On Humor, Eccentricity, and Sound in “Family Lexicon”: A Conversation with Ginzburg Translator Jenny McPhee

Jenny McPhee is an accomplished translator of Italian literature––she has translated works by Anna Banti, Anna Maria Ortese, Fausta Cialente, Natalia Ginzburg, Curzio Malaparte, and Primo Levi, among others. She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2020. In this interview, which is part of the special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg,” we focus on her translation of Ginzburg’s 1963 novel Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare) published by NYRB Classics in 2017. The interview was conducted in writing, between Los Angeles (Eric Gudas) and Tuscany (Jenny McPhee).  

GUDAS: I know whenever I pick up Family Lexicon, I’m going to be laughing in a page or two, usually around the passage, “My mother called mountain hiking ‘the devil’s idea of fun for his children…’” In your translation, the profound humor and eccentricity of Lessico famigliare, if eccentricity is the right word, come out. How did you approach these aspects of the novel?

MCPHEE: Ginzburg’s extraordinarily acute sense of humor is often overlooked. She’s actually very, very funny. It can be a subtle humor but also laugh-out-loud type funny. Ginzburg is a writer of distractions. She has you looking one way when the story is actually happening over there in the opposite direction. She has you thinking she’s very serious and somber while she’s also full of humor and what the Italians call “allegria” or joy. She demands a lot of her reader which is interesting because her prose is so simple but at the same time incredibly layered. It is easy to miss how layered it actually is. Like the best comedians, Ginzburg uses humor to elicit delight but at the same time as a way to lead us deeper into tragic truths.

As for eccentricity, you are so right! She’s extremely eccentric even if rarely thought of as such. She is doing things with her work that are so outlandish while seeming so simple and controlled that many just don’t get her. There is nothing usual or normal or categorizable about anything she writes. She reminds me of Clarice Lispector in that way. They both deal with the “domestic” and the female experience but it is impossible to relegate them to being “lady novelists” (whatever that is). They both put the family, the female domain under a microscope and oh, the things they show us! The home front is as perilous and precarious as any war zone, and as absurd, ludicrous, and tragic, perhaps even more so since we don’t generally see or approach the family and family structures as harrowing. In her work, Ginzburg is brilliantly elusive while remaining extraordinarily precise. In all of her books, nothing is ever what it seems. She’s devoted to that very simple truth. And all of her work is about how that “unseemingness” functions in our personal worlds.

GUDAS: When did you first encounter Lessico famigliare? In the original or in translation?

MCPHEE: In the original. It was one of the first books I ever read in Italian. I came to Italy for my junior year abroad and my Italian was very basic. A literature professor at the University of Florence suggested I read Ginzburg’s plays, which I did, starting with Ti ho sposato per allegria (I married you for the fun of it). I soon found my way to Lessico famigliare. I wanted to be a writer and from the moment I read her work, she became a mentor to me for life. I knew she would never stop teaching me, never stop eluding me, never stop inspiring me to go deeper, to be simpler, to always try to see presence in the absence, and absence in the presence. If I could do that as a writer, she told me through her work, I would struggle for sure, but I would also have a lot of fun.

GUDAS: In her “Prefazione” to Cinque romanzi brevi [Five Short Novels](1964), which hasn’t been translated into English—hence the longish excerpt here—Ginzburg writes, “Family Lexicon is a novel of pure, naked memory––recovered and declared. I don’t know whether it is my best book––but it certainly is the only book I’ve written in a state of absolute freedom. Writing it was entirely like speaking. I cared nothing about whether or not to use commas, about tightly woven plots and loosely woven plots, I didn’t care at all. I no longer felt any disgust or dislike. Most importantly, I didn’t ask myself, even once, whether I was writing by chance. Chance lay far beyond me.  In this way I reached pure memory: I reached it at a wolf’s pace, taking indirect paths, telling myself that I shouldn’t drink from the fonts of memory, the one place in the world where I shouldn’t go” (translated by Stiliana Milkova). How do you experience this sense of freedom in the Italian text, and did you aim to bring a sense of freedom into your translation?

