Posts Tagged ‘William Weaver’

What is a classic? Italo Calvino gives 14 definitions.

Thursday, September 18th, 2014
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calvino-classics“Calvino was not a writer of hits; he was a writer of classics.” So wrote Italo Calvino‘s translator, William Weaver (we wrote about the humble translator here). But that brings us quickly to the question: What is a classic, anyway? Calvino’s 1991 book Why Read the Classics? was assembled after the author’s 1985 death; the author had intended to compile something of the sort himself, but didn’t live to see the project to fruition. He begins with 14 thoughtful assertions:

1.  The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’

2.  The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

3.  The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

4.  A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

5.  A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

6.  A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

7.  The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

8.  A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.

9.  Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.

10.  A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

11.  ‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

12.  A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

13.  A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.

14.  A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

The New York Review of Books published Calvino’s elaboration of these comments in 1986 – it’s here.

“Oy!” said Dante…and no parking on the sidewalks.

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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Dante_Giotto

“Ahi…”

We visited Robert Pogue Harrison today, and that short tête-à-tête reminded us of the excellent piece he wrote a few months ago, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version” in the New York Review of Books. It was a fascinating essay (read it here), but he had reservations about the Clive James version of the first canto of The Divine Comedy, and compared it unfavorably to Mary Jo Bang‘s translation:

Clive James gives us a much less dramatic version:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….

James omits the all-important pronoun “our,” and his smooth cadence does not suit the emotion of panic nearly as well as Bang’s staccato version. The only reason James tacks on “I found” to the first line, and then tacks on “the way” to the second, is for the sake of a rhyme (James decided to cast his translation in quatrains, and to rhyme them abab). James’s version continues:

 The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—

To interpolate a “keening sound” here is ludicrous, for at the start of the poem Dante has just returned from the luminous realm of Christian beatitude, so he would not “still” be wailing or shrieking with grief. The distortion seems a high price to pay for the sake of a rhyme.

Antony Shugaar of Charlottesville, Virginia disagreed. His letter was published some time ago, but we just found it today, here, and share it with you today:

Careful.

Careful.

I’m a professional translator from the Italian, and a longtime aficionado of Dante. I therefore read Robert Pogue Harrison’s piece with great interest. I feel that Professor Harrison may have slighted Clive James’s version on one point. “To interpolate a ‘keening sound’ here is ludicrous,” he writes. And yet, there is a keening sound present in Dante’s Italian, unless my eyes deceive me.

The fourth line of The Divine Comedy begins with the word “Ahi,” which represents a sound and a thought that we have in English only at a barely articulated level. It sounds like “eye,” but with a twist: “iyiyi” is one way I’ve seen it written in English. It is a slightly modified version of the sound an Italian might make after hitting himself on the thumb with a hammer. It is, in short, a keening sound. And as you can see, rendering it in English is no simple matter. Thus, James editorialized.

Longfellow rendered it as: “Ah, me.” Not a keening sound, perhaps, but neither is it the sound you’d expect from someone just back from the “luminous realm of Christian beatitude.” Longfellow’s version sounds like a maiden aunt. Dante’s did not, and in fairness to James, he rendered it, clearly and accurately, by editorializing.

It all goes to show the meaning that you can wring out of a careful reading of Dante.

We googled a bit, and found Shugaar on a number of websites. On this one, he explains his philosophy on translating from the Italian. Here’s an excerpt from Publishing World:

Of course, I understand the idea of preserving certain aspects for philological reasons. There is a translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses that intentionally reads as if it were written by a Martian, because it closely follows the sixteenth-century original, to give a perfect mirroring of certain terms. But it’s a pity, because Machiavelli was also a stylist.

But I believe that a translator should have freedom. Obviously, with freedom comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be absolutely faithful to the author’s intent (and that intent can only be found in the words of the original, so those words must be read closely). If you think the author’s intent was to write something weird, awkward, and foreign-sounding, embrace that. But on the whole, I think that if it sounded idiomatic in the original, you’re failing the author if you produce anything less than that in English.

shugaar

Translator Shugaar

I’m happy to produce a fully annotated version of anything I translate, showing where every element came from. Occasionally I’ll invent a joke or a pun to account for one that couldn’t come across. But that adheres to the law of the conservation of meaning: meaning can neither be lost nor destroyed in a closed translational system.

William Weaver once said that the hardest word in Italian to translate is “Buongiorno.” First of all, we think of it as two words. Second of all, it doesn’t mean “Good day,” except perhaps to an Australian. I often leave words like that in Italian. Unless, of course, the Italian novel is set in New York with American characters. For instance. Or Paris. Or Tokyo.

In Italian settings, you can have odd issues of style, protocol, and engineering. For instance, I remember a short story by Valeria Parrella that talking about someone moving from the road to the sidewalk. But in many places in Italy, the road is made of slabs of stone, and the sidewalk is paved with asphalt. Sort of the reverse of Brooklyn. So you might want to give the reader a tip as to which surface is asphalt, which stone. Or the fact that a sidewalk is where you park your car, now that we’re on the topic (that was a narrative point in a book by Fabio Bartolomei). The best illustration of that point I can think of was a street-cleaning/no-parking sign I saw in Milan many years ago. “Street cleaning next Wednesday, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Absolutely NO parking, NOT EVEN ON THE SIDEWALKS.” There you have it.