Image: The Italian Alps, photographed by Andrew Raimondi, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue and Nerina Cocchi’s translation of Lina Prosa’s “Lampedusa Snow” appears in the September 2016 issue of Words without Borders: There Is No Map—The New Italian(s).
Translation is a dialogue, a conversation. For a while I believed the conversation was between me, the translator, and the author. Then I realized it was a polyphonic chorus of influences and voices. In the case of Lina Prosa’s “Lampedusa Snow” (from The Shipwreck Trilogy), add to that mix the work of a pair of translators, and things become even more complicated—not to mention that this is a text written for theater, and having seen the first part of this trilogy on stage at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro last year, I know that the actors’ voices multiply the text and produce even more layers of meaning.
The meanings found in the play are complicated and vital. Lina Prosa does not tell a typical story or build typical characters. Her play follows the experience of an African refugee who is relocated to the Italian Alps, something he did not expect when he boarded a ship to Europe. Perhaps it would be simpler if all of the Italians she wrote were simply willing or unwilling to change and help, or all of the refugees perfect—but she hasn’t done this. She has given these characters the qualities and imperfections we find within ourselves and struggle to deal with regularly. The text feels more relevant than ever as thousands of men, women, and children die in the Mediterranean, so close to my home in Bologna. Aside from the characters and language and sheer dramatic force of Prosa’s writing, I was drawn into this work because of the author’s willingness to take up such a serious challenge. Prosa does not shy from speaking to a reality she sees firsthand through her own work and life in Palermo.
In a 1972 conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Deleuze thanks Foucault for teaching all of us something fundamental—he says Foucault has taught us about the “indignity of speaking for others.” I would agree with him, except that those who are directly involved in a situation or event in which they have little power may not have the opportunity to speak for themselves in the moment. In translating and in writing creatively in general, this theory is constantly contested. The fictional voices a writer allows herself to use shouldn’t be limited to a single experience; yet how to create those voices becomes ever more problematic when the writer is dealing with characters further and further from her own experience.
Lina Prosa does amazing work, creating characters that are different from her but are not presented as “Other.” When Nerina, my cotranslator, came to me with this project a few years ago, this notion of speaking for an experience not my own was a major concern. I was afraid that by giving voice to these characters, we might take space and voice away from the people who are experiencing these tragic events. Then I realized it was my responsibility as a translator to understand this text and to situate it in its Italian—and, specifically, its Sicilian—context as best I could.
Prosa’s work must be examined not from the European (post)colonial perspective alone but from the very nuanced Italian (post)colonial perspective. One only needs to revisit the work of Leonardo Sciascia or Elio Vittorini or Carlo Levi to recall that Sicilians and southern Italians were very recently the migrants crossing dangerous seas, under life-threatening conditions. The Italian identity itself has been formed by emigration and movement, and Prosa’s work pays homage to this fact, reversing the Italian habit of forgetting or neglecting very recent history.
Speaking for others is an impossible task. What remains is the possibility to speak to or with others in the hope of making space for more voices. Prosa does all of this remarkably well. My adamant belief in freedom of speech is only rivaled by my belief that we need to find better ways to listen to one another, to be sensitive and willing to learn.
In his book Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon writes,
I came into the world imbued with the will to find meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.
Sealed into that crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others. Their attention was a liberation, running over my body suddenly abraded into nonbeing, endowing me once more with an agility I thought I had lost, and by taking me out of the world, restoring me into it.
The act of creating theater is the act of making space—voices must emerge and they must be given enough space to emerge. The actor is similar to the translator in this, reading and interpreting, making a new iteration of the text. Precisely because theater is about bodies, Lina Prosa gives space to black bodies, gives space for men and woman to speak for themselves in a world that is all too closed to them. Italian theater, for all of its progress and neo-avant-gardism, has yet to make people of color mainstays in theatrical representation. (The same can be said for every aspect of Italian media.)
“Lampedusa Snow” is difficult to read in parts because it is a reflection of an Italy that is contradictory and at times downright cruel. According to the logic of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” each body left to die at sea, each man and woman and child abandoned to anonymity, is the state enforcing law and also making new law. Speaking about the death penalty Benjamin writes, “Its purpose is not to punish the infringement of law but to establish new law. For in the exercise of violence over life and death more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms itself.” When the bodies of refugees are left in the sea or in the mountains, abandonment itself becomes a new rule. When the play’s protagonist speaks the following lines, he is not only asking for life and survival but to be recognized as a citizen, to be recognized as human by the state:
I grab some snow, put it in my mouth.
I promise harmony.
I try to convince Italy.
More difficult to convince Alpine Italy.
A question of difference.
I was prepared for the sea.
I know the fear of going under.
Not of going up.
the heart of man changes,
I eat the snow, the Nation will reward me.
This man wants to do his best by his new land, but he knows his humanity may not be enough for most people to give him a chance at life. These lines highlight the question at the center of the entire play: why we fail see all people as whole people.
Translating this text with Nerina was not a simple task. Translating theater is different from other kinds of translation, as it demands not only consideration of the original text but of the voice of the actor who will speak the words. The text is plural and escapes us even as we set it down or utter it aloud. In “Civilization and National Cultures,” Paul Ricoeur writes, “The discovery of the plurality of cultures is never a harmless experience.” In later sections of Lina Prosa’s play, most of the native Italians represented want to be better and they attempt to learn how—they attempt to live with this new plurality—but it isn’t enough, and it isn’t fast enough. It seems these characters, like many real people, are afraid of change, of losing themselves—or, more likely, their idea of themselves—to new immigrants. Hopefully, texts like this can help people to understand that plurality has always been a part of our nature and that embracing the plurality can and should be viewed as something that can change Italy and its people for the better.
Frantz Fanon quote from Charles Lam Markmann’s translation of Black Skin, White Masks.