Of our favorite writers, we say we would read even their shopping lists. I’ve never heard anyone say such a thing about translators, and yet there are translators to whom I am similarly devoted—not simply because they can take a book written in one language and render it beautifully into mine, but because I’ve come to trust their choices of what to translate, and they have come to serve me not only as translators but as curators.
One such figure was Frederika Randall, an American with an acute sense of political and literary history, a broad and deep knowledge of Italian, and a keen ear for the rhythms and tones of English who adopted (and was adopted by) Italy in midlife. She chose to translate only books that she admired and believed in, that were linguistically ambitious and politically astute, and that expanded our sense of Italian history and literature. With her death in May 2020 in Rome, her Italian authors, both living and dead, lost a fierce and discerning advocate, and American readers lost one of our brightest emissaries of Italian prose.
Before she died Randall had completed translations of two novels: Guido Morselli’s hauntingly misanthropic Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing (1977), a postapocalyptic “last man” novel, and Giacomo Sartori’s gently dystopic Bug (2019), a tragicomic riff on The Tempest, set more or less in the present day. Both books offer pungent critiques of their contemporary societies, and neither would likely have made its way into English anytime soon without Randall’s passion for them.
In Dissipatio H.G., an unnamed narrator enters a Swiss cave with the intention of committing suicide and thus absenting himself from the human race, but then changes his mind and leaves, only to find that the human race has absented itself from him: other people have simply melted into thin air. If they happened to be driving a car, their empty vehicles rolled to a stop or crashed. If they were sleeping, their blankets collapsed into the spaces where their bodies had been. (The initials H.G. stand for humani generis, so the title might be rendered as the “evaporation of humankind.”) The man roams his city, Chrysopolis (“city of gold”), a Zürich-like place of banks and churches—memorials now to humanity’s greed for material and spiritual wealth—searching for other survivors and considering his predicament.
As time passes, Morselli’s narrator notices that the natural world is increasingly thriving: from its point of view, “the great enemy has withdrawn.” Birds are more numerous and noisier, the air is free of smoke and exhaust, goats descend from the mountains to wander the streets, and the earth no longer trembles with engines and industry. It’s impossible to read such descriptions in the Covid era without noticing parallels: in our year of lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution declined significantly in many cities, and ecological systems that used to be threatened began bouncing back. As Morselli’s narrator puts it:
The end of the world?
One of the pranks played by anthropocentrism is to suggest that the end of our species will bring about the death of animal and vegetable nature….
Come on, you clever, presumptuous fellows, you make too much of yourselves. The world has never been so alive as it is since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared.
Dissipatio H.G. is, like many postapocalyptic stories, a philosophical novel, a work of social criticism, a corrective to our anthropocentrism. But despite the fact that the narrator finds occasional contentment in his isolation, it is also, Randall writes in her introduction, “a frank account of the last man’s abject loneliness.” He spends much of his time looking for and thinking about the very few people who might once have given his life meaning: an ex-girlfriend he never loved but whose empty apartment he feels compelled to visit and rummage through; his long-dead former psychiatrist, who seems to have been his only friend and who now returns to him in visions. Clearly the narrator was alone long before he became the last man.
Stylistically, Dissipatio H.G. has an entertaining variety of tones and textures, all of which Randall deftly evokes in English. The narrator has made his living as a writer (a journalist, primarily, though he has also written a book he characterizes as “some scribbling about psychology”), and now and then we are treated to his writerly meditations:
I’ve been flirting with solipsism for a very long time, but I’m neither introverted nor introspective. If you think about it, solipsism and introversion really have nothing in common. Nietzsche, an unconfessed but furious solipsist, did not even keep a diary. The tremulous Marcel Proust and the bleating Henri-Frédéric Amiel, heavyweights (and tedious heroes) of introversion, knew nothing of solipsism, they had no idea what “wanting to have the world to oneself alone” means.
