Grappling with God’s Language: Giacomo Sartori’s “I Am God,” Translated from Italian by Frederika Randall

I am god

by Stiliana Milkova

What does God’s diary read like? What secret fantasies and obsessions does the Almighty entertain? Giacomo Sartori’s novel I Am God tackles these questions in a humorous, provocative, and perspicacious account of mankind’s doings seen through the eyes of none other than God. I Am God is the diary of God as spectator and narrator who zooms in and out of galaxies and bovine entrails alike, training his gaze on Daphne, a young scientist who shuttles between two jobs – artificial cow insemination and molecular genetics research.

God indulges in a scopophilic relationship with Daphne and her friends Aphra and Vittorio. He follows – like the viewer of a soap opera ­­­– their professional and amorous pursuits, while like a director (or writer, for that matter) he tries to orchestrate their lives to suit his own intentions. His diary introduces Daphne through a vertiginous change of perspectives, shifting his gaze from the vast expanses of the universe into a cow’s anus:

I observe, for example, the galaxy called the Milky Way, and more precisely what is called the Solar System, and even more precisely, the planet Earth. My eyes (if you know what I mean) fall on a very tall girl (everything’s relative) in a high-tech cowshed, the polar opposite of a bucolic Nativity Scene. I see her introduce her gloved hand into a cow’s anus and with a rapid rotary motion of the wrist, extract a handful of feces the consistency of mud from the big rectum. She then cleans off the animal’s swollen vulva, spreads it open and inserts the point of an instrument that looks in some ways like a syringe, in other words like a handgun, pushing to penetrate the beast and rotating her hand from time to time. (7-8)

The “sodomatrix” Daphne who is also a neo-punk biker, an aspiring hacker, and a crucifix-burning atheist, rivets God’s gaze and he can’t stop watching. And we can’t stop cringing (or laughing) at God’s pronouncements, at his compulsive need to qualify and modify his language, at his repetitive reliance on parenthetical statements to clarify his thoughts. As we follow God following Daphne, Aphra, and Vittorio, the text juxtaposes the grave tenor of a divine narrator who comments on mankind’s self-destructive behavior with the comical, titillating content of his observations and musings. Daphne’s plot line, the thread that holds the diary together, unfolds in an unexpected though delightful way, confirming God’s inability to foresee and understand human actions and forcing him to put an end to a diary which testifies to his own imperfection.

Imperfection – or rather, the imperfection of God’s language – is a significant thematic thread running through Sartori’s text. Frederika Randall, the novel’s translator from Italian, performs a phenomenal feat in capturing God’s vertiginous linguistic and stylistic oscillations revealing him as a capricious, indecisive, bawdy voyeur. The text teems with rhetorical markers of God’s inability to express himself through language, with recurring qualifications, modifications, and hesitations, with footnotes and asides. The tone, like the constant shift in God’s perspective, changes from humorous to peremptory, from chatty to sentimental, from didactic to flabbergasted. The book’s lexical range, likewise, swings from astrophysics to theology and from art history to erotic discourse.

The challenge for the translator then is to render God’s ample rhetorical hesitation, his constant hedging, and to negotiate the explosion of varying registers and vocabularies. Randall approaches this challenge with a brilliant strategy, one that seems endemic to the narrator of Sartori’s novel yet is her translator’s invention allowing her to remain faithful to the original. Randall populates the novel with parenthetical statements and asides often where the Italian has none. In the translation the recurring parentheses aptly signal the loquacious narrator’s insecurities. For example, God defines his own position by way of the inadequacy of language to represent his divine essence:

Don’t ask me how I came to be God, because I myself have no idea. Or rather I do know, just as I know everything, but it would take eons to put into words, and quite frankly, I don’t think it’s worth it. My rank (let’s call it that) alone guarantees a certain degree of credibility. […] You might say that a god is, if only the verb “to be” were a pale shadow of my real existence (call it that), which is above all sense. (4)

In this opening speech God relies on parenthetical qualifications to explain the premise of his writing. The first chapter alone features nine such parenthetical statements in three pages, but only one in the original. Where the Italian uses multiple clauses framed by commas, or occasionally set off by italics, the added parentheses in the translation make God’s linguistic deficiencies more explicit to an English reader. God’s tone is at once solemn and hilarious – he must perpetually modify and qualify his statements in order to remind us that he is (to put it into words) God. Hence Randall’s parenthetical insertions such as “let’s call it that,” “if you know what I mean,” “as they say,” “so to speak,” “you might say” and a few others that crop up regularly throughout the novel.

And the more God uses parentheses, the more he betrays his fallibility: “I’m putting this badly, though, for as you can imagine it is not easy to describe my existence (let’s call it that) in clumsy human language. The language resists, it refuses to admit my transcendence. Languages were made for (wo)man” (29). Randall deftly includes a parenthetical statement to signal God’s inability to articulate even his own existence. But she does more with this passage – she “hijacks” (to borrow Luise von Flotow’s term) an example of the male-biased Italian language (see Anita Raja’s essay). Instead of translating literally “Languages were made for men” (le lingue sono state forgiate per gli uomini) where the Italian “gli uomini” could mean both “men” and the collective “man, mankind,” Randall uses here and elsewhere the gender-neutral neologism “(wo)man” thereby restoring to God, at least in English, a divine grammatical gender impartiality.

God’s discourse is verbose and repetitive, prone to axioms, redundancies, and bombastic lingo. “I am God, and I am perfect,” he states and then adds, “perfection is also achieved by perfecting perfection” (29). When he tries to describe his interest in Daphne, he stumbles into the trap of repetition, qualification, and synonymy:

I observe her every move, weigh her every sigh. You could call it a maniacal interest if it made any sense in the case of a god to speak of interest, let alone maniacal. You could call it a fixation, which suits me even less. If not an obsession. What’s certain is that nothing like this has happened to me in many billions of years; that’s what floors me. I’ve never felt less divine. (34)

God’s tone is exploratory and uncertain, his grammar relying on the conditional in English, and on the conditional and the subjunctive in Italian. He is, in fact, spellbound and powerless.

Moreover, God is not immune from the temptation to lie about. Just like the wo(men) he observes, he tends to linger and loiter, pondering the very language he resorts to: “What I like best, when I have some time for myself (you know what I mean) is to dilly-dally (what a verb: I dilly-dally, you dilly-dally, they had a brief dilly-dalliance) around the galaxies and intergalactic spaces” (41). Randall’s verb choice “dilly-dally” for the Italian “bighellonare” could not be more opportune. In its onomatopoeic, reduplicative sound it encapsulates the essence, the textual existence, of this God who constantly dilly-dallies linguistically, repeats himself, qualifies his statements, conjures up synonyms and parenthetical asides, while also engaging in a “dalliance” with Daphne.

Published in Italy in 2016, I Am God is Giacomo Sartori’s first novel to be translated in English. It is an entertaining, delightful, and timely account of our civilization’s status quo, as well as an irreverent but nonetheless serious warning about our future. The author of seven novels, a poet and dramatist, as well as an editor of the literary collective Nazione Indiana, Sartori has a distinct vision about what constitutes interesting, well-written, worthwhile literature today. As he writes in a recent essay, “The sole criterion I use to guide my judgment of contemporary Italian writing is whether the author knows how to bend language to his literary needs” (my translation). If we apply this idea to the English translation of Sartori’s novel, then Randall bends the English language to the needs of the novel’s protagonist, and, as a translation should, to the needs of the original.

Sartori, Giacomo. I Am God. Translated by Frederika Randall. Restless Books, 2019.

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