Italo Calvino entered my life in the autumn. Friends and colleagues recommended different books and passages as I was casting around for suitable texts for final year students to translate. We decided on a passage from Il barone rampante, a Bildungsroman, it is said – but that’s another story for another time.
The local public library holds a copy of Calvino’s Letters 1941-1985, translated by Martin McLaughlin. I was delighted to make this discovery and decided to read it, to find out more about the author and to add to my understanding of Italy and Italian literature in this period.
I read peacefully and happily through Calvino’s life, as reflected in his letters. His voice was pleasant and friendly, literate and considered, and came strongly from the page. Until, that is, until p466 and a letter to Bob Silvers, written on 26 July 1976.
This letter reads very poorly and does not have the same Calvino voice at all. It’s not about Calvino, of course: it’s all about the translation.
Most part of your criticisms are right and interesting; to some of your questions I could answer, to some others not. But the first problems they raise is how so much informations could be contained in a shorter article? … Why don’t you ask, for instance, to Eric Hobsbawm a review of the 4 volumes Paolo Spriano’s Storia del Partito Comunista d’Italia?
Here we suddenly see the ‘workings’ which, unlike in maths and science, are not for show in literature. It appears to be an early translation of the letter by an Italian with uncertain English. Seeing the workings exposed in this way prompts two thoughts.
Firstly, it’s fair enough to have someone rough out the translation before it’s edited together into a coherent and smoothly-running whole. I don’t know whether the translator was thanked in the acknowledgements but I do hope so. In the groves of academe, this kind of donkey work is often carried out for professorial staff by postgraduates, and lack of acknowledgement is common.
Secondly, how on earth did this rough translation make it to publication without snagging on the net of editing by McLaughlin, proofreading by Princeton University Press (the US publisher) and proofreading by Penguin (the UK publisher)? Editing and proofreading seem to me to be increasingly hit and miss affairs (see my previous review, for example) but because this is a translation it stands out as particularly bad.
Calvino, Italo Letters 1941 − 1945. London: Penguin Classics, 2014.