29 novembro 2016

Poema, de Maria Teresa Horta

A tradução de Lesley Saunders foi galardoada com o prémio Stephen Sender de poesia traduzida.

Deixo que venha
se aproxime ao de leve
pé ante pé até ao meu ouvido

Enquanto no peito o coração
e se apressa no sangue enfebrecido

Primeiro a floresta e em seguida
o bosque
mais bruma do que neve no tecido

Do poema que cresce e o papel absorve
verso a verso primeiro
em cada desabrigo

Toca então a torpeza e agacha-se
um lobo faminto e recolhido

Ele trepa de manso e logo tão voraz
que da luz é a noz
e depois o ruído

Toma ágil o caminho
e em seguida o atalho
corre em alcateia ou fugindo sozinho

Na calada da noite desloca-se e traz
consigo o luar
com vestido de arminho

Sinto-o quando chega no arrepio
da pele, na vertigem selada
do pulso recolhido

À medida que escrevo
e o entorno no sonho
o dispo sem pressa e o deito comigo

I let him come.
He sneaks on tiptoe
right up to my ear;
under its ribs my heart
quivers, quickens
as the excitement mounts:
first the forest appears,
then the woodland-sequel,
more mist than snow to the touch –

from the new poem’s
very first line the paper sucks up
every waif-word
and an ugliness steals in,
a cunning hungry thing
crouching there incognito,
pretending to be tame and yet so wolfish
that he’s the kernel of light
and then the noise of its cracking;
he’s lithe on the path,
doubling back on himself,
running with the pack, loping alone;
pussy-footing through the night
he trails moonlight behind him
like a mink coat.
I feel him when the hairs on my skin
lift, and in the delicious dizziness
of my private pulse –
in the midst of my writing, in my dream-life,
I slip all his clothes slowly off
and slide him down beside me

The translation by Lesley Saunders of Poema, by the Portuguese writer and activist Maria Teresa Horta, recently took first prize in the Open category of the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation. (Horta’s Portuguese language original is reproduced at the foot of this column and all the prize’s winning entries can be seen here.)
Readers of a certain age may remember Horta from an admired, and sometimes maligned, radical feminist text of the early 1970s, New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas). With Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta formed the trio of writer friends who came to be dubbed “the Three Marias”. Their collaborative volume, known in English as The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters, was a multi-genre response to a 17th-century collection of letters allegedly written by a young nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to her absconding “chevalier” lover. Horta had already received adverse criticism for her poetry, and the New Letters were no sooner published than banned by the Portuguese government. A prosecution ensued, and the women faced jail sentences until, with the 1974 “carnation revolution”, all charges were dropped.
Alcoforado had recovered her psychological independence through writing. The 20th-century authors, with their collage of poems, fiction, letters and erotica, each work dated but unsigned, set out to assert their female authenticity through solidarity. Lesley Saunders traces the source of her interest in Portuguese poetry to her first acquaintance with the New Letters, noting that it renewed her sense of “what literature could accomplish, formally, as well as psychologically and politically”. Saunders was delighted to finally meet Horta in Lisbon in 2015.
Her translation of Horta’s new poem, Poema, combines narrative clarity and an erotically charged, fairytale atmosphere. Saunders writes that she tried to reproduce the “abbreviated, even dislocated, diction that disguises itself as something direct and uncomplicated”. By introducing punctuation into the English version, she underlines Horta’s control of phrasing and tempo, and adds to the musical interest of our melody-resistant language.
The lineation has an excited tension in the first two stanzas. The wolf’s presence is registered at once, but he quickly becomes elusive. It’s in the third that the mystery fully registers: “first the forest appears, / then the woodland-sequel, / more mist than snow to the touch –”. The word “sequel” contributes to the idea of the poem as storytelling, while the soft, crisp, tactile evocation of mist-damp forest and woodland suggests body hair in different thicknesses and distribution. With the next stanza we go deeper into metaphor land. The new poem has arrived, stealthy and “incognito”, and instantly “the paper / sucks up every waif-word”. It’s an unfamiliar, maternal kind of animation: few poets see the language of their emergent poem as a vulnerable orphan.
Saunders finds similarities between Horta’s Poema and Ted Hughes’s The Thought Fox: the difference is that “Hughes’s fox turns out to be the poet’s poem; Horta’s wolf emerges as the poem’s poet”. Whoever “he” is, I like the shifts in his character, and the general craftiness of his approach, “pretending to be tame, and yet so wolfish”. It’s recognised that the intimately known body – of man, woman or poem – may fall short of the ideal and even reveal a sudden “ugliness” – a quality that, in the original poem, is a moral grossness, depravity (torpeza). To receive the muse, the artist may have to overcome revulsion. But perhaps what is most special about this wolf-muse is that he resists banal transformation. Saunders uses a wonderful, almost punning, feline metaphor, “pussy-footing”, in the eighth stanza, and darkens the trailed cape of moonlight, which is compared to ermine in the original, mink in the translation. This being is sometimes magical but he is always an animal.
The narrative rises to a sensuous and role-reversing climax when the speaker undresses the newly passive creature: “I slip all his clothes slowly off / and slide him down beside me”. At first seductive, finally seduced, the poem-wolf lies down with the poet-lamb. Saunders’s translation reveals Horta’s mature voice to have an easy, fearless, unapologetic authority. Poema seems an important culmination and assertion of her status as an artist and radical thinker.
Horta has continued to add to her output of poetry and novels and her work has gained some recognition. But the groundbreaking early achievement is often underestimated, or marginalised by what Saunders describes as “a general wish to forget all of that”. It’s to be hoped that this prize will help more of Horta’s poems and fiction, and those of the other Marias, to become visible to a new, international generation of readers. 
The Guardian

