The Translators’ Game
Author: Edited by Veronica Raimo, assisted by Livia Franchini
I have often been asked about the relationship that exists between my work as a writer and that as a translator, about the extent to which these two activities influence and alter one another. And I have come to realise that my answers to these questions have changed over time, that my very perception of this relationship has changed. I now find it difficult to contemplate this undoubted interpenetration thinking solely about my work. We neither write nor translate outside of a context. Yet, the context is not provided solely by the reality in which we are immersed, but also by the relationships we have with other writers and translators. The discussions we have with them do not deal solely with stylistic solutions, but also involve other activities – political and ethical – that are related to our lives and how we act within a community and a language. Things become even more complicated if we also throw in the question of bilingualism, namely, a further dialectical relationship between two languages.
I, initially, thought about reflecting on these topics together with Livia Franchini, as I had translated into Italian Shelf Life (Gusci), the novel she had written in English. Why had she decided to get someone else to translate her book when she could have done it herself? What lay behind this decision? What is the boundary between translation and rewriting? Do we truly need this boundary? How has the metaphor of translation expanded over time?
Talking it over with Livia, we decided that it would be more profitable to extend this discussion to other writers who have asked themselves the same questions. To give a coherent form to the different voices, Livia suggested using a structure based on the Japanese renga, a collaborative type of chain poem. This is the result.
1) Between the theorising of a certain ‘liquid’ practice of translation and the actually doing it, a slight feeling of anxiety, of inadequacy, can creep in. “Ah! If I had never translated, I would be a worse writer now. I have learnt so much from translating!” This is, in fact, just a pose, since translating, at least for me, is the very essence of writing – translating as something you actually do (leaving aside the theory), as the necessary act of taking meaningful material from one place to another without any pretension of being able to return to the original. On the contrary, with a growing, empirical belief that a primary material perhaps does not even exist. It is the development of what, in a certain sense, is an ethics of recycling: the humble extraction of material from experience to reformulate it into something meaningful for someone else.
2) I always do my best (when I translate and when I write) and my approach is the same: I use the material available burdened with the anxiety of not being able to transpose it in a form that can be understood. I know that, despite all my efforts, something will get lost in translation, but I get on with the task, aware of the limits of my knowledge. I know that the text pre-exists me, that it will outlive me, and this, in a certain sense, shrinks my role, calms me, enables me to get on with my work.
3) Translating has, above all, taught me, to accept my limitations, to accept the sense of loss I feel. Before I managed to accept this, I was unable to write. Is anxiety something positive then?
1) I would like to believe that there is a form of anxiety that is also enabling. When I began working on Livia Franchini’s book, that “slight feeling of anxiety” between theory and practice was like the kind of conflict you see in certain open couples, where the mutual acceptance of each other’s freedom becomes something extremely limiting, as if the search for your own independence outside of this open relationship requires the implicit approval of the other person. The greater the degree of freedom, the greater the fear of betrayal – ethical and aesthetic. In other words, you are afraid of making a wrong choice, of doing something that will undermine that acceptance.
2) The conflict when my book was translated into English, however, was as follows: the Anglo-American publishers wanted a language that did not contain any echo of the original, while my translator wanted some kind of basic idiosyncrasy, which for him was an act of faith in the language I used. He wanted readers to be able to “hear” that the book was a translation. In a certain sense, we gave each other less freedom and this resulted in a slightly awkward relationship in which, so as not to make a wrong choice, what we did was to try and minimise the very possibility of choosing.
3) What does it mean to feel free with regard to a translation, and what form does the “choice” take when you have dealings with the author you are translating?
1) Chiara Barzini called me to ask me to translate her novel, written in American English and based on her experiences as an Italian teenager in Los Angeles, after I had rewritten my novel Class in English for an American publisher. (By the way, Livia translated ten pages of the book into English for a magazine!). My publisher and I had decided that instead of translating the book, getting someone else to translate the book, I would rewrite the book since it dealt with the power relations between Italian and American English and the respective imaginations and cultures. This meant that it was necessary to turn the satire regarding the power of language and imagination upside down, and make Italian become evident in the English instead of English in the Italian, as was the case in the original version. When I translated Chiara, there was a very strong disagreement between us, but I think the best way of summarising our relationship is the tenderness of our exchanges when we first met after the book’s publication. As Veronica says, this job is rather like being an open couple, and I think that Chiara and I took a good look at one another after making a bit of a mess of our desires and fantasies. I had thrown myself into her book searching for all the meta features, like the ones in my own book, but her experience of English was more direct, more natural than mine.
