The Path to the Nest of Translation

by Giulia Guarnieri


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Giulia Guarnieri discusses her interviews with Italo Calvino's translator as well as the disagreements Calvino had with Pier Paolo Pasolini about the future evolution of the Italian language.


The early 1960s saw the participation of Italian writers and intellectuals in the last great episode of the centuries-old language debate in Italy or "Questione della lingua." Among those involved were, of course, Pasolini, the provocative promoter of the discussion, Vittorio Sereni, Elio Vittorini, Franco Fortini and Italo Calvino. The debate touched on crucial issues for the evolution of the Italian language such as the survival of dialects, the proliferation of neologisms, the psychology of language and the need to find a national language. In his 1964 article "Nuove Questioni Linguistiche" published in Rinascita, Pasolini set the parameters of the debate. Pasolini who had always negated the existence of a national spoken language now reluctantly realized that a national language had been born. He affirmed that this newly created language reflected the technocratical and industrial language formed by the neocapitalist society of Northern Italy. Pasolini realized that this language, this Koine, was unable to reflect what he described as the diversity and richness of the Italian dialects and popular jargon. He commented:

"La lingua parlata e dominata dalla pratica, la lingua letteraria dalla tradizione: sia la pratica che la tradizione sono due elementi inautentici, applicati alla realta, non espressi dalla realta. O, meglio, essi esprimono una realta che non e una realta nazionale: esprimono la realta storica della borghesia italiana che nei primi decenni dell’unita, fino a ieri, non ha saputo identificarsi con l’intera societa italiana."

"The spoken language is governed by practice, the literary language by tradition: both practice and tradition are inauthentic elements, applied to reality, not expressions of it. Or, better, they express a reality that is not a national reality; they express the historical reality of the bourgeoisie, which from the first decades of (national) unification until today has not known to identify itself with the whole of Italian society."

(Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Heretical Empiricism. Trans. by Louise K. Barnett and Ben Lawton. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1988 4.)

Italo Calvino felt compelled to respond to Pasolini’s affirmations in an article entitled L’italiano una lingua come le altre. Calvino agreed with Pasolini that "l’italiano medio e una lingua impossibile, infrequentabile" ("Common Italian is an impossible language, not easily accessible") but he focused on expanding the boundaries of the linguistic scene by using the international community as a reference point. Calvino discussed the limits and possibilities of the Italian language using the translation process as a supporting device for his arguments. He stated that Italian language possessed the important quality of ductility which facilitated its marvelous translations (Pavese’s translation of Moby Dick, for example). This same advantage, however, has its drawbacks. Italian literature, when translated, partially loses, what Calvino calls, its ‘poetic essence.’

Calvino’s concern for the translatability of the Italian language is affirmed in this essay. He realizes how important it is for all cultural production, (not only literary but also, political, economical and scientific), to express itself in a language that possesses a high degree of translatability. According to Calvino, literature and reason should not remain confined within the boundaries of one nation, but instead should be shared with the world community of readers. If this process is not achieved, it will result in an isolated Italian literary production. Italian novelists would not be read by European readers, and furthermore, would not be able to cross the ocean in search of a larger readership. Calvino believed that every cultural expression should be tested on an international scale through translatability. Of course he makes clear that by this he does not mean that one should write thinking in a different language. However, a writer should not underestimate the importance of rendering his work highly translatable so to insure its survival in the literary scenario.

For Calvino, as can be perceived in his essays, it is important to expand readership in infinite directions. The linguistic codes will, consequently multiply and conquer unknown paths of readers who feel that the gap between different national cultures and literatures is now superable. The linguistic labyrinth would not be a fruitless path for the reader to navigate, but instead it could be an experience of language’s richness. The reading realm of language’s possibilities and an international understanding should always be a priority for writers. Languages according to Calvino will survive only if they are able to maintain their high communicative aspect. Disagreeing with Pasolini, Calvino states that the formation of a new technical vocabulary and terminology of precision will allow Italy to remain a modern European language. Pasolini is resistant to modernity while Calvino is open to the formation and creation of new possible linguistic and literary territories. If the Italian language aims at surviving and expressing its spirit and literature abroad, it is essential for the language to be able to transform and adapt itself to a postmodern society. Calvino engages in his own ambitious project to create a language consisting of precise and concrete linguistic codes which increase language’s own translatability while maintaining its "secret essence." As he states in his 1965 essay "L’antilingua":

