Translating Dino Buzzati: A Conversation with Marina Harss

In addition to her freelance writing for the New Yorker’s Goings On About Town and her frequent forays into dance criticism, Marina Harss is also a versatile and prolific translator from French, Spanish, and Italian. In the past seven years, Harss has rendered the fictional works of seven different foreign writers into English, among them the internationally acclaimed Italian novelists Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Her most recent translation is Poem Strip (NYRB Classics, 2009), a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, by yet another noted Italian writer, Dino Buzzati. (Reviewed here in the January 2010 issue of WWB by Valentina Zanca.)

Buzzati (1906–72) was born in Belluno in northern Italy and lived in Milan where, for more than forty years, he worked as a reporter and editor for the Corriere della Sera. In his free time, he painted and wrote short stories, plays, and novels, the most famous of which is Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppes, 1940), an existentialist allegory on the passage of time.

Long admired in Europe, particularly in France (where Albert Camus championed his writing in addition to translating and staging his Kafkaesque play on dying, Un caso clinico [A Clinical Case, 1953], in Paris in 1955), Buzzati’s peculiar brand of fantastic fiction has struggled to find an appreciative American audience. Will the publication of Poem Strip, in Harss’s exuberant new translation, make a difference? 

Poem Strip is a distillation of several of Buzzati’s lifelong preoccupations, most insistently, the temptations we encounter in life, the precariousness of our hopes and loves, and the mystery that awaits us in death. As with much else that Buzzati wrote, the book blurs the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary and depicts a series of unexpected events and enigmatic characters made all the more unsettling by the otherwise seemingly normal settings and the matter-of-fact way in which the story of Orfi, a singer in Milan, and Eura, his lost girlfriend, unfolds.

Harss renders the essence of Buzzati’s writing style cleanly, precisely, and sensitively in English. And yet the book’s dark themes and its offbeat apposition of the surreal and the real may yet prove a stumbling block to American readers. Or will they? Unlike previous Buzzati books translated into English, Poem Strip has one extra magic trick up its sleeve: the luridly alluring illustrations that Buzzati created to accompany the story. Appearing for the first time in English, at a moment when sales of graphic novels are flourishing, Poem Strip would seem to stand a much better chance of attracting the American readership that Buzzati deserves. Obviously it’s something that Harss herself hopes will happen, as she explains below. 

 

Michael McDonald: Why did you decide to translate Buzzati’s Poem Strip?

Marina Harss: Edwin Frank, the editor of New York Review Books Classics, suggested the project to me. I read all sorts of different books for him in French and Spanish, but it’s the first work I’ve done for him.

MM: Was it your first introduction to Buzzati?

MH: Yes. I don’t think I’d have found my way to Buzzati by myself. I’d heard of Il deserto dei Tartari but had never read it. And so when Edwin suggested this book, I asked my husband, who is Italian, if he had ever heard of Dino Buzzati and his Poema a fumetti. At that point, I didn’t even connect it with Il deserto dei Tartari. And he said, “Dino Buzzati? Yes, of course! We all read Il deserto dei Tartari in school.” And so I started to read Buzzati’s Poema a fumetti and I found it to be such a curious combination. It reminded me a little of  Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Orfeu negro, yet another adaptation of the classic Greek myth into a different, modern setting that worked on some level. I liked how Buzzati had updated the story and I thought his drawings were very beautiful in a Pop Art sort of way. That’s one of the things I liked: the juxtaposition of Buzzati’s highly charged, poetic prose and his drawings. I also liked the fact that Poema a fumetti evokes a specific time and a place—Milan in the late 1960s—very strongly. For example, the influence of pop culture on the book is striking and makes it really interesting.

MM: And after that you read Il deserto dei Tartari?

MH: Yes, that’s right. And I became even more enthusiastic about undertaking the assignment. But I think Edwin had already decided that he wanted me to do Poema a fumetti and so I didn’t have to convince him.

MM: How long did it take you to complete the translation?

MH: The whole process? Maybe six months.

MM: Is that normal?

MH: I usually allot a year for a book-length translation project. But in part that’s because I work on several different projects throughout the year and won’t be devoting myself exclusively to just that one book. In the case of Poem Strip, there weren’t that many words to grapple with, which, in part, explains why it didn’t take as long. But the hard part of translating Buzzati came in getting the tone right.