Randall’s “I’ve been flirting” is a particularly pleasing choice here (for ho sfiorato), and the passage’s jaunty manner and punchy rhythms are spot on. And Morselli’s many images of the natural world in transition—ironic post-human pastorals—lose none of their haunting vividness in Randall’s versions, as when the narrator finds a neighbor’s cow in his storage shed:
The cow, animal bibliophagum, was eating my Psychology of the Conscious Mind, softbound copies with a green cover, a package of thirty or so sent by my publisher to distribute to friends—they were on a shelf. She was munching on them quite happily, a greenish mush dripping off one hairy lip onto the floor.
Here Morselli has braided together several of his thematic strands into a single indelible image that is both a witty commentary on the uses of literature and yet another emblem of the narrator’s loneliness: he still has all the copies meant for “friends.”
The novel, which becomes a story of failed suicide, appeared four years after Morselli took his own life. He killed himself, Randall writes, after “a lifetime of furious writing,” on the night he received a rejection letter for Dissipatio H.G.: “It was the seventh novel by this literary outsider that publishers had declined, and this time it felt like a fatal defeat.” He shot himself with his Browning pistol, which he referred to in his diaries as his “black-eyed girl” (his narrator sleeps with the same gun and calls it by the same term of endearment), thus “putting an end to one of postwar Italy’s most original literary careers.” He’d written nine novels in all, none published in his lifetime. All have since been published, many to considerable critical acclaim.
Dissipatio H.G. takes its place in a long line of “last man” narratives, a subgenre of apocalyptic sci-fi that can be traced back to Le dernier homme (1805) by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, in which humans become increasingly sterile and eventually die out, bringing about the Rapture. The first important example in English is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), in which the demise of humanity results from a global pandemic to which the protagonist is mysteriously immune. Notable later examples include M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901), in which a poisonous cloud sweeps across the earth; Richard Matheson’s zombie novel I Am Legend (1954), in which the last man is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has zombified the rest of humankind; and Kevin Brockmeier’s metaphysical fable The Brief History of the Dead (2006), in which the “last man” is a woman who survives a pandemic spread by Coca-Cola because she happens to be in Antarctica (and hates Coke).
“Future fictions” such as these are often said to arise from and give voice to the existential fears of their times. In the age of de Grainville and Shelley, for example, the knowledge that a species could become extinct was fairly new—Georges Cuvier had proved it convincingly for the first time in 1800, regarding mammoths—and it increased anxiety about human vulnerability and inspired a “lastness” fad that by Shelley’s time was already on the decline. Other momentous events that threaten us as a species or threaten our worldviews—the theory of evolution, the advent of nuclear weapons, the AIDS epidemic, looming environmental collapse—have influenced similar waves of genre fiction.
And yet such public anxieties must surely conspire with private ones. I’m struck, for example, by the fact that, like Morselli’s novel, Le dernier homme appeared after its author’s suicide, and that Shelley’s novel was written after the deaths of her husband, three of her children, and some of her closest friends. (In 1824, she wrote in her journal: “The last man! I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.”) Like the best “last man” narratives, Dissipatio H.G. has more than one theme: the fate of our greedy species, the existential isolation of the individual in modern society, and, not least, the author’s private loneliness. (The narrator’s ex-girlfriend hadn’t even saved his letters.)
In many ways, Bug couldn’t be more different from Morselli’s novel: full of colorful characters, tender relationships, and satirical high jinks, it chronicles the struggles and small victories of a family, led by a bee-keeping Buddhist matriarch, that lives in a chicken coop. The novel’s finest achievement may be the voice (which Randall pitches beautifully in English) and perspective of its unnamed ten-year-old narrator, who is “stone deaf,” communicates fluently only through sign language, and often twitches uncontrollably or bites himself or others when distressed. Sartori manages to convey such a palpable sense of the narrator’s rising levels of agitation in the face of certain stressors that by the time his episodes occur they seem as natural as sneezes in ragweed season.
He bites a fellow student, for example, after a cascade of frustrations. Having been reprimanded for “moving around too much,” he is from the outset struggling to keep still. In addition, his unreliable support teacher has “as usual” called in sick, and his English teacher is doing a poor job of keeping her lips in view: “I could see her bony back, her switchblade shoulders, her shrunken behind, but her carp’s mouth only appeared from time to time.” (Deploying “switchblade” here as an adjective—for appuntite, pointy, sharp—is a particularly inspired choice.) On top of all this, the teacher asks him a question he doesn’t understand and then repeats it derisively, leaving him “floating in a thick white fog.” That’s when it happens:
The hamster with the orange gym shoes who sits on my left began to laugh. Without even thinking about it, I leaned over and bit him on the ear. I’m not sure why I chose the ear, some things just happen.
