The Process of Translation
In the pages that follow I have tried to fix on paper the stages of an elusive process: the translation of an Italian text into English. For the operation I have chosen also an elusive author, Carlo Emilio Gadda, partly because his work is not well known to English-language readers, but mostly because he is an author I am particularly fond of and enjoy translating. I have settled on the first paragraph of ‘Notte di luna’, the opening chapter (or story, as Gadda would have us believe) in the volume L’Adalgisa, originally published in 1944. I have used the Einaudi edition of 1963.
I need hardly say that the description that follows is partial, perhaps even somewhat misleading, because I have tried to make conscious and logical something that is, most of the time, unconconscious, instinctive. Faced with a choice between «perhaps» and «maybe», the translator does not put the words on trial and engage attorneys to defend and accuse. Most probably, he hears the words in some corner of his mind, and likes the sound of one better than the other. Of course, his decision is only apparently instinctive. His instinct will be guided by his knowledge of the author’s work, by his reading in the period. It will almost certainly not be guided by any rules, even self-made ones. On Thursday, translating Moravia, he may write «maybe», and on Friday, translating Manzoni, he may write «perhaps».
Because there are no rules, no laws, there cannot be an absolute right or an absolute wrong. There can be errors (and even the most experienced translator has an occasional mishap); there can be lapses in tone. The worst mistake a translator can commit is to reassure himself by saying, «that’s what it says in the original», and renouncing the struggle to do his best. The words of the original are only the starting point; a translator must do more than convey information (a literary translator, that is).
If someone asks me how I translate, I am hard put to find an answer. I can describe the physical process: I make a very rapid first draft, put it aside for a while, then go over it at a painfully slow pace, pencil – and eraser – in hand. But that is all outside. Inside, the job is infinitely complex, and what’s more, it varies from one author to another. I wish I could describe the thrilling tingle I feel when something seems, finally, to have come right. I prefer not to dwell on the sinking sensation felt when it is obvious that something is dreadfully wrong.
Here, in Italian, is the Gadda paragraph:
Un’idea, un’idea non sovviene, alla fatica de’ cantieri, mentre i sibilanti congegni degli atti trasformano in cose le cose e il lavoro è pieno di sudore e di polvere. Poi ori lontanissimi e uno zaffiro, nel cielo: come cigli, a tremare sopra misericorde sguardo. Quello che, se poseremo, ancora vigilerà. I battiti della vita sembra che uno sgomento li travolga come in una corsa precípite. Ci ha detersi la carità della sera: e dove alcuno aspetta moviamo: perché nostra ventura abbia corso, e nessuno la impedirà. Perché poi avremo a riposare.
And here (without any subsequent cosmesis) is the absolutely first draft of the translation, complete with doubts, alternative solutions, puzzlements. This is the raw material:
An idea, an idea does not (recall/sustain/aid/repair, in the labor of the building sites, as the hissing devices/machinery of actions transform things into things and the labor/toil is full of sweat and dust. Then distant gold(s) and a sapphire, in the sky: like lashes, trembling above compassionate/merciful/charitable gaze. Which, if we cast it, will still keep watch/be wakeful/alert. The pulses/throbbing of life, it seems, can be overwhelmed/swept away by an alarm, as if in a (precipitous race/dash. The charity of the evening has cleansed us (We are cleansed by the…: and where someone is waiting, we move: so that our fate/lot may proceed, and no one will block/impede/hinder it. Because then/afterwards/later we will rest/be able to rest/have our rest.
First thoughts: the passage contains several words I hate. Cantiere has to be translated «work site», I suppose, but the Italian word is simpler and more commonplace. Sometimes I translate cantiere simply as «job» (cf. al cantiere or in cantiere canbe rendered «on the job». But I don’t think that will work in this case, also because I may have to use «job» immediately afterwards for il lavoro. Sguardo. Again, the almost obligatory translation is «gaze». But «gaze» is much more highfalutin than sguardo, which could also be «look». But «look» in English is too vague, can mean too many things. Dacci uno sguardo, can be «take a look», but when it is more isolated – as here – probably has to be «gaze». Another word that always seem to causeme problems is sgomento. As an adjective, it can sometimes be «aghast». But here it is a noun. «Alarm» does not satisfy me.
Gadda has appended two notes to this first paragraph. As usual, they do not explain much, but rather extendthe sentence he is annotating. Here he is concerned that the alcuno remain sexually ambiguous. «Someone» will probably do perfectly well. Similarly, he glosses the nessuno in the same sentence: it refers to fathers, police, firemen – those who can enforce prohibitions. And he lists, among these, the governor of Maracaibo and tells of a youth who, flouting a veto, tore up his sheets, tied them to make a rope, and escaped from his room, to go off and join Garibaldi.
Notes to myself: avoid ironing out the rhythm, making the sentence structure more normal or conventional; do not try to clarify the meaning when Gadda has deliberately made it murky (translation is not exegesis); try to maintain Gadda’s balance between ordinary words (sudore, lavoro, etc.) and more exotic words (zaffiro, detersi).Find a suitably poetic and cadenced solution to the final, short sentence of the paragraph.
