What does it mean for me to translate literature? It means establishing an intense relationship which unfolds entirely within the written word, a relationship which begins with one written text and produces a second written text; it is therefore not only a relationship between two languages but above all a relationship between two modes of writing, between two utterances that are by nature strongly personal.
This relationship is not one between equals—in fact, it is characterized by inequality. It requires a particular disposition: the translator must retreat so as to accept the language of the other, to allow herself to be invaded by it so as to accommodate it.
Of course I am referring to translating the work of a great writer with a great linguistic capacity. In this case the translator submits to the authority and wonder of the original text, and offers her own language with love, with passion, with admiration, and even with devotion. If these conditions are fulfilled, then to translate is to position oneself to accept a tightly structured text, to surrender, word after word and sentence after sentence, to the text’s needs, to compel one’s own more modest linguistic capacity to grow and rise to the level of the original.
The text of the other jostles the language of the translator, creating friction, producing a new text in its image and likeness. That is why translating is not transcribing but rather re-writing in a different language, in a way that remains bound to the original and yet is inventive on its own. The translator’s inventiveness is wholly dedicated to accommodating the original in the best possible way.
My relationship with Christa Wolf can be situated within this framework, even though the bond I established with her work and with her personally was such an extraordinary experience, inimitable for various reasons, that it cannot easily be reduced to a single template. I discovered Christa Wolf (1929-2011) in the early 1980s, after I had already translated quite a few women writers from the former German Democratic Republic. I was passionate about this work because in Italy we didn’t know much or anything about the literature written in East Germany and it seemed exciting to me to act as a cultural mediator. Reading Christa Wolf’s texts, however, took me beyond mere cultural curiosity for the women writing in a distant country, under difficult political conditions.
I remember the impact of Cassandra, the first book by Wolf I translated. I immediately felt strong admiration for the power of her writing, despite her lofty style somewhat distant from my own sensibilities. Her modern and compelling rewriting of the Cassandra myth brought together everyday life in East Germany, Wolf’s own intellectual milieu, and her position as a writer caught in the ever-precarious equilibrium between compliance and dissent, in a new mode of voicing female experience.
Beginning in 1984, with the publication of Cassandra in Italy, my familiarity with the author through the translated text transformed into friendship. The relationship between two languages, that is to say between the original text and the translated text, also became a relationship between two people. From the written word we passed to the spoken word, and to the body, the voice, to domestic space and public places: that is to say to a direct knowledge of the many planes of experience she transformed into literature. I had the opportunity and the fortune of entering into the author’s laboratory, of getting to know her milieu, her attachments, her daily surroundings, her normal life, her way of negating the stereotype of brilliance, of downplaying [her] talent, of making “great history” everyday.
All of this has certainly enriched my experience but I can’t say whether it influenced the relationship between myself as a translator and the translated text.
Earlier I mentioned the inequality characterizing literary translation. Of course, my friendship with the author was very fruitful, evoking powerful feelings: fondness, admiration, and recognition—in the double sense of gratitude and something more than cognition. But the inequality remained, implicit within the text and in some way rendered even more visible by the personal connection.
A text tethers readers tightly within its web, even if, when we read a book we love, it is difficult to tell where we end and the characters begin, where we submit to the author’s will and where we impose our own. To translate is to accept this inequality, to see the text clearly, and to willingly let ourselves be trapped in its web. A text that inspires our admiration, that influences us, gives us the feeling that the writer has articulated something for which we had no words. While reading, we have the impression that the text grants us voice, that if we knew how to write we would write it exactly as it is written, that the writer seems to have written it with us in mind.
The act of translating must accept and amplify these impressions. To accept that the other’s word is stronger than one’s own is to search for a way to overcome the distance and bring original and translation together as closely as possible.
Accepting this inequality is not an act of surrender. On the contrary, deciding to translate is a refusal to surrender. The translator knows her own limits and yet, out of devotion, out of love, she is prepared to challenge them—or at least she chooses to try.
