While we often focus on the business and technical side of translation at e2f, from time-to-time we also want to take note of news in the world of literary translation. In recent months, much was made of the release of The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Anna Goldstein. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Books have each delved deeply into the 2,910-page work and the merits of Levi’s prose.
Levi, an Italian Jew from Turin, is best-known for his autobiographical work If This is a Man, which recounts his survival of the horrific Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Originally published in 1947, it had gotten little attention. It only gained traction with its republishing in 1958, and then its translation in 1960 into German, “to make my voice heard by the German people, to ‘talk back’ to the SS … to Dr. Pannwitz … and to their heirs.”
The gate of Auschwitz, with its infamous slogan, “Arbeit macht frei” — “Work sets you free.”
Levi’s later memoir, The Periodic Table (1975), was a scientific allegory, taking his knowledge as a professional chemist to create tales with chapter titles based on the names of elements. For example, “Argon” gently mocked his relatives, who “like the gas… were generally inert: lazy, immobile characters given to witty conversation and idle speculation.” The chapter also serves as a sociolinguistic analysis of the northern Italian dialect of the Jews of Piedmont, in which, as Levi puts it, “there exist a good number of disparaging words.”
Given three volumes of prose and poetry, much of the critical attention has been paid to the quality of the translation from Italian. In the opening of Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, he states the memoirs of survivors “should be read with a critical eye,” because of the bias of their own experience, which did not allow them to “plumb the depths.” The same, we can presume, may be said of translators that may or may not capture the essence of an author’s works.
How much of Goldstein’s new edition is the view of Levi, and how much of it reflects the sensibility of the modern translation team? The New Yorker was quick to notice subtle differences. Such as how this line, written in 1960 about Levi’s wartime experience in the Lager (a German prison), had been altered. Levi’s original Italian:
“una importante avventura, che mi ha modificato profondamente…”
In 1988, it had been closely followed in translation by Raymond Rosenthal as “was an important adventure that has profoundly modified me.” The New Yorker observed the new 2015 edition “weakened the irony” by altering Levi’s “important adventure” into “an ordeal that changed me deeply.” The lilt of wit was removed.
In The New York Review of Books, the translation recently received a thorough analysis by Tim Parks. He is familiar with the original Italian, and with translations from the 1950s and 60s. He also wrote the original review for the release of the complete works. Apparently his expert eyes cannot be torn away from the new edition just yet. An example from If This is a Man serves to anchor Parks’ viewpoint:
Here are some of the changes I have found. In this first passage, Levi is describing his days as a new arrival in the camp. Here is the 1959 edition:
And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney. (What did it mean? Soon we were all to learn what it meant.)
Here is the 2015 edition:
And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only way out is through the Chimney. (What does that mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.)
Levi’s original gives:
Ed è questo il ritornello che da tutti ci sentiamo ripetere: non siete più a casa, questo non è un sanatorio, di qui non si esce che per il Camino (cosa vorrà dire? lo impareremo bene più tardi).
The Italian here is entirely standard, plain, and colloquial, with just a little touch of drama in the capitalization of Camino (Chimney) and again in the closing parenthesis. Given the awfulness of what is being discussed, this downbeat style is remarkable and hence should be preserved at all costs.
The 1959 version shows all Woolf’s inexperience. Can we really imagine the camp inmates saying, “the only exit is by way of the Chimney?” The Italian di qui non si esce che (literally, “from here one doesn’t go out but by”) suggests something like, “the only way you’ll get out of here is through the chimney.” In the 2015 edition “exit” has been replaced with “way out,” which is certainly an improvement. In the following parenthesis the verb has been shifted from past to present—“What does that mean?”—which livens things up a little. However, the Italian uses a future tense, cosa vorrà dire?, which gives the sense “what is that supposed to mean?” The 1959 solution, “we were all to learn,” is shifted in 2015 to “we’ll soon learn,” respecting the new tense sequence but leaving “learn” where a more standard English idiom might use “know” or “find out.”
You can clearly see the trade-offs occurring when dealing with stylistic differences of a half-century of evolution of English. Parks also offers his own version of the same phrase, to show how each translator may make subtle alterations or maintain strict adherence to an original:
Everyone keeps repeating the same thing: you’re not at home now, this isn’t a sanatorium, the only way out of here is through the Chimney (what’s that supposed to mean? We’ll soon find out).
Levi had a soft-spoken way to turn a phrase. Parks and other critics found many instances of his style which were not treated in a way that kept the original tone of the author. Instead, they reflected the viewpoint, tone and language of the modern translators. Parks derided some of the decisions as having a “wearisomely translationese feel.” Though his own opinion is mixed, Parks has already promised a second part to his article to go into more detail as to why he belie
ves so many people are praising the new edition. He is still not ready to leave Levi’s works just yet. Which is testimony to the power, style, and subject of the original writing.