2) For me English is Latin, while for her it’s the language of her teenage years. I had to accept this difference in desires and in how the language had been lived, and translate her beautiful Los Angeles story, her Valley and her Topanga Canyon, in a more natural, direct way (if the decision had been mine, I would have left a lot of things in English in the Italian translation). This type of conflict between the emotional truths linked to words is why I like to live inside literature. And living inside literature is not like living inside a pyramid, in some kind of ranking – it’s like living in a sort of war being fought with a sort of crossword without solutions. I agree with Livia: translating is being in a place of pure love for language because you are in a place that repudiates the objective reality of language – everyday language seems something objective to us and high culture often pretends that it is. Translators peddle a language that has been adulterated and they take a criminal pleasure in doing so.
3) When I write, however, I want to preserve the criminal pleasure that translating gives me. Language doesn’t exist and high language is an aspirational scam. It’s all just a lying game. Gadda is my hero because he chooses words randomly. I am writing a short story in English and I am keeping a diary about Covid in English for an American magazine. Writing in English allows me to distance myself from the anguish that my awareness of Italian causes me. You write to win the Strega Prize, for the Sunday supplement and Alias, to use the words of Arbasino and Manganelli. I can’t stand writing in Italian anymore because it means having to conform: writing to obey, in line with the diktats of Nuovi Argomenti and Gruppo 63, writing as a prison. Writing in another language (and to do that, I am reading Conrad, DeLillo and Claudia Rankine at the moment), I can go back to dreaming mental associations that I do not understand, but recognise. Is it the same for you, Chiara? What was it like to write about teenage years in English rather than Italian?
1) It’s true that our relationship has not been that straightforward. It has been rather stormy, with lots of ups and downs, but that has made it a beautiful, interesting relationship. I met Francesco through Tim Small, who was an amazing lifeline for me when I came back from the United States to live in Italy. He was one of the first members of “our” generation to exploit the transversality of Anglophone language and culture. In 2012, he founded The Milan Review of Literature, a sort of Italo-American Paris Review, which took an enlightening look at some of my favourite experimental American writers: Nelly Reifler, Deb Olin Unferth, Amelia Gray, Amie Barrodale and Clancy Martin. Francesco and I felt like we were part of a small group of insurrectionists. We had discovered that literary reviews could assume the form of novellas, short stories, interviews, improvisational works of art outside of the literary establishment. Translating a novel together with the person who wrote it in the first place was the challenge we faced with Terremoto. We discovered that it was like going to bed with your lover while your wife is standing at the foot of the bed watching you. Francesco had what he calls his “criminal pleasure”, his desire to break and overturn, to reinvent, while I had a maternal need for things to end up sounding as close as possible to the original. The verb “tradurre” (translate), as Jhumpa Lahiri and Francesca Marciano have highlighted on numerous occasions in their conversations on the topic, has the same root as “tradire” (betray). In that extremely delicate moment of passage from one language to the other, I was not willing to play the role of the wife. I wanted to be the lover. Like all functioning couples, however, we also learned how to grant each other freedom and this gift has remained.
2) Writing about teenage years in English rather than Italian was something that came quite naturally as English was the language of my teenage years. I wrote my first short stories in English; I filled my obsessive diaries with details of the lives of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss in English. My first kisses were in English, as were my first mistakes, my first transgressions. English was the language that helped me invent a new world. Writing in English was also something I urgently had to do. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school, to fit in. It meant saying goodbye to a part of me I had to leave behind. English is a language I am extremely protective with as it is the language that saved me when I quickly had to find a new life and a new identity; it is a language that speaks to me of survival. Managing to become part of a system, to get into university, to start writing for newspapers and then become the writer I am today, all began with me abandoning Italian, a language I still have childhood conflicts with.
