Logos Multilingual Portal

11. Translation as "cloning": Vittorini, Montale, Quasimodo, Calvino and Ceronetti


a) The map is the territory

Every translation is tied to the cultural codes governing the reception of a text: its introduction into the living tissue of a culture. When a translator is a writer, the choice of a translation also becomes an intervention within the parameters according to which the literary society receives his figure as a creator. After the war, when Elio Vittorini published Americana, an anthology of twentieth-century American writers, his aim of reacting to the Fascist logic of the Strapaese literary movement, in order to orient narrative models according to the ‘antimythical’ realism of the American melting-pot, looked like a real poetic stand, without which the experience of Cesare Pavese, Goffredo Parise and, in a certain sense, Alberto Moravia, would have seemed improbable.
Subsequently, in translating Moby Dick into Italian, Pavese also wanted to introduce a rereading of the psychoanalytical archetypes in this idea of literature seen as a ‘group scene of the drama’, thus defining the axes of a perspective that is still dominant in the Italian context today.
Naturally, in this case, the translator’s work seems an integral rethinking of the source text, whose secret values, reflections and contradictions are implemented as though they were potential energies.
Melville's Moby Dick begins: "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." Pavese renders the passage thus: "Chiamatemi Ismaele. Alcuni anni fa - avendo pochi o punti denari in tasca e nulla di particolare che m'interessasse a terra, pensai di darmi alla navigazione e vedere la parte acquea del mondo." Pavese’s choices pro domo sua appear clear, starting with this incipit: from the archaizing patina close to the solemn substrate of "pochi o punti" ("little or no money"), that shifts the ‘Rhode Island’ connotation of the original on a sacral axis, to that "m'interessasse" ("to interest me"), which gives an existentialist dimension to Ishmael’s having "nothing particular to interest me on shore".

Pavese’s coherence in unravelling this nightmare of alienation called Moby Dick in the dimension of a ‘death of God’ that unleashes the destructive potential of its cultural archetypes, is total. Those familiar with La luna e i falò will understand how, for Pavese, translating was a dialogue with his own unconscious.

In translating Faulkner’s Light in August into Italian, Vittorini undertakes an even more complex course.
"Seduta sul ciglio della strada, Lena guarda il carretto salire verso di lei, e pensa: 'Vengo dall'Alabama. Quanta strada! Tutto a piedi dall'Alabama, un bel pezzo di strada!'": here, the character’s obsessive soliloquy, so typical of Faulkner, takes on Homeric values; and it seems that the scenery and the journey are the only things able to animate the story.

The original "sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her" gives a less ‘Hellenistic’ connotation. The character watches the scene with an interior participation and a design that partially remove the ‘antihumanistic’ patina, or the disconsolate poetry of bare things that Vittorini introduces, drawing Faulkner on his side. Regarding the soliloquy "I have come from Alabama a fur piece", the Southern slang connotation of the original is far from the intimism and the ‘spoken’ lament rendered by Vittorini ("quanta strada!").

Thus, in translating Faulkner, there appears to be a clear criticism towards the original that leads him to regain possession - in a ‘Mediterranean’ sense, according to the canons of his own singular ‘pagan’ poetry, where landscapes are feelings - of the terse, haunted fixity towards which the author always and unfailingly tends to lean.

In Moby Dick, Pavese’s apparent lyricism, and his tendency to freeze beauty that vanishes the very moment it is perceived by consciousness - because the memory destroys the spontaneity of its poetic wonder, and its mysterious preverbal power - leads him to force the description of Ismael’s mood when he embarks: "Ogni volta che m'accorgo di atteggiare le labbra al torvo, ogni volta che nell'anima mi scende come un novembre umido e piovigginoso, ogni volta che m'accorgo di fermarmi involontariamente dinanzi alle agenzie di pompe funebri..." ("Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses...") where that sullen expression and the drizzly November are more like those self-reflections in the ‘chipped mirror’ of the mind that Pavese defines "hometown memories", than the stylistic ‘counter-texts’ of Melville.
Post-war Italian literature fed on this ‘Egoless’ lyricism; this ecstasy which is also the sinking of the senses in a lake made murky by the dark moon of gloom.