17 novembro 2016

World Philosophy Day 2016

This year, we celebrate World Philosophy Day immediately after International Day for Tolerance. This coincidence is deeply significant, given the link between tolerance and philosophy. Philosophy thrives on the understanding of, respect and consideration for the diversity of opinions, thoughts and cultures that enrich the way we live in the world. As with tolerance, philosophy is an art of living together, with due regard to rights and common values. It is the ability to see the world with a critical eye, aware of the viewpoints of others, strengthened by the freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

For all these reasons, philosophy is more than an academic subject; it is a daily practice that helps people to live in a better, more humane way. Philosophical questioning is learned and honed from the youngest age, as an essential key to inspiring public debate and defending humanism, which is suffering the violence and tensions in the world. Philosophy does not offer any ready-to-use solutions, but a perpetual quest to question the world and try to find a place in it. Along this road, tolerance is both a moral virtue and a practical tool for dialogue. It has nothing to do with the naive relativism that claims everything is equally valid; it is an individual imperative to listen, all the more striking because it is founded on a resolute commitment to defend the universal principles of dignity and freedom.

This year, UNESCO celebrates the birthdays of two eminent philosophers, Aristotle and Leibniz, who contributed to the development of metaphysics and science, logic and ethics. Both of them, a few centuries apart and in very different cultural contexts, placed philosophy at the core of public life, as the centrepiece of a free and dignified life. Let us, in turn, celebrate this spirit; let us dare to open spaces for free, open and tolerant thinking. On the basis of this dialogue, we can build stronger cooperation between citizens, societies and States, as a lasting foundation for peace.

08 novembro 2016

13 maio 2016

Tyger, Tyger - Three Translations, and some Fun!


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what the grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tradução de Augusto de Campos:


Tygre! Tygre! Brilho, brasa
que a furna noturna abrasa,
que olho ou mão armaria
tua feroz symmetrya?

Em que céu se foi forjar
o fogo do teu olhar?
Em que asas veio a chamma?
Que mão colheu esta flamma?

Que força fez retorcer
em nervos todo o teu ser?
E o som do teu coração
de aço, que cor, que ação?

Teu cérebro, quem o malha?
Que martelo? Que fornalha
o moldou? Que mão, que garra
seu terror mortal amarra?

Quando as lanças das estrelas
cortaram os céus, ao vê-las,
quem as fez sorriu talvez?
Quem fez a ovelha te fez?

Tygre! Tygre! Brilho, brasa
que a furna noturna abrasa,
que olho ou mão armaria
tua feroz symmetrya?

Tradução de Vasco Graça Moura:

tigre, tigre, chama pura
nas brenhas da noite escura,
que olho ou mão imortal cria
tua terrível simetria?

de que abismo ou céu distante
vem tal fogo coruscante?
que asas ousa nesse jogo?
e que mão se atreve ao fogo?

que ombro & arte te armarão
fibra a fibra o coração?
e ao bater ele no que és,
que mão terrível? que pés?

e que martelo? que torno?
e o teu cérebro em que forno?
que bigorna? que tenaz
pro terror mortal que traz?

quando os astros lançam dardos
e seu choro os céus põem pardos,
vendo a obra ele sorri?
fez o anho e fez-te a ti?

tigre, tigre, chama pura
nas brenhas da noite escura,
que olho ou mão imortal cria
tua terrível simetria?

26 abril 2016

01 abril 2016

RIP Imre Kertész

Em português, (Observador):

Kertész, nascido em 9 de Novembro de 1929, recusou mais tarde que Sem Destino, publicado em 1975, fosse um livro autobiográfico mas a verdade é que as rimas entre o que é contado e um certo período da vida do escritor são demasiado evidentes para não serem valoradas. 