MM: What do you mean by “getting the tone right”?

MH: My ultimate goal is for the reader to forget the fact that he or she is reading a translation. I want to disappear as much as possible from the reader’s perception to allow some semblance of the particular writing style of the person I’m translating to come through in English.

MM: There are a lot of different metaphors to describe the art of translation. One of my favorites comes from John Weightman who described the process as “rather like trying to make the same picture with two sets of jigsaw-puzzle pieces cut differently.”

MH: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. It often takes more words to render an idea in the translation than in the original; the extra words are like some sort of lubricant to get the idea to fit in properly.

MM: What is your modus operandi when you translate?

MH: I start at page one and go straight through to the end. If I encounter a difficult passage at some point along the way, I don’t skip over it. I try to do some semi-convincing parsing of the hard bits and will leave the original wording alongside in brackets to remind me that this is not fully resolved. Then I go back and look at what I’ve produced. I usually do about three drafts. But there were many more drafts for the Buzzati book because it is short and every word makes a difference. And it’s interesting: if I run across something that seems really impossible to get through the first time, by the second time there’s usually a glimmer of hope that I’ll find a solution, and by the third time, when I return to the passage, it seems to work itself out. Maybe by that point my solution has traveled so far from the original phrasing in the foreign language that it has acquired its own logic. But then I go back to the original and take another close look to make sure that I haven’t strayed too far. You’re always negotiating that line between freedom and fidelity.

MM: Are there other factors that influence how you work?

MH:  Moving away from the text, all professional translators must accept that different editors want different things, especially if the editors are familiar with the source language. One editor might say to me: “What you’ve produced strays too far from the original. Make it more faithful.” Another might say just the opposite. Edwin can read enough Italian that he knows what he wants and the translation of Poem Strip was a quite collaborative process. It’s the first time it’s ever worked that way for me.

MM: Can you provide an example?

MH: Take the book’s title in Italian: Poema a fumetti. The English version of the title I came up with was A Graphic Poem, which I thought rendered the Italian well and was pretty close to the original. I also liked using the word “graphic” because it suggested Buzzati’s sort of sexy pictorial style. The title that was selected, Poem Strip, is one that would never have occurred to me. But when Edwin proposed it to me I immediately thought, “Well that works.”

MM: What other outside factors influence how you translate?

MH: Well, you always have to take into consideration the wishes of the author or, in Buzzati’s case, his heirs. Sometimes the estate can take a hard-line and demand that the translator be as faithful as possible to the text. That would have been a very hard thing to do with Buzzati’s book since it contains both realistic and poetic passages. It’s not the type of book that you can translate literally.

MM: What do you mean?

MH: On the one hand, the book contains several historical references. For example, the so-called Guardian Demon whom Orfi encounters in the Underworld, a talking empty jacket, refers to Khrushchev. “Don’t worry young man,” he says to Orfi at one point, “I’m an old demon pretty corrupt and Krushchevian.” It doesn’t get more historically specific than that. At first, Edwin thought of perhaps striking out the reference and replacing it with another adjective. I think he found it awkward. But we went over it and in the end it seemed like a very topical historical reference that helps fix the story in time. Similarly, at another point, Buzzati makes a specific reference to the Vaiont Dam disaster that occurred in the Veneto in 1963 as a result of which entire villages were obliterated and thousands of people killed. The reference occurs in one of Orfi’s songs, “The Story of the Nymphs,” where Buzzati uses the image of the bursting dam to make a sexual reference. The line goes: Vulcano, Bandiera, Tormento, Liberazione, Vaiònt; literally: Volcano, Flag, Torment, Liberation, Vaiònt. Italians of that period would get the reference immediately. But the word he uses—Vaiònt—sounds so strange in English that we simply decided to generalize the reference and use the words Release, Bursting Dam in its place. Of course, many younger Italians have never heard of Vaiont either. Even so, obviously, something is lost. But at the same time, you’re making the passage much more intelligible to the general reader.

MM: Right. It’s either that or footnotes.

MH: No, you can’t have footnotes in a book like this; they would ruin everything. They’d detract from the book’s overall poetic atmosphere. It really comes to the fore when the Guardian Demon compels Orfi to sing different songs before he allows him to search for Eura among the dead. Those songs raised the poetic tone of the book to an even higher register.