3) And speaking of the conflicts between Italian and English and childhood and adult life, it’s impossible not to think about Claudia Durastanti, whose experience is the exact opposite of mine and most expats: New York is the place of her childhood memories and Italy is the place she ended up in. A few days ago, La Straniera, which, basically, also speaks about this, received the Pen Prize for the translation. When we last saw each other, at your presentation with Veronica Raimo in Rome, you told me that you were thinking of translating the book into English yourself, but then you let Elizabeth Harris do the translation. I’d like to ask you why you made that decision and whether you, like Francesco and I, did a joint translation. Were you the wife or the lover?
1) Maybe I’m the evil twin, or the one who gets trapped in a mirror. The only things that come to mind are Midcult lesbian images, from The Black Swan to Mulholland Drive. Not that the translator and I got involved in this kind of relationship – it’s just the Italian and English in me behaving like this. I had just received the manuscript of La Straniera in English (The Stranger), after waiting a year for it, and the first thing I did was start crying. After such a long time, not only had the Italian book started to lose shape for me and, in many ways, dematerialise, but, now that it had come back to me in its first, unconscious language, it also “sounded” to me like it hadn’t been written by me; it seemed like there had been a genetic mutation in the text. That’s probably why I got Liz Harris to translate it – I didn’t want to miss the chance of having this kind of reaction, of experiencing a further separation. Now I am very much tempted to defend her talent and flair, this radicality of distance, while, to begin with, I was convinced that I would have intervened a lot more, that it would have been obvious, besides common sense, to opt for a joint translation. But that would have meant missing out on everything that lay behind this choice, this game. Rather than translating La Straniera into English, I would have run the risk of rewriting it, of turning it into an ongoing work that would never have been completed. In this way, instead, I am still able to love the stories it contains, even though I read them as if they were stories written by another author who has been writing hybrid narrative during the last few years, in a dynamic almost of “disownment”, which seems generative – in some way, what I write next, my next theoretical reflections as regards translation, will be a part of this experience.
2) All things considered, writing about translation, in addition to writing influenced by translation – like Livia, I am unable to imagine one practice without the other as they both shape and deconstruct one another –, is something I really only started doing a few years ago. I discovered that it is a mini-genre that actually gives me a lot of pleasure. I can’t stand any kind of personal essays at the moment, unless they offer insights into language and the transmutation of language – suggesting a different way of approaching classical or contemporary novels or putting forward an interpretation of other arts. I realise that however hackneyed and forever invoked it is, the metaphor of translation always offers something new for me.
3) While writing in another language makes me think of disguise, theatre and role-playing games, translating into another language inevitably invites a complex psychoanalytic vortex of splitting and a self that never wants to finish. It is such a self-evident mechanism that it almost seems a Borgesian fable in the hands of a not particularly good analyst. Yet, however easily identifiable and predictable these psychological mechanisms are, I believe that all of us challenge them or delude ourselves into thinking that we can find a ‘private’ solution to what is a common dilemma. That is why the question “what was it like to write in another language?” still means something to me. What was it like for you, Ilaria?
1) Writing in another language sparked a revolution. I had never had to tackle in such a direct way the idea of the other, of the elsewhere, of what belongs to the other, with all the stuff that comes from authorising yourself to use something belonging to the other, in addition to the themes of betrayal/translation (and I happened to be doing this in a book in which betrayal was at the centre of the plot, so every thought I had about it seemed to resonate). I even tried not to do it as I was terrorised. When I started with the Italian, it was as if I were pretending, however: I didn’t believe the female protagonists, I didn’t believe a single sentence. The “lying game” Francesco spoke about would not have worked as the Italian would have been a translation – of a meaning, of a sound –, the betrayal of an entire story. This is because The Portrait/Il ritratto takes place in London and the protagonists speak to each other in English (the English that people arriving from every other part of the world speak, the language of being a foreigner, distorted, with long pauses, accents and fillers that always go back to their places of origin, missing nuances, lost-in-translation wordplays, a certain part of the self lost in translation, the language learnt from books, films, songs, from the year scratch). When I started, I didn’t even know if I had a literary voice in English. Exploring it, understanding it, took a long time. That’s the word: time. Undoubtedly, English made me proceed more slowly, think my thoughts at a very different pace from how I’m used to thinking them: I write quickly, furiously, in Italian. I write too much, and I also write knowing that I’m able to do certain things that, luckily, I have no idea how to do in English. This language has, therefore, enabled me not to listen to my usual voice and to inhabit, make use of, what is truly another voice. I have also noticed that in English I am able to be more sentimental in a way that I am not ashamed of, to say things that I would not be able to say or write in Italian. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that nothing terrible or wonderful has ever happened to me in English: it’s not my mother tongue, I have never rejoiced or suffered in English; I don’t think I’ve even screamed in English. It’s not my past and in the present I have neither loved nor detested in English.
