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The Minefield of Primo Levi: An Exchange

Primo Levi at home in Turin, Italy, 1985
Rene Burri/Magnum Photos
Primo Levi at home in Turin, Italy, 1985

To the Editors:

As one of the ten translators involved in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, I appreciate the attention that Tim Parks has now dedicated to the issue of translation in his NYR Daily posts, after sidestepping it in his original review (“The Mystery of Primo Levi,” November 5, 2015). While I realize how daunting it must have been to read and comment on a three-volume work, I was still surprised by this initial omission. There were very strong reasons for publishing the complete works, and in new translations, which Robert Weil lays out in his essay, “Primo Levi in America” at the end of Volume III. Levi had been published in English in piecemeal fashion, and in translations of varying quality that have long been deemed inadequate by reviewers and scholars. In the case of If This Is a Man, moreover, Levi had revised the work from one edition to the next, and the translation had to be adjusted accordingly. Not to mention the fact (which Parks does not, in fact, mention) that the original translator of the work, Stuart Woolf, had never sent in his corrected proofs to his American publisher due to a contract dispute.

In the three-part series that Parks has just completed for The New York Review’s online magazine, he tries to compensate for this failure by walking the reader through a translator’s thinking process. And while I share many of the concerns he expresses—such as his distaste for “translationese” and exotic renderings of everyday language—his observations are undermined by odd notions about American readers and mean-spirited attacks on editor/translator Ann Goldstein.

Parks starts with a good description of Levi’s style: “Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific…the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal.” What is missing here, however, is any sense of just how fastidious a writer Levi was, and how dense the intertextual universe he created. This becomes immediately apparent in the first example Parks cites, from If This Is a Man, which Stuart Woolf renders as:

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.)

Parks focuses his analysis on the second half of the passage (starting with “the only way out”), but it is in the first half that we see a key motif in Levi’s writing. Levi seized on the figure of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner as the embodiment of his own compulsion to tell his story, over and over again, in different forms and genres throughout his life. The alliterative and redundant “refrain/repeated” (ritornello/ripetere in Italian) captures that obsessive rhythm in a way that Parks’s more matter-of-fact “Everybody keeps repeating the same thing” does not.

Another example is cherry-picked from Ann Goldstein’s translation of The Truce, supposedly to illustrate her misunderstanding of what Parks calls “ordinary practice in Italian”:

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 criticizes Goldstein for using the passive “I was stripped” where the Italian was the active (and reflexive) mi spogliavo, but the virtue of her choice—by contrast to Parks’s “I let my defenses drop”—is the way it resonates with the larger narrative of the concentration camp universe, and the humiliating public nakedness to which the prisoners were subjected. Parks continuously overstates the plainness of Levi’s prose, and whenever he tries to poke holes in Goldstein’s translation, he offers infelicities of his own: “moved out” rather than the technically (and literally) more accurate “evacuated”; “amorous couplings shook the roof” (ouch!) rather than “love meetings like hurricanes.”

I can sympathize with Parks’s difficulties. My own practice as a translator hews closer to his, but as I worked my way into The Drowned and the Saved, I found that prose which had at first appeared straightforward was in fact a minefield, and that my usual preference for a vigorous approach would not be true to Levi’s more guarded voice. I kept stumbling upon single words (such as allegrezza) and entire passages that, in the guise of plain standard Italian, quietly evoked the great Italian poets of the past. To this I would add that nothing is harder to translate than concision, and Levi is a very economical writer. Take this single sentence from “The Gray Zone”: “Regardless of the pity and indignation [the survivor’s memories] arouse, they should be read with a critical eye.”

I was very fortunate to have had Ann Goldstein as my editor. For a translator it is very easy to become so focused on one word that you lose sight of the larger picture, and she constantly drew my attention back to the cadences of Levi’s sentences, and to the way he built his way up to powerful, authoritative statements through his deliberate though never strident syntax. I have no doubt but that she lent the same “rigorous degree of accuracy” to the other texts in this monumental undertaking. Contrary to Parks’s claims that If This Is a Man received only light edits, for example, I count almost twenty changes per page when I compare the old version to the new one.

