Primo Levi and Translation
David Mendel

Primo Levi's views on translation

In an interview, Levi said to Giovanni Tesio (1) 'Writing is to translation what being a father is to being a grandfather'. He said to Luciano Genta 'transducere, cioè come trasportare un materiale attraverso una barriera da un ambito ad un altro' (2) He has written about translation with his customary insight. Here is my translation of relevant excerpts of his Translating and Being Translated from Altrui mestiere (3)

.......'Translation is difficult work because the barriers between languages are higher than is generally thought....... knowing how to avoid the traps is not enough to make a good translator. The task is more arduous; it is a matter of transferring from one language to another the expressive force of the text, and this is a superhuman task, so much so that some celebrated translations (for example that of the Odyssey into Latin and the Bible into German) have marked transformations in the history of our civilisation.'

'Nonetheless, since writing results from a profound interaction between the creative talent of the writer and the language in which he expresses himself, to each translation is coupled an inevitable loss, comparable to the loss of changing money. This diminution varies in degree, great or small according to the ability of the translator and the nature of the original text. As a rule it is minimal for technical or scientific texts (but in this case the translator, in addition to knowing the two languages, needs to understand what he is translating; possess, that is to say, a third competence). It is maximal for poetry; (what remains of e vegno in parte ove non è che luca when reduced and translated as "I came to a dark place.'

'It is worth saying a word too about the condition of a writer who finds himself being translated. Being translated is neither an everyday nor a holiday activity, indeed it is not an activity at all. It is a semi-passivity, similar to that of the patient on the operating table or on the psycho-analyst's couch, rich however in violent and contrasting emotions. An author who is confronted by one of his own pages translated into a language he knows, feels in turns - or at one and the same time - flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, planed down, violated, embellished, killed. One rarely remains indifferent to a translator, known or unknown who has poked his nose and his fingers into your viscera; you would willingly send him, by turns or at the same time, your heart - suitably wrapped - a cheque, a crown of laurel or one's seconds.' He said that the main danger lay in the words the translator thought he knew.

Here is my translation of a paragraph on being translated in I sommersi e i salvati (4), Levi writes:-

'It was the first time I had come up against the adventure, always searing, never free of charge, of being translated, of seeing your own thoughts man-handled, deflected; your own words passed through a sieve, transformed or misunderstood, or even enhanced by some unhoped for resource in the target language.'

Translation of Levi's books into English

Reviewers of translations of Primo Levi's books into English have, almost without exception, used the time-honoured phrase: 'He is well-served by the translator'. Few reviewers have an adequate command of Italian. They may only receive a book a day or two before the review is to be published, and may not have time to study the original. 'Well served' probably means that the translation reads well. But like a gastronome who has never been abroad, they may not know what they are missing.

Levi's own work is easy to translate because he says what he means in a style which is neither allusive nor too colloquial. He chooses his words with precision. He is difficult to translate because of his use of language and his wit, irony and humour. This is specially true for the humourless translator. The strength of Levi's writing ensures that his message comes through in spite of inevitable loss, and loss due to flawed translation. He writes so well, his books are good even in imperfect translation, but not as good as in the original.

Levi's books have had different translators. His first two books, If This is a Man and The Truce (5) were well translated by Stuart Woolf. The same is true of the translation of If Not Now, When (6) by William Weaver, the doyen of Italian translation into English. Some of Levi's books have suffered in translation. Levi was happy to collaborate extensively with his translators as he did with Stuart Woolf.

Whilst the Italian text is always clear as a bell, parts of the translations are not. As Levi himself said, 'In translation loss is inevitable', but the loss due to bad translation is not. Levi was a translator himself; he was well aware of the deficiencies of his translators, but he made no public comment about that. Levi was a poet, and the sound of the words was important to him. For example he wrote Se tu insisti, intristisce (7); Rosenthal translates this as 'If you persevere, he becomes morose' which is quite without sonic effect. 'If you press him you suppress him' would be better, firstly because Levi is using intristisce in the sense of guastarsi moralmente, and secondly, it is,like the original, alliterative.

