A Long Way from Primo Levi

Drawing by Sonja Waldsteinová during her captivity in Terezín concentration camp; Waldsteinová, who survived, was sixteen when she was interned in March 1943
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Drawing by Sonja Waldsteinová made during her captivity in Terezín concentration camp; Waldsteinová, who survived, was sixteen when she was interned in March 1943

Perhaps inevitably when reading translations, from time to time one comes across a strange word: “ankylosed,” for example. “Nor was it easy to understand how he had survived in Auschwitz,” we read in Ann Goldstein’s new translation of Primo Levi’s The Truce, “since he had an ankylosed arm.” If we turn back to Stuart Woolf’s 1965 translation of what was Levi’s second book, we get the same word with a different spelling, “anchylosed.”

This strange word is, of course, the English cognate of Levi’s original: anchilosato. But the two words are hardly equivalent in effect. If we type “an ankylosed arm” into the Google search engine of the entire English language Internet, we get just five hits, three of them from surgical texts published a century ago; the remaining two are The Complete Works of Primo Levi, in which Goldstein’s translation appears, and a long online discussion of King Philip II of Macedonia’s ankylosis, “a stiffness of a joint due to abnormal adhesion and rigidity of the bones of the joint.”

On the other hand, if we ask Google to search “un braccio anchilosato” we get 477 results (and we remember that Italian, being less widely spoken than English, usually has far fewer hits for equivalent phrases—“concentration camp,” 7.5 million, “campo di concentramento,” 581,000). This time the results are mainly from journalism and popular fiction, including one of Emilio Salgari’s famous novels for young adults.

If, in the changing room after my yoga class, in Milan, I complain that my braccio feels all anchilosato, no one will be surprised. They know I’m feeling stiff. It’s a commonplace (and a common condition, alas). So much so that you can use it metaphorically. The Italian bureaucracy is anchilosata, observes Corriere della Sera. As a result of the financial crisis, the real estate business is anchilosato, complains the other leading newspaper, La Repubblica.

If, finally, we look more carefully at those Italian usages in Google, we also discover, curiously enough, that quite a few came from translations of works originally written in English. So what was the English that prompted the Italian anchilosato? I tracked this down, from James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel: Where would Hank Aaron have been, asks James rhetorically, “had he had a withered arm?” And this from The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman: “the thought of my [as yet unborn] grandchild possibly not making it or having a limp arm for the rest of his or her life … terrified me.”

These are clearly more extreme cases than my stiff arm after yoga. But the Italian translators are right both times. The word anchilosato is understood to cover a range of experiences from a serious medical condition to a more banal feeling of rigidity. Crucially, it is not a word that draws any attention to itself in Italian. Not so in English. The same would be true, say, of “quintals.” “Dalla ricca campagna circostante arrivavano i carri dei contadini con quintali di lardo e di formaggio,” writes Levi. “From the rich surrounding countryside arrived the peasants’ carts with quintals of lard and cheese,” translates Goldstein. Woolf’s earlier translation gave “tons,” recognizing that “quintals” is not a standard English term for expressing abundance or excess, as is quintali (the plural of quintale, which literally means a weight of one hundred kilograms).

In my previous piece in this space, discussing Stuart Woolf’s 1959 translation of Levi’s first memoir, If This is a Man, (lightly revised by Woolf for the 2015 Complete Works), I observed that, although mostly serviceable as a translation, the English is frequently a little stilted or simply odd where the original is fluent and standard; this seems to have been a result of Woolf’s staying close to Italian syntax or having difficulty getting the lexical choice that fits Levi’s overall register. Why then has the book, and indeed the translation, been so admired?

The first answer, as you might expect, is the extraordinary content and quality of Levi’s memoir; the experience of Auschwitz, as Levi narrates it, is so extreme that no ordinary reader would focus on some hiccups in the translation. But there is more to it than this.

I said it was curious that Google’s hits for “un braccio anchilosato” referred in quite a few cases to novels translated from English. However, when one remembers that about 70 percent of novels published in Italy are translated and of those about 70 percent are translated from English, it isn’t perhaps so strange at all. And since the Italians, like most other Europeans, read so many foreign books, there is more awareness of the process of translation and a general determination on the part of the publishers to produce fluent translations in standard Italian.