MCPHEE: The freedom she talks about here is, I feel, actually evident on some level in all her books. But yes, in Family Lexicon it does often seem that we are drifting along with the author into places she herself is surprised, delighted, and terrified by. The reader’s sense of discovery is very much in tandem with the author’s and this makes for a fascinating, precarious, deeply revelatory journey. But Ginzburg’s access to this sense of freedom comes with a sense of restraint. There is always so much she isn’t telling us, always more to the story, which she leaves up to us to wonder about. What I particularly like about this passage is that Ginzburg reveals the key to giving herself permission and the freedom to write about her family in all its many vicissitudes—she determines that she must avoid approaching memory in any way directly. Don’t go to the source, she told herself. Find the truth by looking elsewhere, trusting yourself to find it in unexpected places. This is what a fiction writer does by vocation. So it also makes sense that in the end, though this book is deeply autobiographical, she ultimately feels more comfortable calling it a novel.

Furthermore, it’s always so tricky to write about your family, and I have always been amazed by how Ginzburg was able to do this with such freedom in Family Lexicon, and now I have a little more insight into how she did it. But with Ginzburg—and I think all the best writers—we can never quite know how they do it. Or as soon as we think we might have an inkling, they deceive, delight, and confound us all over again. 

GUDAS: Before you got started on your version, Family Lexicon, what did you hope you could bring to a book that had already been translated twice by earlier translators?

MCPHEE: Well, I’m of the mind that new translations are always a good thing in that every translation is its own creation, no two ever alike. I don’t believe in the concept of “the definitive translation.” A new translation always brings new life to a book, renewed attention, another vision of the text. That said, however, one must also consider the realities of the world of translation in which so very little of our vast wealth of global literature gets translated, so where does one focus one’s energies as a translator? On retranslation or on getting more literature translated. In the end, this is yet another conundrum—among myriad—for the translator. As it happens, whenever I make some absolute determination in my life like I will only translate women authors, the universe decides differently for me and I have to accept that there are no absolutes, there is just what happens—with me trying my best to steer in one direction. But as for re-translation, I actually love it, because for me translation is the ultimate form of writing where the many voices that make up a text are all speaking at once and in various tones and on multiple levels. So I am hearing the author, the previous translator (yes, I love to look at previous translations), and all the authors who have come before the text and their direct or indirect influences on it, and all the authors who have come after the text and how they have been influenced by it. I love the cacophony out of which I must create a serendipitous precision of language that reflects this stunning conversation. It’s an impossible task, of course, but it’s the impossibility of it that I cherish as a writer and translator. We can never know what we actually mean. We can only do our best to approximate meaning.

GUDAS: You’ve no doubt answered this question before, but in her interview with Peg Boyers, Ginzburg said, “I have a feeling that Lessico famigliare, or Family Sayings, is not well translated [into English], however. This may have to do with the fact that some of it is in dialect and dialect is really impossible to translate adequately.”

MCPHEE: Yes, translating dialect is difficult but not radically different from the difficulty of all translation. It’s just another particular challenge for which you have to find a creative solution. No doubt there will be plenty of failure and disappointment, but there will also be gains and surprises. I definitely struggled with so many of the choices I made in translating the dialect and made-up words in Family Lexicon, but I also had a whole lot of fun. And then there are moments when it’s just best to leave the word in the original. For example, “Barbison” is the nickname of Natalia’s mother’s uncle and the name in dialect refers to his extravagant facial hair. In the two previous translations I think they translated his name as “Whiskers” and “Walrus,” which are both fine solutions but the sound and sense of these words wasn’t right for my translation. I loved the sound of the word “Barbison” and I couldn’t find its equivalent or approximation in English. For me, Barbison was Barbison. But then the facial hair reference was lost. So, in this case, I actually got in touch with Natalia’s son Carlo Ginzburg and told him I was at a loss as to how to translate “Barbison.” He suggested I leave it as “Barbison” and told me something so liberating. I’m sure somewhere I have his exact words, but he said something to the effect of how sometimes in a translation preserving “language difference” was a felicitous strategy to conserve and enhance the overall feeling of the narrative in the new language. Preserving language difference was previously an instinctive tendency for me as a translator, but now I very deliberately and consciously make it a goal and value to preserve language difference in all my translations.

GUDAS: Wow, “language difference” is sure to be a fascinating idea to this interview’s readers. Can you follow up about other ways you’ve tried to preserve this difference in your translations?

