary of postmodernism such as Il castello dei destini incrociati, Le città invisibili and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore. The postmodernist context presents itself as a closed production/fruition circuit, whereby narrators such as John Gardner, John Updike and John Barth write their own works (often appreciated by Calvino) and then read, write, teach university courses on other authors, including Calvino. This self-referential perimeter characterises the American context but reports a fact that is valid for almost all countries that have already established a familiarity with the author: introduced in the 1950s-1960s as a fantastic-fairy-tale-allegorical writer with a bizarre character, starting with the translations of Castello (and even more so with the next two books), Calvino began to be presented as a difficult writer, a writer for intellectuals and other writers. Spurred on by the success in the United States and surpassed only by the unconquerable Barone rampante (30 editions in 19 countries), Le città invisibili (28 editions in 17 countries) and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (26 editions in 18 countries) established themselves at this stage as major international successes. One of the consequences of such a claim is the sudden rapprochement between Italian publication dates and those of foreign countries. Considering the average values of the editions that appeared before 1985, a title such as Le Cosmicomiche was first translated into the new languages six years after its original edition. The value remains unchanged for Le città but falls to less than four years on average for Il Viaggiatore and only two years for Palomar. Considering that Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno has an average gap of seventeen years between the Italian debut and the one in other languages, the synchrony with which the last narrative work is accessible to readers in ten different countries (as many as those registered by 1985 for Palomar) highlights the attention that surrounds the author following the great popularity of Le città and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore. An attention that is mainly expressed in the anticipation of new works and not so much in the desire to discover the entire body of writing, as evidenced by the scarce circulation of realistic fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, or the rare versions of the first collection of essays, Una pietra sopra.
While the early works of Calvino were late-blooming and the popularity of postmodern American reading inclined towards experimental fiction, both directed attention to this genre, the dialogue with translated works became increasingly important and more intrinsic to literary research, according to a path that goes from an initial dialectical confrontation (the original Italian work adapting to the international context) to an underlying correspondence (the original Italian work understood in relation to the international context). The last and most successful example is the preparation of Lezioni americane, a text expressing an explicitly supranational conception of literary heritage that Calvino conceived (and gradually had translated) for the American audience of Harvard students.

©Karin Herbertsson