“Unintentional Unity”: Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini on translating Amelia Rosselli’s Obtuse Diary

Translating Rosselli’s prose is not different from translating her poetry. Her language is equally challenging, her syntax equally subversive.

Amelia Rosselli’s work is deeply marked by her family and personal history. Born in 1930 to a British activist and a martyred Italian-Jewish antifascist, she lived as an eternal outsider in France, the US, the UK, and Italy. A polyglot with persistent depression, her poetry challenges. It challenges the confines of genre and conventional syntax, it challenges the society with which she was ever at odds, and it challenges the reader to accompany her through her brave literary wanderings. Rosselli ended her own life by jumping out the window of her fifth-floor apartment in Rome in 1996.

Obtuse Diary, published by Entre Rios Books in late 2018, is the first and only collection of Rosselli’s prose. The writing spans a number of years and is organized into three sections and two illuminating afterwords, one by the author and one by one of the translators. Asymptote’s Lindsay Semel spoke with Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini, two of the collection’s three translators, about the joys and challenges of rendering Rosselli’s stunning and difficult Italian into English.

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the origin of this project. How did you come to translate this text together? What was the collaboration process like?

Deborah Woodard (DW): Translating Amelia Rosselli’s Diario Ottuso into Obtuse Diary was quite the saga. It’s a little book, but it took forever to translate. Giuseppe Leporace, my first co-translator, and I brought out some sections of the Diary in The Dragonfly, a selection of Rosselli’s poetry, back in 2009. After we finished The Dragonfly and brought it out through Chelsea Editions, I decided to rework Obtuse Diary and publish it in its entirety.  When Giuseppe became too busy to review it with me, he graciously stepped down from the project. On Giuseppe’s suggestion, I worked on the Diary with Vanja Skoric Paquin, a talented young linguist with a particular gift for unraveling snarled syntax. When Vanja gave birth to her daughter she, in turn, stepped down. A year or so passed, and then I recommenced with Dario De Pasquale. Dario and I tore the earlier translation apart, sentence by sentence. When Dario became too busy to continue to translate with me (do we see a pattern here?), I was extremely fortunate to join forces with Roberta, my current—and from here on out, sole—co-translator on the final version.

LS: You both co-translated a collection of Rosselli’s poetry, Hospital Series, before approaching her prose. Rosselli herself thought deeply about genre and discusses the issue in her afterword to Obtuse Diary. How did you interpret her philosophies about form on a practical level?

Roberta Antognini (RA): At the end of the afterword, which poignantly bears the title “Narrative Experiments,” Rosselli declares that what interests her is “experimenting in prose.” It is extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly what Rosselli meant by this. Although never systematically, she mentioned her interest in prose in numerous interviews. She’s said, for example: “I read novels in order to look for a certain prosody of poetry,” and “I read more prose than poetry, when I can, because very rarely do I find truly new poems.”

Interestingly, it was only when discussing prose (never poetry) that Rosselli used the term “experiment.” She stated in a 1992 interview: “I’ve already done prose experiments in different narrative styles.” In “Narrative Experiments,” Rosselli repeatedly insists that her experimenting in prose is neither poetic prose, nor autobiography. Rather: “it is difficult prose, as interior as poetry.” She also mentions prose in the sentence that concludes the “Note” section of Obtuse Diary: “Lyric prose is a way to enter the market: a parcel of prose is a lost continent.” Here, in Italian, Rosselli uses the synonym prosa d’arte (lyric prose) for prosa poetica (poetic prose).

It seems that the contraposition between poetic prose and prose is what defines her experiment—this is one of the instances where, given the opportunity, I would certainly change our domesticating translation “parcel of prose” to the simple, and certainly more faithful, “prose.” Translating Rosselli’s prose is not different from translating her poetry. Her language is equally challenging, her syntax equally subversive.