2) Chiara and Livia write in English after having truly lived, or while still living, abroad, but, for me, English does not represent such a clear-cut period. It is a continuum – yes, it’s the elsewhere; it remains somewhere else; it’s somewhere where you’re always arriving, somewhere where you’re always leaving. It is not even the only other language: I also grew up with French and I spend much of the year in Spain. But, for this very reason – the fact that I lose myself and find myself in various languages –, I wonder whether this vaster possibility of assuming an emotional, creative and also political elsewhere only works with English – I mean the doing and producing and receiving, which is the very root of a collective doing and giving. And I wonder what this acting as a bridge and a home, acting as an almost familiar elsewhere, almost understandable for many of us, triggers. I wonder whether at least some of the thoughts we manage to share in this game of three strophes apply, above all, to this evident – illuminating even – circularity of the practice of a language that, for some time now, has also had the role of ensuring that people can speak to one another even when they come from a thousand different places and understand one another even when they come from opposite sides of the world. I wonder how the things we have written would change and which of them would still be valid. Perhaps all of them, but we have no way of finding out (except by trying to imagine ourselves immersed in the translation into/from dialects that by now only thirty people on the entire planet speak, distant cultures we are never exposed to, whether high, low or midcult – a far more brutal alterity, a true losing of oneself). I wonder what differences there are – if any – between translating a language that many people know and translating or writing in a language that very few people know, a language in which the fewest people in the world have read, sung songs or seen films, YouTube videos or the graffiti on toilet doors.
3) When I write in English, I only read in English. When I write in Italian, I only read in Italian. I noticed, however, when choosing what to read during The Portrait, how certain books I went to reread no longer had the same solfège, the one I so liked and wanted to rediscover – that belonged to the version I had read before, the Italian version. It belonged to the me that had read them, the fifteen-year-old. Rereading these books in English, therefore, also involved a loss: emotions, something that had moved me, but which I could no longer find. In addition to certain sentences, I have, therefore, also lost a part of me – a part of me to which I no longer have access (but perhaps it’s the same with everything: rereading a book in the same language translated by the mind of a fifteen-year-old, a thirty-year-old and a mind closer to death like always produces a gap, a constant nostalgia). When I rewrote the book in Italian, the battle to rediscover my solfège, to rediscover my voice that was no longer my voice, was violent, claustrophobic: I was a foreigner in my own home. And home now had new rules, constraints, and these rules and constraints did not help me at all – before I was free! I spent almost a year hating to use the preterite tense, for example – hating to write “feci”. It was only by rereading American authors translated into Italian that I finally managed to make peace with this tense. The preterite tense did not bother me at all as an Italian reader – it only bothered me if I thought of myself as an Italian author, if I thought that writing in English had destroyed my freedom in Italian. In a certain sense, it’s the same with the title: you can either lose yourself or find new meanings in that gap between the new title in translation and the original intent – for us the very heart of the story we have written, the most mystic, secret intent, the existential search we have embarked upon and, in some way, concluded through the creative act. I’m thinking of Shelf Life/Gusci. And also Things That Happened Before the Earthquake/Terremoto (so is it the things that happened before the earthquake or the earthquake? Does this shift in focus as regards the chronology of events make the book different in Italy and America?). But I am thinking, above all, of Miden/The Girl at the Door: the focus on a society/the focus on a girl. Which part of the whole is being told there, outside the book, and in what way will our experience of the story be altered by this change in the title once we are inside the book? If you reread yourself with a new title, what do you feel? When a story has different titles, does it – magically – change a little?