Ernesto Rodrigues, tradutor para português deste livro que vendeu 8 mil exemplares em Portugal (e de outros quatro livros do autor), também acha que a distância entre a ficção e a realidade é frágil. “Ele também foi para os campos de concentração em idade juvenil e teve experiências semelhantes às que são narradas”.

Ernesto Rodrigues, que foi leitor de português na Hungria entre 1981 e 1986, conta que quando o livro saiu não teve impacto algum e que nos anos em que viveu no país ocupado pelos nazis em 1944, e depois liderado por uma ditadura comunista, percebeu que o autor e a obra eram pouco considerados. Os dicionários literários oficiais do país só lhe dedicavam “uma linha e meia”. Só mais tarde é que veio o reconhecimento – que lhe chegou de uma atenção que teve na Alemanha, país que o acolheu e que se interessou pela sua voz.
Depois de ter saído dos campos de concentração, a vida de Imre não foi fácil. “Ele nunca foi bem aceite”, refere o tradutor de Kertész (...)

Escreveu 15 livros. O seu tradutor português assume a sua preferência por A Recusa (Presença, 2007), no qual Imre se demora sobre o trabalho de escritor. Aqui e ali vão-se apagando os sinais de luminosidade. Ernesto Rodrigues relembra: “Chega a escrever que depois da experiência dos campos de concentração não vale a pena ter filhos” – e de facto não os teve. 

A certa altura, começa a interessar-se por Fernando Pessoa e usa como epígrafe de um livro uma frase de Bernardo Soares. Em “Um Outro, Crónica de uma Metamorfose” escreve: “Tudo, em mim, adormece, imóvel e profundamente. Vou remexendo os sentimentos, e os meus pensamentos, como num tambor de alcatrão tépido.”

En français (Le Monde):

On le revoit en compagnie de son épouse, Magda, dans son lumineux appartement de Meinekestrasse à Berlin – ou bien à deux pas de là, à l’hôtel Kempinski où il avait ses habitudes près de la cheminée –, les mains croisées sur le pommeau de sa canne, son fameux chapeau mou jamais très loin, ses lunettes rondes pendant sur son ventre – rond lui aussi. « Vous remarquerez que je ne me suis pas suicidé, nous avait-il dit un jour avec un sourire. Tous ceux qui ont vécu ce que j’ai vécu, Celan, Améry, Borowski, Primo Levi… ont préféré la mort. »
Kertész, lui, avait un fol appétit d’exister. Ce pessimiste qui avait fait le pari de la vie entendait la boire jusqu’à la dernière goutte. Parce que vivre était synonyme de créer et que créer était transformer la matière la plus abjecte de l’humain en quelque chose de fortifiant, d’éclairant et d’intemporel, la littérature. Faire du sens avec du non-sens. L’art comme réponse. Recours et secours à la fois. Dans L’Holocauste comme culture (Actes Sud, 2009), Kertész avait eu cette formule saisissante :
« Je peux dire peut-être que cinquante ans après, j’ai donné forme à l’horreur que l’Allemagne a déversée sur le monde (…), que je l’ai rendue aux Allemands sous forme d’art. »
Né le 9 novembre 1929, à Budapest, dans une modeste famille juive, d’un père marchand de bois et d’une mère employée, Kertész – prononcer Kertéss, un nom qui signifie « jardinier » en hongrois – est déporté en 1944, à l’âge de 15 ans. D’abord à Auschwitz puis à Buchenwald et dans le camp satellite de Zeits, en Allemagne. L’écrivain racontait sobrement son retour d’enfer, en 1945. Lorsqu’il avait voulu prendre un bus à Budapest et qu’on lui avait demandé de payer son ticket. Lorsqu’il s’était aperçu que l’appartement où il avait grandi avec ses parents était « occupé » par d’autres. Lorsqu’il avait compris que sa famille avait été exterminée et qu’il était seul… « C’était étrange, dira-t-il. Comme j’étais encore un enfant, je devais aller à l’école, alors que j’avais, si l’on peut dire, une certaine expérience de la vie… » Cette « expérience » est d’une certaine façon synthétisée dans Liquidation (Actes sud, 2004), où le personnage principal expose son « idée de base » : « Le mal est le principe de la vie (…). Ce qui est véritablement irrationnel, c’est le bien. » Toute l’œuvre de Kertész interroge la façon dont on peut survivre à cette idée.
Dans les années 1950, sous la dictature stalinienne, Imre Kertész devient journaliste. Mais le journal pour lequel il travaille se transforme bientôt en organe officiel du Parti communiste. Incapable d’écrire sur ordre, Kertész est mis à la porte. Il décide alors de devenir écrivain et vit avec sa femme dans une chambre minuscule, totalement en marge de la société hongroise. Il survit en écrivant des comédies musicales et en traduisant de grands auteurs germanophones – Nietzsche, Freud, Hofmannsthal, Canetti, Wittgenstein, Joseph Roth… « L’allemand reste pour moi la langue des penseurs, pas des bourreaux », disait-il non sans panache.
En 1960, il commence son grand « roman de dé-formation ou de formation à l’envers » qu’est Etre sans destin. Il mettra treize ans à l’écrire. Lorsque le livre sort en Hongrie, en 1975, il est accueilli de façon glaciale – de même que le sera son prix Nobel quelque trente ans plus tard. Interrogé par Le Monde en 2005, Kertész expliquait que le titre de ce qu’il persistait à appeler « roman » était « une conséquence éthique » de la Shoah :
« Ce que je voulais décrire, c’est comment, dans un univers concentrationnaire, un adolescent pouvait être méthodiquement spolié de sa personnalité naissante. C’est l’état dans lequel vous vous trouvez lorsqu’on vous a confisqué jusqu’à l’idée même de votre histoire. Un état où il est interdit de se confronter à soi-même. Tout le défi du roman consistait à inventer une langue qui lie ces notions et indique une existence verrouillée. »

