On April 27, 2023 I attended a seminar at the Rizzoli bookstore at which three prominent translators spoke about their latest projects. The translators were Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Jenny McPhee, who has translated Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg, and Michael Moore, who recently published the first new translation in 50 years of the seminal 19th century novel I Promessi Sposi. The discussion was moderated by Professor Monica Calabritto, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Hunter College and Chairperson of the Department of Romance Languages and Eugenio Refini, Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University.
Jennie McPhee discussed her work on the three-volume translation of the complete works of Primo Levi published in 2015. This project, which took seventeen years to complete, was edited by Ann Goldstein. It was mentioned that as Levi’s works were published in Italian, they were not translated with a consistent voice and this project was able to achieve that. Also, Levi’s works had often been evaluated more on the basis of his role as witness than on his skill as a writer. The new translation was able to show the beauty of his prose as well as the importance of his work as historical record.
It was mentioned how a translation can help a book to take its place in the canon of great literary classics and/or give a book a new life. Many books are not included among the great books simply because they were overlooked or forgotten after they were published in their native tongue. This has often been the case for women writers such as Natalia Ginzburg whose works were given new life after they were translated. Other examples of this are Elena Ferrante, who became a more important writer in Italy because of the success of her translated books in the US, and Alba de Cespedes.
Translation can also be an act of restoration. Michael Moore mentioned that earlier translations of I Promessi Sposi skirted around the issue of sexuality in such a way that the erotic undertones present in the novel were eliminated. Jennie MacPhee mentioned that in an earlier translation of a work by Elsa Morante the translator for some unexplained reason simply left out about 200 pages.
It can be difficult to translate potentially controversial elements of a literary work so as to be true to the tone of the original while not offending contemporary sensibilities. An example might be words that are potentially denigrating in nature. Jenny McPhee mentioned how in one story the author used the word “moro” to describe a child. The word could have been translated into English in several different ways such as the black boy, the negro, the dark one, etc. She opted to use the word negro with a footnote describing the context in which the word was used.
Throughout the discussion it was acknowledged how difficult it is to translate the past in present day terms. This raises questions such as what good English today is and when a translation is too contemporary or too American. All of the panelists agreed that literary translation is anything but literal but is an art in itself.