La nostra epoca e caratterizzata da questa contraddizione: da una parte abbiamo bisogno che tutto quel che viene deto sia immediatamente traducibile in altre lingue; dall’altra abbiamo la coscienza di che ogni lingua e un sistema di pensiero a se stante, intraducibile per definizione. Le mie previsioni sono queste: ogni lingua si concentrera attorno a due poli: uno di immediata traducibilita nelle altre lingue con cui sara indispensabile communicate, tendente ad avvicinarsi a una sorta di interlingua mondiale ad alto livello; e se un polo in cui si distillera l’essenza piu peculiare e segreta della lingua, intraducibile per eccellenza, e di cui saranno investiti istituti diversi come l’argot popolare e la creativita poetica della letteratura.3

"Our era is characterized by this contradiction: On one side we profess that all is being said can be immediately translatable; on the other hand we are aware that every language is a system of thought by itself, not easy to translate by definition. My expectations are the following: every language will concentrate around two poles: one of immediate translatability in languages in which will be necessary to communicate, with a tendency to produce a sort of high level world-language; and a pole that will reveal the most peculiar and secret essence of a language, not translatable par excellence, comprehensive of various areas, from popular jargon to literature's creative poetics." (my translation, since this essay has no translation in Italian)

In my two interviews with Calvino’s translator, William Weaver, I was interested in the issue of Calvino’s idea of language’s secret essence and its translatability. It is widely recognized that Calvino’s popularity in America was enhanced by the splendid work of Mr. Weaver who understands fully both of Calvino’s concerns. In a close analysis of Weaver’s translations, I find that Weaver was able to maintain what Calvino meant by the ‘secret essence’ of the Italian language as well as its international communicability. When I asked him what was the most important aspect in translating Calvino’s work, Mr. Weaver explained that in teaching students to approach a translation they must not regard it as a scientific task, but rather as a creative endeavor. As he explains: "Theories are not going to help you make a better translation when you find yourself translating a word from Pirandello. Theory is not going to help you, what will instead will be the knowledge of his works. That will teach you something about the style, tone and personality of the author."4

In my first interview in the summer of 1993, Mr. Weaver and I discussed Calvino’s attitudes towards Weaver’s translations, and he revealed that one of Calvino’s ambitions was to translate his own books. It is understandable that most writers would feel protective of their work. Mr. Weaver also realized this as he himself often "felt somewhat the intruder."5 Calvino’s efforts to write in a language consisting of concrete and precise linguistic codes can be detected throughout his literary production and especially in the Cosmicomics with its scientific terminology or Invisible Cities or Mr. Palomar or If on a winter’s night a traveler with their immense semantic fields of a literature of phenomenological observation connected by the high frequency of lexems of perception: "squardo, fissare, comtemplare, guardare, sequire (con lo squardo), concepire, scrutare, osservare, sorprendere." ("Look, gaze, watch, follow [the gaze], examine, observe, perception, surprised [by a gaze]")

It is Calvino’s linguistic essence, Mr. Weaver has commented, which has greatly helped him in translating the author’s works. When I asked him how he greatly dealt with all the different types of past tenses in the Italian language Mr. Weaver commented:

"I verbi in Italiano sono tremendi, vi sono degli autori che non facilitano certo questo compito, anzi loro stessi fanno confusione con I verbi, questo non e certo il caso di Calvino ed Eco… ad esempio con Gadda si perde forse il 40% o il 50%, le espressioni dialettali soprattutto, ma quello che rimane e talmente importante che meglio avere quel poco che ci resta di Gadda che non avere niente. Mentre con Calvino penso che si perda molto meno, perche con scrittori piu letterari come lui cio che si perde non e il senso ma la poesia." 6