Christa Wolf helped me discover how productive it can be, in translating, to recognize inequality. Recognizing and accepting this inequality prompts the question that should haunt anyone who translates: “To what extent will I be able to transport her words into my language?” It is not only a question of content. Christa Wolf is a writer who acts upon the lexical, syntactic, and grammatical structures of the German language, with its metaphorical capacity and its means of forming logical connections. One characteristic feature of her writing, for example, is the play of pronouns: a person is now unitary, now appears split into an “I,” a “you,” or a “she,” depending on her stage in life. Wolf does not conceal the “I” authoring the written text—it emerges ever more explicitly on the page, it signals the moments of authorial identification with the narrated events or with the characters.
Literary texts tend to distort the linearity of narrative sequence, and to reproduce the coexistence and simultaneity of interiorized events that resist conventional linear chronology. The narrative thread unravels freely between past and present, between different temporal planes, combining high and low registers, erudite literary references, popular songs, colloquialisms, and slang. Even the most common words are themselves like books: you can leaf through their pages, ruffling through the meanings accumulated over the course of their history. The text shifts seamlessly between direct and indirect discourse.
To translate means, therefore, not only to exercise extreme vigilance over the movements of the original text, but above all to scrutinize the limits of one’s own language, as it creeps up to the original.
Let us consider sexism. When I began translating, I had a practical awareness and a vague, abstract linguistic notion of it. In Christa Wolf, however, this linguistic awareness of gender was so heightened that it forced me to recognize the sexism of my own language. Translating her works, making way for a critical awareness of her linguistic originality, forced me to identify the (much more pronounced) sexism of the Italian language and to follow her path, trying to keep up with her in my linguistic universe.
I could give numerous examples of this: An attention to “dead metaphors” stashed away in the language. The false neutrality of the impersonal form (man). The attention to pronominal endings and the difficulty of conveying them in Italian. The obsession with every single past participle—in German they do not agree with the subject, while in Italian they do. The attention to the masculine form masquerading as universalizing neuter. Or, take a noun such as das Elternhaus, which means “the parents’ house” or “the family home” and which in Italian corresponds to “la casa paterna” or “the father’s house,” introducing an irksome connotation in a text extremely attentive to the critical implications of language.
In short, by translating Christa Wolf I discovered that the work of translation can challenge the very limits of language. It was therefore particularly exhilarating work because it acted upon my poorer, more common labor of finding words, leading me along paths that I never would have dared to take on my own.
One last example on this topic. I struggled with the title of Wolf’s 1976 novel, Kindheitsmuster. This is a compound word: die Kindheit means “childhood,” and das Muster has multiple meanings: 1) the pattern or design of a fabric; 2) a “model,” not in the sense of a notable example, an exemplum memorabile, but rather a standard, or representative specimen in the sociological sense; 3) the paradigm of declensions in grammar, the general formula according to which all tenses can be produced from roots.
What to do? In German, the various meanings of the word work together all at once. And in Italian? I tried to convey the sum of all these meanings by translating the title as Trama d’infanzia. “Trama” in Italian suggests the weaving together of childhood events, but it also evokes the toil and art of weaving, the weft and warp of fabric, and the template, the pattern that governs the weaving. What the book relates, and what I tried to suggest in my translation of the title, is that the plot of childhood is woven with so many threads that they are difficult to tie back together. I had to find an Italian expression allowing the meaning to remain open and maintaining its plurivocality (plurivocità)—or better, as Wolf writes in her Essays on Cassandra (Premesse a Cassandra) about Ingeborg Bachmann’s poetry—an expression conveying “the most precise indefiniteness, the clearest ambiguity.” For me, this formulation encompasses the meaning of what both Wolf and any literary translation does with language.
