The Translation Paradox

"The Twins Introduce the Imposter"; from Almost Completely Baxter by Glen Baxter, to be published by New York Review Comics in May

Glen Baxter/New York Review Comics

“The Twins Introduce the Imposter”; from Almost Completely Baxter by Glen Baxter, to be published by New York Review Comics in May

Glory, for the translator, is borrowed glory. There is no way around this. Translators are celebrated when they translate celebrated books. The best translations from the Italian I have seen in recent years are Geoffrey Brock’s rendering of Pavese’s collected poems, Disaffections, and Frederika Randall’s enormous achievement in bringing Ippolito Nievo’s great novel Confessions of an Italian into English. Brock, who has also given us an excellent version of Pinocchio, finds an entirely convincing English voice for the troubled Pavese. Randall turns Nievo’s lively, idiosyncratic pre-Risorgimento prose into something sparklingly credible in English. However, neither of these fine books became the talk of the town and their translators remain in the shadows.

The Complete Works of Primo Levi, which contained the work of ten different translators, offered an example of the general situation in microcosm. Levi is remembered above all for his Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man, and to a lesser degree for The Truce, an account of his return from the camps, and The Periodic Table, an engaging collection of autobiographical essays drawing on his work as a chemist. These three books, whose translations I discussed in the previous posts in this series, have monopolized critical comment on The Complete Works and inevitably brought prestige to their translators, Stuart Woolf and Ann Goldstein. But they amount to fewer than 600 of almost 2,800 pages. The other writings, comprising about 1,600 pages of stories and essays, 150 pages of poems, a novel, If Not Now, When?, and a fiercely controversial reflection on concentration camp survivors, The Drowned and the Saved, have received at best generous nods and asides from the critics, while their eight translators were fortunate if they were named at all.

In her editor’s introduction to the three-volume edition, Ann Goldstein remarks on “the obvious difficulty…of many voices attempting to represent the voice of a single writer.” This was a problem she previously faced when when she served as an editor (together with Michael Caesar and Franco d’Intino) and copy editor as well as one of the translators for the recent English language version of Giacomo Leopardi’s the Zibaldone, an intellectual notebook from the early nineteenth century of immense vitality and complexity; the translation ran to more than 2,500 pages and involved a team of seven translators. Here as there, there is talk of a “uniform editorial standard” and the claim that it has resulted in a “consistently recognizable” tone. Here as there, this is not the case. The English Zibaldone alternated some brilliant, highly readable translations of Leopardi’s strenuous thinking with pages so laden with Latinisms and lost in the poet’s challenging syntax as to be illegible for anyone but the most dedicated academic. The Complete Works of Primo Levi likewise offers both sprightly and wooden performances. Ironically, the three books everyone is most interested in fall into the second category while some of the least read works are brought to the page with exemplary freshness.

Jenny McPhee and Nathaniel Rich, both novelists in their own right, offer lively translations of texts that would likely never have been republished were it not for the great memoirs that preceded them and our consequent interest in Levi. Here is McPhee, translating “The Versifier,” a playful short story in which a professional poet, rhymester, and copywriter invites a salesman to demonstrate a “poetry machine”: feed this amiable contraption a subject, line-length, and rhythm, and it will quickly produce a (terrible) poem. Invited to ad lib a poem, however, it shows a poignant interest in the poet’s secretary:

Una ragazza da portare a letto
Non c’è nulla di meglio, mi hanno detto.
Non mi dispiacerebbe fare la prova
Per me sarebbe un’esperienza nuova:
Ma per lei, poveretta, che tortura!
Quest’intelaiatura è troppo dura.
 Ottone, bronzo, ghisa, bachelite:
Tende la mano ed incontra una vite;
Tende le labbra ed incontra una brossa;
Mi stringe al seno, e si prende la scossa.

McPhee gives:

A girl worth taking to bed:
There’s nothing better, it’s said.
I wouldn’t mind trying it, too,
For me it would be something new:
But for her, poor thing, what torture!
My frame is rock hard, that’s for sure.
Bronze, cast iron, Bakelite, brass
She offers her hand and is met by things crass;
She offers her lips and is met by a grock.
She hugs me to her breast and gets quite a shock.

Of course McPhee has the advantage that in the general satire of the machine’s rhyming capacities, the worse it sounds the better, so she can cheerfully get away with “for sure” rhyming with “torture,” and simply invent the term “grock” where Levi introduces the obscure factory jargon brossa—a metallic brush—a word neither the poet or his secretary know. The poem is fun and McPhee gives us the feel of it, and indeed of the work as a whole.


Nathaniel Rich is equally energetic in his rendering of Levi’s 1978 fictional work The Wrench. Here a talkative crane fitter, Tino Faussone, tells the book’s Levi-like narrator a series of stories taken from his working life around the world. The opening lines run thus:

Eh no: tutto non le posso dire. O che le dico il paese, o che le racconto il fatto: io però, se fossi in lei, sceglierei il fatto, perché è un bel fatto. Lei poi, se proprio lo vuole raccontare, ci lavora sopra, lo rettifica, lo smeriglia, toglie le bavature, gli dà un po’ di bombé e tira fuori una storia; e di storie, ben che sono piú giovane di lei, me ne sono capitate diverse. Il paese magari lo indovina, cosí non ci rimette niente; ma se glielo dico io, il paese, finisce che vado nelle grane, perché quelli sono brava gente ma un po’ permalosa.