1) I have never liked the English title The Girl at the Door – it seemed to hint at books that had nothing in common with mine. I insisted on keeping Miden, but at a certain point it came out that this apparently means “shithouse” in Scottish slang, something which, to tell you the truth, I have never managed to verify (if it was just a load of old crap to make me give in, it was brilliant!). But it’s true, the accent was shifted from the community to one of the characters – the person who sets the story in motion, but then has practically no voice in the rest of the book. And this is where the other problematical aspect comes in. In the United Kingdom and the United States, the book was sold as “the first post-Weinstein novel”, referring to how Vanity Fair Italy had described the book. I finished writing the book before the Weinstein affair, so for me the dialectical relationship with reality when the book was written was totally different from that suggested by this description. The book’s reception in the English-speaking world was affected by this cognitive “bias”: the first post-Weinstein novel, in which the “victim” does not have a voice, while the alleged “rapist” does, appeared a terrible provocation. “I don’t believe we need more novels that remind us one person’s idea of rape could be different from someone else’s”, wrote one female blogger, for example, “this aspect is not just disturbing but rather disgusting too”. Then there were those who wondered whether it might be a problem of language: “Maybe it reads better in its original Italian. My impressions of this translated version are of crassness, bitterness, and of almost gleefully disturbing voyeurism. I felt dirty while reading The Girl at the Door, something I hope no one ever has to feel about any book”. I could, narcissistically, be proud of having created such a stir, but I had no intention of making anybody feel dirty.
2) They always say that once a book is finished, it no longer belongs to the person who wrote it, but to those who read it. I don’t really agree with this, but I do want to point out that the reaction to Miden compared with that to The Girl at the Door was not just very different – it was completely the opposite. In Italy, it was considered to be a feminist novel that tackled the problem of consent. In the UK and USA, it was taken to be an ideologically ambiguous novel that tended to side with the guilty party. The point is that this contradiction was part of the novel itself: I tried to imagine – using literary tools – the consequences of the bureaucratisation of language and desire in a society that tries to eliminate conflict. In a certain way, I am now caught up in that conflict. It seems to me that the polarisation between a prescriptive political correctness and a libertarian political incorrectness is harmful. In the debate on consent, there has been a legitimisation of the so-called “grey zone”, but it is more difficult to find a “grey zone” between these two opposing rhetorics, just as it is difficult to find a language to interpret and narrate violence. This possible “grey zone” also differs from one cultural context to another.
3) People are always asking whether literature can or even must be able to narrate every viewpoint (with the classic refrain: “What about Lolita then?”), but what I am interested in is the kind of language you can or must use to narrate violence. How dangerous or legitimate is it to mimic reality? Livia Franchini’s book in part deals with this problem, and I would like to know how she tackled it and whether she, too, had a different kind of reaction in Italy compared with the United Kingdom.