As for Goldstein’s work as a translator, for Parks to dismiss it as “ankylosed prose”—a phrase unfortunately making the rounds of social media—is a vicious misrepresentation. Parks dedicates six paragraphs to his analysis of the word “ankylosed”: so much for his claim that he has no space to address translation issues in a review! But I suppose Goldstein is not in bad company: for good measure Parks decides to throw a jab at the late William Weaver (“Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver”), in a gratuitous statement that is unsupported and untrue.

I am sure other Americans are as amused as I am by Parks’s assertions about our habits, such as, “a certain credit or self-esteem now attaches itself to reading translations,” and, even more improbably, “the American reader of translated novels is predisposed to read a rather different, non-standard English.” I would very much enjoy it if he could rewrite his observations about the American publishing industry—including a chorus representing the “translators’ lobby”—in the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Michael F. Moore
Michael F. Moore is a translator at the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations.


Tim Parks replies:

Many thanks to Michael F. Moore for this letter. By all means let there be debate. There has been far too little in the past.

But first a premise. My pieces for the NYR Daily are all meticulously edited, often going back and forth a half-dozen times and with much discussion before publication. Quite simply, the editors would not allow me to engage in “mean-spirited attacks,” even should I wish to (a parenthetical “ouch” would not make the cut, I fear). In any event, Moore can rest assured that there is nothing personal in my criticisms, which all arise from a careful reading of the texts. If anything, there was, as I prepared these pieces, a growing wonderment that so much of Levi’s two major memoirs, If This Is A Man and The Truce, should be so poorly translated, even after the huge effort of putting together the Complete Works. Other books in the collection, as I said, including Moore’s rendering of The Drowned and the Saved, are admirably done.

Moore is still surprised, after all I have said in these three articles, that I did not mention the translations in my original New York Review essay. I am surprised at his surprise. Let me spell it out: when a translator who has written widely about translation and spent upwards of twenty years teaching translation, and who as a reviewer of translated books rarely fails to mention the translation, does not in one very prominent case mention the translation, it is very likely because he wishes that on this occasion the cup might pass from him. He feels that if he is to say how bad some of this translation is he will have to back up his claims with many examples. He feels the amount of effort required will entirely hijack his review of Levi (in whom he is more interested than the translations). Only when repeatedly criticized for this omission, does he finally and with some reluctance set out to say what he thinks, knowing as he does so that letters crying scandal will ensue.

Now to Moore’s specific criticisms. Addressing passages translated by Ann Goldstein (and Woolf) I remarked that it would be “unfair to criticize others without offering up something of one’s one to be shot down.” Moore has accepted the challenge and, again, I welcome that. I won’t weary readers going through every point he makes. Those interested can easily search for my discussion of each passage, compare it with Moore’s and draw their own conclusions. Two points, however, do seem to demand comment, in that they suggest, in defense of the published translation, a more sophisticated and literary approach.

In The Truce, Goldstein translates mi spogliavo di ogni difesa—literally “I undressed myself of every defense”—with “I was stripped of every defense,” making Levi the victim of an aggressive action rather than the agent of his own undoing. Moore defends this with an appeal to the attention Levi repeatedly draws to the humiliation of being stripped naked in the camps. I agree that it would be good to keep the image of undressing if possible, but Levi is not in the camps at this point; he is safe, and, ironically, it is precisely because he is safe that he relaxes, and precisely when he relaxes and lets his defenses drop—when he is the one who removes his clothes, if you like—that “tiredness and illness attack from behind like wild beasts.” Goldstein’s version loses the psychology and irony of this: Levi is stripped by someone, we don’t know whom, then the beasts attack. This is simply a mistake, a muddying of metaphor.