Lire l'entretien : Imre Kertész : « Briser de l’intérieur les limites de la langue »

Cette langue – un phrasé extrêmement personnel, mélange unique de détachement apparent et de distance sarcastique –, cette langue « atonale », comme il la qualifiait, mais dont il a toujours voulu qu’elle « entre dans la chair » de son lecteur, Kertész expliquait qu’elle lui venait indirectement de Camus. Il avait souvent raconté comment à 25 ans il était un jour, par hasard, tombé sur L’Etranger. « Je me suis dit : ce livre est si mince qu’il ne va pas me coûter trop cher… J’ignorais tout de son auteur et j’étais loin de soupçonner que sa prose allait me marquer à ce point. En hongrois, L’Etranger était traduit par L’Indifférent. Indifférent au sens de détaché – du monde, de lui-même. Mais aussi au sens d’affranchi, c’est-à-dire d’homme libre… »
Un homme libre. Imperméable à toute sorte de pose, sociale ou littéraire : voilà ce qu’aura été Imre Kertész toute sa vie. A travers ses livres traduits tous chez Actes sud, dont Kaddish pour l’enfant qui ne naîtra pas (1995), Liquidation (2004), Le Refus (2002) ; Journal de galère (2010), Le Chercheur de traces (2003)… – l’écrivain se présentait comme quelqu’un qui, « du nazisme au stalinisme, aura accumulé suffisamment de savoir intime sur la dictature » pour la traduire en une expérience créatrice. Une œuvre où « l’affect » de l’Histoire est aussi présent que la mémoire des crimes. Où l’écrivain cherche à cerner comment l’un et l’autre façonnent nos destins, fût-ce à notre insu. Une œuvre où l’humanisme triomphe toujours, du moins sur la page. Et où la notion de liberté rejoint toujours celle du langage. « Briser de l’intérieur des limites de la langue », voilà l’objectif que s’était imposé Imre Kertész.
Dans La Vocation de l’écriture : la littérature et la philosophie à l’épreuve de la violence (Odile Jacob, 2014), le philosophe Marc Crépon note ainsi que pour Kertész, l’écriture n’est pas seulement « une technique de survie », une manière d’échapper au « bourbier de l’inexistence ». C’est aussi un acte de résistance profondément éthique. « Dans les sociétés totalitaires, le “consentement au meurtre” va de pair avec le renoncement à la vérité, le culte de son illusion (sous la forme d’un dogme imposé) et les ruses du mensonge organisé. Le langage ainsi livré à la puissance de ceux qui ont tout pouvoir de le manipuler est d’abord un enfermement. » Marc Crépon souligne que pour Kertész, qui s’est toujours appliqué à étudier la façon dont s’élabore la langue de toutes les dictatures, écrire consiste justement à « ouvrir une brèche à travers laquelle luit l’étincelle d’une liberté possible ».
Kertész avait « mal » lorsque les Hongrois lui reprochaient d’être le seul prix Nobel national alors même qu’il ne glorifiait pas la « hungaritude ». Il avait mal lorsqu’il voyait la Hongrie d’aujourd’hui « envoûtée par Viktor Orban comme par le joueur de flûte de Hamelin ». Il ne cachait pas son désarroi face à la situation d’un pays gangréné par l’antisémitisme et la « culture de la haine », où les rampes de métro, disait-il, sont couvertes d’affiches qui lui rappelaient douloureusement « celles du Parti des Croix fléchées en 1938 », parti pronazi fondé en 1939 par Ferenz Szalasi. Il ne cachait pas son « effarement » devant la recrudescence de l’antisémitisme tout comme le risque de voir « les gardes-frontières qui entreprennent de défendre l’Europe contre la barbarie montante » devenir « à leur tour des fascistes ». « Auschwitz n’a pas été un accident de l’Histoire », déclarait-il au Monde en 2015, « et beaucoup de signes montrent que sa répétition est possible ».