Now a second draft: In the opening sentence, how to capture the force and poetry of the initial repetition? Literally translated («An idea, an idea…», it sounds wrong to me. How about shifting the negative from the verb to the subject? «No idea, no idea…» Here the repetition sounds even worse. But perhaps, instead of repeating, I should simply enforce the noun. «No idea at all…» «Not the least idea…» «No, no idea…»
I like this last solution best, because it allows a repetition, even if not the same repetition as Gadda’s. It is not the perfect solution, but in translating – and especially in translating Gadda – there are no perfect solutions. You simply do your best.
Sovviene means something like «come to the aid of». In my rapid first draft I even put down «recall» because it can also have the meaning, and, when reflexive, can mean «remember». But here it is the verb related to «subvention», not to «souvenir».
Fatica: «effort», but also «toil, labor». There must be a sense of expenditure of strength, a physical effort. Atti is more «deeds» than «actions». One of Gadda’s quirkish choices (rather than azioni).
Now try the first sentence. «No, no idea brings relief to the labor of the work sites, as the sibilant instruments of action transforms things into other things, and the job is full of sweat and dust».
Sibilanti means «hissing», but I have rejected this in favor of «sibilant» as more Gaddian. It almost suggests speech. And after first translating congegni as «machinery», avoiding the dictionary translation («devices», «apparatuses») I settle on «instruments», which seems to have more resonance. But then I omit the plural of atti. Why? It is hard to explain, but partly because I dislike two plurals in a row, and «instruments» has to remain plural. I have also added the word «other». Is this exegesis? I hope not. The more literal first translation sounds gibberish-y.
Next sentence. Another problem of plural. Ori. This is common Italian usage, often meaning something like «jewelry» or «treasure». The successful show of Scythian gold was called in Italy, Gli ori degli sciti, Ibelieve. A husband will jokingly refer to his wife’s jewelry as her ori. But this will not work in English, will it? We use the plural only in discussing painting («The reds and golds in Beato Angelico»), if then.
Other solution: add something like «streaks». «Streaks of gold» retains the plural; but no, too banal. But perhaps the uno before «sapphire» could be translated as «one», instead of being an indefinite article. Uno/a is often a problem in this sense. I’ll try it: it may give the sentence a boost.
«Then distant gold and one sapphire, in the sky: like lashes quivering above a compassionate glance».
I discard the more literal «trembling», in favor of the less violent «quivering». And I decide on «compassionate» rather than «merciful», which, for me, is somehow too physical (perhaps I am influenced by my memory of the Corporal Works of Mercy, which I had to learn by heart in the second grade). «Charitable» will not do, because we have «charity» two sentences later.
Quello beginning the next sentence, can be troublesome. In English, we don’t like to begin sentences with a relative pronoun. Here the poseremo (of which sguardo is the object, and to which quello refers) is a pre-echo of the final word of the paragraph, riposare. This assonance will almost surely be lost in English.
Third sentence. then: «The one which, if we cast it, will still remain vigilant».
In the end I decided that Quello che has to be «The one which» or «That one which». I hate «cast» for posare, but what can I do? In English we cast a glance; the Italians «set» a glance. I decided, too, that the verb vigilare was best turned into a predicate and adjective. But, in a further revision, I may change my mind.
Battiti is tough. Heartbeats are called battiti in Italian, but Gadda obviously wants the word also to suggest the banging and pounding of the work site. «Pounding» will not do, because the «poundings of life» sounds like grievous bodily harm. «Throbbing» and «pulse» or «pulsation» rob the sentence of the work-site echo. The sembra isalso awkward, coming in the middle of the sentence and rerouting its meaning. In a normal English sentence, the «It seems» would come at the beginning, and the sentence would flow smoothly, if boringly, thereafter.
Here’s a stab at the sentence: «The beating of life, it seems, can be swept away by a sudden alarm as if in a headlong dash».
I know, «beating» could raise the same objection as «pounding», but – with luck – it may still suggest heartbeat to the reader, and it retains the sense of work at the site. The «it seems» separated necessarily by commas is a somewhat stronger interruption than the sembra in Italian, but I think it can stay. AndI had to add «sudden» to «alarm» for sgomento, partly because the word «alarm» by itself is weak, and also because it could be mistaken for «alarm signal» or even for the work site’s siren. I like «headlong», which gives the sense of speed and confusion. In the Italian, corsa («race» or, here, «dash») pre-echoes corso inthe next sentence. I cannot think of any way to avoid the loss here.
Next sentence: «The charity of the evening has cleansed us: and we move toward someone waiting, that our future may take its course, and no one shall hinder it».
In the first part of the sentence, I reject, of course, the passive. After the colon, I have to shift the Italian word order. «Toward someone waiting we move» sounds poetical in the bad sense. Ventura is another word I prefer not to encounter. It means «fortune», in the sense of «soldier of fortune» (soldato di ventura), or good luck (sventura is «bad luck»). But «fortune» seems too ambiguous in English, and «destiny» or «fate» or even «lot» would be too pretentious and perhaps also too specific.