MM: Were there any other difficulties with the translation?

MH: Just one—one that arose from the fact of the book being a graphic novel: the issue of having the lines I’d translated from Italian into English fit snugly into each frame the way Buzzati had designed it.

MM: How did you handle that?

MH: Originally what I did was to render the translation and the line breaks more or less faithfully. The lines would come out, of course, in different lengths. Then Edwin brought in someone to do the graphic lettering and the lines had a tendency to shift again with the result that when the panel galleys came back we had to rejigger some of the lines to make them fit. In the end, though, I think it all came together. All of the pictures are so beautiful, especially the ones evoking the dead with their tremulous black lines. I do wonder, though, what people will make of the story.

MM: What did you make of it?

MH: Buzzati was obviously obsessed with death. But I see a lot of ambivalence there. In part, he’s a realist. A person dies and nothing remains. Life continues and we end up living on top of our dead. But then he flips things around and suggests that our death is basically our life but without any of the desires and any of the hopes and any of the despair. It’s a beautiful concoction and yet at the end I don’t think Buzzati himself believes it. He waivers. He takes it all away and paints a picture of a sort of death-in-life. It seems hopeless: there is a city of the dead under our feet and we’re on our way to becoming dirt. Or is it? What about Eura’s ring, which Orfi is left with after his valiant but futile attempt to rescue her? Doesn’t that constitute a ray of hope? It suggests that there has to be another, possibly better, world awaiting us at the end of our lives. Otherwise where did the ring come from? But then Buzzati ends the book with a strange depiction of kings going off into exile. As I said, there is a lot of ambivalence.

MM: Have you spent a lot of time in Italy?

MH: Yes. My husband and I go around once or twice a year and even before then I have an aunt in Ischia with whom I spent a lot of time during the summers. My family is from Argentina and so Italian came to me pretty organically, at least as far as speaking—but not literary Italian, which is quite difficult. That point was brought home to me with the first book I ever translated, which was For Solo Violin: A Jewish Childhood in Fascist Italy (2002) by Aldo Zargani. Zargani was a television producer, not a professional writer, but he deliberately wrote his book in a very literary style, very self-consciously, using the most elegant, poetic prose. It’s a wonderful book, actually. Anyway, he crafted and refined every single sentence, so much so that I was left looking up every other word and it took me something like a week to translate a single paragraph. Of course, there was a loosening up of written Italian after the Second World War. But Italians still maintain the difference between spoken and written Italian. If it’s written it must be colto. For a while, I worked for the New York Times Rome bureau, and writing faxes and emails was excruciating. You get a bit of this in Spanish, as well, especially writers from Spain. But in my experience the gap in Italian between the written and spoken language is the farthest apart of any of the languages I know. Of course with Spanish you always have the problem: Whose Spanish? Argentinian? Mexican? Iberian? But that’s a subject for another day.

MM: How different was your experience of translating Buzzati into English from, say, your previous experiences of translating Moravia or Pasolini? William Weaver, perhaps the premier translator of modern Italian literature into English, once remarked that he learned from Pasolini just how poor American obscenities are. Was that your experience as well?

MH: In part, yes. There were some very colorful obscenities—usually having to do with one’s dead relations—in the book of Pasolini’s that I translated. [Stories from The City of God, 2003.] And they were pretty difficult to translate into English. But that wasn’t the hardest thing. The hardest thing was the writing, the way in which Pasolini had constructed his sentences. Don’t get me wrong: Pasolini’s stories provide a wonderfully humane view of Roman proletarian life. But the style in which they are written is not the least bit simple. He wrote these stories and essays at the start of his career, in the 1950s. The writing was dense, and the syntax was complicated and convoluted. There were a lot of sentences strung together with commas or conjunctions which, on some level, could not be organically rendered in English. In English they just ramble on and on, with no apparent logic. I was forced to cut things apart and add all sorts of connecting words, dashes, parentheses, clauses—which, of course, I was hesitant about. But when I tried to be more faithful and mirror his sentence structure, the passages simply did not make any sense in English. Buzzati, no doubt because of his decades-long career as a reporter for the Corriere della Sera, aimed for directness and clarity. Unfortunately, with Pasolini, I sometimes felt almost like at times he had been a little bit lazy because Italian allows you so much flexibility in how you can express yourself. Of course, it was probably just a reflection of my own frustration!