MCPHEE: In our translation of Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese, Ann Goldstein and I debated about what to do with the extensive Neapolitan dialect contained in those stories—the dialect often varying from neighborhood to neighborhood. It added such a richness and flavor to the dialogue, to the sense of place, to the entire narrative that we decided in many places just to leave it and either to embed the translation in the text or to put the translation in parenthesis following the dialect. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to use this solution as extensively as we did, if I hadn’t had the experience with Ginzburg (both mother and son). And if I were translating Family Lexicon again, I might opt to leave more of the original dialect in the translation.

GUDAS: What different modes of dialect does Ginzburg use in Family Lexicon and how did you deal with them? When you tag an utterance, “He/she said in dialect,” do you then translate into standard English? Here’s one example, from p. 18 p of your translation. I assume that “Lidia, mi e ti che sem la chimica, de cosa spussa l’acido solfidrico? El spussa de pet. L’acido solfidrico el spussa de pet” is the dialect part.” Your version, starting a sentence or two back: “Barbison was a coarse man with a red nose. ‘A Barbison nose’ my mother would say whenever she saw a red nose. After those turkey lunches Barbison would say in dialect to my mother: ‘Lidia, you and me, we know a thing or two about chemistry so what’s sulphuric acid stink of? It stinks of fart. Sulphuric acid stinks of fart.’”

MCPHEE: I rarely, really almost never, try to imitate dialect in English. It just doesn’t work. Trying to replace a Torinese or Venetian dialect with some American equivalent (there really is none) but, say, a Maine mode of speaking, or Scottish English, or something of the sort just feels hokey to me. Also, translation is about translating much more than just language. When you translate you are bringing across language, yes, but also culture, place, politics and so to use a dialect or accent that puts the reader in an entirely different context seems misguided to me.

As for this specific passage, what Barbison is saying is as funny as the way he said it and since I couldn’t perfectly have both sense and sound, I went for sense in English but tried to do the best I could for the sound. The subject of sound is extremely important for translation. I try to impress this on my students and they find it so radical; but really I am of the mind that ultimately sound is more important than sense. Ginzburg writes for sound. Her prose is all about the sound. In my last draft of this translation, all I was doing was listening for her in the English and when I didn’t hear her I would revise and adjust until I did. When I translated this book, Ginzburg taught me that any great piece of writing is first and foremost about how it sounds, the rhythms of the words on the page and how they play in the reader’s mind. The story, the meaning, the characters, all that follows and is dependent on the sound of the composition.

GUDAS: How much did you have to learn about late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Italian Socialism and twentieth-century anti-fascism movements in order to translate Lessico famigliare? Your notes are very helpful, especially because Ginzburg’s narrator doesn’t in the least try to explain those movements.

MCPHEE: An aspect of being a writer and translator that I totally love is the research. Yes, I researched every reference and went crazy on the footnotes. Some readers find them annoying or condescending but I just think the more information, the more cultural, historic, political context I can give the reader, the better. There was a time when publishers wouldn’t even dream of including footnotes in a novel in translation because they wanted to create the illusion that the book was written in English (hence no acknowledgement of the translator) but that’s old school now (sort of) and we do our best to celebrate translations and all the art of translation can bring to a text—including footnotes.

GUDAS: How do you think about Family Lexicon in terms of genre? Ginzburg wrote, “Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer,” but critics like me usually refer to is as autobiographical novel or novel-cum-memoir. Did you even care about the book’s genre as you were translating it?

MCPHEE: As is often said, “genre” is a publishing term. Where is the line between fiction and nonfiction, autobiography, biography, memoir, personal essay, etc.? I think these categories are getting much more blurred with time, or rather they go through periods of greater or lesser distinctiveness, in and out of existence. For me there is a very fine line between “genres,” and this belief in spite of (or because of?) having grown up with a father who is a writer of strictly factual pieces (he loathes the term “nonfiction” as what does it mean to be defined as the negative opposite of something else?). So where does this leave Ginzburg? Although I think none of her work fits into any neat category, she was probably most comfortable with the novel as it apparently has the least restrictions. When writing a novel, even if something is true, you can always claim you made it up. However, it is also true that in a novel, the truth has a way of sounding false. One often has to invent the truth to get at any real truth in fiction.