1) Everything I write, guilty or virtuously responsible, is based on the practice of translation. It hardly ever starts from the need to represent, but, rather, to dramatise, to create dialogue. For me, there are always two or more poles – those who speak, those who listen – but these roles are not fixed: it is not always me, the author, who speaks and the reader who listens. The relationship I am searching for – no, the only one I feel is possible – is of a horizontal nature: narrating is something that is done jointly, where responsibility is shared equally. That is why I am not so interested in providing a snapshot of the conflict as in its mise-en-scène, in problematising it, offering it up for interpretation, turning it into dialogue. This requires a creative effort, which I expect to be reciprocated, as in any conversation worthy of the name – I like the English concept of meaning-making and I am convinced that this is a collective process. I want to speak about conflict in a broader sense and not just in the specific case of gender violence – even though there is a certain analogy between my work and Veronica’s on this topic – because I believe that the question is far more pervasive, that it is not restricted to a topic in a book, but has to do with the whole of human interaction and the power relations that structure this interaction. We have literary techniques that have nothing to do with realism to narrate the conflict. Representation is perhaps the most direct way in which we can try to narrate the power relations that structure the society/societies in which we live, but we mustn’t forget that contemporary realism follows on from Postmodernism and no longer uses the illusion of an omniscient narrator, insisting, instead, on the subjectivity of experience and with it the political force of the marginalised subject. Contemporary slice of life is more like a family photograph than a panoramic view from on high. In this context, the urgent need to depict contemporary power relations seems totally legitimate to me, above all, where this brings to light narratives historically silenced by a literary establishment that prefers works that do not challenge this establishment. Imposing an interpretive framework that stops at realism, on the other hand, is the result of a reading that focuses solely on one’s own subjectivity, one’s own individual perception of the real. In the case of Miden, this type of reading is totally inadequate as we are dealing with a novel of speculative fiction, a genre that has always been a privileged arena for rethinking conflicts through the creation of worlds with rules that are different from our own. Specifically, the depiction of gender violence becomes productive in Miden by involving in the conflict two societies with very different approaches to the regulation of desire, and it is no coincidence that this is achieved by means of two equivalent points of view, with which the reader must actively engage. This makes the reader feel uncomfortable? That’s fine – I would be worried if it didn’t given what she’s talking about and how she’s chosen to talk about it.
2) At this point, a number of complex factors come into play and while I cannot say anything about the American context, I can try to put forward a few ideas regarding the British context, which I am much more familiar with. In this English-speaking world, attention is focused on the nature of the power conflict, which, it seems to me, is, generally, both sacrosanct and urgent, as it implies a series of necessary reflections on what exactly we female writers want to ‘put into circulation’. This, at least for me, means thinking carefully about the spaces we appropriate, about how we are guaranteed access to these spaces and about the extent to which we are aided in doing this by the power and privilege we have in some way accumulated. For me, this process has been, and continues to be, invaluable because it promotes a political sense of responsibility in my creative practice, which it would be a bit simplistic to equate with a superficial political correctness. Stories create the world: a novel has a reciprocal relationship with reality as it reproduces reality, but, at the same time, reproduces reality using its own forms, so we have a responsibility to make very careful choices in order not to passively, uncritically, reproduce the power relations that are crushing us and crushing those with less power than us.
3) And, yet, as events concerning The Girl at the Door reveal, these reflections cannot be reduced to virtuous guidelines to be applied in all cases: the presumption of developing a best practice for contemporary writing starting from the English-language context reveals the imperialist hubris of the context itself. A review criticising a novel in translation on the basis of a marketing choice describing it as being ‘post-Weinstein’ makes the assumption that this marketing choice is an absolute truth that defines the very nature of the novel itself – cancelling the world of the novel, its context and its natural alterity. In this way, the book is integrated into the contemporary Anglophone debate and reduced to a consumer good ready for immediate use. This marketing approach is pervasive in the English publishing world and, unfortunately, also more broadly in the British political debate: prosumer readers complain on Goodreads because they have not understood a book’s ending; young voters wear Corbyn T-shirts with the Nike logo; and, during the pandemic, companies selling eco-friendly linen face masks abound on Etsy. It is a critical approach that stops, too often and even with the best of intentions, at the resolution of individual demands regarding the conflict given that this approach does not question (as Miden does) the slippery surface of the real and the possible ways of narrating it. In contemporary social justice movements that have arisen in English-speaking contexts, the marginalisation of the problem of language is striking: the illusion on the part of people who only speak English that their language corresponds to reality rather than a structure of reality in a precise location. I am not saying anything new: exactly 200 years ago, Wilhem Von Humboldt put forward the idea that the diversity of languages cannot be accounted for by differences in sounds and signs, but indicate a diversity of views of the world. To exist and write in translation means to become a vehicle of this diversity and, at the same time, it makes us think carefully about the importance of context: we are, by nature, more active readers and more humble writers, in awareness of our limitations, in our conscious subjectivity. Perhaps better? Who knows – I do not know of any other way, nor do I want to.