Gregory Conti’s translation of Giuseppe Berto’s “The Betrayal” appears in the January 2016 issue of Words without Borders: Bad Behavior.
Why translate, in 2017, a work of fiction written in 1978 that didn’t sell well even then? Why repropose a book whose author, Giuseppe Berto, has long been forgotten by most Italian, let along Anglophone, readers? Those are questions I have asked and been asked more than a few times these past two years. The editors of Words without Borders have now kindly given me the chance to address them.
There is a short answer. In the fall of 2013, when I was teaching a course in translation in the Italian Department at Rutgers, the department chair and Berto scholar, Alessandro Vettori, pointed out that La gloria had not yet been translated into English and suggested that it might be an interesting, and perhaps marketable, project. So far, the estimate of its marketability appears to have been overly optimistic, but the book could not have been more interesting and I was immediately caught up in it. That brings us to the long answer.
La gloria, from which “The Betrayal” is excerpted, is Berto’s version of a fifth gospel, according to Judas, its narrator and coprotagonist. When she edited my submission, Susan Harris shrewdly chose to end the excerpt with Judas’s line, “I, at last, believed.” That line turns the canonical interpretation of Judas on its head. Judas’s betrayal is not, as the other four gospels portray it, the consequence of Satan having entered his soul, but an act of faith. Judas betrays Jesus in fulfillment of his prophesied role in the crucifixion of the Son of God, the act that would redeem mankind, end evil once and for all, and reunite all creation in eternal life. Far from an attempt to thwart Christ’s salvific mission, Judas’s betrayal is the essential instrument of its achievement. Or, as Judas puts it in a later chapter, “I, by betraying You, helped You die in the way You wanted, because I finally believed in your mysterious divinity. I did what I could. . . .”
As startling as it is, however, Berto’s rewriting of the gospel goes beyond his reinterpretation of the role of Judas in Christ’s passion and death. Berto’s Judas is a vehicle for a profound examination of religious faith itself, of the relationship between good and evil, of earthly life to eternal life, sacred to profane. Of course, the gospel story has always contained implications extending far beyond the time when the events it describes took place. But unlike the canonical gospels, the narrative voice of Berto’s gospel is the product of a modern sensibility and it is a voice that speaks first and foremost to modern readers.
Judas’s account is unique in its not having been written during the author’s earthly life but rather from the perspective of the late twentieth century. In telling his version of the story, Berto’s Judas has the advantage of having read not only the gospels of his fellow evangelists but also the gospel commentaries, if you will, of such figures as Saint Paul, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, Wilhelm Reich, and Saul Bellow. Moreover, Judas as evangelist has the knowledge that Christ’s death on the cross has not brought about the redemption that Judas the apostle had believed it would: “It wasn’t enough, and in fact we are still here, in this vale of tears. In the act of redemption, something went wrong.” The “we” of this sentence are not the apostles and disciples but mankind, and the present tense refers not to 33 AD but 1978, after almost 2,000 more years of human travail.
This for me is why it makes sense to translate Berto’s gospel now. The story it tells is both ancient and contemporary. The questions it raises about the complex relationship of good and evil, about the trying search for meaning and purpose in an unredeemed and perhaps unredeemable world, are still questions that trouble us, as much as we might prefer to ignore them.
Finally, there is also a personal factor in my choice to translate La gloria. At the time I started working on the translation, my sister was in the final stages of a losing struggle with cancer. A woman of razor-sharp intelligence, relentless curiosity, and unwavering Christian faith, who relished occasions to engage with the issues the book examines, I knew Liz would have loved reading it. That did not happen. Nevertheless, she inspired the translation and it is dedicated to her.