Supplemental Reading — December 9, 2015, 1:21 pm

Mission Impossible

The perils of translating Primo Levi

Years ago, browsing in a Roman bookstore, I bought an Italian translation of Lolita, bound in green pleather. It seemed, as I flipped through it, like a pretty decent job, capturing at least some of the author’s suavity and syntactical brio. Then I came to the scene where the inept, pistol-packing narrator finally hits Clare Quilty with a bullet, and his victim leaps from his chair like (as Nabokov originally put it) “old, gray, mad Nijinski, like Old Faithful.” The translator got the basics down just fine—but in a footnote, he helpfully elucidated the meaning of Old Faithful for his Italian readers: “A name used by Americans for a certain type of airplane.”

I bring this up not to ridicule the translator, who certainly had his work cut out for him. What I mean to stress is that translation is a perfectionist’s nightmare—a process almost diabolically engineered to generate mistakes. Translators have too much to do at once. They are literalists, chained to the dictionary, and poets, slipping the shackles of exactitude at every opportunity. They are dual nationals of a kind, declaring their loyalty to one language while treacherously dallying with another. They transport the biggest possible things—meaning, feeling, art, ethics—in the smallest possible containers, and inevitably there is some spillage along the way.

Primo Levi was well aware of these rigors, having produced Italian versions of Claude Levi-Strauss’s The View from Afar and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. (Regarding his struggle with poor, persecuted Josef K., he wrote, “I emerged from this translation as if from an illness.”) So it should surprise nobody that The Complete Works of Primo Levi, a 3,008-page leviathan just published by Liveright, includes a smattering of mistakes. Having done the honors myself on seven Italian books, I blanch at what might emerge from a careful scrutiny of those doubtless error-flecked texts. But here as elsewhere, our mistakes can be as illuminating as our triumphs—especially the squishy ones, neither completely wrong nor completely right, which tend to take us down a variety of cultural and linguistic rabbit holes.

In the first chapter in The Periodic Table, for example, Levi discusses his Italian-Jewish ancestry. He concludes with a description of his boyhood visits to his grandmother, who always presented him with a decayed, inedible chocolate. Ann Goldstein, whose translation appears in the Complete Works, calls the chocolate “moth-eaten,” while Raymond Rosenthal, whose 1984 version introduced Levi to many American readers, opts for “worm-eaten.” Which is it?

Some might call this entomological hairsplitting. Not, I would argue, Levi, who was fascinated by such details and devoted entire essays to beetles, butterflies, crickets, fleas, and other insects. The word in Italian is tarlato, whose most literal meaning is “worm-eaten”—it’s derived from tarlo, meaning a woodworm. And the woodworm seems to have been a strikingly resonant creature for Levi. In The Search for Roots, he described himself (with dubious accuracy) as an intellectual stay-at-home, most comfortable on familiar terrain, and went on to declare: “I prefer to play it safe, to make a hole and then gnaw away inside for a long time, maybe for all one’s life, like the woodworm when he has found a piece of wood to his liking.” Elsewhere, in The Drowned and the Saved, the common pest becomes a figure for a bad conscience, for survivor’s guilt. The thought that we may have usurped another human being is a “supposition, but it gnaws at you; it’s nesting deep inside, like a worm.” (Michael F. Moore, who translated the version in the Complete Works, uses the more generic term, but the Italian word in the original text is tarlo.) It doesn’t seem like a word Levi would use casually, even in its derivative form, all of which argues for Rosenthal’s version.

Wait, I hear you saying. The woodworm eats timber, furniture, fencing, plywood—but not moldering pieces of chocolate. Isn’t Goldstein right after all? Maybe. The pest in Nona Màlia’s cupboard was likely an Indian meal moth, Plodia interpunctella, which does indeed dine on such foodstuffs as chocolate. Game, set, match! But wait again: it is not the moth itself that consumes these delights, but the icky-looking larvae, wingless and persuasively wormlike. Well, let’s call this one a draw.

