Translation as a Performing Art

imagesThirty years ago I moved to Milan to work for an Italian art magazine called FMR. It was an odd and ambitious enterprise: FMR started publishing in the United States a year later with the slogan “the most beautiful magazine in the world.” The offices hardly seemed like offices at all: they were located in Palazzo Visconti di Modrone, an exceptionally fine piece of Milanese rococo architecture. The building was Luchino Visconti’s childhood home, and it was a gorgeous and dramatic workplace. When it was time for coffee, we ordered in rounds of espressos, which were brought by a white-coated young man carrying a silver trayful of demitasse thermoses. Every few months, one of the magazine’s production managers would take orders for prosciutto from his hometown, Parma — the whole ham, what they thin-slice in an Italian gastronomia. Price: about $20.

Among the people I met in my time at FMR were Jorge Luis Borges, the legendary Argentine Grand Prix racer Juan Manuel Fangio, the retail tycoon Stanley Marcus, Gay Talese and Katell le Bourhis, Diana Vreeland’s assistant and successor at the Met’s Fashion Institute. Katell told me that as a very young girl she’d met very old people who were the basis of characters in Proust’s “Recherche.”

The publisher was Franco Maria Ricci, who named his flagship magazine after his own monogram. He liked to say “the very best often costs less,” and he decided we needed a professional translator to sit in for a few days each month, so he hired William Weaver, who had just translated Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose.”

For a year or so, Bill and I worked together and had occasional lunches together. At the time, there were still relatively down-at-the-heels lunch places in the center of Milan, where a full meal with wine was about 10 bucks. Our conversations were lively and companionable and this, for me, was when literary translation first swam into view as a path and a profession.

I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent. […]

(From The New York Times, Anthony Shugaar, 27.01.2014)

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