This has its drawbacks. Often books with very particular stylistic qualities come out of the translation machine (there is a great deal of translation editing in Italy) as entirely ordinary Italian. Where there is “interference” from the original English—that is, English words and syntax are imposing themselves at the expense of standard Italian— it may be because the pressure of English on Italian is now so great that usages once considered unusual are now being accepted in the language. For example, when I arrived in Italy thirty-three years ago, the verb realizzare did not mean “to realize” in the standard English sense of “to become aware,” but only in the sense “to realize an investment/dream/goal.” Now the the Italian word is freely used in exactly the way the Americans use “realize.” Right or wrong, people simply fell into the habit.

The situation could hardly be more different with translations into English. Only about 2 or 3 percent of novels published in the United States are translations, and there is no particular country that publishers are buying from. Aside from very occasional bestsellers—Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, for example—most of these books are in the more literary area of the market, with small prestigious publishers like Archipelago, which only publishes translations, or New Directions, which publishes a great many, actually making a significant contribution to the overall number of translations coming into the US.

The result—or so I have the impression—is that a certain credit or self-esteem now attaches itself to reading translations; it is something that intelligent, broad-minded people do. Above all, it is understood that the books will be literary and challenging, perhaps with something of their exotic origins still clinging to them.

In short, the American reader of translated novels is predisposed to read a rather different, non-standard English. No one need be anxious that “quintals” or “ankylosed” might force themselves into standard vocabulary; rather, they will remain pleasant curiosities, or perhaps even pretentious markers, catering to a self-consciously “informed” reader of foreign novels. The website of a young American translator from the Italian speaks of offering “accurate” translations that nevertheless retain “the flavor” of the Italian. If, by “flavor” he means the tone of the book, its register, the whole feeling it conjures up for Italian readers, then I am with him 100 percent. But I fear he doesn’t mean that. I suspect he means that he will encourage an awareness that the book was written in Italian, by seeking to retain in some way the accents of Italy, or the sound of Italian to an English person.

But is this actually possible? We know what it sounds like when an Italian speaks English with an Italian accent. But how can we possibly recognize the flavor of written Italian in written English, if we can’t read in Italian? How can we distinguish it—in English—from the flavor of Spanish or French or Russian or Czech? What can we experience beyond a muddled exoticism?

Here, for example, in The Truce, Levi is talking about refugees on a train who can’t work out where they’re going. Goldstein’s translation gives: “There existed only two or three maps, relentlessly argued over, on which we had trouble following our problematic progress.” “Existed” is a little surprising here; in English its use is normally reserved to indicate not so much the presence of an object in a given situation—“There is a book on the table”—but the existence of an object at all: “Does alien life exist on Mars?” Italian, on the contrary, frequently uses the verb esistere not only in “there is” statements but in all kinds of other situations. For example, if you want you can exclaim, Non esiste! to mean, “It can’t be true!” Rather than falling back on the cognate then, one would normally translate Levi’s sentence as, “There were only two or three maps,” or “We had only two or three maps between us.”

So, does the American reader understand Goldstein’s “existed,” together with the endless other, slightly inappropriate Latinate words that tend to creep into Italian translations, as the flavor of Italian? Or does he or she suppose that the translator is responding to an equally unexpected word in the original text, a word conveying something thematically relevant; this, after all, is how literature often works, drawing our attention with an unusual usage. If we accept that there is no significance in the unusual word, merely a bit of “Italian flavor,” how can we distinguish that from moments when our author did write something significantly out of the ordinary in Italian, something we should be paying attention to as theme and not as “flavor”?

Let’s consider the following examples from Levi’s The Truce. They are simply places where, when reading Goldstein’s translation, the English sounded distinctly odd, or where I felt that there was some interference from the Italian original. In almost all cases, the effect is to shift the register upwards, making the book sound more quaint, literary, and Latinate. Interestingly, Woolf, who translated this text many years after his 1959 translation of If This is a Man, is more flexible here, more aware of the need really to get the book into English. Since it seems unfair to criticize others without offering up something of one’s own to be shot down, I’ll give you my version too. Not that I imagine there will be anything “perfect” about my rendering; I just want to suggest what, after so many years in Italy, most of them teaching translation, I hear in the original, its pitch and voice. In short, I will try to give you the original without any “Italian flavor.”

Here, at the beginning of the book, Levi is talking of the last days of Auschwitz as a concentration camp:

Perciò tutti i prigionieri sani furono evacuati, in condizioni spaventose, su Buchenwald e su Mauthausen, mentre i malati furono abbandonati a loro stessi.

Woolf:

Thus all healthy prisoners were evacuated, in frightful conditions, in the direction of Buchenwald and Mauthausen, while the sick were abandoned to their fate.