The other question is the supposed intertextual reference to “The Ancient Mariner.” Levi has just arrived at Auschwitz where he and his companions are constantly being told by other inmates that they are “not at home now,” in the sense that they can’t expect to be comfortable in any way. Levi writes, using a typical Italian structure and syntax: Ed è questo il ritornello che da tutti ci sentiamo ripetere—literally, “And it is this trite phrase/refrain that we hear everyone repeating.” Here, because of the word ritornello (refrain) and its alliteration, at a distance, with ripetere (repeat), Moore invites us to imagine that we have an allusion to “The Ancient Mariner” (a poem without refrains). It is true Levi often likened his own compulsion to tell about the camps to the Mariner’s compulsion to tell his story, but to defend Stuart Woolf’s clunky translation, typically following the Italian structure—“And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone”— with the notion that he is remaining faithful to some intertextual game that Levi is playing is to be guilty of what the translation theorists call “over-interpretation.” Loyalty to a colleague is admirable, but perhaps not always conducive to clear thinking.

Moore appreciated Goldstein’s work as an editor and doubts there are many errors in the works of other translators. Mentecatto, “madman,” translated as “beggar” (in Italian mendicante), and si lascia trascinare, “he gets carried away,” translated as “he drones on,” are two that come to mind from the many I underlined. Here, for example, is an issue in Moore’s translation, indicating, as he points out, just how tricky, even with his plain style, Levi could be. Discussing the way people distort the story of their past complicity with the Holocaust, Levi questions whether their psychology can be reduced to a straightforward question of good and bad faith. Moore writes:

Anyone with sufficient experience of human affairs knows that the distinction … between good and bad faith is optimistic and enlightened

“Optimistic and enlightened” sounds entirely positive, suggesting that the distinction in question would not be something one would want to argue with. Suspecting a problem, I turned to the Italian:

Ora, chiunque abbia sufficiente esperienza delle cose umane sa che la distinzione … buona fede / mala fede è ottimistica ed illuministica

Illuministico does not mean “enlightened”—that would be illuminato—but rather “pertaining to the Enlighten­ment,” a specific reference to the intellectual movement. Levi is telling us that only someone fed on optimistic, Enlightenment ideas could believe in a sharp distinction between good and bad faith. Since English does not have an equivalent of illuministico, some expansion is required here. It is the kind of problem translators hope their editors will pick up. In passing, I wonder how wise it was to ask one of the ten translators of the Complete Works to be its overall editor. From a methodological point of view it would surely have made more sense to have someone from outside editing all the translators in the same way. After all, who edited Goldstein?

And so to William Weaver. My third article was about translators and their reputations. I pointed out that a translator can acquire a certain celebrity when a book he or she translates has a huge success; while an equally good or indeed more accomplished translation of a less successful book will not bring its translator the same attention. This situation can skew the way translation assignments are made. Already well-established, Weaver achieved a certain celebrity after Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983). This reached the point that, as Carol Janeway, editor at Knopf, complained to me in the early 1990s, Italian authors would demand that English language publishers commission Weaver to translate their works, imagining this was the way to success. However, Janeway, herself a fine translator, had stopped using Weaver because she believed his translations poor and she had personally spent an awful lot of time rewriting them—Elsa Morante’s History, in particular. Michael F. Moore is right that it would have been wise of me to support my comment. Perhaps when I find time and energy I will put together an article on Weaver’s work and reputation. It is long overdue.

Finally, ankylosed. What can I do but remind Moore that it was Goldstein, not I, who brought this obscure, cumbersome, and for many readers incomprehensible word into the mix, to render, let’s remember, the entirely commonplace Italian word, anchilosato (“stiff” or “withered”)? I felt this kind of dictionary work, the frequent reliance on cognates —“quintals,” “desquamation”—regardless of differences in tone and register, was emblematic of aspects of her translation, suggesting an unawareness of Italian usage. Moore says he shares my concern for “exotic renderings of everyday language.” It’s hard to understand why he’s not with me on this.