This formulation also allows me to turn to the second German-language woman writer (Austrian by nationality) whom I got to know precisely through Christa Wolf: Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973). In her Essays on Cassandra, Wolf includes and comments on a poem by Bachmann, “Erklär mir, Liebe” (“Explain to me, Love”). Even though a translation in Italian already existed, I had to re-translate the text because Wolf, in her commentary, identified meanings in the original that the Italian reader would not have gleaned from the existing translation. At that time I found myself in a situation that has since recurred frequently, which I will try to summarize here: whereas the original always prompts new readings, well-founded or not, this same virtue does not transfer fully into any translation, despite the translator’s best efforts at fidelity. But I will return to this topic shortly. For now, let me say that translating Ingeborg Bachmann’s poetry through Christa Wolf’s indispensable mediation drew me to even more complex texts—those generally considered “untranslatable,” those that the translator must approach at her own risk: texts where the relationship of inequality becomes insurmountable.
In Bachmann’s poetry, the translator encounters not just a powerful language, but a language powerful enough to repeatedly proclaim its own weakness. A brief list of her characteristic themes illustrates this: 1) The loss of the distance between self and other: saying “I” from within the pronominal prison of our language binds us, making it ever more difficult to establish a clear boundary between “I” and “non-I”; the “I” tends to breach the borders, it is plural and plurivocal. 2) The awareness that the language at our disposal cannot signify fully: the word is insufficient to express the complexity of the world and of the “I,” to reconstruct the knotted past and present of our experience; it is incapable of narrating in its entirety, let’s say, a woman’s love (for example, Bachmann’s novel Malina catalogues all the words of the “I” who loves, all those words which cannot fill the abyss of the loved one’s absence). 3) The desire for a salvific, redemptive word flourishes as a result: we need a new word, Bachmann says, that opens up new worlds and new spaces, that contains within it the experience of the impossible, of enduring love, of happiness, of the non-exclusion of the other. We need a language that can “cross the boundaries of country, river, and lakes,” as we read in her poem “Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen” (“Of a Land, a River, and Lakes”): “And yet we are determined to speak across borders,/ even if borders pass through every word:/ in longing still for home, we will cross over,/ and again with every place stand in accord.” 4) The confluence of these themes surges in a utopian tension which opens for the written word a space that doesn’t yet exist. This utopian tension is central to a never-translated poem bristling with difficulty, to which I dedicated myself years ago. Already with its title the text announces an impossibility: “Böhmen liegt am Meer” (“Bohemia Lies by the Sea”). It was written between 1964 and 1966, and published in 1968. We can imagine the strong political impact it had following the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion in August 1968: the title sounds like a definitive refusal as it is well known that Bohemia does not lie by the sea. Here is the text of the poem:
If around here houses are green, I will again enter a house.
If bridges here are sound, I will walk on safe ground.
If the labor of love must be wasted in any era, here I will waste it gladly.
If it’s not me, it’s someone who could be me.
If a word approaches me here, I will let it approach.
If Bohemia still lies by the sea, I will believe in seas again.
And if I still believe in the sea, I will hope for the land.
If it’s me, then it’s anyone like me.
I don’t want anything anymore. I want to go down to the bottom.
At the bottom—in the sea, that is, I will find Bohemia again.
Drowned, I will wake at peace.
Now I know the bottom and I am not lost.
Come, all of you Bohemians, sailors, back alley whores, and ships
Anchorless. Do you not all wish to be Bohemians, you Illyrians, Veronese
And Venetians? Play on in the comedies inducing laughter
When it should be tears. Err a hundred times
As I did and never overcame the trials
And yet I overcame them, time after time.
As Bohemia overcame them and one fine day
Received the sea’s grace and now lies by the water.
I approach again one word and one other land,
I approach, even if a little, ever more closely to everything
A Bohemian, a wandering cleric, who has nothing and keeps nothing,
Rich with the sea’s gift—doubt, with eyes for my chosen land.
