9 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this, though with less success.

The Four Corners of Palermo is not a novel but a collection of four episodes. Each chapter takes the hero, a gritty young crime reporter, to a different quarter of the city, where he finds a new noir crime scene and a new Venus-like lover. In the first chapter, he pieces together the family drama behind a shootout in the streets. The second has him investigating car bombings, and the third chasing a father who kidnapped his own children. The fourth has him befriending a daughter whose father is found beheaded in a town square, and ultimately deciding not to publish what he learns.

Di Piazza’s sensational material and nostalgic memory of the 1980s make his stories pleasurable, though vapid. The book suffers for its episodic structure, which leaves little opportunity for the nameless reporter to make much of an impression on the reader, and even less opportunity for him to learn something. A cast of shallow, personality-free female characters surrounds a “Gary Stu” protagonist, who runs from fashion model to murder scene without a misstep. It is a fun noir romp told in cinematic jump-cut scenes, but not a gratifying novel.

A former crime reporter, Di Piazza is clearly writing from experience. His bloody streets and severed heads are raw and vivid. But most disturbing—and, sadly, perhaps most realistic—is his depiction of journalistic ethics in a city under Mafia rule. Di Piazza’s hero lies to sources about his identity, allows a source to retroactively declare an interview off-the-record, and finally decides that keeping the truth buried is the only way to avoid further violence. “Don’t let the press write the whole truth,” he decides. While this may be realistic in a city that lives under constant fear of violence, it makes a disappointing end to the book. And it is surprising for an idealistic reporter who has not backed out of reporting the previous episodes. Anyone looking for a glimpse of gutsy, uncompromised reporting on Italian organized crime would be better off turning to Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s 2006 “non-fiction novel” on the brutal Neapolitan mob. But remember that its author will spend the rest of his life under a 24-hour police escort, fearing reprisal. Maybe Di Piazza’s fictional reporter should not be faulted for protecting his safety.

Di Piazza’s book drips with nostalgia. It is peppered with references to Pink Floyd and John Coltrane that admirers of the era will enjoy. His loving details of the city are less successful, however. The author’s Palermo never becomes more than a lifeless backdrop before which his reporter runs. This is despite Di Piazza’s apparent attempts to glorify the city by throwing in landmarks or descriptions of gelato and sfincione pizza that sound as if written by Sicily’s tourism bureau. He may convince you that Sicily has beautiful views and rich food, but will not leave you with vivid images of Palermo nor any burning wanderlust. Given the book’s title and efforts, this is a disappointment.

While I know from experience the challenges of Italian-to-English translation, I find Shugaar’s translation a bit too literal for my taste. This is most jarring in moments when Shugaar retains the Italian fondness for colons and semicolons. It works well in some instances, but can seem quite misplaced in street dialogue (as in, “Don’t talk crap: we tell you to go kill that traitor to his family and when you come back you’ve let him shoot you.”). Fortunately, Shugaar hits his stride in a few of the book’s most exciting scenes, producing some beautiful moments. The strongest passages have the reporter discovering his lover’s addiction, falling in love with a beautiful but tortured fashion model, and sneaking into prison to visit a key witness.

Di Piazza’s book is a loving, though sometimes dull, portrait of a legendary city. Despite a few chilling passages, its noir verve does not come near living up to the author’s hopeful nods to Dashiell Hammett. Four Corners of Palermo makes a fun sensationalist read for lovers of Mafia fiction, but not a literary novel.

29 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Using William Weaver’s passing as a launching point, Italian translator Antony Shugaar wrote a really informative, interesting op-ed on translation issues for Monday’s New York Times.

There are a lot of great bits I could quote—like the description of FMR magazine, its espresso and prosciutto orders, the celebrities that visited the magazine’s offices—but I think the main thrust of Shugaar’s piece starts with his bit about Gadda’s masterpiece, That Awful Mess of Via Merulana:

I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent.

“What did you do about the dialect?” I asked him, at one of our lunches. He laughed, and replied, “Oh, I just left it out!”

At first glance, it’s a little like translating “Moby-Dick” and leaving out all references to boats. But I understood. Weaver explains it better in his introduction to the English edition: “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” In other words, supply the boats yourself. [. . .]

The dialect problem is the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.

But the translator is. And though I remember Weaver’s good-humored resignation every time I have to do it, it’s bitter: a little like losing a patient. Translators don’t bury their mistakes, but they do get to sort of white-out their shortcomings.

God rest his soul and all that, but I have to say that Weaver’s translation of this book isn’t one of my favorite translations.1 But the point he made is true—you can’t map dialects from one country onto those of another without making the characters sound like total assholes. A hillbilly accent for a rural Frenchman? Just, no.2

But the point is bigger than this, as Shugaar points out—it’s not just about translating words, or dialects, but translating a whole world view.

People talk about untranslatable words, but in a way, there’s no such thing. It may take three words, or an entire sentence, or even an interpolated paragraph, but any word can be translated. Short of swelling a book into an encyclopedia, however, there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Bill said something very fine: he explained that as a professor at Bard, he was sometimes asked what other departments his classes could be cross-referenced to, and he suggested performing arts. After all, a translation is a performance (whether in another medium or another language) of a written text. And that is what Bill, who died a few weeks ago at age 95 and is greatly missed, did so well: he conjured up worlds and made you see them.

