In the Tumult of Translation

Francisco Goya: Against common good, 1810-1820

Museo del Prado

Francisco Goya: Against the Common Good, 1810-1820

In a recent letter to the editor, Leon Botstein, the head of Bard College, scolds The New York Review for not mentioning translators. As a translator myself, I’m all too familiar with the review that offers a token nod to the translation, announces it good, bad, or indifferent, perhaps offering one small example to justify praise or ignominy. But although not specifically singled out by Botstein, I fear I am one of the culprits. My review of Levi’s Complete Works did not name the translators or discuss their work.

The fact is that much space is required to say anything even halfway serious about a translation. For example, the three volumes of Levi’s Complete Works include fourteen books and involved ten translators. There is the further complication that the three best-known books—If This Is a Man, The Truce, and The Periodic Table—had already been translated, the first two by Stuart Woolf, the third by Raymond Rosenthal. If This Is a Man appears here in a “revised” version of the 1959 translation, Woolf himself having carried out the revision more than a half century after his original. However, The Truce appears in an entirely new translation by Ann Goldstein. One can only imagine what negotiations lay behind this odd arrangement; Levi’s writings are still under copyright, which presumably allowed Woolf or his publisher to dictate terms. Ann Goldstein also offers a new translation of The Periodic Table, and is the translator of Lilith and Other Stories, another book in the Complete Works.

We should say at the outset that while Levi liked to describe himself as a writer with a determinedly plain style, the truth is rather different. Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific. It’s true that there are rarely serious problems of comprehension, but the exact nature of the register, which is to say the manner in which the author addresses us, the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal. It is here that the translator is put to the test.

Stuart Woolf, later to become a distinguished professor of Italian history, was in his early twenties when he met Levi in 1956 and worked with him on the translation of If This Is a Man, which would appear to have been his first book-length translation. “It is opportune to recall,” he remarks in his translator’s afterword, “that half a century ago the complexities, ambiguities, and compromises that have become inherent in the expression of one culture in the language of another were not yet discussed.” This is not true. There was a rich body of reflection on translation long before the invention of Translation Studies, and Italy, a country that translated more novels than any other throughout the first half of the twentieth century, has a particularly strong tradition in this area.

Angela Albanese and Franco Nasi recently published L’artefice aggiunto, riflessioni sulla traduzione in Italia: 1900-1975, an anthology of writings on translation in Italy before the invention of modern translation studies. Going further back in time, Leonardo Bruni, Melchiorre Cesarotti, Ippolito Pindemonte, Ugo Foscolo, Giovanni Berchet, Pietro Giordani, Niccolò Tommaseo, and, most wonderfully, Giacomo Leopardi all offered fascinating accounts of “complexities, ambiguities and compromises.” In any event, Woolf’s afterword mainly describes his own relationship with Levi, gives no examples of translation from the text, and does not discuss his criteria for revision, leaving us with the elusive remark, “I have made what I believe to be improvements in the translation, and I owe thanks to Peter Hennig for sending me a substantial list of alternative words and phrases, some of which I have adopted…”

Here are some of the changes I have found.  In this first passage, Levi is describing his days as a new arrival in the camp. Here is the 1959 edition:

And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney. (What did it mean? Soon we were all to learn what it meant.)

Here is the 2015 edition:

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.)

Levi’s original gives:

Ed è questo il ritornello che da tutti ci sentiamo ripetere: non siete più a casa, questo non è un sanatorio, di qui non si esce che per il Camino (cosa vorrà dire? lo impareremo bene più tardi).

The Italian here is entirely standard, plain, and colloquial, with just a little touch of drama in the capitalization of Camino (Chimney) and again in the closing parenthesis. Given the awfulness of what is being discussed, this downbeat style is remarkable and hence should be preserved at all costs.


The 1959 version shows all Woolf’s inexperience. Can we really imagine the camp inmates saying, “the only exit is by way of the Chimney?” The Italian di qui non si esce che (literally, “from here one doesn’t go out but by”) suggests something like, “the only way you’ll get out of here is through the chimney.” In the 2015 edition “exit” has been replaced with “way out,” which is certainly an improvement. In the following parenthesis the verb has been shifted from past to present—“What does that mean?”—which livens things up a little. However, the Italian uses a future tense, cosa vorrà dire?, which gives the sense “what is that supposed to mean?” The 1959 solution, “we were all to learn,” is shifted in 2015 to “we’ll soon learn,” respecting the new tense sequence but leaving “learn” where a more standard English idiom might use “know” or “find out.”

Francisco Goya: It’s No Use Crying Out, 1810-1820

Museo del Prado

Francisco Goya: It’s No Use Crying Out, 1810-1820

I include the first part of my quotation, which remains the same in both texts—“it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone”—to suggest Woolf’s difficulties with the syntax. A more idiomatic translation might have given “that we hear everyone repeating” (the Italian doesn’t use a passive here so why should the translation?). “Refrain” too, though literally it has the same sense as ritornello has a rather more elevated feel; Italians often use ritornello disparagingly to suggest a trite phrase mindlessly repeated, something we don’t do with refrain. All in all, a translator wishing to get the fluent directness of the original might offer,

Everyone keeps repeating the same thing: you’re not at home now, this isn’t a sanatorium, the only way out of here is through the Chimney (what’s that supposed to mean? We’ll soon find out).

