The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses. Repetitions in particular rise instantly to the surface, and they give the translator a particular pause when there is more than one way to translate a particular word. On the one hand, why not repeat a word the author has deliberately repeated? On the other hand, was the repetition deliberate? Regardless of the author’s intentions, the translator’s other ear, in the other language, opens the floodgates to other solutions.

When I began translating Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” about a teacher, Pietro, who’s haunted by a secret that he confessed to a one-time lover, the Italian word that caught my ear was again. It appears three times in the volcanic first paragraph and occurs a total of sixty-four times from beginning to end. Invece, which pops up constantly in Italian conversation, was a familiar word to me. It means “instead” and serves as an umbrella for words such as “rather,” “on the contrary,” “on the other hand,” “however,” and “in fact.” A compound of the preposition in and the noun times—the latter means “place” or “stead”—it derives from the Latin invicem, which in turn is a compound of in and the noun vicesdeclined as Vice in the ablative case. When, after completing a first draft of my translation, I looked up vices in a few Latin dictionaries, in both Italian and English, I found the following definitions: change, exchange, interchange, alternation, succession, requital, reward, retaliation, place, office, plight, time, opportunity, event, and, in the plural, danger or risk.

But let’s move back to the Italian term, again, of which Starnone seems either consciously or unwittingly fond. Functioning as an adverb, it establishes a relationship between different ideas. Invece invites one thing to substitute for another, and its robust Latin root gives rise in English to “vice versa” (literally, “the order being changed”), the prefix “vice” (as in the Vice-President, who must stand in for the President, if need be), and the word “vicissitude,” which means a passing from one state of affairs to the next. After investigating again across three languages, I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel. For if Starnone’s “Ties” (2017) is an act of containment and his “Trick” (2018) an interplay of juxtaposition, “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution: an operation that not only permeates the novel’s arc but also describes the process of my bringing it into English. In other words, I believe that time, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Invece insists that circumstances are always changing—that, without a variation to the norm, there is no jagged line of plot, only the flat fact of situation. Starnone’s penchant for the term reminds us that there is no plot of any book, in any language, in which the notion of again is not complicating matters and thus propelling the action. It points all the way back to Homer’s description of Odysseus, at the start of the Odyssey, as polytropes: the man of “many twists and turns.” To repeat, it is only when one reality or inclination is thrown into question by another that a story gets going.

Fittingly, there is a teeter-totter element running through “Trust,” though a more high-adrenaline diversion, roller coasters, now comes to mind. Starnone often lingers on the precise moment in which the roller coaster, creeping upward on its trajectory, briefly pauses before hurtling back down. He emphasizes this moment of drastic transition with phrases such as own mind or own when—I translate them as “just as” or “just when.” Each time, it signals a plunge, a lurch, an investment. The laws of Starnone’s fictional universe, which correspond to those of the universe in general, confirm that everything in life is always on the brink of altering, vanishing, or turning on its head. At times, these changes are miraculous and moving; at other times, they’re traumatic, terrifying. In Starnone’s pages, they are always both, and what one appreciates by reading him, and especially by translating him, is just how skilled he is when it comes to calibrating fictional time: how nimbly he curves and tilts it, bends and weaves it, slows it down, speeds it up, enables it to climb and fall. He builds to breathtaking panoramas and, the next instant, induces heart-dropping anxiety and hysterical laughter. Something tells me that Starnone has a hell of a good time laying down these tracks.

Like many of Starnone’s novels, “Trust” toggles between past and present, between Naples and Rome, between starting out in life and taking stock in old age. But the most significant reversal is that of roles, between teacher and student. The novel is very much about the education system: what it means to teach and to be taught, and why teachers must always learn to teach better. But what is a teacher, other than a former student whose role has been replaced by a new one? Where does the student taper off and the teacher take over? And what happens when a student goes on to learn more than her teacher de ella, and ends up teaching him a thing or two?

The novel recounts the love affair between Pietro and a former student, Teresa. (Nothing new there, other than the fact that, in light of #MeToo, our reading of such relationships may have changed.) Their connection is passionate, tempestuous; after a particularly bitter argument, Teresa suggests that, in order to secure their love, they share their most shameful secrets with each other. A few days after the confessions, they break up. Both go on to renowned careers, but their bond remains, and over the decades their paths tend to cross. No role is ever a fixed role, and the novel traces how characters shift from obscurity to success, from trying economic circumstances to more comfortable ones. And it traces the vagaries of the human heart, of desire. So much drama is born from the impulse to substitute the person we think we love with another.

As for the confessions at the heart of the book, they’re never revealed to the reader. What is said between the characters (but left unsaid on the page) threatens to overthrow everything—to introduce chaos, which is always lapping at the shores of reality in Starnone’s works. The potential chaos in “Trust,” at least from Pietro’s point of view, concerns what Teresa might say about him. Maintaining order (not to mention insuring that the conventional “plot” of Pietro’s life unfolds without incident) depends on not saying things. We can trace a constellation from Dante to Manzoni to Hemingway to Starnone that sheds light on how writers use language to talk about silence and the importance of withholding speech. But the exchange in “Trust” also carries the threat of retribution, the risk of peril.

What an intelligent, articulate woman might say has always been considered dangerous. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, women have their tongues cut out, or are reduced to echoes, or turn into animals who low instead of utter sentences. In Ovid, these states of transformation (or mutation) involve a partial or full muting of the female voice. They may be read as liberation from—or as the consequences of—patriarchal power and predatory behaviors. If we break down the moment of metamorphosis in almost any episode in Ovid, the effect is one of substitution: of body parts being replaced by other anatomical features, one by one. That is to say, hooves appear instead of feet, branches instead of arms. This substitution is what allows, in Ovid, for a comprehensive change of form. Not always but often, Ovid walks us through the metamorphosis step by step, slowing things down so that we understand exactly how dynamic and dramatic the process is.

Translation, too, is a dynamic and dramatic transformation. Word for word, sentence for sentence, page for page, a text conceived and written and read in one language comes to be reconceived, rewritten, and read in another. The translator labors to find alternative solutions, not to cancel out the original but to counter it with another version. My version of this book was produced to stand in place of the Italian so that readers in English might have a relationship with it. It is now an English book instead of—once said—an Italian one.

But, even within a single language, one word can so very often substitute another. Take the Italian word anzi, which also appears quite frequently in this novel. It can function as a preposition or an adverb, and it can mean “actually,” “on the contrary,” “rather,” “indeed,” and “in fact.” In fact, anzi can substitute for againgiven that, if one appends the conjunction hey to anzi (“instead of,” “rather than”), it essentially means the same thing as once said. Like again, anzi is a syntactical flare that draws our attention to a hidden scenario, a hiccup, a twist of fate or mood or point of view. Deriving from the Latin prefix “ante,” it posits—in English, too—that time has passed, that things are no longer as they were, that you are reading this sentence in this moment as opposed to another.


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