In her essay “Metrical Spaces,” Rosselli describes her prosody in considerable philosophical detail, which greatly helps the translator to understand that one cannot translate her work unless one is willing to be as literal as she was. The risk for the translator is to be afraid of excessive foreignization (hers). We must resist the temptation to explain to the reader what Rosselli herself did not. She never made it easy for her reader (or translator). There are so many times when reading Rosselli is frustrating because of the uniqueness of her language. However, translating Rosselli could be paradoxically easier than translating a more linguistically traditional poet. Her Italian, which appropriates words and sounds from English as well as from French (borrowings and calques are common, as well as hybrids), often contains solutions for the translator who, like her, must be both adept in recognizing them and bold in applying them.

DW: One thing that strikes me about Rosselli’s prose is her humor. Prose gives her a bigger canvas for her dark, at times even savage, humor. She uses alliteration and repetition, along with borrowings from English and French, much as she does in her verse, but prose gives her the opportunity to skewer the objects of her drollery at greater length and ever more inventively. Sometimes she satirizes her own situation, her own claimed obtuseness, and sometimes she implicates the brittle veneer of the social order, as too neatly constructed over the post-WWII wound: “The bridge is perfectly white and it stretches perfect over the barely agitated river . . . Don’t go beyond the gash of the street, if this is the last landscape.” It is, however, in the long third section, “Obtuse Diary,” that the permission to be voluminous is very much in evidence as Rosselli’s protagonist riffs on her own “delayed adolescence” and fear of gaucheness (Rosselli would always be the ugly duckling-swan):

Now I no longer want to be anyone, she thought – and she eased into a new attitude that would allow her to be what she wished to be, namely no one. But with each kiss to the furtive hand there followed a glance at the kissed hand, which squeezed her with remorse and kicked her out of the house, as though in fact nothing remained but to leave the house. I’m no longer forty, she laughed while crying, and turned in her resignation. Now I no longer have anyone she caught herself saying, and she hadn’t even finished what she was saying when the bell rang.

Throughout “Obtuse Diary,” we get snippets of a bildungsroman, an autobiography despite itself. Peculiar scenarios are sampled, humorously grotesque at times. Here’s one more:

Two stretchers were prepared for her: the one of her responsibility in a comic movie where it was like asking the donkey not to growl; and the one of someone else’s responsibility. She was asked to take part in this external responsibility. She divined the intentions, she hid her own from herself, she was right on target about the pupil’s weakness, she shot all four candidates. She shot her most complex conscience, in favor of the daughter too clever but too lanky in her lost strength. She shot the rest of her strength; she shot the fire of truth leaking from betwixt the closed eyelashes of the bewildered infant, of the curved world that wanted to appear squared.

LS: Obtuse Diaries is made up of four sections, written at different times for different reasons, and arranged chronologically. Rosselli speaks with satisfaction of an “unintentional unity” that gives the collection a sense of cohesion. It strikes me as an especially difficult task for a translator to convey that same serendipity in what you were introduced to as a single, fixed text. How did you cope with that?

RA: Obtuse Diary is a small book comprised of different pieces, but it achieves a deep unity. In a striking interview published by the Roman daily newspaper Il Messaggero in 1978, Rosselli confesses to the interviewer with disarming sincerity: “Now that writing has left me I have nothing left.” With the exception of Impromptu, a long poem written in one go on a morning in 1979, Rosselli had stopped writing. From that moment on, she dedicated herself to rearranging her backlog of unpublished manuscripts. Obtuse Diary was one of them. She looked at her past work retrospectively, therefore seeing unity where there was none. The “unintentional unity” refers to the five fragments of the section “Note,” because of its diaristic chronology (each group of fragments has the date, occasion, and place of its writing).

Moreover, experimentation affects not only the form, but also the literary genre by transforming the rich and fruitful dialectic between fragment and collection into a sort of autobiography (however, Rosselli warns us that the autobiography is “very little biographical,” since autobiography is a genre that she always tried to avoid). The “unintentional unity” can therefore be applied to the entire work, where the presence of an afterword provides the autobiography with a sort of apology, a convention in autobiographical writings.

A certain unity also derives from the plot of “Obtuse Diary,” where Rosselli recounts her passionate friendship with the Italian writer and politician Rocco Scotellaro. Scotellaro died young, an event that caused Rosselli immense suffering and exacerbated the mental illness that haunted her throughout her life.