That Eh no announces the book’s colloquial register with great determination. Rich gives:

No way—I’m not going to tell you everything. Either I tell you about the country or I give you the facts: if I were you, I’d take the facts because they’re pretty good. Then, if you want to pass the story on to someone else, you can work it over, straighten it out, hone it, file off the burrs, flatten it with a hammer—and that way you’ll make it your own. You know, I might be younger than you, but I’ve got lots of stories. Okay: maybe you’ll figure out what country I’m talking about, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But if I tell you its name—the country, that is—I’ll get in trouble, ’cause the people there are nice, but a bit sensitive.

This is simply light-years away from the “ankylosed,” cognate-rich world of Goldstein and Woolf. It’s true there are mistakes. Faussone doesn’t want to reveal the name of the country in which the events took place. This is the sense of tutto non le posso dire—I can’t tell you everything. And he clarifies O che le dico il paese, o che le racconto il fatto, literally, “Either I tell you what country, or I tell you what happened.” There is no question of telling “about the country” and il fatto, an idiomatic usage, has the sense of the event, what happened, not, as Rich has it, “the facts.” Toward the end of the paragraph, Faussone acknow­ledges that the narrator may guess the country: magari lo indovina, cosí non ci rimette niente, literally, “maybe you’ll guess it, that way you don’t lose anything,” or more fluently, “that way you’ll have it all.” In difficulty with this expression, Rich invents, “that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

These are issues an editor should have picked up. After all, Goldstein’s introduction had promised us “a rigorous degree of accuracy.” That said, Rich has an admirably light touch that captures the playful tone of the book, and he is resourceful when it comes to dealing with its endless references to complex engineering equipment. Certainly if the book never achieves much celebrity, it will not be the translator’s fault.

Bacino Apricena, Puglia, Italy

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

Bacino Apricena, Puglia, Italy

With time and energy one could place all the other translators in the Levi Complete Works project on a line between the two extremes of Woolf and Goldstein, on the one hand, and McPhee and Rich, on the other, pointing out who is more or less mistake-prone on the way. Alessandra and Francesco Bastagli, relative novices, would be nearer Goldstein; Antony Shugaar, Michael F. Moore, two extremely experienced translators, nearer the two novelists. Anne Milano Appel’s contribution, the least significant in terms of number of pages and content, stands out as near perfect; she does not foreground zest and vitality as McPhee and Rich do, but is quietly brisk, which is just right for Levi. She doesn’t switch things around when they don’t need it, but she knows how to make everything English. And she doesn’t make mistakes, that I can find. Here is Levi imagining a young girl who is developing wings:

Da parecchi giorni Isabella era inquieta: mangiava poco, aveva qualche linea di febbre, e si lamentava di un prurito alla schiena. I suoi dovevano mandare avanti la bottega e non avevano molto tempo da dedicare a lei. – Si starà sviluppando, – disse la madre; la tenne a dieta e le fece frizioni con una pomata, ma il prurito aumentò. La bambina non riusciva piú a dormire; applicandole la pomata, la madre si accorse che la pelle era ruvida: si stava coprendo di peli, fitti, rigidi, corti e biancastri. Allora si spaventò, si consultò col padre, e mandarono a chiamare il medico.

Milano Appel’s translation takes flight quite unobtrusively. Everything sounds right:


For some days, Isabella had been agitated: she was barely eating, was running a slight temperature, and complained that her back itched. Her parents had the shop to run and didn’t have much time for her. “She must be developing,” her mother said. She kept her on a diet and rubbed her back with ointment, but the itching grew worse; the girl was unable to sleep. Her mother, applying the ointment, noticed that the skin felt rough: it was covered by a dense layer of short, stiff whitish hairs. Then she got frightened and discussed it with Isabella’s father, and they sent for the doctor.

So the translations in the Complete Works range from excellent to pretty poor. But how much of this has emerged in the critical response to the book? This is the question I want to raise here. How much, or how little, did the polish, or lack of it, of the various renderings matter? James Wood in The New Yorker remarks that Levi’s “best-known work has already benefited from fine English translation,” this despite all the evident problems in Stuart Woolf’s versions of If This Is a Man and The Truce that I laid out in an earlier article (though Wood does go on to criticize Michael Moore, rightly, for translating avventura as “ordeal” in The Drowned and the Saved). James Marcus, in Harper’s, himself a translator, speaks of Goldstein in her editorial responsibility as having “finessed” the work of the different translators, entirely accepting her claim to have created a “consistent” tone and quality. True, he goes on, in a footnote, to point out a couple of embarrassing errors, and then in a separate blog post discusses further errors, all lexical, all from Goldstein and Woolf. But never the very evident problems of style. In general his whole attitude, like that of most other reviewers—indeed of most other reviews of any major work in translation—was one of automatic congratulation. Chunks of Levi are quoted in various publications, often with embarrassing infelicities, and nothing is said.