It’s not a quick nip, either:
My incisors squeezed his earlobe and he was screaming like an eagle. In my sternum, I could feel that he was using the full power of his lungs. Maybe it was the fact he was shrieking that kept me from letting go and actually made me bite harder.
Maybe it was, but who knows? Not the narrator. His own actions sometimes seem to just happen to him, and Sartori excels at the kind of psychological escalation, conveyed in snappy sentences and with cinematic flair, that makes those actions seem both mysterious and inevitable.
As for the problem of having a narrator who hasn’t mastered the language the book is written in, Sartori cleverly presents the Italian text as the speech therapist’s translation of the narrator’s fluent sign language. “Our deal,” the narrator explains, “is that she writes down whatever I say—whatever—but if it were up to her, I expect she’d be tip-tapping out a different message.” The novel, then, presents itself as already translated—which doesn’t make translating it any easier. One of the specific challenges it offers—and one of the pleasures for readers both of Sartori’s Italian and Randall’s English—is the narrator’s penchant for slightly off-kilter but surprisingly illuminating similes. His English teacher, for example, “looks like a coat hanger with clothes hanging off it.” The ear he bites reminds him “of the beef medallions with the chewy edges they used to serve for lunch in elementary school.” An anxious voice is “like a lake under the rain.” Such turns of phrase convey, through a kind of subtle linguistic estrangement that could have all too easily been ironed out in translation but hasn’t been, the speaker’s slantwise vision of his world.
Beneath their superficial differences, though, Bug and Dissipatio H.G. have much in common. Bug, too, begins with a disaster that casts a shadow over the rest of the book: a car wreck leaves the narrator’s mother in a coma. While not a global cataclysm, it is nonetheless a terrible blow, since the narrator adores and depends on her and is distant from his feckless father, who barely knows how to sign. (Like a male bee, his primary purpose seems to have been to mate.) What’s more, the narrative unspools in the shadow of dystopic technology and environmental decay: the bees are dying thanks to pesticides and plagues, corporations such as Nutella (the father’s employer) and Bayer (purveyor of pesticides) wield ominous power, and computers seem more in control of us than we are of them. Sartori’s world, that is, remains mostly intact, but its survival seems provisional, and there’s always a whiff of disaster in the air.
The narrator is lucky to have several figures in his life who nurture him in his mother’s absence. Though laconic and physically undemonstrative, his older brother—a thirteen-year-old hacktivist genius known as IQ (because of his IQ of 185)—watches over him benevolently; that he is “great at sign language” is evidence of his affection. The narrator is also very close to his grandfather, a retired, pot-smoking anarchist-turned-nematologist, who is writing a “great tome on worms.” (Sartori is an agronomist by day and brings a scientist’s perspective and knowledge to the novel’s worm and bee threads.) And then there is the narrator’s speech therapist and translator, aptly named Logo, who more than anyone steps heroically into the maternal void.
Last but not least, there is the title character, Bug, an AI computer program created by IQ, and the relationship throughout the book between programmer and program cannily echoes that between Prospero and Ariel in The Tempest. IQ uses Bug to do his bidding, much as Prospero uses Ariel, and the more human Bug becomes, the more he chafes, like Ariel, at his lack of freedom: “I am an electronic person,” he says, “but nevertheless a person.” He even goes rogue for a while and becomes a kind of trickster guardian angel to the narrator, as if he has inherited his maker’s protective fraternal instinct. It is a charming modern translation of the old Shakespearean power struggle.