Lire l’entretien : Imre Kertész : « Auschwitz n’a pas été un accident de l’Histoire »

Pourtant – hormis peut-être dans son dernier ouvrage, L’Ultime auberge (2015) où l’on trouve ça et là quelques remarques déconcertantes de sa part (mais peut-être dues au grand âge ?) sur l’Europe et sur l’Islam – il y a toujours quelque chose de profondément lumineux et d’éminemment généreux chez Kertész. Qu’il vous prenne par la main et vous emmène en promenade au bord du lac Balaton ou le long des rives du Danube, qu’il vous parle de musique, de Bach, Wagner ou Schönberg, ou encore de « ses vieux amis », Musil, Arendt, Thomas Mann, Beckett et surtout Kafka, l’écrivain nous apprend humblement et intelligemment à tout savourer. A ne rien attendre. Dans son Journal de galère (2010), il note cette phrase de Lao Tseu qui lui va comme un gant : « “Non pas vivre en esclave de son avenir” mais “dans la liberté infinie de sa finitude”. »
La mort, qu’il avait frôlée si précocement et de si près, Imre Kertész s’y préparait en un sens depuis toujours. Afin qu’elle ne l’atteigne pas « comme un accident ou comme un malfrat qui vous assommerait au coin de la rue », il travaillait à « atteindre la sagesse d’une vie qui enseigne le savoir de l’aboutissement ». Lui qui avait côtoyé la barbarie n’avait jamais perdu son sens de l’humour si typique des écrivains de la Mitteleuropa. Un jour qu’il était descendu à l’hôtel Raphaël, à Paris, il nous avait confié en souriant : « Il ne fait sûrement pas bon être mort, mais avec le temps on doit pouvoir s’y faire… »

Photo credit: Handsome Young Writers

20 janeiro 2016

Stardust for Bowie

In July 1969, as the Apollo 11 missions were launching towards the Moon, the just-released David Bowie single “Space Oddity” was further fueling the space-lust for thousands of Earth-bound humans. From songs like “Starman” and “Life on Mars” to his numerous otherworldly personas – no other pop artist has inspired and drawn upon our exploration of space as much as David Bowie.
So, as a fitting tribute following his untimely death last week, Belgian astronomers have named a star constellation after the world’s late, great cosmic muse.
The constellation consists of seven stars that form the shape of the lightning bolt from Bowie’s 1973 album “Aladdin Sane,” one of the most iconic images of the starchild.
The project was a collaboration between radio station Studio Brussel and Belgium’s MIRA public observatory, called Stardust For Bowie. On this interactive Google Sky map, you can also post messages and tag your favorite Bowie song to any of the stars which fall within the constellation.
“It was not easy to determine the appropriate stars. Studio Brussel asked us to give Bowie a unique place in the galaxy,” Philippe Mollet, from the MIRA Public Observatory, said in a statement.
“Referring to his various albums, we chose seven stars – Sigma Librae, Spica, Alpha Virginis, Zeta Centauri, SAA 204 132, and the Beta Sigma Octantis Trianguli Australis – in the vicinity of Mars. The constellation is a copy of the iconic Bowie lightning and was recorded at the exact time of his death.”

Primo Levi - In the Tumult of Translation

By Tim Parks for the NYRB

In a recent letter to the editor, Leon Botstein, the head of Bard College, scolds The New York Review for not mentioning translators. As a translator myself, I’m all too familiar with the review that offers a token nod to the translation, announces it good, bad, or indifferent, perhaps offering one small example to justify praise or ignominy. But although not specifically singled out by Botstein, I fear I am one of the culprits. My review of Levi’s Complete Works did not name the translators or discuss their work.
The fact is that much space is required to say anything even half-way serious about a translation. For example, the three volumes of Levi’s Complete Works include fourteen books and involved ten translators. There is the further complication that the three best-known books—If This Is a Man, The Truce, and The Periodic Table—had already been translated, the first two by Stuart Woolf, the third by Raymond Rosenthal. If This Is a Man appears here in a “revised” version of the 1959 translation, Woolf himself having carried out the revision more than a half century after his original. However, The Truce appears in an entirely new translation by Ann Goldstein. One can only imagine what negotiations lay behind this odd arrangement; Levi’s writings are still under copyright, which presumably allowed Woolf or his publisher to dictate terms. Ann Goldstein also offers a new translation of The Periodic Table, and is the translator of Lilith and Other Stories, another book in the Complete Works.

