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4 April 2024

Paolo Volponi in other languages

Richard Dixon


Richard Dixon lives and works in Italy. He has translated works by Giacomo Leopardi, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Umberto Eco, Roberto Calasso, Paolo Volponi, Stefano Massini, Marcello Fois, Adrián N. Bravi and Gianni Solla. His translation of Paolo Volponi‘s La macchina mondiale will be published in May by Seagull Books and University of Chicago Books under the title The World Machine.



Paolo Volponi’s novels highlight the rural poverty that Italy faced in the 1950s and ’60s, the movement from the land to the city, and the alienating effects of rapid industrial expansion. But to the modern reader they also seem to look ahead toward the global crises of today and the problems of living and working in a post-industrial society.

This year marks the centenary of Volponi’s birth in Urbino on 6 February 1924, and the host of events through the year include an exhibition to 31 December at the city’s Fondazione Carlo e Marise Bo, part of the which focuses on Volponi in translation, with a display of book covers as well as correspondence with his translators.

Volponi gained early success as a poet with Le porte dell’Appennino, for which he won the Viareggio Prize in 1960, and the eight novels that followed have a distinctly poetical style. Yet from 1956 until the early 1970s he was also head of social services at the Olivetti factory in Ivrea, an experience that would have a significant impact on his thinking and his writing.

His first novel Memoriale, published in 1962, is set in a factory in northern Italy where its narrator, Albino Saluggia, experiences bureaucratic indifference and alienation. Translations appeared two years later in English (My Troubles Began, trans. Belén Sevareid, Grossman, New York), French (Pauvre Albino, trans. Maurice Javion, Bernard Grasset Editeur, Paris) and German (Ich, der Unterzeichnete, trans. Piero Rismondo, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt 1964).

In Spain, Volponi’s translator, the celebrated Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, had to work from his prison cell in Lérida, where a court had sentenced him to serve three years for his involvement in a strike supporting the miners of Asturias. On 19 November 1963, Volponi wrote to him:


“Dear Manuel Vázquez Montalbán,

I read in a newspaper that you have translated my novel Memoriale into Spanish for Editorial Seix Barral while imprisoned at Lérida for love of your people and of freedom.

I was much moved by this news and feel the full weight of the responsibility of writing, something which in a society such as this is very often lost through so many obligations, concessions, social pressures, ambition, etc.”


Montalbán completed the translation with Salvador Clotas, and Memorial was published by Editorial Seix Barral, Barcelona, in 1964.

Further translations of Memoriale appeared toward the end the 1960s in Polish (Pamiętnik albina, trans. Wanda Gall, PIW, Warsaw 1967), Serbian (Meмopиjaл, trans. Bakotiħ-Mijuškoviħ, Srpska književna zadruga, Belgrade 1968) and Japanese (『メモリアーレ』, trans. A. Okubo, Shōraisha, Kyoto 1969). Belén Sevareid’s English translation was also republished in Britain as The Memorandum by Marion Boyars, London 1967).

For his second novel, La macchina mondiale, published in 1965, Volponi won the first of his two Strega prizes. The story charts the decline and fall of a self-taught contadino philosopher who believes that people are machines built by other machines and that mankind will build ever more powerful machines through which the world will be liberated. Once again, the novel was translated into English (The Worldwide Machine, trans. Belén Sevareid, Grossman, New York 1967, and Calder and Boyars, London 1969), German (Die Weltmaschine, trans. Gerhard Fasterding, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt 1966, and Piper Verlag, Monaco 1987) and French (Le Système d’Anteo Crocioni, Maurice Javion, Bernard Grasset Editeur, Paris 1969). Other translations appeared in Romanian (Maşinăria universului, trans. Andrei Benedek, Colecţia Meridiane, Bucharest 1966), Serbian (Светска машина, trans. Ivan Klajn, Edizioni Protsveta, Belgrade 1967), Czech (Světa Stroj, trans. Zdeněk Digrin, Odeon, Prague 1968), and Japanese (『アンテオの世界』 (The World of Anteo), K. Chigusa, Hayakawa Shobo, Tachō 1969). Gerhard Fasterding’s German translation was republished by S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, in 2016, and my own translation, The World Machine, will be published by Seagull Books and The University of Chicago Press in May 2024.