In general, Woolf’s revisions to his 1959 translation are very light. In a second example, the camp inmates are so determined to be on time for their meal that they are unwilling to stop to pee. Levi has:

Molti, bestialmente, orinano, correndo per risparmiare tempo, perché entro cinque minuti inizia la distribuzione del pane, del pane-Brot-Broit-chleb-pain-lechem-kenyér, del sacro blocchetto grigio che sembra gigantesco in mano del tuo vicino e piccolo da piangere in mano tua.

Woolf’s 1959 text gave:

Some, bestially, urinate while they run to save time, because within five minutes begins the distribution of bread, of bread-Brot-Broid-chleb-pain-lechem-keynér, of the holy grey slab which seems gigantic in your neighbour’s hand, and in your own hand so small as to make you cry.

Why we have “some” (which would be qualcuno or alcuni in Italian) rather than “many” is not clear. Bestialmente can be used in Italian to mean simply, like an animal. “Bestially” sounds rather like a criticism of these desperate folk. And do we usually invert verb and subject “begins the distribution of bread”? Wouldn’t we normally put an article—“of the bread”? Again, the Italian is entirely standard here, by which I mean that one could hardly think of a simpler way of putting this. However, if the translator uses a more standard English—“Because in five minutes the bread distribution begins”—he will have a problem of the phrase in apposition immediately afterwards (“of bread-Brot-Broid-chleb”, etc.). Since this needs to be tagged directly onto the word “bread,” Woolf decides to leave the Italian structure intact. Of course, this solution is entirely possible in English, but gives the feeling of something rather more elaborate and less spoken than the Italian. In the end, the only things revised here in the 2015 edition are the English spelling (grey/neighbor), the use of “which” rather than “that” and the repetition of the word “hand.”

My own sense of Levi’s original might go like this:

To save time many are urinating as they run, like animals, because in five minutes they’ll be handing out the bread, Brot-Broid-chleb-pane-pain-lechem-keynér, that sacred gray slab that looks so huge in the hands of the man next to you and so small you could cry in your own.

I’ve risked a little confusion using two “they”s with different referents in the first line, though in the context of the paragraph the sense will be clear enough. Italian has no other word but distribuire for the idea of distributing, but English has “handing out.” Why go for the more formal “distribute” for this rather brutal process of handing over slabs of stale bread? I’ve introduced pane into the list of words for bread, since it seems strange to eliminate Italian from the languages the inmates are speaking. I’ve also used the straightforward “looks” instead of “seems” (again Italian has no choice here) and I’ve speeded up the end “so small you could cry in your own” in line with Levi’s extremely condensed piccolo da piangere in mano tua. Meanwhile, il tuo vicino is a tricky problem. It means “the person next to you,” hence also “your neighbor.” So it could take on a Biblical ring. But it is also absolutely the word you would use for the guy standing next to you in a line at a bus stop. The question is, how much attention do we want to draw in the English to a word that draws none at all to itself in Italian?


Sometimes Woolf’s revisions actually make things less clear. Here, after the men get their bread and return to their dormitory block the 1959 edition tells us that, “the Block resounds with claims, quarrels and scuffles.” In the new version this becomes, “the block resounds with claims, quarrels, and flights.”

Flights? On reading this I confess it took me a moment to grasp what was meant. Levi is explaining that in the camp bread is the only form of currency for trading, hence the moment the men get their bread is payback time. If someone owes you something, you need to get his bread off him now, before he can eat it. The Italian gives:

Il Block risuona di richiami, di liti, e di fughe.

Richiami could indeed mean “claims” or “protests” but would more usually indicate “calls,” “shouts,” “cries”; in particularly it is used to refer to the noises animals make calling each other, something that links back to bestialmente and indeed the whole theme introduced by the title If This Is a Man; liti means “quarrels,” or even “fights.” Fughe is “flights” in the sense of people running for it. Again, it’s a word in common use in Italian; we could talk of the fuga of a soccer player who breaks free of his defender, or a thief running from the police. In English the word is barely comprehens­­ible here and even if we do understand, it takes us back to a usage of long ago in a higher register: the flight from Egypt, perhaps; or something metaphorical: “The Flight from Conversation,” a recent New York Times article was headlined.

Francisco Goya: To the Cemetery, 1810-1820

Museo del Prado

Francisco Goya: To the Cemetery, 1810-1820

I can find no example in English of “flights” used in the plural in this sense without a qualification of who is fleeing from what or whom. This no doubt is why Woolf avoided the word in the 1959 version. Introducing it now in the new edition, presumably for correctness, since fughe definitely does not mean “scuffles,” he disorients the reader. The upward jolt to the register reinforces the slightly literary tone of “resound” (“the block resounded”), which, like “refrain,” has a more elevated feel than the word it is translating, in this case risuona, which again is standard Italian fare. The whole thing might have been delivered as,

The Block is filled with the noise of cries, quarrels, men running for it.