We should say at the outset that while Levi liked to describe himself as a writer with a determinedly plain style, the truth is rather different. Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific. It’s true that there are rarely serious problems of comprehension, but the exact nature of the register, which is to say the manner in which the author addresses us, the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal. It is here that the translator is put to the test.

Stuart Woolf, later to become a distinguished professor of Italian history, was in his early twenties when he met Levi in 1956 and worked with him on the translation of If This Is a Man, which would appear to have been his first book-length translation. “It is opportune to recall,” he remarks in his translator’s afterword, “that half a century ago the complexities, ambiguities, and compromises that have become inherent in the expression of one culture in the language of another were not yet discussed.” This is not true. There was a rich body of reflection on translation long before the invention of Translation Studies, and Italy, a country that translated more novels than any other throughout the first half of the twentieth century, has a particularly strong tradition in this area.

Angela Albanese and Franco Nasi recently published L’artefice aggiunto, riflessioni sulla traduzione in Italia: 1900-1975, an anthology of writings on translation in Italy before the invention of modern translation studies. Going further back in time, Leonardo Bruni, Melchiorre Cesarotti, Ippolito Pindemonte, Ugo Foscolo, Giovanni Berchet, Pietro Giordani, Niccolò Tommaseo, and, most wonderfully, Giacomo Leopardi all offered fascinating accounts of “complexities, ambiguities and compromises.” In any event, Woolf’s afterword mainly describes his own relationship with Levi, gives no examples of translation from the text, and does not discuss his criteria for revision, leaving us with the elusive remark, “I have made what I believe to be improvements in the translation, and I owe thanks to Peter Hennig for sending me a substantial list of alternative words and phrases, some of which I have adopted…”

Here are some of the changes I have found.  In this first passage, Levi is describing his days as a new arrival in the camp. Here is the 1959 edition:

And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney. (What did it mean? Soon we were all to learn what it meant.)

Here is the 2015 edition:

And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only way out is through the Chimney. (What does that mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.)

Levi’s original gives:

Ed è questo il ritornello che da tutti ci sentiamo ripetere: non siete più a casa, questo non è un sanatorio, di qui non si esce che per il Camino (cosa vorrà dire? lo impareremo bene più tardi).

The Italian here is entirely standard, plain, and colloquial, with just a little touch of drama in the capitalization of Camino (Chimney) and again in the closing parenthesis. Given the awfulness of what is being discussed, this downbeat style is remarkable and hence should be preserved at all costs.

The 1959 version shows all Woolf’s inexperience. Can we really imagine the camp inmates saying, “the only exit is by way of the Chimney?” The Italian di qui non si esce che (literally, “from here one doesn’t go out but by”) suggests something like, “the only way you’ll get out of here is through the chimney.” In the 2015 edition “exit” has been replaced with “way out,” which is certainly an improvement. In the following parenthesis the verb has been shifted from past to present—“What does that mean?”—which livens things up a little. However, the Italian uses a future tense, cosa vorrà dire?, which gives the sense “what is that supposed to mean?” The 1959 solution, “we were all to learn,” is shifted in 2015 to “we’ll soon learn,” respecting the new tense sequence but leaving “learn” where a more standard English idiom might use “know” or “find out.”

I include the first part of my quotation, which remains the same in both texts—“it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone”—to suggest Woolf’s difficulties with the syntax. A more idiomatic translation might have given “that we hear everyone repeating” (the Italian doesn’t use a passive here so why should the translation?). “Refrain” too, though literally it has the same sense as ritornello has a rather more elevated feel; Italians often use ritornello disparagingly to suggest a trite phrase mindlessly repeated, something we don’t do with refrain. All in all, a translator wishing to get the fluent directness of the original might offer,

Everyone keeps repeating the same thing: you’re not at home now, this isn’t a sanatorium, the only way out of here is through the Chimney (what’s that supposed to mean? We’ll soon find out).

In general, Woolf’s revisions to his 1959 translation are very light. In a second example, the camp inmates are so determined to be on time for their meal that they are unwilling to stop to pee. Levi has:

Molti, bestialmente, orinano, correndo per risparmiare tempo, perché entro cinque minuti inizia la distribuzione del pane, del pane-Brot-Broit-chleb-pain-lechem-kenyér, del sacro blocchetto grigio che sembra gigantesco in mano del tuo vicino e piccolo da piangere in mano tua.

