Turin Between Tradition and Translation: The “Extra” Salone del Libro


By Francesco Chianese

Turin International Book Fair Salone del Libro di Torino

UntitledLike many other events in recent months, Turin’s Salone del Libro, the most important Italian book fair, was moved online. Although reduced in schedule and deprived of its physical venue, from May 14 to May 17 the Salone still managed to convey to its affectionate followers a sense of its original, sometimes overwhelming, atmosphere. Furthermore, as a positive counter-effect, for the first time the Salone opened its virtual doors to the multitude of people physically unable to travel to Turin, hence becoming a genuinely inclusive Salone. A recurring topic of this emergency through which we have been living, we wondered whether the organizers would learn something from this contingency: for example, the possibility to keep offering online streaming of the main events when the fair returns to its original format.

Something else in this “extra” edition of the Salone positively impressed me: the attention dedicated to translation. Translation has always been an underestimated art in Italy, which is hard to believe when you take into account that roughly 20% of the books published in Italy are translated from another language. In comparison with other countries, for example the United States, where only 3% of the books published are translated books, the Italian book market appears to be remarkably international and cosmopolitan. Nonetheless, as the director of the Salone Nicola Lagioia highlighted, the translator’s invisibility often becomes a factual invisibility. Ilde Carmignani, translator from Spanish of writers such as Bolaño, Garcia Marquez, and Sepulveda, has guaranteed for the last twenty years the recurrence in the Salone of a specific section on translation titled “Lo Scrittore Invisibile” or “The Invisible Writer.”

Moreover, a variety of conversations about translation appeared in many other sections of the Salone. One of the moments that I consider special for a reader is when you can see authors discussing their books with their translators. Those moments become even more significant when the translator is a writer too, as was the case in the dialogue between Ocean Vuong and his translator into Italian, Claudia Durastanti, whose critically acclaimed La straniera is currently being translated into English by Elizabeth Harris. The discussion between Durastanti and Vuong turned out to be a wonderful duet on literature, way beyond the established routine of an ordinary book presentation. Being a writer in the first place, Durastanti holds a defined and clearly identifiable voice in the text, by following in the footsteps of Italian writers such as Cesare Pavese and Natalia Ginzburg. Furthermore, both Italian-American Durastanti and Vietnamese-American Vuong share the fluid background of the writer in migration.

This immediately provided a common framework for their discussion when Durastanti highlighted Vuong’s mention of Pietro di Donato’s Italian-American classic Christ in Concrete in his On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Vuong also listed Natalia Ginbzburg’s Caro Michele (Happiness, as Such, translated by Minna Proctor) and Oriana Fallaci’s Lettera a un bambino mai nato (Letter to a Child Never Born, translated by John Shepley) among the books that inspired his novel, which he read in English translation. Crucial for the success of Vuong’s novel in Italy was Durastanti’s ability to translate the delicate balance between prose and poetry of Vuong’s writing style inspired by a tradition which blends those two genres. As an example, Vuong mentioned Dante’s Divine Comedy, which again underscores the importance of having Italian classics translated into English for writers who are not familiar with the Italian language.

Another celebrated writer and translator invited to speak at the Salone was Anita Raja, whom a vast majority of readers may know under a different name, as she is rumored to be the person behind the pseudonym “Elena Ferrante.” Those readers may also be completely unaware of her role as a translator of Christa Wolf into Italian. Raja read a shortened version of her essay “Translation as a practice of acceptance,” which is the perfect introduction for the student of translation studies.[1] Calmly and meticulously, she confessed that translating Wolf was for her a source of inspiration and personal involvement, rather than a routine work of translation. Raja underlined as crucial the moment when she met Wolf personally and began a friendship with her, from which her translation benefited significantly. Nonetheless, she highlighted that although the relationship between two texts became a relationship between two individuals, this did not reduce the inequality between translator and author. In fact, she stated that the translator is always in a position of devotion to the author being translated. Because of this, for Raja translation has the prerogative of hospitality and the obligation of providing an adequate linguistic space where the original text can be hosted.  

A crucial point in Raja’s talk concerned the limits of the target language in relation to the source language. She identified the major limit of the Italian language as the sexism deeply rooted in it, which appears prominently when one translates a complex writer such as Wolf. Raja’s and Durastanti’s experiences as translators seem to intersect on this issue, if one considers that Durastanti also translated books of feminist theory such as Donna Haraway’s recent Chthulucene. Haraway encountered Durastanti and journalist Loredana Lipperini at one of the main events of the Salone, where Haraway discussed the developments of the reflection on gender disparity during a pandemic, investigating the present, the past, and mainly the future of feminism, since the future is always Haraway’s favorite topic.

That discussion resonated in some way with the biggest concern of the translator: the fight against the impossibility of a translation containing all potential translations of the original texts. From this viewpoint, translation produces a utopian tension, perhaps reminiscent of the utopian tension of a feminism that is not confined by linguistic boundaries. Nonetheless, according to Raja, translation can challenge the limits of a language, hence can challenge the sexism rooted in it. Our wish is that translation, as a work in progress defined by its expanse of infinite translations, can contribute towards filling the gap produced by the sexism still embedded in a language like Italian, alongside the process of female emancipation, which can equally be seen as a work in progress shaped by the infinite feminisms throughout history.

Francesco Chianese teaches Italian Literature at the University of Turin and works on Italian, American, and Italian American literature and culture and on representations of the Italian diaspora.

[1] “La tradizione come pratica dell’accoglienza,” delivered for the first time at NYU Florence on November 25, 2015, was translated into English by Rebecca Falkoff and Stiliana Milkova for Asymptote, October 25, 2016.

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