When I first picked up Manfredi Giffone’s Un fatto umano, excerpted in Words without Borders as A Human Act, I expected nothing more than a violent diversion similar to the Godfather or Scarface. In fact, the book approaches the mafia from the opposite end, focusing on the corrosive effects wrought by organized crime on all aspects of civic culture, plumbing the nature of heroism under despotism and demonstrating, through the brutal rise of Totò Riina’s Corleonese mafia and the hubris that led to their collapse, the ineffectiveness of violence as a basis for governance.
The title of the book is taken from a direct quote from its protagonist, Giovanni Falcone: “La mafia non è affatto invincibile. È un fatto umano e come tutti i fatti umani ha un inizio, e avrà anche una fine.” The authors and I debated how to translate this. Falcone’s words have been translated many times, most commonly rendering fatto as phenomenon: “The mafia is not at all invincible. It is a human phenomenon, and like all human phenomena it has a beginning and will also have an end.” We discarded phenomenon: too many syllables, too closely associated with a philosophical register. Fact was another, more obvious, option. But the Latin facere, to do or to make, no longer shines through so clearly in the English word fact. For English speakers, a fact is something you encounter, with no obvious origin –– an effect, perhaps, of a world dominated by mass media, where facticity is confirmed by mere presence on the web, on TV, in the papers, or on the radio. We felt that the translation should emphasize the presence of human hands, of human agency, in mafia violence. Hence, we settled on A Human Act.
Language plays a pivotal role in the section of the book that appears in Words without Borders, when Tommaso Buscetta confesses to Giovanni Falcone and, in doing so, outlines the inner workings of the mafia. Buscetta was the highest-ranking mafioso to confess to police, and his statement was of inestimable importance. Previously, anti-mafia legislation had been hampered by a widespread perception that organized crime consisted of small, independent bands with no overarching structure. Buscetta outlined the mafia hierarchy, the complex webs of allegiances, and the rampant collusion between criminals and Italy’s judiciary and political classes. His deposition made possible the drafting of a law against illegal conspiracies that would eventually lead to the imprisonment of hundreds of mafiosi.
When Buscetta was arrested in Brazil in 1983, the Corleonese had murdered numerous members of his family. He decided to confess after a failed suicide attempt, but said he would only speak to Falcone. Buscetta, like Falcone, had grown up in Palermo. Though he spoke impeccable Italian, as well as English and Portuguese, it is thought that being able to speak to Falcone in Sicilian dialect established a relation of trust between the two men that would have otherwise been impossible. The authors of A Human Act have made great efforts to preserve the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the book’s many characters, to the translator’s awe and occasional dismay.
It is often forgotten that the project of Italian unification was incomplete well into World War II. Many mafia researchers have attributed the intractability of organized crime in the south of Italy to the weakness of the state apparatus imposed by the wealthier north. The failure of state agents to assert public order or adequate infrastructure led to a reliance on informal, state-like mechanisms that derived their legitimacy from extortion. The sense of antipathy toward official state power is summed up in the term cosa nostra, “our thing,” which Buscetta tells Falcone is used by “men of honor” in lieu of mafia. Differences in ethos are inevitably embodied in linguistic differences, a painstaking attention to which is one of the virtues of A Human Act.