Sometimes he puts words into unusual positions in the sentences to obtain a droll sonic effect; for example he may change the position of an adjective with regard to its noun, and this is easily missed, especially as English does not allow this flexibility of positioning. Mengaldo (8) cites un mio mondo scarsamente reale, popolato da civili fantasmi cartesiani, da sincere amicizie maschili e da amicizie femminile esangui and fame vecchia and sentii l'onda calda del sentirsi libero and della tragedia immane and la nostalgia acerba and la loro vitalità grande and tensione tremula and il rigore sobrio delle sue lezioni and invidia dolorosa and si dedicano con curiosità allegra.

In The Wrench (9) Levi invented a whole language for his alter ego, the steel erector Faussone, which has the grammar of a dialect, but uses Italian words. This would be difficult for a foreigner to detect or imitate. No attempt is made to convey this language and this changes the nature of the novel. The translator - William Weaver - may have been correct in deciding that Faussone's speech was impossible to translate, but that does not lessen the English reader's loss.

Levi's work is full of puns which are always difficult to translate. Rosenthal sometimes leaves them out on the grounds that they are untranslatable. Such omissions, small but obtrusive like the points of a saw, diminish the writing. And in Levi's case his use of dialect and neologisms make that loss significant.

David Jones, like Levi, both chemist and writer, reviewing Raymond Rosenthal's translation of L'altrui mestiere (Other People's Trades) (10) in the Times listed a number of words in Levi's works, which had been wrongly translated. In The Periodic Table (11) the translator made up English names for the rare elements. As the authentic English names could be found in any dictionary, to invent them is unforgivable. These elements were, understandably, unfamiliar to the translator, but he did not look them up. Perhaps he was translating against the clock; it is a badly paid job. Many of the terms Levi used for laboratory equipment were wrongly translated. In Moments of Reprieve, (12) the translator, Ruth Feldman, writes of Levi's 'glass refrigerator' - an innovative if impractical conception - when Levi wrote condensatore di vetro. The Sansoni English-Italian dictionary gives condenser (chem), condensatore, refrigerante.

The title of If This is a Man is an integral part of the book, but it was changed in the American edition to Escape from Auschwitz. This is both inept and vulgar. As Mirna Cicioni points out in her book Primo Levi, Bridges of Knowledge, (13) Levi's original title for Se questo è un uomo was I sommersi e i salvati which was used both as a chapter heading in Se questo è un uomo, and as the title of a later book. (14) The chapter heading was translated by Stuart Woolf and the book by Raymond Rosenthal. Both used The Drowned and the Saved, where the Submerged would have been closer to the title as well as to the line from Dante's Inferno from which it was taken. None of these changes seems in any way superior to the closer translation. In Moments of Reprieve(loc.cit), the story the King of the Jews is re-titled Story of a Coin. Levi had thought carefully about those titles and there was no reason to change them. On the other hand his title Meccano d'amore is naively translated as Love's Erector Set. If ever a title needed changing this was it. La chiave a stella (15) was published in the USA as The Monkey's Wrench. the Italian title literally is a socket wrench. A monkey wrench is an adjustable spanner; adding the apostrophe, Monkey's implies that the wrench belonged to a monkey. In fact Levi proudly showed me a gold plated ring spanner which his wife had given him to celebrate the book. When I pointed out that it was not a Chiave a stella he shrugged, but his pleasure in her present did not seem to be diminished!

Sometimes his translators choose a correct but inappropriate English equivalent for a word. Levi wrote that the same word in two different languages could be represented by two roughly equal circles. If one circle is dropped on the other, there will be parts where they superimpose exactly, and others, at the edges, where they do not. The words 'nefarious schools' are used in Ruth Feldman's translation of one of the stories in Moments of Reprieve (loc cit). The phrase is a literal translation of the original, nefande, a word which is erudite but not unusual in written Italian. A 'nefarious school' is a perplexing description; 'dreadful' might be more suitable in this context.