The meaning of the final sentence, is easy enough to understand. It is, more or less: «Because we will later be able to rest». But in the Italian it has an almost biblical ring, and the trick is to exalt the sentence without losing its simplicity, without making it pompous.
I will use the conjunction «for» instead of «because». It has, I believe, a King James version sound. I am tempted to use «shall find rest» or something of the sort, but then I decide it is too risky, too obvious a reference to the Beatitudes. In the end, perhaps simplicity is the best course, as it so often is.
I would say then: «For afterwards we can rest».
One bad loss here: the future tense of avremo. But «we shall rest» has a tinge of pompousness.
Now let’s put all the sentences together:
No, no idea brings relief to the labor of the work sites, as the sibilant instruments of action transform things into other things, and the toil is full of sweat and dirt. Then distant gold and a sapphire, in the sky: like lashes quivering above a compassionate glance. The glance which, if we cast it, will remain watchful. The beat of life, it seems, can be swept away by a shock, as if in a headlong dash. The charity of the evening has cleansed us: and we move toward the place where someone is waiting, that our future may unfold, and no one shall hinder it. For afterwards we can rest.
In copying out the separate sentences and combining them, I make some little changes. I decide that «toil» is better than «job», which can suggest more «task». I decide against «one» sapphire, after all; and prefer «watchful» to «vigilant» (too close to the Italian, a faux ami?). As I write out «beating», I realize that «beat» conveys the same meaning(s), and I can avoid the -ing, of which there are probably too many in this passage. «Shock» seems to do the work of «sudden alarm» and spares me the adjective. I amplify the dove alcuno aspetta clause: a little swell is permissible here, before the almost curt conclusion. Anyway, I have also condensed the clause by using «unfold» for «take its course».
Is that it? Is the translation finished? No. For most of my translating life, I have worked with living authors, and, at this stage, I would probably take my problems to their source, for further discussion, enlightenment, and – afterwards – revision. When I translated Gadda’s novels That Awful Mess on via Merulana and Acquainted with Grief Iwould submit queries to him. Often, in his shy, but imposing manner, he would dismiss the problem, saying simply «cut that». Instead of obeying him, I would approach the tricky passage by another route, taking it up with Gadda’s younger friend, the scholar Gian Carlo Roscioni, who could almost always either offer the solution himself and, frequently, overcome Gadda’s prickly reluctance to reveal his meanings.
Gadda died some years ago; but, happily, I can consult Roscioni. I send him my paragraph, with the pages above; he answers by return mail and, as usual, comes to my aid. First he informs me – what I should have known – that ‘Notte di luna’ was originally a fragment of an unpublished novel written in 1924 and published posthumously in 1983. Roscioni supplies me with a photocopy of the first version of the difficult paragraph. And it is immediately clear that, in the first sentence, sovviene does not have the «subvention» meaning, but is closer to the Latin subvenit («comes up», «appears», «materializes»). Gadda, in Roscioni’s opinion – and in mine, now – is saying that no exceptional thought materializes to relieve the labor of the work site.
More important, the pesky verb posare («to cast» as «cast a glance» is, in the original version, riposare, and so Gadda is saying that when we rest (or are dead) a gaze keeps watch – the eye of God – from the starred heavens.
Roscioni has some doubt about «shock» which is, he thinks, less subjective than sgomento. I will think about that, as I write out yet another «final» version of the paragraph:
No, no Idea appears, in the labor of the work sites, as the sibilant instruments of action transform things into things, and the toil is full of sweat and dirt. Then a distant gold and sapphire in the sky, like lashes quivering above a compassionate gaze. That, if we are at rest, will remain vigilant. The beat of life, it seems, can be swept away by fright, as if in a headlong race. The charity of the evening has cleansed us: and we have moved toward the place where someone is waiting, so that our future may unfold, and no one shall hinder our lot. For afterwards we can rest.
In the end, I decided against «shock» though I am not entirely happy with «fright». «Sudden fear» would be closer, but wasn’t it the title of a Joan Crawford movie? It sounds like one. Roscioni disliked «future» for ventura but again «destiny», «fate», have a pompous ring to me. I have stuck with «future» but added «lot» later, less conspicuously at the end of the sentence. If I were translating all of L’Adalgisa (and how I wish a publisher would give me the job/task/toil/blessing), I would have several further opportunities to study and revise this paragraph. My «fair» copies are never completely free of x’d-out words and pencilled-in emendations; and even on the proofs – braving the publisher’s reproaches – I make a few, last-minute changes. Once a translation of mine is published, I never re-read it. I know that, if I did, I would soon be reaching for a pencil, to make further additions and subtractions, in the futile pursuit of a nonexistent perfection.
Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)
– previously published in The Craft of Translation, edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 117-24
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Dynamically-generated word count for this file is 3388 words, the equivalent of 10 pages in print.