"The most important thing is trying to keep the translation as faithful as possible. When you translate some authors, like Gadda, for example, you end up losing 40% or 50%, especially the dialect, but what remains is so important that is better to have what remains than nothing at all. With Calvino, you lose much less, because with lettered writers as himself what you lose is not the meaning but its poetic essence." (my translation of the Interview with Mr. Weaver, published in Italian Quarterly)

The second time I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Weaver I more specifically addressed the possibility that Calvino wrote directly for the world’s community especially with regard to his remarks in a 1982 interview with Lawrence Venuti in which Weaver observed: "With Calvino you do not have to know Italian daily life because the books, the recent ones anyway, rarely take place in a real, modern Italy. But with other writers – with a novel like Elsa Morante’s History, for instance – I think if I hadn’t lived in Italy all these years, I really wouldn’t have been able to translate the book because it is so full of references to events and to things and to ways of life that have come and gone…Italian life has changed dramatically since the war." 7

When I asked Mr. Weaver if he thought Calvino wrote his novels thinking in other languages he said that he did not think so. He did agree, however, it would be fair to say, that Calvino thought of himself not only as an Italian writer but simply as a writer adding that although Calvino was very difficult to translate, his works were more translatable than those of Gadda or Pasolini who instead remained even in translation Italian writers; whereas Calvino already in Italian was an international writer.

As to what he thought made Calvino more translatable in comparison to Gadda or Pasolini, Mr. Weaver stated that Calvino did not write his novels primarily using dialect. Calvino’s idea of promoting a language that avoided dialect was a distinguishing feature of his Neorealist phase. In his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders Calvino used dialect and phrases which resemble spoken language, marginally as to increase the realistic dimension of the novel. And yet, as the author stated many times, he was not fond of using dialect, the reason being that he saw the precision and accuracy of regional expressions but, at the same time, conceived them as limiting the ecumenical potential of his work. As Calvino writes in the preface of The Path to the Nest of Spiders:

"Anche l’altro grande tema futuro di discussione critica, il tema lingua-dialetto, e presente qui nella sua fase ingenua: dialetto aggrumato in macchie di colore (mentre nelle narrazioni che scribero in sequito cerchero di assorbirlo tutto nella lingu, come un plasma vitale ma mascosto); scrittura inadeguata che ora quasi s’impreziosisce ora corre giu come vien viene badando solo alla resa immediata; un repertorio documentaristico (modi di dire popolari, canzoni) che arriva quasi al folklore…" 8 .

"The other big theme of future critical discussions, the language-dialect theme, is presented here in its ingenuous phase: the dialect clotted into patches of color (whereas in the narratives I was to write later I tried to absorb it all into the language, like a vital but hidden plasma); uneven writing, which at times is almost precious and at other times flow as it comes, wholly given over to immediate depiction; a documentary-like repertory (sayings, songs) which almost arrive at folklore...."

Calvino, Italo. The Path to the Nest of Spiders, Trans. by Archibald Colquhoun. New York: The Ecco Press, 1976 10

Thus, Calvino, in The Path, uses dialect sparingly in limited expression which would be in keeping with the historical moment of the protagonists. Moreover, Calvino italicizes dialect words, which adds a graphically isolating feature within the context of the novel.

Getting back to Calvino’s internationality as a writer, Mr. Weaver recalls that only a few times did Calvino change the Italian version to make it more accessible, in English. Mr. Weaver stated that Eco does this more than Calvino and doesn’t recall Calvino ever having made major changes in the Italian version of his novels. He adds though that Calvino was very aware that everything he wrote would be immediately translated and he was intent upon using a language that was always accurate and precise.

Palomar is full of difficult metaphors which are inserted in long passages with few periods. Translating this work proved to be a difficult task for Mr. Weaver. The story "La pancia del Geco" has paragraphs of 8 and 9 lines without a single period and only an experienced translator such as Mr. Weaver could have retained the same punctuation. When I asked him how he approached Calvino’s punctuation he answered:

"La punteggiatura italiana e assolutamente pazzesca. Una mia amica ha scritto un libro a proposito dal titolo "Ars punctuandi" dove ha preso una pagina di Moravia e ‘lha spedita a venti noti scrittori, tra cui Moravia stesso e ognuno le ha mandato indietro una versione diversa dall’altra, incluso Moravia che ha cambiato la propria punteggiatura originale. In inglese ci sono delle regole molto piu ferree, e io ho un senso molto sviluppato della punteggiatura dato il mio upbringing molto rigido dal quel punto di vista e avendo studiato molto il latino."