One of Levi's translators translated paralipomena as paralipomena. The word would be familiar to the educated Italian reader, because it was in the title of one of Leopardi's works; but what is the point of putting a word in the English translation which will mean nothing to most readers? It means a supplement to a work. It is an example of the interesting category of words which are almost identical and have the same meaning in both languages, but which are common or garden in one language and rare in the other. Egregio is one and eqivoci is another; the average Italian would have no problem with either, and the average Briton would be uncertain about both.

In Frogs on the Moon, a story in Other People's Trades(loc. cit.), Levi used the phrase vanne o pigro alla formica. This comes from the Book of Common Prayer and in English it is "Go to the ant thou sluggard". Rosenthal's best effort is "Go to the ants you lazy-bones". In the same story Levi talks of the muta or change of tadpoles into frogs. Rosenthal calls it moulting which is incorrect.

The errors grate, as do some of the Americanisms on a British ear. It is a pity that a great writer has sometimes been translated less than optimally, either through choice of the wrong translator or by less than total professionalism.

Translating Literature

Translators must not impose their own thoughts on the work. This is more difficult for creative artists who, in general, do not make the best translators.

Sandra Bosco Coletsos writes: 'The phenomenon of inappropriateness or lack of elegance of a translation can derive from the desire to reproduce all the details and sfumature: that is to exact a perfect equivalence between the structures of the two languages which does not exist.' (16)

Translations of Kafka's The Trial

Only a person with a command of both Italian and German can judge the excellence of Levi's translation of The Trial (17), and here I am indebted to Prof. Sandra Bosco Coletsos, Professor of the History of German Language at the University of Turin, who compared five published translations of The Trial from German into Italian,(loc. cit.) discussing the criteria for, and the problems of, translating Kafka.

She cites the enormous difficulties of Kafka's language. The language of the Germans in Prague was purist and skeletal, there were no contributing dialects, and it lacked richness of expression. It has been described as una lingua povera. Kafka's words are simple, there are no stylistic games. The simplicity and clarity of the style is at odds with the obscurity and irrationality of the narrative. The language is insufficient to describe what he is describing, hence the metaphors. Kafka's language renounces colours and is black and white transforming and purifying the obscure knotted text which remains behind the surface of the pages. There are no references to moral or psychological aspects, expressions are common which make vague, indeterminate and uncertain all forms of subjectivity. The Trial is fiction but it is also like poetry because of the relation between expression and its implication. Style and content are so connected.

Levi's translation of Kafka's The Trial

In his Postfazione to his translation of Kafka's The Trial Levi wrote, (my translation):-

'.......Now translating is more than reading;...... Translation is tracking the tissue of the book under the microscope; you penetrate it, you stay there, stuck fast and involved.......Right from the first sentence one is precipitated into the nightmare of the unknowable, and in every page one comes up against obsessive outbursts,..... by avalanches of confused words......'

'I do not believe that there is much affinity between Kafka and me. Often, during the process of this translation, I have had the feeling of collision, of conflict, of the immodest temptation to unravel, in my own way, the knots in the text; in sum, to correct, to exploit the dictionary choices, to superimpose my own way of writing on Kafka's. I have tried not to yield to this temptation.'

'Since I know that there is no such thing as the 'right way' to translate, I have trusted more to instinct than to reason, and I have adhered to a line of interpretative correctness, as honestly as possible, even if not always coherent from page to page, because not all the pages present the same problems. ..... Although I noted, for example, the obsessive effect (perhaps intentional) provoked by the lawyer Huld's opening speech, which is prolonged relentlessly for ten pages, with no paragraphs, I took pity on the Italian reader and introduced some interruptions. In order to preserve the flow of the language I have eliminated some limiting adverbs (all but, much, a little, approximately, about etc.,) which German tolerates better than Italian. On the other hand I have made no attempt to thin out the accumulation of terms of the family 'to seem'- likely, probable, discern, be aware, as if, apparently, like and so on; they seemed to me typical, even indispensable, in this account which tirelessly uncoils events in which nothing is as it seems. For the rest, I have made every effort to temper fidelity to the text with fluidity of language. Where in this notoriously tormented and controversial text there were contradictions and repetitions, I have conserved them.'

