I recently was asked by the Italian Cultural Institute in London to edit an anthology of translated extracts from works by neglected twentieth-century Italian writers, particularly books that had never before been translated into English.¹
In choosing what would be included, I put together a list of some thirty or forty Italian writers who seemed to fit the bill. But in researching these writers, I would find time and time again that books of theirs (often the very ones I had hoped to include) had in fact already been translated into English, often many decades ago, in editions that are now long out of print. In other words, there is a long tradition of translation from Italian in the British and American publishing world, a tradition which, my research suggested, reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was something like a mini-boom in Italian books appearing in English. Translators such as Archibald Colquhoun, Angus Davidson, Frances Frenaye, Stuart Hood and a handful of others were kept busy in those days, translating a great swathe of Italian literature, from major figures such as Ignazio Silone, Vasco Pratolini, Dino Buzzati and Cesare Pavese to the humorous Don Camillo books of Giovanni Guareschi. Alongside these big names, room was found for translations of a great many writers who are now almost completely forgotten outside Italy: Riccardo Bacchelli, Francesco Jovine, Raffaele La Capria, Ugo Pirro, Goffredo Parise, to cite a few at random. Conspicuous by its absence, from a twenty-first-century perspective, was any large representation of women writers: Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante and Anna Maria Ortese did occasionally appear in translation, but it would take more recent decades for them to be rediscovered.
Few of these translations are likely to have been bestsellers, with occasional exceptions: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard caused a stir on its publication in 1958, and the novels of Alberto Moravia, easily the most famous Italian writer of the time, presumably sold well, the translations being widely available in paperback editions, sometimes with lurid covers to emphasise their ‘sexy’ content.
I would surmise that part of the reason for this mini-boom, as I have called it, may lie in the general interest in all things Italian that prevailed at the time. Thanks to the post-war growth in European tourism, more British and American people were discovering Italy. Italian fashion, and Italian design in general, were sweeping the world. Italian food was becoming increasingly familiar. Italian cinema was then at a creative zenith: directors such as De Sica, Visconti and Fellini were at the height of their powers, stars like Mastroianni and Loren were world-famous, and a certain number of Italian films were widely distributed in the UK and US.
Whatever the reasons, my (admittedly limited) research suggests that the mini-boom gradually faded from the 1970s onwards, although important titles continued to appear, such as the influential work of Italo Calvino, and there have been occasional bestsellers, like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a worldwide sensation in the early 1980s. Today, of course, we have the phenomenal success of Elena Ferrante – though it should be noted that Ferrante only really began to take off in the English-speaking world some seven years after she first appeared in English translation. Is it too much to hope that this success will lead to increased curiosity about what is being produced in Italy today, or will publishers’ tendency to jump on bandwagons have them anxiously searching the horizon for a putative ‘second Elena Ferrante’?
If the latter is the case, they may miss out on the true range and variety of the current Italian literary scene. They would also do well to take a second look at that amazing legacy from the twentieth century: a good many of the writers so profusely translated decades ago are ripe for rediscovery.
By Howard Curtis
1. The resulting anthology is available here.
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