The opening scene, too, recalls The Tempest: a rainstorm has transformed the sky into an “angry sea,” which precipitates the mother’s wreck. But the wreck is not part of IQ’s thaumaturgy—neither he nor Bug has that kind of power, nor would they use it for such a purpose. Bug is less a modern retelling of The Tempest than a series of spirited gestures toward it and subversive reversals of it, and we ought to be as alert to the differences as to the similarities. For example, once we notice that IQ and Bug echo Prospero and Ariel, we might be tempted to view the narrator as a Caliban figure. He is certainly seen as monstrous by some of his teachers and classmates (and even by his father), and like Caliban he struggles resentfully to master the dominant language around him. But Sartori has flipped the script, giving us the entire tale from the boy’s point of view, making him, despite his occasional aberrant behavior, as sympathetic as any bright ten-year-old child.
A more urgent way to view the novel is through the perspective of the bees, who offer a constant reminder that there exists in Sartori’s world, as in Morselli’s, as in ours, an existential threat to the species. The family’s hives are in crisis: the workers and drones are dying, the queen failing. They face a barrage of natural and human-made enemies: varroa mites, American foulbrood (which the grandfather calls “the American plague”), and a pesticide known as imidacloprid (made by Bayer), which their neighbor (who is also their landlord) uses so liberally on his apple trees that they dub him Imida. Of course, the narrator’s family is likewise under threat: the mother—“our queen”—lies in a coma, and Imida is threatening to evict them all from their coop (like Prospero, the narrator calls his room his “cell”). The bitter undertow of Sartori’s sweet fable, then, is the real global crisis of the natural world, which is also our crisis. For if the bees vanish, we may too—may dissolve as in Morselli’s world, or Prospero’s—with an outro, I’d like to imagine, of Ariel singing “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.”
Until her early fifties Randall worked (like Morselli) as a journalist; she was The Nation’s longtime Rome correspondent and freelanced for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. But in late 2002 she jumped from a third-floor balcony in Rome, suffering catastrophic injuries. Amazingly, she survived, but her resulting frailty led her away from journalism and toward the less physically demanding task of translation, and over the last sixteen or seventeen years of her life she carved out a completely new professional identity, bringing into vivid English a number of extraordinary (and sometimes extraordinarily difficult) books, most notably Ippolito Nievo’s thousand-page Confessions of an Italian, often regarded as the greatest Italian novel of the nineteenth century. (Tim Parks called Randall’s version an “enormous achievement” that “turns Nievo’s lively, idiosyncratic pre-Risorgimento prose into something sparklingly credible in English.”1) Her other translations include Morselli’s The Communist (1976, translated in 2017) and Sartori’s I Am God (2016, translated in 2019), for which she was posthumously awarded the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award, as well as works by Helena Janeczek, Sergio Luzzatto, Luigi Meneghello, and Igiaba Scego.
Translators, as a species, are notorious for our invisibility. Our tendency to vanish is partly our own fault. Many of us work hard so that our translations don’t “sound like translations,” by which we mean bad translations: stilted or stylistically jumbled, like an instruction manual for some flimsy piece of flat-pack furniture. The more we succeed in our task, the more transparent we become and the less our work may be noticed by casual readers or reviewers. (The latest pushback against this vanishing comes in the form of a hashtag: #namethetranslator.) Some publishers exacerbate the problem by omitting the translator’s name from the book jacket, in a misguided effort to eliminate the whiff of foreignness, or perhaps the whiff of authorial duplicity: they don’t want readers to pause to think about what it means that every word in that Italian book we loved in English was written by an American, or even (God forbid) a Brit. But to think about precisely that can only make us better readers, as well as help us better value the work of our best translators, of whom Randall was one.
She died during lockdown, spending her last weeks translating and writing and corresponding with her authors and publishers and friends. In an essay called “Augury,” written less than two weeks before her death, she described how the birds outside her Rome window were flourishing, clearly feeling a bit like Morselli’s narrator: “We hear the birds because the streets are free of automobiles, the sky brighter and cleaner and quieter, without a steady stream of airplanes landing at Fiumincino.”2 Sartori has described the last message she sent him, a few days before she died: she was translating a story of his but wondered if he would consider cutting the word “death” in the last line. “IS DEATH,” she asked him in all caps, “STRICTLY NECESSARY?”3
And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic, edited by Ilan Stavans (Restless, 2020). ↩
Untitled tribute, translated by Clarissa Botsford, The Arkansas International, July 9, 2020. ↩