Interviewed by Federico di Melis he said:

'When confronted with some stiffness or harshness, I have used the file; I have split up some sentences. I had no qualms as long as the sense was maintained. Kafka is not troubled by repetitions; in the course of ten lines he repeats the same noun three or four times.' (18)

Sandra Bosco Coletsos' view of Levi's translation of Kafka's The Trial

Did his translation of The Trial live up to his stated views on translation? In his Postfazione he admits that he imposes his own style on that of Kafka. Sandra Bosco Coletsos writes:-

'The reader should not be helped more than the German text does. Levi's text, softer and more mosso (mouvementé) than the original loses that dry rigour, that essenzialità (quiddity) and ambiguous impersonality which is a determinant part of the original. It is too free a translation. The same word is at different times translated differently by Primo Levi. Occasionally Levi's word fits in better than the same word used by the author. He uses his own subjective choice, and the vocabulary he uses is much wider than that in the original and in the other translations.' Bosco Coletsos sums up:- 'In our opinion, Levi's work - always excepting many happy solutions - does not find a suitable tone for what The Trial is and must be, with its verbal determination, essenzialità and the unresolved ambiguities inherent therein.'

Some of Levi's pages, she judges, sound too different from the original. In my view, Levi's lack of affinity with Kafka is important but not crucial. More deleterious is his attempt to clarify, correct and embellish the text, superimposing his own way of writing on Kafka's. He wrote 'I have tried not to yield to this temptation'. But alas, he too often succumbs.

Why did Levi translate The Trial

The changes Levi makes are so contrary to the aims of modern translators of literature and to his own previously stated goals, that one must ask why he undertook the translation.

Levi was asked by the publishers, Einaudi, to translate The Trial as one of a series of classic novels translated by modern novelists. He had learned a 'barrack room' German in the camps, and then studied the language at the Goethe Institute in Turin. He spoke the language well, but he was by no means bilingual. He said in an interview reported in Tecnologie chimiche 'in December 1983 'I am doing translations from the German just to keep in practice.' Many translations are made by people who realise that in so doing, their understanding of a foreign language will be increased. His failures seem less due to incomprehension than to positive decisions on technique. He yielded to the temptation to interpret instead of sticking to translation.

Levi translated the book just before he retired from his work as an Industrial Chemist. People on the brink of retirement are usually pre-occupied by doubts about how they will manage on a reduced income. Though translation fills the mind rather than the purse, he might have been seeking to enlarge his possible sources of future income. It was not until a year or two after his retirement that his fame spread world-wide and gave him an assured income.

It is possible that he thought that translation would increase the range of the fields in which he could become well-known. He had already translated two books by Claude Levi-Strauss into Italian. (19)

Translation is a challenge. One of the key concepts of his philosophy was Conrad's 'measuring up'. He said Misurarsi è migliorarsi (20) and doing so was a great source of satisfaction and strength to him.

In 1983, after the publication of his translation of Il processo, Levi published an article in La Stampa. (21) He wrote (my translation):-

' The comments which have been made about my translation of Kafka's The Trial have given rise to a good deal of re-thinking, both concerning the line I took in rendering the text, and on the motives which induced me to declare in so many words that 'I do not believe that there is much affinity between Kafka and me'. If this is so, why had I chosen or accepted the work of translation? Vediamo.'

It is a good essay, in which he writes firstly, that it is not necessary to identify with an author to find his work interesting. Secondly, he thinks that the hero's shame in the affair of the tribunal reflects Kafka's shame in belonging to the same human race. Levi implies that he shares that shame. But it is not convincing - we do not see.