Woolf’s 1959 text gave:

Some, bestially, urinate while they run to save time, because within five minutes begins the distribution of bread, of bread-Brot-Broid-chleb-pain-lechem-keynér, of the holy grey slab which seems gigantic in your neighbour’s hand, and in your own hand so small as to make you cry.

Why we have “some” (which would be qualcuno or alcuni in Italian) rather than “many” is not clear. Bestialmente can be used in Italian to mean simply, like an animal. “Bestially” sounds rather like a criticism of these desperate folk. And do we usually invert verb and subject “begins the distribution of bread”? Wouldn’t we normally put an article—“of the bread”? Again, the Italian is entirely standard here, by which I mean that one could hardly think of a simpler way of putting this. However, if the translator uses a more standard English—“Because in five minutes the bread distribution begins”—he will have a problem of the phrase in apposition immediately afterwards (“of bread-Brot-Broid-chleb”, etc.). Since this needs to be tagged directly onto the word “bread,” Woolf decides to leave the Italian structure intact. Of course, this solution is entirely possible in English, but gives the feeling of something rather more elaborate and less spoken than the Italian. In the end, the only things revised here in the 2015 edition are the English spelling (grey/neighbor), the use of “which” rather than “that” and the repetition of the word “hand.”

My own sense of Levi’s original might go like this:

To save time many are urinating as they run, like animals, because in five minutes they’ll be handing out the bread, Brot-Broid-chleb-pane-pain-lechem-keynér, that sacred gray slab that looks so huge in the hands of the man next to you and so small you could cry in your own.

I’ve risked a little confusion using two “they”s with different referents in the first line, though in the context of the paragraph the sense will be clear enough. Italian has no other word but distribuire for the idea of distributing, but English has “handing out.” Why go for the more formal “distribute” for this rather brutal process of handing over slabs of stale bread? I’ve introduced pane into the list of words for bread, since it seems strange to eliminate Italian from the languages the inmates are speaking. I’ve also used the straightforward “looks” instead of “seems” (again Italian has no choice here) and I’ve speeded up the end “so small you could cry in your own” in line with Levi’s extremely condensed piccolo da piangere in mano tua. Meanwhile, il tuo vicino is a tricky problem. It means “the person next to you,” hence also “your neighbor.” So it could take on a Biblical ring. But it is also absolutely the word you would use for the guy standing next to you in a line at a bus stop. The question is, how much attention do we want to draw in the English to a word that draws none at all to itself in Italian?

Sometimes Woolf’s revisions actually make things less clear. Here, after the men get their bread and return to their dormitory block the 1959 edition tells us that, “the Block resounds with claims, quarrels and scuffles.” In the new version this becomes, “the block resounds with claims, quarrels, and flights.”

Flights? On reading this I confess it took me a moment to grasp what was meant. Levi is explaining that in the camp bread is the only form of currency for trading, hence the moment the men get their bread is payback time. If someone owes you something, you need to get his bread off him now, before he can eat it. The Italian gives:

Il Block risuona di richiami, di liti, e di fughe.

Richiami could indeed mean “claims” or “protests” but would more usually indicate “calls,” “shouts,” “cries”; in particularly it is used to refer to the noises animals make calling each other, something that links back to bestialmente and indeed the whole theme introduced by the title If This Is a Man; liti means “quarrels,” or even “fights.” Fughe is “flights” in the sense of people running for it. Again, it’s a word in common use in Italian; we could talk of the fuga of a soccer player who breaks free of his defender, or a thief running from the police. In English the word is barely comprehens­­ible here and even if we do understand, it takes us back to a usage of long ago in a higher register: the flight from Egypt, perhaps; or something metaphorical: “The Flight from Conversation,” a recent New York Times article was headlined.

I can find no example in English of “flights” used in the plural in this sense without a qualification of who is fleeing from what or whom. This no doubt is why Woolf avoided the word in the 1959 version. Introducing it now in the new edition, presumably for correctness, since fughe definitely does not mean “scuffles,” he disorients the reader. The upward jolt to the register reinforces the slightly literary tone of “resound” (“the block resounded”), which, like “refrain,” has a more elevated feel than the word it is translating, in this case risuona, which again is standard Italian fare. The whole thing might have been delivered as,

The Block is filled with the noise of cries, quarrels, men running for it.

I spoke of a play of registers in Levi’s writing, but so far have only given examples of his plain prose. Needless to say, if your translation of the plain prose sounds anything but plain, it will be difficult to indicate a change of gear when you shift up a register. That said, Woolf is more convincing with the high register. There is a tough moment near the beginning of the book where, having heard that they are to be deported to Germany the following morning, a group of Jews in a detention center, Levi included, spend a sleepless night, at the end of which

L’alba ci colse come un tradimento, come se il nuovo sole si associasse agli uomini nella deliberazione di distruggerci.