Of course, one explanation for this would be space. In my original New York Review essay on the Complete Works there seemed so much to say about Levi that I decided not to tackle the translations. I wanted to focus on the unevenness of the books themselves and what that tells us about Levi. Another explanation is a default diplomacy: so-and-so is generally spoken of as a superb translator so let’s repeat the formula, thereby satisfying the translators’ lobby who are always waiting to pounce on a reviewer who omits to mention the translator or translators. Some reputations are never questioned. We move in a small world where it’s just not wise to say what you think. Of course, once a translated book has had commercial success the publishers have an interest in talking up the translator, however little influence that person’s work may have had on sales. In particular, when a major investment has been made in a project like Levi’s Works or Leopardi’s the Zibaldone, the publishers inevitably seek to encourage our inveterate eagerness to pat ourselves on the back for our love of culture, our desire to believe that we now possess the author in our language, and so on.

All this is understandable. Who wants to be the spoilsport to stand up and say that many pages of the Zibaldone were miserably translated and that to an extent the project was a missed opportunity? But I believe the question goes deeper than this and is perhaps symptomatic of the time we live in and the diminishing importance of the written word, and in particular of literature, in our society. Simply, many readers, many critics, don’t notice. Or if they do, don’t particularly care. They read for content. The clamor of idioms about us has become so loud that we hardly notice when a translation, or indeed any piece of prose, is cluttered with incongruities. In fact, the writer whose work was above all an achievement of style and linguistic density, an exploration of what could be done with the language, directed at a community who could understand the nature of the experiment—Joyce, Woolf, Gadda, Faulkner—is largely a creature of the past. And where, as in the case of the Zibaldone, the reader or critic finds sentences that are unreadable and quite likely skips or abandons the book, they imagine that this is because the original was of this nature and the translation necessarily impenetrable. They may even admire the translator for having got it into English at all.

I remember in the 1990s a friend at a major Italian publishing house telling me that he and other editors had received a corporate directive instructing them to reduce the price paid for translations, because their market research had shown that the public couldn’t tell the difference between good and bad translators. I was indignant. I was young. These days experience tells me that from the merely commer­cial point of view they were right. There are many poorly translated books that are highly praised and widely sold, in the US as in Europe.

So does translation matter? Does the choice of translator matter? Some translators’ associations (in Germany for example) insist that a translator ought to be paid a royalty for the translation and share in the commercial success of the work, as if the individual translator had the same impact on the work as the author. This is nonsense. Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver, but The Name of the Rose, which Weaver translated, was an infinitely better book than The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Brock) or Numero Zero (Dixon). Why should the one translator grow rich and the others not? J. K. Rowling, Stieg Larsson, and E. L. James are not difficult authors to translate. Would it really make sense to skew translators’ earnings by giving vast amounts of money to those doing work that is immeasurably easier than, say, Jonathan Galassi’s translations of Montale, or Anne Milano Appel’s 2012 translation of Claudio Magris’s impossibly convoluted novel Blindly? To introduce royalties would be to encourage the finest translators to drop literary work altogether and concentrate on genre novels.

Translation matters for those who want to be brought as close as possible to the original inspiration of books that matter (a group that does not necessarily include publishers’ accountants). The choice of translator is crucial when a text is of such a nature that a very special affinity and expertise is required. The problem is that it is hard for the wider public or even the critics really to know whether they have been given a good translation, and not easy even for the editors who have the duty of choosing the translator, fewer and fewer of whom have appropriate second-language skills. So the inclination is to consign the book to a translator who has some reputation, deserved or not, and be done with it. In particular, there is a tendency to privilege those who gravitate around the literary world, as if this were some kind of guarantee of linguistic competence. It is not.

Some years ago, I gave an evening course in Milan for English-language translators working in the city who wanted to move from technical, business, legal, and medical translations to literary translation. I was hugely impressed by their work. One woman in particular, who translated for AGIP, the Italian oil giant, gave excellent renderings of a range of Italian authors. In general, these were all people who knew Italian to a fault and who were daily involved in getting it into English. None of them would have been guilty of the clumsiness I pointed out in my previous pieces on the Levi translations.

Yet these translators were hardly given the time of day when they wrote to English and American publishers asking for work. Perhaps their years of business translations were considered a stigma. All the same, I suspect that Milano Appel is so good, so true in her pitch, because she has done such a wide range of non-literary translations in business, advertising, and marketing, work that obliges one to become aware of how the language is used on a day-to-day basis. If I myself learned how to translate more or less well it was because of the fifteen years spent translating just about every kind of document a society produces, from shoe fashion magazines to instructions for manufacturing diesel filters. My first literary translation, Alberto Moravia’s Erotic Tales, which I was given before I had published any fiction of my own, seemed infinitely easier and more congenial than the daily fare of tourist brochures and quarrying plant manuals.

So why, in her seventies now, is a fine translator like Milano Appel not better known? Because glory, for the translator, is borrowed glory. No book she has translated has captured the public imagination.

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

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in