The metaphor of translation as performance has been bandied about for years, but it’s one of the ones that I prefer: it gives the translator the proper credit as an artist, as the one in the spotlight while also emphasizing that their performance is one possible rendition of a work; the original work is the driving force, the thing that you come to witness, but you can’t witness it without the translator bringing it to life.

Anyway, go back to Shugaar’s essay for some really illuminating examples of the difficulties of translating culture. (I particularly like the one about not parking on the sidewalk.)

1 Since I have it right in front of me, here’s a bit of the opening of Gadda’s book in Weaver’s translation:

Everybody called him Don Ciccio by now. He was Officer Francesco Ingravallo, assigned to homicide; one of the youngest and, God knows why, most envied officials of the detective section: ubiquitous as the occasion required, omnipresent in all tenebrous matters. Of medium height, rather rotund as to physique, or perhaps a bit squat, with black hair, thick and curly, which sprang forth from his forehead at the halfway point, as if to shelter his two metaphysical knobs from the fine Italian sun, he had a somnolent look, a heavy, lumbering walk, a slightly dull manner, like a person fighting a laborious digestion; [. . .]

Weaver was one of the best Italian translators of the past century (see his translations of Eco and Morante and Svevo and Calvino and many others), which to me indicates that this Gadda novel is a beast. For a bit of insight into the difficulties of translating Gadda, here’s an essay Weaver once wrote on the subject. And here’s a sample of that paper that illuminates the crazy-making of translation:

Here, in Italian, is the Gadda paragraph:

“Un’idea, un’idea non sovviene, alla fatica de’ cantieri, mentre i sibilanti congegni degli atti trasformano in cose le cose e il lavoro è pieno di sudore e di polvere. Poi ori lontanissimi e uno zaffiro, nel cielo: come cigli, a tremare sopra misericorde sguardo. Quello che, se poseremo, ancora vigilerà. I battiti della vita sembra che uno sgomento li travolga come in una corsa precípite. Ci ha detersi la carità della sera: e dove alcuno aspetta moviamo: perché nostra ventura abbia corso, e nessuno la impedirà. Perché poi avremo a riposare.”

And here (without any subsequent cosmesis) is the absolutely first draft of the translation, complete with doubts, alternative solutions, puzzlements. This is the raw material:

“An idea, an idea does not (recall/sustain/aid/repair), in the labor of the building sites, as the hissing devices/machinery of actions transform things into things and the labor/toil is full of sweat and dust. Then distant gold(s) and a sapphire, in the sky: like lashes, trembling above compassionate/merciful/charitable gaze. Which, if we cast it, will still keep watch/be wakeful/alert. The pulses/throbbing of life, it seems, can be overwhelmed/swept away by an alarm, as if in a (precipitous race/dash. The charity of the evening has cleansed us (We are cleansed by the…: and where someone is waiting, we move: so that our fate/lot may proceed, and no one will block/impede/hinder it. Because then/afterwards/later we will rest/be able to rest/have our rest./”

First thoughts: the passage contains several words I hate.

2 Michael Henry Heim’s advice was to create a unique dialect through a combination of contractions, grammatical mistakes and the like. That by creating a sort of speech pattern that’s not distinctly southern or whatever, you could still get across the core information that would be contained in that dialect in the original, such as whether the character is poor, overly snooty, a farmer, etc.

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received, which was published by Europa Editions last fall (which is approximately 7 catalogs in “Publishing Time”) in Antony Shugaar’s translation.

Acacia is one of the MALTS (Masters in Literary Translation Studies) students here at the University of Rochester. (For more info on our programs, click here.) She’s been interning for Open Letter all semester, during which time she came up with a couple killer marketing ideas, including an iPhone app that we need a developer for (it’s an anti-guinea pig game) and a really, really cool idea about reading groups, the physicality of books, and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas.

She actually wrote this review for another class, for which she was supposed to write a review that really looked at the translation as a translation. Which makes this a really interesting piece.

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.

[. . .]

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.

Click here to read it all.

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Carmine Abate’s The Homecoming Party, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions.

In his own words, Grant Barber is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.”

As Grant mentions in his review, Abate’s Between Two Seas is also available from Europa Editions, and was also translated by Antony Shugaar. (Antony is a member of the Europa Edition All Star Translator team. Along with Alison Anderson, I think he’s translated approximately 75 books for Europa this year. Crazy.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Grant’s review:

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Click here to read the full review.

11 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.

Abate creates believable characters not just of Marco and Tullio, but also Marco’s teenaged half-sister Elisa (the daughter of Tullio and his first, deceased wife), Marco’s best friend and cousin Mario, as well as glimpses of Marco’s younger sister, mother, and grandmother. The remaining, significant character is a somewhat mysterious older man who becomes in separate encounters a love interest of Elisa, and an almost mythical male adult figure for Marco during a long absence of his father. In fact underneath the specific characters are recognizably archetypal people and events: the boy just coming into adolescence observing the young woman discovering her sexuality, a powerfully important but absent father, a faithful dog companion, descent into grave sickness and return to health with an altered awareness, passing time marked by religious/mythical annual events, the final crisis when the mysterious man transgresses too far into the lives of the family and Marco’s resultant action.

To Abate’s credit these motifs do not mean a too-predictable story. Rather, the narrative pace holds the reader’s attention and elicits an investment in what happens. Part of the appeal of the novel is the growing sense that we are in familiar territory, but with a fresh telling, a slice of life in all it particulars well drawn. This book is an easy night’s read, smooth, sophisticated, generous hearted.

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