Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
I receive an invitation to go to Capri, to a literary festival. It consists of a series of conversations between Anglophone and Italian writers, and takes place in a small piazza overlooking the sea, with a view of the rock formations known as the Faraglioni. Every year the festival is devoted to a subject that the writers will discuss with one another. This year, it is ‘Winners and Losers’. Before the festival, the participants are asked to write a piece on this subject, to be printed in a bilingual catalogue. Since I’m an Anglophone writer, the assumption is that I will write this piece in English, and it will then be translated into Italian. But, having been in Italy for almost a year, I am now so gripped by the language that I try to avoid English as much as possible. I write the piece in Italian, and so an English translation is needed.
I would be the natural translator, but I don’t have the least desire to do it. I’m not interested, at the moment, in going back. In fact, it frightens me. When I express my reluctance to my husband, he says, ‘You should do the translation yourself. Better you than someone else, otherwise it won’t be under your control.’ Following this advice, and having a sense of duty, I decide, in the end, to translate myself.
I imagined that it would be an easy job. A descent rather than an ascent. Instead, I’m astonished at how demanding I find it. When I write in Italian, I think in Italian; to translate into English, I have to wake up another part of my brain. I don’t like the sensation at all. I feel alienated. As if I’d run into a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me.
On the one hand, the translation doesn’t sound good. It seems insipid, dull, incapable of expressing my new thoughts. On the other, I’m overwhelmed by the richness, the power, the suppleness of my English. Suddenly thousands of words, nuances, come to me. A solid grammar, no hesitations. I don’t need a dictionary; in English I don’t have to clamber uphill. This old knowledge, this skill, depresses me. Who is this writer, so well equipped? I don’t recognize her.
I feel unfaithful. I fear that, against my will, reluctantly, I have betrayed Italian.
Compared with Italian, English seems overbearing, domineering, full of itself. I have the impression that English has been in captivity and, having just been released, is furious. Probably, feeling neglected for almost a year, it’s angry at me. The two languages confront each other on the desk, but the winner is already more than obvious. The translation is devouring, dismantling the original text. I’m struck by how this bloody struggle exemplifies the theme of the festival, the very subject of the piece.
I want to protect my Italian, which I hold in my arms like a newborn. I want to coddle it. It has to sleep, eat, grow. Compared with Italian, my English is like a hairy, smelly teenager. Go away, I want to say to it. Don’t bother your little brother, he’s sleeping. He’s not a creature who can run around and play. He’s not a carefree, strong, independent kid like you.
Now I realize that I’m describing my relationship with Italian in another way, that I’ve introduced a new metaphor. Until now the analogy had always been romantic: a falling in love. Now, as I translate myself, I feel like the mother of two children. I notice that I’ve changed my relation to the language, but maybe this change reflects a development, a natural journey. One type of love follows the other; from a passionate coupling, ideally, a new generation is born. I feel an emotion even more intense, more pure, more transcendent for my children. Maternity is a visceral bond, an unconditional love, a devotion that goes beyond attraction and compatibility.
As I translate this short piece into English, I feel split in two. I can’t deal with the tension; I’m incapable of moving like an acrobat between the languages. I’m conscious of the unpleasant sensation of having to be two different people at the same time— an existential condition that has marked my life. I know that Beckett translated himself from French into English. That would be impossible for me, because my Italian remains much weaker. They aren’t equal, these two brothers, and the little one is my favourite. Toward Italian, I’m not neutral.
As for the translation into English, I consider it an obligation, nothing more. I find it a centripetal process. No mystery, no discovery, no encounter with something outside myself.
I have to admit, though, that traveling between the two versions turns out to be useful. In the end, the effort of translation makes the Italian version clearer, more articulate. It serves the writing, even if it upsets the writer.
I think that translating is the most profound, most intimate way of reading. A translation is a wonderful, dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers. It entails a doubling, a renewal. I used to love translating from Latin, from ancient Greek, from Bengali. It was a way of getting close to different languages, of feeling connected to writers very distant from me in space and time. Translating myself, from a language in which I am still a novice, isn’t the same thing. I’ve struggled to complete the text in Italian, and I feel I’ve just arrived, tired but thrilled. I want to stop, orient myself. The re-entry is too soon, it hurts. It seems like a defeat, a regression. It seems destructive rather than creative, almost a suicide.
In Capri, I make my presentation in Italian. I read aloud my piece on winners and losers. I see the English text in blue on the left- hand side of the page, the Italian, in black, on the right. The English is mute, fairly tranquil. Printed and bound, the brothers tolerate each other. They are, at least for the moment, at peace.
After the reading I have a conversation with two Italian writers. Sitting next to us is an interpreter who is to translate what we’re saying into English. After a few sentences I stop, and she speaks. This echo in English is incredible, fantastic: both a circle completed and a total reversal. I’m astonished, moved. I think of Mantua thirteen years ago, and of the interpreter without whom I couldn’t express myself in Italian in public. I didn’t think I would ever reach this goal.
Listening to my interpreter, I trust my Italian for the first time. Although he’ll remain forever the younger brother, the little guy pulls through. Thanks to the firstborn, I can see the second – listen to him, even admire him a little.
Find out more about In Other Words here.
International Translation Day is the biggest annual event for the translation community. This year’s vibrant day-long programme includes seminars on women writers in translation, multilingualism, the state of translation in higher education, alternative routes to publication and translating for the stage. Find out more and buy tickets here.
Ann Goldstein is visiting the UK in October for a series of events discussing her translation of Elena Ferrante. Ann will appear in Dublin on 11 October, in Leeds on 13 October, in London on 14 October and in Cheltenham on 15 October.