GUDAS: There are probably very few literary translators who can just translate full-time, and I assume you’re like most readers of this journal, doing literary translation in the midst of many kinds of other work, both inside and outside the academic sphere. How long did this translation take you and what were your other responsibilities? Do you eke out any significant amounts of time when you could devote yourself fully to this project.

MCPHEE: I can’t remember how long this took—six months, a year maybe–but there was a significant delay from when I finished it to when it was published. I think I finished translating it in 2014 but it wasn’t published until after the 2016 election. I think the universe was involved with the delay in publication (it ostensibly had something to do with rights), because Family Lexicon, though relevant to any and all times, is particularly relevant to our present situation. We must take fascism incredibly seriously or it will sneak up on us and overwhelm us, our politics, our culture, our family, our very existence will be threatened if we don’t pay attention. Fascism, which is born of patriarchy, misogyny, oppression of the other, lurks in all of our systems and structures and institutions and we need to face up to it and root it out. We ignore it at our peril. This is one of the very profound messages of Family Lexicon.

To have a career in the arts you kind of have to be something of an entrepreneur. In addition to my translation work, I’m a mother, a writer, a full-time professor, and I run a continuing education program in the liberal arts, among other things. For me, translation is my reward for doing all those other things. In other words, any chance I get, I translate because I find it to be  such a relief. It’s so absorbing and challenging and interesting. When I translate, I feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole. I go into a whole other world where I am always surprised and delighted and intrigued. Of course, there are dark parts to the process too but nothing like writing or administrating or parenting. There is surprisingly little tedium. And as a translator, I feel so supported by all the various voices in the conversation as I go. In a way, translation is like a form of meditation for me—calming, stabilizing, keeping me in deep focus, a place of stillness and discovery at once.

GUDAS: Family Lexicon got a lot of very good press, including a review from me of course, and the reviews I read were all very thoughtful. What aspects of Ginzburg’s novel seem to have spoken most to readers and critics?

MCPHEE: It’s hard to say because the book is just magic. But I think the message that it all begins at home, that how we see ourselves within our families, how we navigate our families has extraordinary and profound repercussions in the world at large. Throughout time, so many women who write  have been illustrating and elaborating on this message. But so often their work is relegated by critics and the literary establishment—that is, white men—to the sub-genres “domestic literature” or “women’s literature” and therefore doesn’t get the attention it deserves and our cultures suffers for it. But when a book like Family Lexicon finally is allowed to sing loud and clear from the rooftops, how glorious for all of us.

GUDAS: I have really enjoyed your translation of Family Lexicon and Minna Zallman Proctor’s version of Ginzburg’s 1973 novel, Caro Michele, titled Happiness, As Such in this translation; on the flip-side, I think many of the translations that publishers are reprinting, which date from 1940s to 1980s, are remnants of earlier literary eras. I wish there were more new translations of Ginzburg instead of these reissues. Do you have any Ginzburg translations in the works, or are there any of her books you would like to translate?

MCPHEE: I would love to translate everything she wrote! As I said earlier, translation is a very personal endeavor and every translator will make a different work using the same source text. Also, translation is so very intimate, you live and breathe every single word, you try to understand the author, be the author, be in deep conversation with the author during the entire process and beyond. Ginzburg has taught, and continues to teach, me and guide me in so many aspects of my translation work, in my own writing, has deeply influenced my vision of the world, my place in it, my navigation through it. She is a true mentor, so any opportunity I have to spend more intense time with her, I’ll gladly take it.

Jenny McPhee is a novelist and translator of works by Anna Banti, Massimo Bontempelli, Cristina Campo, Fausta Cialente, Beppe Fenoglio, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Anna Maria Ortese, Curzio Malaparte, Paolo Maurensig, and Pope John Paul II. A faculty member and administrator at NYU, she has also taught at Princeton and the European School of Literary Translation. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020.

Small Press Distribution has plenty of copies of Eric Gudas’s book, Best Western and Other Poems; his prose about literature, photography, music, and film has appeared in All About Jazz, Raritan, Senses of Cinema, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry Flash, and elsewhere. He contributed an afterword to the NYRB Classics reissue of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family and Borghesia.

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