29 January 14 | Chad W. Post

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.


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