I came to Italian relatively late; some pleasures are worth deferring, or at least that’s what I tell myself. In 1985 I was on a trip with a friend to Florence, and the flood of sensory experiences – the morning smell of coffee and pastries, the marble staircase in the dark hallway of the guesthouse, the murmur of voices on the piazza, and yes, the Ghirlandaio and Gozzoli frescoes in the Duomo in San Gimignano (art history is hard to avoid there) – made me think that possibly I’d been missing out on something. That and the sheer glorious, fluid, coloratura joy of the spoken language.
So I took evening classes, read voraciously and travelled to Italy whenever I could, sometimes for leisure and often for work. I had already been translating from French and German for some time – both languages I loved in their different ways, both associated with the lecture theatre in a way that Italian was not – when I was asked by Granta to translate a book, Denti e spie (‘Teeth and Spies’), by Giorgio (originally György) Pressburger, a Hungarian-born Italian novelist and short-story writer. This novel, like the collection that followed, Neve e colpa (‘Snow and Guilt’), was a gnomic parable of East and West, of memory and exile. I visited Giorgio – the nicest, gentlest, wittiest man imaginable – first in Trieste, where he was then based, and later in Budapest, where he ran the Italian Cultural Institute. The Trieste visit coincided with a cultural festival that he co-organised, Mittelfest, in the picturesque town of Cividale, not far from the Austrian and Slovenian borders, and precisely where the Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages meet.
It was a wonderful and illuminating experience. I particularly remember a performance by a Croatian brass band during a thunderstorm, in the course of which the roof of the stage blew away and everyone had to run for cover. More importantly, perhaps, Giorgio was immensely patient and helpful, and talked me through any mistakes and difficulties in my translation: in an early draft, for example, I had mistaken ceco, ‘Czech’, for cieco, ‘blind’, which made the rest of the story extremely puzzling. I was very sad when I learned that Giorgio died in 2017 – he was wonderful company.
One of the next books that I was asked to translate was Salvatore Niffoi’s La Leggenda di Redenta Tirìa. I translated it as The Legend of Redenta Tiria, but now wonder whether a snappier title mightn’t have helped it along a little. A teacher and potter from Orani in Sardinia, Niffoi is a keen advocate of Sardinian writing (like Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926), and writes in a mixture of Sardinian dialect and standard Italian. The book is a piece of magical realism, looking at small lives in a small Sardinian town and the possibility – as the title suggests – of redemption, not least through the power of literature. Again, a trip to Sardinia was called for, to sample delicacies such as pistiddus, papasinnus, aranzada and sanguinaccio, the latter a sausage made of blood and chocolate. Salvatore, who speaks not a word of English, was again very generous in showing me around, and I’m convinced that a brief immersion in village life was enormously valuable to the finished translation.
Some challenges arose in the translation of books by the Bologna writers’ collective known as Luther Blissett, now ‘Wu Ming’. Manituana, for example, set during the American Revolutionary War, called for the invention of an eighteenth-century street slang employed by a gang called the ‘Mohocks’, which needed to sound convincing in English. This involved trawling through Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang. One conversation I had with Wu Ming 1 (in theory, at least, the collective’s members like to retain their anonymity) sticks in my mind: in the novel 54, a partisan recalls looking up in the middle of a battle to see his mother striding through the forest to bring him a bowl of zabaglione. Why, Wu Ming 1 wanted to know, had I not called it an egg cream? We agreed in the end that if the joke was to work, it had to be zabaglione – for the extravagance of the word and the image of the Italian mamma braving the bullets.
For my translation of Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese (published by And Other Stories) we kept the original Italian title, and I think we were right to do so. The novel deals with four days of torrential rain in Naples, leading to terrible and often fantastical scenes of destruction, which the author combines with a satire on local government. Again the meaning is both specific and suggestive, an obvious portmanteau of male and acqua – so ‘evil water’ – but the Neapolitan setting is so important and so pervasive that the title presented itself as the only real option, not least as a way of preserving the sense of place that is often so important in Italian writing.
I think it’s probably the local – in terms of dialect, mood and colour – that’s most challenging to the translator, and at the same time is one of the most attractive and important features of Italian literature. I should add that I’ve been helped throughout all these translations by the community of Italian translators – both Italian to English and vice versa – who are the cleverest, warmest, sparkiest colleagues anyone could wish for. That long-ago trip to Florence was one of the best things I ever did.
By Shaun Whiteside
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