In 1959 Woolf translates the first sentence fairly freely. “Betrayal” (tradimento) becomes “betrayer,” the idea of the sun joining up with gli uomini—“men/mankind”—in the determination to “destroy us” is somewhat paraphrased:

Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.

In 2015 he moves closer to the original in the first part of the sentence, cuts the unnecessary and cumbersome “seemed as though,” and offers a different paraphrase of the second part:

Dawn came upon us like a betrayal, as if the new sun were an ally of the men who had decided to destroy us.

This sounds pretty good, but still loses the impact of Levi’s use of gli uomini in the general sense of all men, or, in a higher register, mankind, not a specific group of enemies. Again this usage fits in with the book’s questioning of what it means to be a man, to be part of the human race. Here the Jews are being treated as if they didn’t belong among men. So more accurately we might have:

Dawn came upon us like a betrayal, as if the new sun were joining forces with men in the determination to destroy us.

If you wanted to stress this point, it would be acceptable to give “as if the sun were joining forces with mankind.” That is the kind of decision one might take on one’s nth reading of the whole translation, when you have the voice firmly in your mind. At the moment it seems a little too “loud” to me.

Let’s move a few lines further on for our last example. With the dawn comes action; the hiatus of the night is over; Levi winds up the register with some archaic terms and images:

Il tempo di meditare, il tempo di stabilire erano conchiusi, e ogni moto di ragione si sciolse nel tumulto senza vincoli, su cui, dolorosi come colpi di spada, emergevano in un lampo, così vicini ancora nel tempo e nello spazio, i ricordi buoni delle nostre case.

In 1959 Woolf drops the senza vincoli (literally, “without constraints”), presumably in order to keep the English tight, though the real problem in this sentence is Levi’s rather mysterious use of the verb stabilire, which in the translation appears as the noun “decision.” As for the archaic conchiusi (“concluded,” “finished”) it is hard to see how it could be rendered in English.

The time for meditation, the time for decision was over, and all reason dissolved into a tumult, across which flashed the happy memories of our homes, still so near in time and space, as painful as the thrusts of a sword.

What decision or decisions could people have been taking, since their destiny is now entirely out of their hands? There has been no mention of decisions to be made. Woolf doesn’t clarify this in his 2015 translation, but recovers the idea of senza vincoli in “unrestrained tumult” and rearranges the second part of the sentence for fluency:

The time for meditation, the time for decision was over, and all reason dissolved into an unrestrained tumult, across which flashed, as painful as the thrusts of a sword, the happy memories of our homes, still so near in time and space.

This works well enough, though a phrase like “as painful as the thrusts of a sword” still has a wearisomely translationese feel to my ear. But let’s put some pressure on that word stabilire. Usually this verb takes an object, to establish/fix/set/decide something. But what can it mean if there is no object, and in the generally portentous lexical mix Levi has concocted here? People have spent the night reflecting on their destiny. They have meditated. They have, literally, “established.” But now that time is over. Now reason, or rather every moto di ragione (literally, movement of reason), dissolves (si sciolsero) and we have a tumult that is unrestrained (senza vincoli).

There is an evident polarity here between reasoned construction of some kind of response (what people have tried to “establish” through the hours of the night), and confused, ungovernable dissolution, as the fateful day begins and a tumult of emotions takes over, robbing people of their human dignity. It’s a polarity, that, when linked to the idea of “the time for this and the time for that” cannot but remind us of Ecclesiastes. And indeed Italian annotated versions of the text suggest a reference to “a time to break down and a time to build up.”

How to get this across in translation? If one offers “the time for gathering thoughts (or coming to terms with things) was over,” one perhaps gets something of the idea and a proper contrast with thoughts that are then scattered, but still the strangeness of the Levi’s usage would be lost. I offer a version I’m not happy with, but it’s the best I can do:
The time to meditate, the time to settle, was over and every effort of reason dissolved in this unrestrained tumult through which the happy memories of our homes, still so close in time and space, stabbed painfully as sudden sword thrusts.

To sum up, in 1956 Woolf had the intuition that Levi’s book, then largely un­recog­nized, was an important work, worthy of translation. Bravely, he translated it on spec, without a contract; later an American publisher, Orion, got in touch with him and eventually published it. We owe Woolf our gratitude and admiration for having introduced the book to the English-speaking world when it mattered in a highly serviceable, if undistinguished, translation. Unfortunate­ly, that is the version we still have, since the 2015 “revision” amounts to little more than a light edit.

Why then, you might ask, has this translation (in both its manifestations) been widely praised? It is a fascinating question that I will try to answer in my next post.