Once again, in translating the “unintentional unity” of this work, we simply followed Rosselli’s lead. Calvino said that translating is the best way of reading a book, and we certainly agree with him. A close reading of her afterword provided a very solid basis for the translation.

LS: In your afterword, Roberta, you note: “Both Rosselli’s life and art were profoundly experimental in their arduous struggle. From its publishing history to its complex genre classification (not “poetic prose” rather “stray prose,” “an autobiography as little biographical as possible,” “a sort of mini-novel,” “intimate text”) and “wild,” “awkward” style, the writing of Obtuse Diary is the paradigm of this struggle.” I think you’ve done a fantastic job of maintaining the wildness, the struggle, and the experimentalism of the prose, often by subverting grammar and style conventions. Do you have any specific examples of moments when you had to overcome the temptation to domesticate?

RA: It is probably necessary to clarify what Rosselli means by “experiment.” Although she had a good relationship with the poets of the Italian neo-avant-garde of the sixties, her position was always marginal. Her international upbringing and her ability to read in English (especially Pound, Joyce, and Eliot) and in French made her an outsider in the Italian poetry scene.

As the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto said, her style was not “experimentalism, because her very breathing-surviving, the weight from which her words originate, is a bitter and unremitting struggle, is experimentation.” Rosselli’s is a profoundly personal experimentalism. Critics and translators of her work have few footholds with which to analyze it. They can of course recognize cultural and literary allusions (Rosselli is an extremely well-read writer, in all her three languages), but they have to come to terms with her idiosyncratic choice of words and images.

Yes, the temptation to domesticate is ever present. One example that comes to mind is a paragraph in part VIII of “Obtuse Diary.” The poet speaks of a fiore di sole, which is a paraphrasis for girasole, sunflower. We, of course, maintained the expression in English with “flower of sun.” But then, a few words later and again a couple of lines below, the fiore di sole (girasole) becomes tornasole, which in Italian means “litmus,” as in a litmus test. Here, however, Rosselli doesn’t use it as a synonym for girasole. Girare in Italian means “to turn,” and the suffix torna suggests both the English “to turn” and the French “tourner” (as in turning toward the sun, as sunflowers do). It was impossible to maintain in English lest we lose the pun girasole/tornasole, so we decided to domesticate the tornasole into a sunflower.

Another example is what we have called the “struggle of the pronouns.” In conversational Italian, people make mistakes and very often use the masculine pronoun instead of the feminine and vice versa. To add ambiguity, Rosselli sometimes uses the masculine when the context leads one to expect the feminine. In translating this, it was often necessary to domesticate to avoid confounding the English reader even more than the Italian.

DW: Rather than revisiting the temptation to domesticate Rosselli’s difficult and idiosyncratic language—which I could learn from for a lifetime and have come perilously close to doing with this little book alone—I’d like to touch upon the divide between my ear and hers, between any author and her translator(s). I’ve become somewhat less lyrical in my own poetry through translating Rosselli, or suspect that I have. I’m ready to say/hear “a prose is a lost continent” now, but I wasn’t before. To adapt the famous adage, a translation is never finished, only abandoned. But thank goodness for the public abandonment of getting Obtuse Diary into print!

Roberta Antognini is originally from Canton Ticino in Switzerland. She is Associate Professor Emerita at Vassar College, NY, where she taught Italian Studies for twenty years. Her main research interests lie in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and twentieth-century Italian Literature, and Translation Practice and Theory. She is the author of a monograph on Petrarch’s letters, Il progetto autobiografico delle Familiares di Petrarca (2008), and co-editor of the collection of essays Poscritto a Giorgio Bassani (2012). Together with Deborah Woodard, she has translated the collection of poems Hospital Series (2015), and Obtuse Diary (2018) by Amelia Rosselli.

Deborah Woodard is a poet and translator. She has translated the poetry of Amelia Rosselli from Italian for The Dragonfly, A Selection of Poems: 1953-1981 (Chelsea Editions, 2009), Hospital Series (New Directions, 2015) and Obtuse Diary (Entre Rios Books, 2018). Deborah teaches at Hugo House in Seattle.


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