In the interview with Federico De Melis (loc. cit), he said that he chose 'una via di mezzo'. In the same interview he said 'I have never chosen - or almost never because in some stories I too have taken it - Kafka's way, that is to give free rein to what lies below the belt, to what is in the subconscious'. He said to Giovanni Tesio in L'enigma del tradurre (22) that Kafka is 'a mole; he moves underground and doesn't even try to find the key to the problem'.

Cesare Cases, that shrewd critic of Levi's work wrote in L'Indice (23) 'That he found himself translating The Trial is due to one of those unhappy situations into which an author may stumble if he does not know how to defend himself well enough from pressure from his friends'(my translation). Whatever the explanation, the translation, though workman-like, does not measure up to his own explicit criteria, to his own high literary standards or to modern requirements.

Footnotes

  1. Giovanni Tesio l'enigma del tradurre in Nuova Società, 18th June 1983.
  2. Luciano Genta Primo Levi: Così ho rivissuto il 'Processo' di Kafka in Tuttolibri 9.4.83.
  3. Primo Levi's L'altrui mestiere Einaudi (1985) translated as Other People's Trades by Raymond Rosenthal. Abacus Sphere Books Ltd (1991).
  4. Primo Levi I sommersi e i salvati Einaudi(1986) p.144
  5. Primo Levi Se questo è un uomo. Einaudi (1958) and La Tregua. (Einaudi (1968) translated as If This is a Man and The Truce by Stuart Woolf. Penguin Books (1979).
  6. Primo Levi Se non ora quando? Einaudi (1982) translated as If Not Now When? by William Weaver, (Abacus Books(1987).
  7. Primo Levi in Scrivere un romanzo in L'altrui mestiere, p.161. Einaudi Gli Struzzi (1985). Translated as Writing a novel in Other People's Trades by Raymond Rosenthal, Abacus Sphere Books Ltd (1991).
  8. Mengaldo,Pier Vicenzo in Primo Levi Opere Volume Terzo Introduzione,pXVI. Einaudi (1986
  9. Primo Levi La chiave a stella Einaudi.(1978). Translated by William Weaver and published as The Monkey's Wrench in the USA and as The Wrench Viking Penguin.(1987) in the UK.
  10. Primo Levi L'altrui mestiere Einaudi(1985) translated as Other People's Trades by Raymond Rosenthal. Abacus, Sphere Books Ltd (1991).
  11. Primo Levi IL sistema periodico Einaudi(1975) translated as The Periodic Table by Raymond Rosenthal, Profile Books(1985).
  12. Primo Levi Lilit e altri racconti Einaudi (1981) translated by Ruth Feldman as Moments of Reprieve, Michael Joseph (1986).
  13. Mirna Cicioni Primo Levi; Bridges of Knowledge (1995) Berg. P.51
  14. Primo Levi I sommersi e i salvati (1986) Einaudi translated by Raymond Rosenthal as The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Simon and Schuster.
  15. Primo Levi La chiave a stella Einaudi.(1978). Translated by William Weaver as The Monkeys Wrench in the USA and as The Wrench in Britain. Viking Penguin (1987).
  16. Sandra Bosco Coletsos La traduzione di 'Der Prozeß di Franz Kafka (1985). Studi Tedeschi XXVIII, 1-3.
  17. Franz Kafka Der Prozeß translated by Primo Levi as Il processo. Einaudi (1983).
  18. De Melis, Federico Il Manifesto 5.5.83
  19. Claude Levi-Strauss. Le Regard Eloigné (1983) Librairie Plon translated as Lo sguardo da lontano (1984) Einaudi and La voie Des Masques (1979) Librairie Plon translated as La via delle maschere (1985) Einaudi. Both translations by Primo Levi.
  20. Primo Levi La ricerca delle radici. Einaudi (1982).
  21. Tradurre Kafka, La Stampa, 5th of June 1983.
  22. Giovanni Tesio L'enigma del tradurre, in Naevi Società 18.6.83.
  23. Coaster Cases L'ordine delle cose e l'ordine delle parole in L'Indice dei libri del Mese. December 1987 Anno IV. N10. p25.