Volponi’s lengthy experimental third novel Corporale (1974) tackles the threat of nuclear catastrophe and was translated into French by Michel Sager with the title Corporel, published by Éditions Robert Laffont in 1975.

Il sipario ducale (1975), for which Volponi won a second Viareggio prize, is set against the grim background of the Piazza Fontana bomb attack in Milan in 1969, and has been translated into French (Le duc et l’anarchiste, trans. Robert Laffont, Collection Pavillons, Paris 1978), Czech (Vévodská opona, trans. Josef Hajný, Jiskry, Prague 1979), Swedish (Den hertigliga ridån, trans. Agneta Lundström, Legenda, Stockholm 1989) and English (Last Act in Urbino, trans. Peter Pedroni, Italica Press, New York 1995).

For his fifth novel, Il pianeta irritabile (1978), Volponi moved forward in time to the year 2293, where four creatures – a baboon, an elephant, a goose, and a dwarf – emerge from the ashes of an atomic explosion and embark on a journey in search of an improbable salvation in a new universe. Two translations have been published: in French (La planète irritable, trans. Louis Bonalumi, Flammarion, Paris 1991) and Japanese (『怒りの惑星』 trans. Isao Waki, Shōraisha, Kyoto 1985). Interestingly, Volponi’s third Japanese translator Isao Waki (1936-2017) taught at Poole Gakuin University, Osaka, having studied at the University of Rome between 1968 and 1980, and during his long career translated Niccolò Machiavelli, Ludovico Ariosto, Giacomo Leopardi, Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi, Luigi Pirandello, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Giuseppe Lampedusa, Italo Calvino and Dino Buzzati.

Il lanciatore di giavellotto (1981), set in fascist Italy of the 1930s, portrays a troubled adolescent and is perhaps the most autobiographical of Volponi’s novels. It has been translated into Dutch (De speerwerper, trans. Thea Klok and Hanneke Los, Meulenhoff Editie, Amsterdam 1984), German (Der speerwerfer, trans. Barbara Kleiner, Piper Verlag, Monaco 1988), and French (Le Lanceur de javelot, trans. Jean-Marie Laclavetine, Paris, Flammarion 1991). My English translation, The Javelin Thrower, was published by Seagull Books and The University of Chicago Press in 2019.

Le mosche del capitale (1989) charts the rise and fall of an industrialist and has been translated into Spanish as Las moscas del capital, trans. Juan Manuel Salmerón Arjona, Editorial Sexto Piso, Madrid 2015

Volponi’s final novel, La strada per Roma, had been left in a drawer for almost thirty years before its publication in 1991. It tells of a young man’s urge to leave the provincial surroundings of Urbino for Rome. With it, Volponi won the Strega Prize for a second time, an achievement equalled only by Sandro Veronesi in 2020. The novel was translated into German by Maja Pflug and Miriam Houtermans with the title Ich seh dich unter den Arkaden and published by Europa Verlag, Vienna, in 1994.

It is interesting to note that six of Volponi’s eight novels have been translated into French, four into French and English, and three into Japanese. In all, his novels have been translated into twelve languages.

Translations of Volponi’s poetry have appeared in English (From Pure Silence to Impure Dialogue: a survey of post-war Italian poetry 1945-1965, edited and translated by Vittoria Bradshaw, Las Americas, New York 1971), into French (Ecrivains italiens d’aujourd’hui, Les Lettres Nouvelles, vol. 3, Paris December 1976) and into Czech (Přerušený Ráj. Moderní Italská Poezie, edited by Vladmir Mikeš and Miloslav Fulín, Československý Spisovatel, Praga 1967).