MM: And Moravia?

MH: No, Moravia is quite different, very spare, very direct. When I translated him [Conjugal Love, 2007], I had completely the opposite feeling. And bear in mind I didn’t translate one of his great novels. The story, which is about a writer’s relationship to his wife, is fascinating and weird but has some weaknesses. The characters are sort of like sketches, and the story is a little thin. It’s almost like a long short story. But in any case translating his prose was so enjoyable because it is so disciplined and spare, especially for an Italian writer. Literary Italian allows for a lot of accumulation and yet Moravia never lets himself go—ever. As for Buzzati, his prose also seems very spare. That was the main difficulty I encountered working on Poem Strip. I didn’t have the luxury of padding Buzzati’s sentences out to explain their meaning in English. Instead I was always trying to cut back, as much as possible, my initial English versions of what he’d written without sacrificing the poetic overtones.

MM: Do you think it helps if the translator has some degree of sympathy with the outlook of the writer he or she is translating?

MM: Not necessarily. But given that there’s so little money involved in the game, it helps to like the writer whose work it is you’re translating! If I really think a book is bad, I usually don’t end up translating it. I don’t think I’ve ever translated something I didn’t have an affinity for. I do a lot of reader’s reports for publishers, and if I’ve recommended a book, it of course means that I did like it, and so it’s unlikely that I’d end up translating something I don’t regard highly. I recently read a book for a publisher that I believe is going to be made into a film and I was asked to do a rush job of translation and there was potentially some money involved; but I didn’t find the book that interesting and there would have been a lot of quick deadlines involved, and so I passed on the project. It’s not that I don’t need the work and can afford to turn down projects. But in addition to my translation work, I write for the New Yorker, the Goings On About Town section, and do dance criticism for magazines such as the Nation. But I like to like the translation work I’m doing. I love language and my gratification, given that the pay is so little, comes from translating writers who write well. The literary market may be in trouble at the moment, and translated works are a small part of that market, but as long as there are readers out there who are reading and enjoying translated works, I’m happy.

MM: What do you think of the relatively new academic discipline of translation studies?

MH: When I was in college, if there was such a thing, I really wasn’t aware of it. I studied comparative literature and my thesis was a partial retranslation of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which was one of the most important books in my early life. That was fascinating. It made me realize that translation was something that I really wanted to do. After college I went to NYU, the French Department, and there were some translation seminars there that I attended. But I wasn’t aware of, and I don’t think there were any, translation studies programs per se. Otherwise I probably would have attended them. But it’s an interesting question. If you come at translation work the way I did, you end up working so much on your own, you’re never really aware of what other people are working on and how they go about translating. Normally, I don’t read translated works if they were written in a language that I know, and so I never really see how other people are going about their job. I know a few other translators, but I don’t really compare notes with them.

MM: What are you working on now?

MH: I’m always working on a few things at once. Now I’m translating from the French, a book by Élisabeth Gille, again for Edwin Frank and NYRB Classics. Gille is the daughter of Irène Némirovsky and the book is an imagined memoir of her mother. Her writing is wonderful and Gille herself was actually a translator, from English I think. I’m almost finished and it’s been a really enjoyable experience. French is such a well constructed language, it almost feels like Bach. It’s so clean and rational; the sentences are so balanced. Then, after that, it’s back to translating something by Moravia. Two books of his are being discussed for translation, so I can’t tell you which right now. So next up: French, Italian and then, I think, I’d like to return to translating from the French. That would be ideal.

MM: Who do you imagine as the ideal reader for your translation of Buzzati’s Poem Strip?

MH: Judging from the reaction of people at the book party that was held to celebrate the book’s release, I think it may be people interested in graphic novels. People were immediately drawn to the book’s cover and couldn’t resist flipping it open and leafing through it. Buzzati’s images—darkly Gothic, mysterious and erotic—draw people in.  I don’t know how many people are familiar with Dino Buzzati. But I do know that people are curious and that if ever there were a book to arouse people’s curiosity, this is it.

The interview took place in New York City on Saturday, October 24, 2009.