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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