Translating Magpies: A Writer’s Travails in Translation

Author Rachel Cantor on faking it until making it in Italian translation and her novel, Good on Paper

Shira, bless her heart, is a good but underachieving translator. She usually translates the lesser-known works of lesser-known writers (her relationship with translation is ambivalent, to say the least); more often, she temps in New York City’s outer boroughs. But because of a ground-breaking translation she wrote in grad school of Dante’s La Vita Nuova (using a Buber-Rosenzweig leitwort approach), the Nobel Prize-winning poet Romei commissions her to translate his latest work, which riffs off La Vita Nuova in ways he promises to explain. As Shira begins to translate his Vita Quasi Nuova, however, she begins to suspect that Romei has another agenda, one that involves her personally and has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry…

Shira is not real, of course: she’s the narrator of my novel Good on Paper. To do justice to her work, I read books about literary translation, theories of translation, the practice of translation, especially from the Italian. I used as much detail as I plausibly could, so that Shira’s work could feel real, and her translation dilemmas—essential to the plot—would seem both urgent and specific. She talks—knowledgeably, I hope!—about terza rima and the “eleven-syllable Italian line.” Research because I couldn’t draw on my own experience. Like Shira, I spent my formative years in Italy, but her skill with the language far exceeds mine. Asked to read Italian novels in school, I labored; asked to translate something (anything) once in high school, I chose a Petrarchan sonnet, and did a serviceable job, though there was one line in the octave I just couldn’t get right.

But I wanted to be like her! I wanted to be as at home in Italian, or any language, as she was in her own. I traveled the world in my teens and twenties, and had ambitions to learn lots of languages fluently—French, German, and Arabic at least by age 30. Life intervened, of course, and I did not.

So Shira stands in for me, possibly, as fictional characters sometimes do, able to do a thing (well) that I never tried to do at all. Flash forward to the autumn of 2014: I was a resident at the Ledig Writers’ House in Ghent, New York. Unlike most residencies, which offer writers an opportunity to create without distraction in the company of other artists, Ledig House focuses only on writers and translators. During my stay, Daniele Bernardi, a Swiss poet writing in Italian, asked Neva Micheva, a Bulgarian who translates works from Italian, Spanish, and Catalan (at the time, she was translating The Periodic Table by Primo Levi), and me for a favor: would we help him translate one of his poems into English? If we could manage something like a “literal” translation, then Joan Michelson, an American poet also in residence, could make an English-language poem out of it.

I thought: I can do this thing! I knew, as a reader of poetry, and as someone who had written, albeit fictionally, about the process of translation, what was required. What I lacked in Italian fluency, I had certainly gained in my understanding of English; surely, with the help of an online dictionary, I could do a creditable job. Not a professional job, obviously, but I could make a contribution; my help would be, well, helpful.

The first poem arrived. It was long. Gulp. Longer than I had expected.

No problem!

First few lines, no problem, for the most part. I wrote out a quick translation, but then came the daino. The fallow deer? I had no idea what that was! Not just a generic deer, which would be cervo, but fallow deer. Would an English speaker even know what a fallow deer was? Was it important that it be a fallow deer, and not just a deer? The daino was preceded by guardando il—hear all the d’s? Lost, rather, in fallow deer. It had a coda ritta—an erect tail. This I could visualize, but erect tail? There had to be a better way to translate that, but I couldn’t come up with it. Then there was the way it moved: a colpi di culo! When I was growing up, culo was an impolite word for rear end. Was the phrase intended to be crude? About a deer? Colpo was shot. The fallow deer with the erect tail ran as if shot in the ass?

I left a question mark.

The next few lines were easy enough! So yes, in fact, I could do this! I could see the grumpy grandfather, sitting in his easy chair grumbling about immigrants, even as he recollected with some compassion those Italians forced by poverty to emigrate.

But wait. Wait. He told a story to the narrator about a magpie that sang… on its head? Its own head? It sang upside-down? Or maybe it sang on the grandfather’s head? I was defeated, I thought, by pronouns! Never mind, for as far as I could tell, the magpie si fregava. Again, relying on my street Italian, I knew that non me ne frega meant I don’t give a damn. The magpie, singing upside down or possibly on the grandfather’s head, did not give a damn!

A question mark.

And on it went.

We met that night, the four of us, to discuss the poem line-by-line.

We discussed the daino. No one had an immediate solution to the question of the fallow deer, or the erect tail; as far as I was concerned, the problem was insoluble! I could see no answer–I still can’t! The poet did mean to specify that particular kind of deer, and yes, the sound of the word was important. The American poet responsible for the final version would have to think about it. A colpi di culo—it didn’t mean the deer had been shot in the butt; it meant the deer’s backside was twitching—oh, I was embarrassed about this, and I could visualize it now, but how to say it? Again, I had no idea. All those beautiful d’s? And now the lovely c’s and l’s? I could find no way to preserve them. In my stilted, awkward, literal rendering, nothing of the lilting Italian with its beautiful sound had been preserved.

And that poor magpie? Not singing on anyone’s head. I’d misread tetto, or roof, as testa, or head. He was singing on the roof, where he had every right to be. When my error became known, hilarity ensued. I had promise as a surreal poet, I was assured (not for the last time).

Then, it turned out, I’d completely misunderstood what followed because it referred to a fable (the crow and the cheese?) I knew nothing about—and so on, and so forth.

My fellows in that room, the Italian poet, the Italian translator, the American poet, pretended my contributions were useful. More than once, Neva, with characteristic generosity, would say of my suggestion, Yes, that’s exactly it! Much better than what I had—though in fact, in those rare cases, my wording was similar, and if an improvement, only slightly so. Moreover, due to a PDF conversion error, I was missing the last page of the poem and had understood it so poorly that I didn’t sense the omission!

I have no future as a translator—I never had—but I appreciate now with more than intellectual understanding the difficulties of Shira’s trade. And when the gang asked if I was up for a second poem, I said, Si! Of course!


Read more Essays: