The turbo and the chiaro

Frederika Randall

I’m not sure if we can generalize about translation across all languages and cultures, but I do know that working with English, the world’s dominant language, is an exercise unto itself. English doesn’t have to explain itself in translation; other languages do. I can never assume that my Anglophone readers will know what I mean when I refer to the nineteenth-century novel Cuore, the uprising called the Sicilian Vespers, or the Quartieri Spagnoli district of Naples. Whereas my Italian counterpart working from an American text need not pause to think about whether her readers are familiar with Infinite Jest, the Free Speech Movement, or the East Village. Of course they are. That’s all common knowledge.

But what constitutes common knowledge about other cultures for the Anglophone reader? That’s a judgment every translator into English has to make time and time again. And not merely about content. Suppose your writer is an adept ironist. We recognize irony when we hear a discrepancy between what is stated and what is expected or known to be true—known, that is, to those who use the source language. Making that discrepancy evident in the target language often means unobtrusively providing additional information, either through notes or discreet prompts.

When, however, is the translator interfering too much? I’m not one to ridicule the old saw: traduttore-traditore. Readers are sometimes suspicious of us translators. All the more so if we tell them we had to add something to the text to make it equivalent in the second language. César Aira once made a truly terrible confession: “having been a translator by profession, I never read anything in translation. I’m like one of those sausage makers who will eat anything but sausages, because they know how they’re made.” He was only half-serious. But people do wonder what we put in our sausages.

Il turbo e il chiaro

In canto two of Dante’s “Paradiso,” Beatrice speaks of lo turbo e ‘l chiaro, rules that govern the heavens. Opposites: il turbo suggests obscurity or opacity and il chiaro, clarity or transparency. Translation, argued the Italian memoirist, professor, and translator Luigi Meneghello (1922–2007), is the business of negotiating between obscurity and clarity. Every written text is a mixture of Dante’s turbo and chiaro, he said, qualities that reflect the workings of the human mind.

[E]very text has clear parts and obscure parts, not only superficially … but throughout its structure, because of the way our minds work. I think the meaning of any text is intrinsically difficult to determine. That is, no one, not even the author, is sure what it means, everything that it means . . .
For me, translation shifts a text’s internal equilibriums . . . which are stable in your immediate, direct comprehension, and yet as soon as you begin to translate, something emerges that you didn’t even know was there.

It’s a disconcerting idea, when our credibility as translators seems to depend on identifying the unique meaning of a passage and rendering it correctly. At the same time, it’s not so difficult to recognize Meneghello’s point. There are always ideas, images, and feelings attached to and hidden behind the words in a written passage. Polysemy, tacit underlying premises and assumptions, abstraction: all can make the lexical and semantic sense unstable, multiple. When are we justified in making these unspoken elements of a text audible in a translation? How can we be sure that we understand the turbo well enough to articulate it? Isn’t it better to stick firmly to the chiaro and leave the unsaid unsaid? But then isn’t something lost if we make no effort to hint at meanings that are partly hidden or opaque in the original? It may seem obvious, but the first prerequisite for untangling these problems is a thorough knowledge of the language and culture of the original. I don’t think this point is always stressed enough.

The translator works in a liminal place. On the one side are words, sentences, a text; on the other, nothing, at least to begin with. It takes courage to venture into that empty space. Yet the confidence needed to make a new version doesn’t always correspond to depth of knowledge. Neophytes sometimes rush in and embroider, extrapolating from a too-superficial understanding. Some veteran translators, on the other hand, will cling to the surface of a text, hoping that a timid rendering protects them from egregious mistakes. You have to be a little rash to be an inspired translator, but you also have to know a lot.

Most beginning translators now have impressive credentials: translation workshops, degree courses in languages and literature as well as translation studies. Professional preparation is an excellent thing, but it also lends a technical quality to the craft that some older translators find discouraging. Writers have their own skills that make them especially good translators, argues poet and translator Michael Hofmann. So have those who have been abruptly thrust into another culture, the way national military service and wars have done in Europe. Today, Hofmann says, perhaps “the best [translators] are accidents of migration and biography, who’ve come through the trauma of bilingualism.”

Luigi Meneghello was one of those accidents of migration. He left Italy (rural Veneto) for a one-year post at Reading University in Britain when he was twenty-four, just after the war. For him, the trauma (and the catharsis) was immerging himself in a mental and linguistic universe entirely unlike the one he’d absorbed as a child during Fascism. He ended up spending his entire career in English and in England, returning to Italy only at the very end of his life. His numerous books were reflections on prewar life and the Italian language—as well as the dialect spoken in his region—rooted in his extensive experience in another language.

Meneghello recommended that his students read a passage very carefully, several times over, and then close the book and translate it from memory, as closely as possible. There’s a lot to be said for this method, for it makes it impossible to fixate on words alone and fail to see the underlying sense. It also discourages what Meneghello thought of as the Italian literary vices—bombast, abstraction, fascist grandiloquence. And the turbo and the chiaro are instinctively, intuitively melded together.

Degrees of incommunicability

Over time, languages change and translations “age.” Sometimes a few decades go by and suddenly the words on the page no longer correspond to the way people speak. And sometimes the degree of incommunicability between two languages changes. Things that once would have been obscure in a second language no longer need explanation. The turbo grows a little clearer. When C. K. Scott Moncrieff first translated Proust (Remembrance of Things Past, 1922–30) he was dealing with an author whose eccentric, modernist style was unfamiliar in the Anglophone world. Scott Moncrieff’s lush prose made the book more accessible in English than it might otherwise have been. Today, readers complain that Scott Moncrieff’s Proust is too melodic, too poetic. Proust’s own language was more modern. Lydia Davis argues that Scott Moncrieff “padded” and “artificially intensified” the language of the original, adding thousands of “interpretive embellishments” to the “plainer, and clearer” French. Davis, who masterfully retranslated the opening volume, Swann’s Way, says she tried to stick as closely as possible to the French, avoiding interpretive flourishes. But the fact is, a text like À la recherche du temps perdu was probably only suited to Davis’s close translation once it was already known to Anglophone readers. The later translation automatically builds on the first.

Literary intelligence

If in 1959 Lovett F. Edwards hadn’t published the English translation of The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andrić’s novel about a bridge in Ottoman Bosnia, it’s very unlikely that Andrić, writing in Serbo-Croatian, would have come to the attention of the Swedish judges who awarded him the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was probably Edwards’ greatest accomplishment as a translator (and in fact, it’s never been retranslated). But it was only one of dozens of books in Serbo-Croatian, French, and Italian he would bring into English over the years.

Born in 1901 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Lovett Fielding Edwards first went to Yugoslavia in 1931 and traveled the country widely. In the subsequent decade, he published a series of books about that Balkan kingdom—Profane Pilgrimage (1938), A Wayfarer in Yugoslavia (1939), and Danube Stream (1940)—and after the war he wrote several more and translated many others. I haven’t been able to determine exactly what he was doing in World War II. Almost everything I know about his life comes from a laconic two-sentence biographical note attached to his papers, collected in a single box stored at Princeton University Library. I haven’t seen it, but an online account of the contents lists two unpublished manuscripts and photographs of him and his wife taken in various places in Bosnia and Serbia. (My personal hunch is that he was working in wartime military intelligence in occupied Yugoslavia, where he was captured by the Italians. He knew the country and the language. And he wouldn’t be the first translator-spy: Scott Moncrieff worked as a British agent during the early Mussolini years in Rome. Translation and intelligence work overlap in surprising ways, as Mark Polizzatti has observed.)  

What I do know is that during the early 1940s, Lovett Edwards was confined near Parma, Italy at the Castle of Montechiarugolo, one of forty-eight camps for domestic and enemy prisoners the Italians called concentration camps. In the castle library, he came across a two-volume copy of Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, a vast, entertaining novel about the Risorgimento written before Italy had even become a nation. He was entranced, but at 1,000 pages it was not exactly light reading. In a note to his postwar translation, he writes: “It was only in a concentration camp that I should have considered so formidable an undertaking as to read it. But once tasted, I was carried away by the sweep of the story.” It took him ten years to produce an English version and find a publisher “courageous enough” to bring it out. But the translation published by Oxford University Press in 1957 cut nearly a third of the 500,000-word text, eliminating several characters, some philosophizing, and all but a few pages of the last three chapters.

And here my own story finally begins. The Italian novel that this polyglot translator found so exciting almost eighty years ago was equally exciting to me when I read it in 2010. I, too, wanted to translate it, and I didn’t immediately learn that a fifty-year-old English translation existed since the title didn’t correspond to the Italian. When my copy of The Castle of Fratta, purchased from a used bookseller online, arrived, it still had a lending slip from a south Wales rural public library pasted inside the cover. In the first three years, it had been taken out many times and then languished until 1978 when it was weeded out.

Abridged, out of print—and maybe too old-fashioned to interest a reader of the twenty-first century? I didn’t think so. Ippolito Nievo was an exceptionally lively and modern writer, and his protagonist and first-person narrator Carlo Altoviti had a cheeky, witty, conversational voice. The story ranged up and down Italy, across Europe, and over the sixty years of the Risorgimento, when the inhabitants of the peninsula fought to emancipate themselves from local princes and foreign usurpers and finally constitute the Kingdom of Italy.

I based my case for retranslation both on the novel’s literary qualities and on the shortcomings of the existing English text. Edwards’ sharply reduced 1957 version—the publisher was probably concerned the book was too long to be salable—made it easier to argue that this time the full text should be published. The earlier title, The Castle of Fratta, suggests to me that Edwards and his publisher wanted to frame the book as a nineteenth-century historical novel about noblemen and a castle in mainland Venice, where the first part of the tale is set. While I thought the book’s fascination lay as much in the mind of the protagonist, Carlo, as in the plot and the setting. I wanted to reproduce the free and lively way Carlo spoke, capture his verve, humor, and irony, dramatize his fiercely earnest political ideals and his troubled passion for his wild and flighty cousin Pisana. That character speaking in media res, while the Risorgimento was still underway, was a very modern literary figure, and he also had a great deal in common with Ippolito Nievo, the young author who wrote this huge novel in eight months at the age of twenty-six, went off to Sicily as a soldier with Garibaldi, and died at age thirty when his ship sank on the way back to the mainland.

But how to highlight the novel’s modernity without modernizing inappropriately? I felt that errors had been made in the 1957 translation, where it seemed some essential features of the original were erased in order to shape the tale into something more conventional than it was. One example: each of the twenty-three chapters in the Italian was prefaced with a précis of three or four sentences, an old-fashioned formula that once would have been called the “argument.”

A brief introduction to the motives inspiring these Confessions of mine, to the famed Castle of Fratta where I spent my childhood, the kitchen of that aforementioned castle, as well as the masters, the servants, the guests and the cats who lived there around the year 1780. The first invasion of dramatis personae, interrupted here and there by many sage observations on the Venetian Republic . . .

As these opening lines of the book suggest, these prefaces—eliminated from the 1957 translation—turn out to be not merely informative but unexpectedly ironic, send-ups of a chivalric style that is vanishing along with the aristocracy as the novel begins. They immediately suggest that Carlo Altoviti will not be a backer of the old regime, that by winking at the Castle and its hoary aristocratic customs, he’s signaling he’ll be one of the new men.

I wasn’t fully aware of the tongue-in-cheek tone when I began work on the opening chapter. You don’t necessarily expect mockery in a historical novel. It wasn’t until I was well into chapter one that I began to hear the voice of my author (or his narrator, Carlo) with confidence and to appreciate his mordant, funny perspective on the castle’s inhabitants. That opening preface started out flatter and blander in English. But soon perfectly good translations like “well-known,” “characters,” and “thoughtful” made way for “famed,” “dramatis personae,” and “sage”—language charged with a certain hyperbole. Translating brought that voice out, made me hear things in the text that a casual reader might not notice. As Meneghello says, “something emerges that you didn’t know was there.”

When the time came to frame some rules about my method, my first decision was to stay away from a style that you might call “period diction.” That voice I’d identified was so familiar, so contemporary in many ways, that it wouldn’t do to dress it up in old-fashioned English. But while the tone and voice were modern, the man and his setting were decidedly nineteenth century, and to employ modern terminology would also be false. The challenge, as I saw it, was to find a language both historically accurate and lively enough to escape the mannered register of costume drama—and so grab the reader’s attention. As I struggled to find a style that was neither antiquated nor banal, at the lexical level I avoided words and concepts that came into the English language after 1850. When it came to sentence structure, however, I felt that the fluency that would come from simplifying clause-laden sentences and from sometimes dividing them justified producing an anachronistically modern style in English. But I was surprised to discover that once those elaborate Italian sentences had been made a bit more linear, their length no longer seemed off-putting and they usually didn’t have to be divided.  

I don’t know how well versed in Italian Edwards was when he translated the novel. He did make a number of mistakes—both in the definitions of individual words and in interpretation—and yet his prose is lively and funny. The colloquialisms have merely aged a bit. But there is also much that is turbo in Nievo’s prose: old-fashioned dialectical expressions, odd figures of speech, copious references to events and to historical and literary figures whose significance isn’t always clear. And so I was grateful to have Lovett Edwards’ translation by my side as I worked, helping me parse the prose of a novel we both loved. As always, we stand on the shoulders of our predecessors.