Goldstein:

Thus all the healthy prisoners were evacuated, under frightful conditions, to Buchenwald and to Mauthausen, while the sick were abandoned to themselves.

Parks:

So all the healthy prisoners were moved out in appalling circumstances to Buchenwald and Mauthausen, while the sick were left to fend for themselves.

Drawing by Sonja Waldsteinová during her captivity in Terezín concentration camp; Waldsteinová, who survived, was sixteen when she was interned in March 1943
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Drawing by Sonja Waldsteinová made during her captivity in Terezín

“Abandoned to their fate,” is a standard expression in English, in a fairly high register. The Italian makes no mention of fate. “Abandoned to themselves,” a literal rendering of the Italian, is now rather archaic (Google’s leading hits come from The Gentleman’s Magazine in the early 1800s, theological tracts, quotations in history books). Of course we do use “abandoned” in modern English—an abandoned house, a novel the writer abandoned years ago—but we wouldn’t say, as a young Italian might of an ordinary evening out, “then my friends went off together and I was abandoned to myself.” We would say, “left alone.” Or, depending on the situation, “left to fend for myself.” Because abbandonare is common in everyday Italian, and precisely the genius of Levi’s style is to sound straightforward and everyday about even the most terrible events. Aside from this, it’s worth noting here how Goldstein tends to repeat prepositions (“to Buchenwald and to Mauthausen”), something that is again ordinary practice in Italian, but unnecessary in English, introducing a slightly emphatic effect.

Shortly after leaving the camp, Levi is struck down by illness. As in If This is a Man there is a frequent contrast between the animal and the human, with illness here presented as a wild beast:

Pareva che la stanchezza e la malattia, come bestie feroci e vili, avessero atteso in agguato il momento in cui mi spogliavo di ogni difesa per assaltarmi alle spalle.

Woolf:

It seemed as if the weariness and the illness, like ferocious and cowardly beasts, had waited in ambush for the moment when I dismantled my defences, in order to attack me from behind.

Goldstein:

It seemed that the weariness and the illness, like fierce, vile beasts, had been lying in wait for the moment when I was stripped of every defense to assault me from behind.

Parks:

It felt as though illness and tiredness had been lying in wait like fierce, treacherous beasts to attack me from behind the moment I let my defenses drop.

The Italian vili (plural of vile) is tricky here. It does not mean “vile” in the English sense of rude or repulsive. Woolf is right that it means “cowardly,” but specifically when someone commits an aggression in an underhand, cowardly way. It’s difficult to fit this idea neatly into the English, where we usually reserve “cowardly” for humans, not animals. Elsewhere, Woolf’s “dismantled my defences” is bizarre. Goldstein tries to keep the idea of “undressing” (mi spogliavo di ogni difesa—literally “I undressed myself of every defense”) with “stripped,” but makes the notion passive (“I was stripped of every defense”), as if someone else had taken his defenses away, whereas the Italian is more like, I shed, or, let go of my defenses. In short, the relief of freedom has led to a lapse in Levi’s determination to defend himself, and he falls ill.

This illness is serious, but after a month Levi begins to turn:

Verso la fine di febbraio, dopo un mese di letto, mi sentivo non già guarito, ma stazionario.

Woolf:

Towards the end of February, after a month in bed, I was not yet cured, and indeed began to feel but little improvement.

Goldstein:

Toward the end of February, after a month in bed, I felt not recovered but stable.

Parks:

Toward the end of February, after a month in bed, I felt stable if not actually recovered.

Woolf’s version is confusing and wordy here. It seems odd “to begin to feel but little improvement.” Surely “begin” should precede a change, not a stable situation. But Goldstein is equally disorienting. Type “I felt not recovered” in Google and you will find only one entry, Goldstein’s translation. Nobody says this.

Meantime in the infirmary, Levi has met Noah:

Noah si aggirava per le camerate femminili come un principe d’oriente, vestito di una giubba arabescata e variopinta, piena di toppe e di alamari. I suoi convegni d’amore sembravano uragani.

Woolf:

Noah wandered around the feminine dormitories like an oriental prince, dressed in an arabesque many-coloured coat, full of patches and braid. His encounters were like so many hurricanes.

Goldstein:

Noah wandered through the women’s rooms like an oriental prince, wearing a varicolored jacket with an arabesque design, covered with patches and braid. His love meetings were like hurricanes.

Parks:

Noah wandered through the women’s dormitories like an oriental prince, in a multi-colored jacket full of patches, loops and arabesque patterns. His amorous couplings shook the roof.

