By Natalia Ginzburg
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
There are people who think that writers make the best translators. I don’t agree. Sometimes writers produce excellent translations, but not always. Translating a beloved text can be a nourishing, invigorating, and vital practice for a writer. As long as the writer thinks of it as a practice and behaves like a translator, not a writer, keeping the self out of it as much as possible, banishing the self to some far-off location.
When a writer decides to translate a text she loves, she’ll immediately realize that she is doing something unfamiliar. The pages in front of her are in a foreign language, and she has to research the precise meaning of every word. She loves those pages and yet is terrified of ruining them, knowing nonetheless that she ruins the pages by handling them. That’s why she gets caught up in a shy, meticulous attentiveness, a mode that is otherwise totally alien to her nature. She has an entirely different relationship to words when writing for herself. That relationship is one of choice—bold, tyrannical, swift, and imperious choice. In a translation, she knows from the outset that she will have to foresake those very same kinds of choices. And thus the words become new. Yet, she will, from this point forward, be less bold, less fearless and more humble, in the presence of every word.
In the act of translating a beloved text, a writer can feel nostalgic, grasping for the act of creation. Which lights a sort of fire in the ash that typically consumes those nonwriting hours. But there’s more to it, when she’s not writing, she feels the self sink into total silence. Poring through the dictionary, looking for the words to translate, seeking them out in the jumble of her own mind, a swarm builds inside of her, and she is inundated. This makes her happy, brings the fecund possibility of creation closer.
I don’t think that writers perform appropriation in the act of translation. The writer must do everything she can to make herself disappear. Her style, which can’t be adopted, languishes like a useless tool. Though she can’t really separate herself from herself in her mind. It is impossible to isolate the self from the mind, so every now and then, she’ll caress it, secretly, anticipating the moment she’ll be able to use it again. This is emotionally confusing and makes her impatient. Nonetheless, she knows that translation demands the utmost patience. This is the unknown space that the writer occupies, between patience and impatience, between precision and fever. Even if a writer has translated many beloved texts, each time she feels as if she’s forgotten the whole strange technique and must learn it all over again from the beginning.
She is so used to being intensively in her own mind when she writes for herself, listening to her own gurgle, that making herself disappear is entirely strange. Now she’s compelled to tear her eyes from herself and stare into the world of another. If it is a beloved world, she wants to let it in, to be governed and commanded by it. She wants to obey. She behaves, when writing for herself, like a master; but here she feels that she should be the servant. To translate is to serve. And yet, hidden away, there is still a mastery, the mastery that belongs to servants, living together in close quarters, breathing in the greatness of the beloved, reading desire and design in the lines on the forehead of the beloved.
To translate is to attach yourself to a text and adhere tightly to every word, to scrutinize its meaning. It is to follow, step by step, with fidelity the structure and articulation of each sentence. To be like insects on a leaf, or ants on a path. And at the same time, to keep the eyes lifted so as to be able to contemplate the whole landscape, as if from the top of a mountain. To move very slowly and quickly too, because within all the slowness there must also be that urge to devour the road. To be both a horse and an ant. Minding the risk of being too much horse or too much ant. Either will ruin a text. The words must look like a running horse; the slowness unseen. Words born in contemplation can’t drag or feel dead—they must be impulsive, alive, fresh. Translation, thus, is an irreconcilable contradiction. It seems unlikely then that, after all this battling contradiction, day in and day out, the writer would pile on her own weight, the burden of her own style. Hardly. It’s better for her to leave it aside. Horse and ant, master and servant, united, and thus the writer comes to see herself in translation, laid bare and utterly redesigned.
Minna Zallman Proctor is the author, most recently, of Landslide: True Stories (Catapult, 2017) and translator of Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, As Such (New Directions, 2019), which was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. She is the Editor of The Literary Review and teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
This essay is part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg.“
The original text appeared in Non possiamo saperlo © 2001 Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino. Reproduced by permission.