"Italian punctuation is completely insane! A friend of mine has written a book called Ars punctuandi; she took a passage from Alberto Moravia and sent it to other writers including Moravia himself. Everyone came out with a different version of this passage, even Moravia changed his original version. The English language has more rigid rules regarding punctuation than Italian. I have developed a strong sense of punctuation since I come from a very strict upbringing and furthermore, having studied Latin for a long time."

(My translation of my own interview with Mr. Weaver)

Calvino was especially concerned when he wrote the Lezioni Americane, because he wrote them explicitly for the American public. Mr. Weaver states that Calvino wrote them, as he put it, in a "semi-translatable" language; and at times he would go back to the original Italian to make changes which would better suit the English version. Calvino also worked very closely with his French and Spanish translators.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Calvino had written a short story in which the protagonists were words which planned trips to different capitals of the world. Calvino had always understood the difficulty in translating and once addressed his translator "To Bill, the translator as saint." Mr. Weaver has revealed that he worked very closely with Calvino and that they would often exchange suggestions on how to translate one word or phrase, but only rarely would Calvino change the Italian version as to better suit the English version:

"A volte I suoi suggeriementi erano davvero ottimi, ma a volte…no non funzionavano proporio. Tra I due sicuramente ero io a conoscere l’inglese meglio di lui e quindi potevo capire meglio quando una cosa non funzionava in inglese. A volte lui interveniva sulla parte italiana e cambiava la costruzione in modo che risultasse meglio la versione inglese." 10

"In the beginning I used to consult him with the most urgent problems: at times his suggestions were really good, but they just didn't work. Among us, I was definitely the one who spoke better English and could understand when something worked or didn't work in English. Sometimes, he would change the Italian version in order to better suit the English one. In general, we discussed all the changes to be made."

Calvino was able to project his language into the postmodern global village of multiple possible readers by using a highly communicative language. His consciousness of the language problematic was a crucial issue in his poetics. In Calvino’s opinion writers ought to aim at preserving the special essence of the Italian language by constructing the basis for its ‘internationality.’ As he commented in a 1965 surver entitled "Lingua e Societa:"

"Io direi che l’effettiva simbiosi avviene con questa ‘lingua internazionale’ che ha la sua radice nel terreno della ricerca scientifica e I suoi centri di espansione nelle sale di comando di torri di controllo, in ogni specie di stanza dei bottoni. I conservatori, con rammarico profondo, possono vedervi il prevalere dell’inglese o dell’americano. Ma si nota subito la vitalita di altre forme, non escluse forme di parole italiane, che emergono a livello internazionale, anche se I fenomeni sono osservati unicamente in superficie alla maniera dei condervatori."

"I would argue that the symbiosis that is occurring with the so-called "International language" holds its roots in the field of scientific research and has its center of expansion in the power rooms of control towers--in any other control center. The conservative intellectuals, with profound regret, foresee prevailing languages such as English and American. Nonetheless, one immediately notices vitality from other linguistic forms, including Italian- emerging at an international level- even though, the effects are noticeable only superficially, just as the conservatives have sought." (my translation)

I wonder if Calvino would be satisfied with the path that the Italian language has been taking. It can be argued that he wouldn’t be enthusiastic about the evolution of contemporary Italian. In his last work, Lezioni Americane, he states: "mi sembra che il linguaggio venga sempre usato in modo approssimativo, casuale, sbadato e ne provo un fastidio intollerablile." ("It seems to me that language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner, and this distresses me unbearably" - Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium.Trans. William Weaver.Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988) His own efforts were to create a language of international generosity, one capable of generating numerous possible universes with the same creative "slancio" of the tagliatella-making Mrs. Ph(I)NK0 in the Cosmicomics "All in a Point:"

In a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and planets and fields of wheat and Mrs. Ph(I)Nkos, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms, and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss." 13

As we, of course, mourn Calvino’s loss.


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