Woolf ducks out of the lovemaking, while Goldstein’s “love meetings” has a very odd sound (at least to my ear). The Italian convegni d’amore is slightly archaic and hence ironic here—not standard usage. Levi is making fun. However, uragano (“hurricane”) is commonly used to describe anyone whose energy causes a disturbance and is very often applied affectionately to children: “Little Giovanni is a real uragano!” Since we don’t often raise people to hurricane force in English (with the notable exception of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) it seemed appropriate to look for another image to get the idea.

Here, describing a doctor, Levi invents a word for fun:

…un medico, Pjotr Grigorjevič Dancenko, giovanissimo, gran bevitore, fumatore, amatore e pococurante;

Woolf:

…a medical doctor, Pyotr Grigoryevich Danchenko, extremely young, a great drinker, smoker, lover, a negligent person;

Goldstein:

…a doctor, Pyotr Grigorievich Dancenko, who was very young, a great drinker, smoker, and lover, and indifferent to the job;

Parks:

…a doctor, Pyotr Grigorievich Dancenko, extremely young, a great drinker, smoker and lover, but not much of a medic.

The joke is that in Italy a GP can be referred to as a medico curante, literally a doctor who “takes care” or “cures.” Levi plays on this, inventing pococurante (literally “little-caring”), but also close to the word noncurante meaning “careless of,” or “heedless to.” So a great lover, but not a great doctor. There is no question of his being “indifferent to the job” or “a negligent person.” The terms here are amused rather than critical. My version fails to get the humor of Levi’s invention, but avoids missing the point and changing the tone.

Here Levi talks about another concentration camp inmate:

Sopportava male la fatica e il gelo, ed era stato ricoverato in infermeria infinite volte…

Woolf:

He painfully endured the fatigue and the cold, and had been sent to the infirmary countless times…

Goldstein:

He didn’t tolerate hard work and cold well, and had been admitted to the infirmary many times…

Parks:

He found the work and the cold hard to handle and had been admitted to the infirmary any number of times…

Even when they are not using a cognate, Woolf and Goldstein still choose Latinate words, “endured” and “tolerate” to translate sopportare, the verb Italians use on a daily basis for our “put up with,” “stand,” “handle,” or “deal with” (e.g. non lo sopporto più, “I can’t stand it anymore”). As a result, the tone of the book becomes more solemn and literary. Then, if one wants to use these verbs, why not organize the syntax with a little more care: “He found the cold hard to endure,” “He couldn’t tolerate the cold” (but as soon as we start trying to imagine this sentence with “tolerate,” we realize that this verb is usually used to indicate impatience—“I won’t tolerate this behavior!”—not endurance). Meantime, Levi’s infinite volte has become merely “many times” in Goldstein’s version.

Now let’s focus on Galina, a young girl working in a Russian transition camp. Levi writes:

Di fronte a Galina mi sentivo debole, malato e sporco;

Woolf:

Face to face with Galina I felt weak, ill and dirty;

Goldstein:

In front of Galina, I felt weak, ill, and dirty;

Parks:

Around Galina I felt weak, ill and dirty;

Di fronte a does not mean “in front of.” It’s a “false friend” and a straight red mark when correcting a translation. In what way would Levi be “in front of” Galina? They are not standing in line! In purely positional terms di fronte a has the sense of “opposite” or “facing,” which is why Woolf gives us the rather odd “face to face.” More generally it can be used to put two things in relation or comparison. “Di fronte a (confronted with) this new situation, I decided to resign.” In Levi’s example, it just means that when they were together and comparison was possible, he felt dirty, etcetera; “next to Galina,” or “in Galina’s presence” would also work.

In translations, much is said about the virtues of faithfulness and literalness, though in these examples it is very often the awkward element that actually departs from the original. Indeed, the list of inappropriate cognates in Goldstein’s Truce is so long and their cumulative effect so ponderous that one sometimes wonders whether the translator has spent much time living and thinking inside Italian. In any event, the moral of the tale is that what all we translators most need, aside from a thorough grounding in the language we are working from and a matching resourcefulness in the language we are working toward, is a damn good editor, someone who will go through our work meticulously, pointing out all interferences and awkwardness, inviting us to reconsider and reflect. This was always my first request when agreeing to do a translation: give me someone who can stop me from writing translationese. However well the kind of “ankylosed” prose we find in Goldstein’s translation may be received among an English-reading literary public, it is a long way from the fluency and intimacy of Primo Levi.


This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the state of translation today.