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.

Share
Single Page

More from James Marcus:

Editor's Note April 12, 2018, 5:58 pm

Inside the May Issue

Rebecca Solnit, Rick Moody, Rachel Cusk, Jonathan Dee, and more

Editor's Note March 19, 2018, 12:18 pm

Inside the April Issue

Thomas Frank, Elaine Blair, Andrew Cockburn, Lidija Haas, Corey Robin, and more…

Editor's Note February 12, 2018, 11:15 am

Inside the March Issue

Rebecca Solnit, Katie Roiphe, Sallie Tisdale, and more

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A decorated veteran of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq had his prosthetic limbs repossessed from his home in Mississippi when the VA declined to pay for them.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today