As I noted, the poem claims the impossible from its very title because Bohemia does not lie by the sea. The multiplicity of meanings, unleashed by what Bachmann calls “the most luminous dark words,” presents a challenge for the translator. Bohemia here is ein anderes Land, another land, a visionary place with uncertain geography, a promised land. (The entire poem, moreover, references Shakespeare: from the imaginary Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale to other Shakespearean seafarers and maritime settings.) Bachmann uses words by shuffling through their layered meanings, fanning them out before the reader’s eyes. (In a 1971 interview, discussing “prefabricated phrases,” she says: “A single word is already interwoven with numerous enigmas—the closer you look, the farther off it seems; a writer cannot, therefore, use language or wording that has already been discovered; on the contrary, by writing she must destroy such wording”). The translator is necessarily led to the same labor of deconstruction, and to the discovery that for every word passing from one language to another, there is great loss and little gain. By way of example, take the first line of Bachmann’s poem: “Sind hierorts Häuser grün” (If around here houses are green). It evokes the expression “Jemandem grün sein” (to be welcoming, well-disposed toward someone). In the German, the green of the houses unlocks the formula for hospitality. It is impossible for the poetic “I” to find shelter where houses are not green. Only a country where houses are green can be home to poets. And in Italian? In Italian we must resign ourselves to the association of green with hope and with childhood. The act of welcoming, the favorable disposition toward a stranger, are lost. Every line of this poem forms a wave of allusions difficult to retain in the translated text. I’ll only note that the entire formal structure of the poem oscillates between two poles: the shipwreck and the safe landing, the fall and the rise, the immersion and the emergence. In it is the nexus between life and death, between hitting rock bottom and not sinking. The function of Grund (terrain, ground, sea floor, end, foundation, basis, cause) is particularly important. In lines 9-10 we read; “Ich will zugrunde gehen (I want to go to the bottom) / Zugrund—das heiβt zum Meer (to the bottom—of the sea, that is), / Zugrund gerichtet (drowned, sent to the bottom) / Von Grund auf weiβ ich jetzt (Now I know the bottom, from deep down).” Alternating despair and hope, uprootedness and the search for new roots, the text lands at a sort of reconstitution after the dismemberment, a reclaiming of the poetic word but within a new horizon (“I approach again one word and one other land”). In this sense, Bohemia becomes a fairytale world where bridges are still whole and houses are green and welcoming—the paradigm of utopia, the state of the stateless, of the unanchored, and the anchorless.
But how much of this complexity can survive in the Italian? And if it is impossible for it to survive, what should we do? Renounce translation?
As I explained, I have tackled only literary texts; and at the beginning I did so without any awareness of the difficulties of translating works of literature. I discovered these difficulties only by translating. In addition, obviously, to knowing her own language and the original language well, the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task. Can one really translate everything? Can a text pass entirely into another language? The translator of a complex literary text continually comes up against this problem—and not only in connection with lofty questions about the literary usage. The impossibility often emerges from minor issues, when the translator is confronted with double entendres, literary allusions, and so forth. A common way to deal with the problem is by including a translator’s note announcing, for example, “untranslatable wordplay.” In the past I have resorted to such notes. But now I believe that “untranslatable” is just a name for what we specialized readers are unable to harvest. Whenever the translator encounters a problem, she has a duty to find a way to unravel and resolve it. I would propose that everything the translator understands of a text should have a place in the translation. The translator’s greatest resource must be her own inventiveness.
Inventiveness is risky for translators: we tend to restrain ourselves in the name of fidelity to the original. But to confront translational difficulty with inventiveness does not mean renouncing one’s devotion to the original. Inventiveness must arise from this devotion so that an ill-conceived sacralization of the original does not generate incomprehensibility, or even untranslatability. I hope that is clear—it isn’t a question of legibility, or of the tenacious stereotype of patriarchal culture that translations are “ugly but faithful” (brutte fedeli) or “beautiful but unfaithful” (belle infedeli). Literal translations are acceptable, even though they may resolve difficulties with fairly unattractive language. It’s also acceptable to resist the tendency of publishers to render everything in “good Italian,” a standardized language that censors the derailing impact of translation. This inventiveness, the translator’s imagination, has another function: it faces the problem of untranslatability not by taking on individual words or sentences, but by evoking the context, imagining the author’s intellectual path, and following it step by step through the text.