“Chromium,” from the same book, offers another example—not so much a mistake as a small, insoluble dilemma. Recalling one of his early industrial gigs, Levi describes chemical analysis as a sort of gladiatorial contest between man and matter: the adversary is “the non-me, the Big Curve, Hyle.” Now, hyle, an ancient Greek word for primordial stuff, is not exactly common but long since naturalized in English. But what the hell did Levi mean by the Big Curve? In Italian, he used the phrase il Gran Curvo, so Goldstein’s translation was literally correct, but still puzzling. A brief session with Google clarified nothing. Was the author referring to a certain portion of the Palmetto Expressway near Miami Lakes, Florida, or to those berry-and-cream-swirl-colored bowling balls you can order online? Neither. When I consulted Rosenthal’s version, I saw that he had translated the phrase as “the Button Molder,” and added a footnote: “A character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.”

This solved some problems while creating others. Levi was indeed referring to a character in Peer Gynt—but not to the Button Molder (whoops). He meant what is usually called the Great Boyg, a monster encountered in the wilderness by the play’s titular hero. The creature is formless, foggy, menacing, and responds to Peer Gynt’s provocations with riddling ease: “The Great Boyg conquers, but does not fight.” Now, here is where things get complicated. Boyg, meaning an amorphous obstacle, has also been absorbed into English. But it comes from a Norwegian word meaning “to bend,” which explains why in Italian, anyway, Ibsen’s misty monster has become strangely curvaceous. What is the translator to do? Respect Levi’s original formulation, as Goldstein has done, or use the accurate but opaque Boyg? And in either case, should the reader be given a leg up via a footnote or artfully inserted parenthetical by the translator, or is that messing with the purity of what Italo Calvino called the author’s “most Primo-Levian book”?

I’ll conclude with one final example: an actual mistake. Stuart Woolf translated If This Is a Man during many long, whiskey-fueled sessions with the author. For that reason, the book was not retranslated from scratch for the Complete Works, but corrected by the original translator. Most of Woolf’s fixes make complete sense: the language is more colloquial, more precise. But in at least one case, he has introduced a blooper. Describing Auschwitz just moments before an Allied bombardment, Levi writes: “In the distance photoelectric beams were visible.” This makes no sense at all. (For starters, most of the photoelectric beams used in security and manufacturing systems are infrared, and therefore not visible.) And indeed, in Woolf’s original 1958 translation, the sentence reads: “One could see the searchlight beams in the distance.”

So what happened? Woolf clearly went back to the Italian text, encountered the word fotoelettrici, and set out to sharpen his earlier, fuzzier formulation. The problem is that Levi meant something else: a fotoelettrica is a searchlight mounted on a military vehicle, and that’s clearly what the Germans would have been pointing up at the distant Allied bombers. It’s an obscure term, a piece of military jargon, and since Levi incorrectly assigned it a masculine gender, he mussed the trail for any future translator. So Woolf got lucky: he can blame the author.

And so it goes. Goldstein is a superb translator, who has brought Elena Ferrante to the English-speaking multitudes (not to mention another favorite of mine, the brilliant miniaturist Aldo Buzzi). Woolf’s version of If This Is a Man is essentially a collaboration with the author. No matter. The problems, the potholes, the pratfalls, are baked into the very process of translation. The original text is a kind of Boyg itself, a formless foe that resists any attempt to subdue it completely. Indeed, Peer Gynt’s cries of frustration will sound familiar to any longtime translator:

Backwards or forwards it’s just as far,
out or in, it’s just as narrow.
He’s here, he’s there, he’s all about me!
When I’m sure that I’m out, then I’m back in the middle!

I have had many of those claustrophobic, tongue-tied moments myself—when the English words seem to float just tantalizingly out of reach. (I’m still losing sleep over a foul-mouthed phrase of Oriana Fallaci’s, cazzo d’un cazzo stracazzo, which the author was very proud to have added to the Italian language.) Luckily, however, there is one last resort when it comes to conquering the Boyg, unknown to Ibsen’s knight errant. It’s called a deadline.

James Marcus’s essay on Primo Levi, “Free but Not Redeemed,” was published in the December 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It is free to read in full through the 14th of this month.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of toilet seats at the EU Parliament building in Brussels that a TV station had tested for cocaine:


Happiness creates a signature smell in human sweat that can induce happiness in those who smell it.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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