I spoke of a play of registers in Levi’s writing, but so far have only given examples of his plain prose. Needless to say, if your translation of the plain prose sounds anything but plain, it will be difficult to indicate a change of gear when you shift up a register. That said, Woolf is more convincing with the high register. There is a tough moment near the beginning of the book where, having heard that they are to be deported to Germany the following morning, a group of Jews in a detention center, Levi included, spend a sleepless night, at the end of which

L’alba ci colse come un tradimento, come se il nuovo sole si associasse agli uomini nella deliberazione di distruggerci.

In 1959 Woolf translates the first sentence fairly freely. “Betrayal” (tradimento) becomes “betrayer,” the idea of the sun joining up with gli uomini—“men/mankind”—in the determination to “destroy us” is somewhat paraphrased:

Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.

In 2015 he moves closer to the original in the first part of the sentence, cuts the unnecessary and cumbersome “seemed as though,” and offers a different paraphrase of the second part:

Dawn came upon us like a betrayal, as if the new sun were an ally of the men who had decided to destroy us.

This sounds pretty good, but still loses the impact of Levi’s use of gli uomini in the general sense of all men, or, in a higher register, mankind, not a specific group of enemies. Again this usage fits in with the book’s questioning of what it means to be a man, to be part of the human race. Here the Jews are being treated as if they didn’t belong among men. So more accurately we might have:

Dawn came upon us like a betrayal, as if the new sun were joining forces with men in the determination to destroy us.

If you wanted to stress this point, it would be acceptable to give “as if the sun were joining forces with mankind.” That is the kind of decision one might take on one’s nth reading of the whole translation, when you have the voice firmly in your mind. At the moment it seems a little too “loud” to me.

Let’s move a few lines further on for our last example. With the dawn comes action; the hiatus of the night is over; Levi winds up the register with some archaic terms and images:

Il tempo di meditare, il tempo di stabilire erano conchiusi, e ogni moto di ragione si sciolse nel tumulto senza vincoli, su cui, dolorosi come colpi di spada, emergevano in un lampo, così vicini ancora nel tempo e nello spazio, i ricordi buoni delle nostre case.

In 1959 Woolf drops the senza vincoli (literally, “without constraints”), presumably in order to keep the English tight, though the real problem in this sentence is Levi’s rather mysterious use of the verb stabilire, which in the translation appears as the noun “decision.” As for the archaic conchiusi (“concluded,” “finished”) it is hard to see how it could be rendered in English.

The time for meditation, the time for decision was over, and all reason dissolved into a tumult, across which flashed the happy memories of our homes, still so near in time and space, as painful as the thrusts of a sword.

What decision or decisions could people have been taking, since their destiny is now entirely out of their hands? There has been no mention of decisions to be made. Woolf doesn’t clarify this in his 2015 translation, but recovers the idea of senza vincoli in “unrestrained tumult” and rearranges the second part of the sentence for fluency:

The time for meditation, the time for decision was over, and all reason dissolved into an unrestrained tumult, across which flashed, as painful as the thrusts of a sword, the happy memories of our homes, still so near in time and space.

This works well enough, though a phrase like “as painful as the thrusts of a sword” still has a wearisomely translationese feel to my ear. But let’s put some pressure on that word stabilire. Usually this verb takes an object, to establish/fix/set/decide something. But what can it mean if there is no object, and in the generally portentous lexical mix Levi has concocted here? People have spent the night reflecting on their destiny. They have meditated. They have, literally, “established.” But now that time is over. Now reason, or rather every moto di ragione (literally, movement of reason), dissolves (si sciolsero) and we have a tumult that is unrestrained (senza vincoli).

There is an evident polarity here between reasoned construction of some kind of response (what people have tried to “establish” through the hours of the night), and confused, ungovernable dissolution, as the fateful day begins and a tumult of emotions takes over, robbing people of their human dignity. It’s a polarity, that, when linked to the idea of “the time for this and the time for that” cannot but remind us of Ecclesiastes. And indeed Italian annotated versions of the text suggest a reference to “a time to break down and a time to build up.”

How to get this across in translation? If one offers “the time for gathering thoughts (or coming to terms with things) was over,” one perhaps gets something of the idea and a proper contrast with thoughts that are then scattered, but still the strangeness of the Levi’s usage would be lost. I offer a version I’m not happy with, but it’s the best I can do:

The time to meditate, the time to settle, was over and every effort of reason dissolved in this unrestrained tumult through which the happy memories of our homes, still so close in time and space, stabbed painfully as sudden sword thrusts.

To sum up, in 1956 Woolf had the intuition that Levi’s book, then largely un­recog­nized, was an important work, worthy of translation. Bravely, he translated it on spec, without a contract; later an American publisher, Orion, got in touch with him and eventually published it. We owe Woolf our gratitude and admiration for having introduced the book to the English-speaking world when it mattered in a highly serviceable, if undistinguished, translation. Unfortunate­ly, that is the version we still have, since the 2015 “revision” amounts to little more than a light edit.

Why then, you might ask, has this translation (in both its manifestations) been widely praised? It is a fascinating question that I will try to answer in my next post.

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

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