My recent experience translating a short “classic,” Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner (1813-1837), exemplifies this form of inventiveness. The play, written in 1834, is an extraordinary text about the French revolution and its failure, written by a young doctor with revolutionary leanings. In the original, there is not a single word or expression that could be changed for another. Every formulation has an intrinsic necessity in the text: every word and every sentence references a web of citations and puns, in a language that is powerful, direct, and brutal, yet refined and allusive. The two major characters are Danton and the antagonist Robespierre.
I’ll give you an example of literal translation and translation “by meaning.” In the first act Danton turns to Robespierre and says, “Nicht wahr, Unbestechlicher, es ist grausam, dir die Absätze so von den Schuhen du treten?” This sentence literally means “Is it not true, Incorruptible, that it is cruel to so remove the heels from your shoes?” (And this is how Alba Burger Cori translated it in 1963; while Giorgio Dolfini in 1966 translated it as: “Isn’t it true, Incorruptible, that it is cruel to wound you in your Achilles heel?”). For a long time I wondered whether to translate it as, “What do you say, Incorruptible, is it not terrible to so diminish your stature?” But I felt that this was an insufficient translation. The literal translation seemed rough, inexpressive, and on the other hand, the disappearance of “heels” seemed to me an impoverishment of the text. I asked myself, “Why did Büchner mention heels? Why did he put this word in Danton’s mouth? What is the symbolic meaning of that word?” I thought about Danton’s giant physique, and about Robespierre’s diminutive stature. I tried to translate, “Isn’t it terrible for them to so deprive you of your heels, reducing your stature?” But what stature? And above all, what heels is Robespierre using to hover above Danton, and what heels are they taking away from the shoes? In this way I arrived, in the end, at the following translation: “What do you say, Incorruptible, isn’t it atrocious that your moral stature is revealed as you suddenly find yourself with no heels on your shoes?” It’s not a literal translation, and it’s not a translation by meaning. It’s a translation that seeks the meaning by imagining the context and taking a risk.
A final example: In the second act, two gentlemen are out for a stroll. One begins talking about the last comedy he saw at the theater. At a certain point he almost trips, and the scene concludes with him saying: “man muss mit Vorsicht auftreten, man könnte durchbrechen,” or literally, “One must advance cautiously or risk breaking his neck!” Burger Cori translates it as: “One must walk carefully, the surface of the earth could crack,” while Dolfini translates: “One must proceed prudently or sink to the bottom.” But even here it is necessary to imagine the context: they’re discussing theater as they are walking past a guillotine. Finally, the rich meaning of the verb auftreten (to enter the scene, advance on the stage), transforms the preceding conversation about theater into a metaphor. In the end I translated it as “You must always enter the world stage prudently or risk losing your head.”
Are the solutions I’ve settled upon good or bad? We can say with certainty that for a great work of literature, clothes cut from another language are always too tight. And it’s not that we’re bothered by what spills out: we can’t even see it. The translator must have a talent that is both critical and mimetic. But even the most astute gaze has its myopia. Every reading, every translation bears signs of its historical bias. The translated text is never definitive, it is always perfectible. The translator brings her historical context to bear on the text, along with her class, her gender, and her own accumulated knowledge and emotion. But her knowledge will wear thin; the language we use today will grow old, and the original text will let loose meanings that are invisible to us today, or meanings that obscure what we seemed to see in the text.
Maybe I ought to conclude that the totality of the original text is not reproduced by a single translation, but by a series of translations: those that preceded the translation and those that will follow. And this is how it should be.