For Grace Received
They say “See Naples and die” (Vedi Napoli e poi mori). I once thought this meant that Naples, bordered on one side by a still-active volcano and the sparkling sea on the other, is so breathtaking that there’s no use searching for anything more beautiful. Not so, a southern Italian corrected me. In Naples you notice every little angle of life: Leopardi’s desert flower growing out of the Vesuvian hillside; sad-faced old women in babushkas living on the ground floors of bent and dirty alleys; desperate Senegalese immigrants scheming to pick the pockets of almost-as-desperate Neapolitan teenagers; the soaring song of the tarantella. After a few days in Naples, you’ve soaked in everything in its chaotic, dirty, beautiful honesty.
On the copyright page of Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received there is a note similar to that which is often shown before episodes of Law & Order. “This book is a work of fiction,” it warns. “The characters and events described in these stories are imaginary, but the social and environmental settings that produced them are, on the other hand, quite authentic.” The environment and society we’re dealing with, specifically, is that which you see before dying: Naples, the playground of the Gomorrah, a paradise of contraband. Taken more broadly, it is a profoundly human setting full of characters secretly nursing small hopes. Antony Shugaar’s translation brings us into the lives of these characters in Parrella’s English-language debut.
The collection consists of just four stories, but together they manage to touch on many of the major obstacles life in Naples—or anywhere else—presents. Okay, so there are some things that life does not thrust upon everybody: stabbings, mob bosses, stints in prison, adulterous affairs, drug trafficking, black market books, black market CDs. But in a certain sense these events are incidental. They are presented matter-of-factly, because for anyone familiar with a certain reality of Naples it truly is a matter of fact. Equally important to Parrella’s stories, however, are the emotional consequences for her characters, who sense the limitations of their lives and grapple with them. A copy shop boy in the story “Siddhartha” who once played guitar beautifully and could again, maybe, someday. The woman who despite having it all, longs for “The Imagined Friend.” They are conscious of Possibility and this awareness is painful.
The challenge Parrella’s work presents the translator is that it is idiomatic and makes use of the local dialect. The narration is conducted in a modern voice of Italian while dialogue makes frequent use of dialect. When I began reading Shugaar’s translation before having read the Italian, I wondered if the author had cut down using dialect in this second book of short stories. Well, yes and no. Neapolitan does appear less frequently, appearing via the use of mo’ (now/_adesso_) and ‘sto (this/_questo_), for example. Where it does appear, however, is practically invisible in translation, indicating that Shugaar has normalized the text, attempting to render it in a single English voice. Not only are they normalized, sometimes dialect phrases or casual comments do not always appear in a similarly casual voice in English, thus seeming overformalized:
“Eh”, dice lui, “vabbè, mo’ mandiamo a chiedere ‘sto controllo dei documenti, un’oretta e ce ne andiamo tutti quanti a casa. Per favore però, spegnete i cellulari”.
“Mannaggia”, dico io . . .
The treasury agent here is trying to sound non-chalant, like he has to inspect a copy shop but doesn’t necessarily want to. Vabbè could be alright/fine/whatever/OK, expressing “let’s just get this over with and we’ll all go home.” Here’s Shugaar’s:
“Mmm,” he replies, “well, let’s go ahead and request the document check, just an hour or so, and then we all go home. But, do me a favor please, and turn off your cell phones.”
“Rats,” I say . . .
First of all, what character not appearing on Sesame Street says “rats” these days? Mannaggia, so far as I have always thought of it, is damn or, at its most benign, darn. Secondly, the inspector has become somewhat more formal-sounding. In the Italian he does “request” a “document check,” but the vabbè, mo’ and ‘sto bookend the formality with a buddy-buddy feeling that doesn’t come through at all in the English. Shugaar makes some great choices for colloquial phrases without English equivalents. For example “bloody hell” for the exclamation “_che sangue_” retains both the swear and the blood.
Oddly, the awkward tenor of the dialogue in places is not due to remaining literal to the text. In fact, Shugaar makes choices throughout the novel to streamline the voice in English and make it sound fluid and colloquial. He sometimes adds or subtracts words, apparently for the sake of clarification. While a translator should approach the question of how literal s/he wishes to be on a phrase-by-phrase, or even a word-by-word basis, I frequently wondered why Shugaar would add words in one place when they were extraneous to comprehension and not add them in other awkward places. For example, a conversation about someone who shows up wearing a fur coat in the spring:
“Hello? We’re in the south of Italy. Think! Unless you’re stuck on an Alp, like you are, it’s springtime, next weekend I’m going to Procida . . .”
“Stuck on an Alp?” Just one? I consult the Italian.
“Pronto? Qui è il sud. Capisci? Fuori dall’alpe c’è la primavera, io il prossimo weekend vado a Procida.”
Okay, so it does say “outside the alp” singular rather than the Alps, which is indeed odd, but it also does not say he’s “stuck on it,” nor does it specify that the south is “of Italy.” One might say “we’re in the south of Italy” on the phone, but one might just as well say “This is the south,” which is closer to the source text and would capture the sassiness. Americans would understand the concept of the south being hot from our own geography. In conversation “_capisci_?” is used as we utilize “you know?” or “get/got it?” and in fact Shugaar does treat it this way in other places, leading me to wonder why he has the character call for thinking. If you’re going to totally invent being “stuck on” the mountain and add in “like you are,” why not pluralize Alps?
Is Shugaar trying to improve or clarify the text? Or is he “transmitting [that] feeling of foreigness to his readers” that Schleiermacher talks about in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”? With a text like For Grace Received, so full of contemporary idioms, the work of the translator is to absorb what a character says and spit it back out as if it were an average, modern person saying it in the target language. I think Shugaar would agree, but sometimes his choices come out like “rats!”—that is to say a little stale. A twenty-something copy boy in Naples who “_puzza a peste_” (smells really bad, literally like the plague) could say he “stinks to high heavens,” but would he? In America he would probably say he smelled like shit, or smelled terrible. If he says the paper in the copy shop “_fa schifo_,” it could mean the paper is “flimsy” but I would probably read it as “it sucks.”
For the most part, however, Parrella’s characters come through in all their honesty, impatience and vulnerability. They are all looking at holes in their lives, just as the main character of “F.G.R.,” the title story, looks down at a literal hole in her bathroom floor, pieces of plaster crumbling down into her downstairs neighbor’s tub. They catch glimpses at a more complete life, but it would take a lot of renovating to get them there. Perhaps this is an appropriate metaphor for translation: a hole waiting to be repaired. Once it is patched up and smoothed over, it will be an unscarred bathroom floor, but inevitably, before that is realized, some of the original plaster is going to crumble off around the edges.