Images of Imagination: Saskia Ziolkowski Reviews Antonio Tabucchi’s “Stories with Pictures” and Interviews Translator Elizabeth Harris

By Saskia Ziolkowski

Antonio Tabucchi wrote novels, detective fiction, stories, dream-like prose, and many works that defy easy categorization. Tabucchi lamented that publishers tended to expect novels from narrative writers, leaving less room for experimental short prose. He praised Sellerio, the Italian publisher of Stories with Pictures, for producing small volumes that provide authors a space for shorter works. It is fitting that Archipelago, which is also known for its editions’ distinctive dimensions, has published Elizabeth Harris’s beautiful translation of Stories with Pictures, bringing into English one of Tabucchi’s exciting works that subverts traditional ideas of form. Each story is preceded by one or more images that relates in different ways to the text.

Readers have most likely encountered “stories with pictures” in their childhoods. Tabucchi’s works reflect in their diversity the infinite ways images and texts can be in conversation with each other, beyond illustrators who contribute pictures to an already existing text or graphic novels that involve constant navigation between the images and words. In Tabucchi’s stories an artist considers how to paint the image that initiates the work, an author imagines telling a story based on the image, a narrator reflects on looking at the painting, characters from the image come alive, characters outside the image disappear into it, colors from the image inspire sounds in the story, an artist discusses his work, an author writes to the artist, and the artist’s life is narrated, as is, for instance Oreste Fernando Nannetti’s, whose story is accompanied by a photograph of his carvings in a mental institution wall. “Like a Mirror” begins with two paintings side by side, Camilla Adami’s Primate and Valerio Adami’s A Love, and the first line of the text characterizes the couple’s stylistic differences: “Between Valerio Adami’s dream ghosts turned into the geometry of reality or Camilla Adami’s geometry of reality turned into figures in the world of dreams, who are we to believe?” (159).

Many of these stories could be considered analyses of the word-image relationship, an expansive topic that has a particular Italian tradition, from Dante’s “visibile parlare” and Botticelli’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy to Corriere dei Piccoli, fotoromanzi, and author-painters like Dino Buzzati, which adds to critical dialogues about the more examined W.G. Sebald, English-language graphic novels, and book illustrations.

Tabucchi’s brief preface provides an important reflection on the relationship between word and image, which for Tabucchi also involves sound: “From image to voice, the way is brief if the senses respond. The retina communicates to the eardrum, ‘speaks’ in the ear of the one looking; and for those of us who write, the written word is voiced – is first heard in our head. Sight, hearing, voice, word. But this current flows back and forth, departs again from where it arrived, returns again from where it departed” (3). Expanding on how this process of sight, hearing, voice, and word does not instantaneously lead to a publication, Tabucchi concludes his preface by drawing attention to the time between inspiration and having an audience. The collection fulfills a promise Tabucchi made to Elvira Sellerio, the publisher of the Italian edition, to put together his “stories with pictures:” “While we write, we don’t realize that writing and time are inversely proportional: the pages grow, and time dwindles. This book is only just coming out now. But promises don’t expire” (4). Tabucchi’s note is signed 2011, Sellerio passed away in 2010, and Tabucchi in 2012. Not surprisingly, a number of the stories themselves focus on creativity and time, especially its finitude for any individual.

While the majority of single author collections emphasize the individual, Stories with Pictures draws attention to the communal nature of artistic endeavors, made even more collaborative with the additional presence of the translator. In contrast to many other works that combine images and stories, the more than thirty images in this collection come from different artists and photographers, many of whom are Italian or Portuguese, reflecting the languages of Tabucchi’s own fiction and his two homelands. The collection includes colorful landscapes, abstract paintings, photographs, a woman nursing a dog, paintings of Pessoa, images of objects, and a cover of Tabucchi’s novel Requiem, by Bartolomeu Cid dos Santos. The works often discuss the collaborative nature of inspiration, moving from a color to a line of poetry to a conversation about colors, memories, legacy, and poetry, as in “The Heirs are Grateful,” which opens with a painting by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and her will of colors, in poetic form.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, La partie d’échecs

Several of the stories include poetry, showing how the lines between very short forms are frequently blurred and indicating the vibrant relationship between images and poetry as well as prose. “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” starts with Davide Benati’s “Night Snow,” paintings full of white. The narrator considers both the moon and haikus he has been told, which are interspersed throughout the story: “for the lonely man/no greater friend/the moon. The moon, the moon, the moonmoonmoon, the moon above isn’t concerned with your fate, said the cruel night voice inside him” (107). The image, poetry, and the narrative both complement and complicate each other: the whiteness of the moon evokes the whiteness of the snow in the painting, a haiku that ends “night of snow” reflects the title of the Benati’s painting, and the “moonmoonmoon” reveals the conflict within the narrator that neither nature nor art will resolve, but together can expose. Harris’s translation skillfully renders into English Tabucchi’s lyricism and exertion.

Tabucchi’s stories often involve abstractions away from reality, with stories about potential future experiences or reflections about past experiences that did not happen as planned or perhaps did not happen at all. At the same time, these frequently hypothesizing, fantastical works also explore questions that remain urgently relevant, including ones about borders, national identity, and access to knowledge. The repeated use of the word “Mediterranean” to describe a place or experience suggest Tabucchi’s desire to look beyond national boundaries. “On the Road to Möbius” begins, “They ask us to identify ourselves. It’s mandatory, they say, otherwise, there’s no crossing the border; over here, you have to be identifiable. We Humans need to identify everything, we create records, have expansive archives, sorry, but please fill out the questionnaire and provide your papers; identify yourselves, then, that’s the idea; I don’t know how you say it in your language, they tell us” (73). A number of the works expose the limits of how humans are forced to define themselves. Several stories also critique the use of language as a constraint, with the connections between the arts offering a potential way to break through these constraints. In “Portraits of Stevenson,” the narrator reflects on “the language of one art that ‘travels’ toward the language of another” (163). The play between words and images in Stories with Pictures offers numerous ways to consider spaces beyond the boundaries of any one language or place and Harris’s translation into English provides more people an opportunity to imagine with Tabucchi.

Harris has translated multiple works by Tabucchi: Tristano Dies: A Life (2015), For Isabel: A Mandala (2017), “Night, Sea, or Distance” in Message from the Shadows (2019), and now Stories with Pictures (2021), all published by Archipelago. For Tristano Dies, Harris was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant as well as the National Translation Award for prose. Her For Isabel received the American Literary Translators Association’s Italian Prose in Translation Award. She won a National Endowment for the Arts award for Stories with Pictures. Harris’s many prizes and accolades recognize her masterful renderings of the intricacies of Tabucchi’s language and entrancing imagination into English. Harris has also translated a number of other contemporary Italian writers, such as Andrea Bajani, Claudia Durastanti, Giulio Mozzi, and Mario Rigoni Stern, whose diversity indicates both the growing role of transnational Italian fiction in world literature and Harris’s range as a translator. The following interview, which we conducted in writing, sheds light on the power of recently translated Italian fiction, how Harris came to be one of the foremost Tabucchi translators, and how she approaches Tabucchi’s layered prose, which offers readers valuable resources for understanding his writing.



Saskia Ziolkowski: Your wonderful translation of Tabucchi’s Stories with Pictures adds to a growing number of Archipelago publications of Tabucchi and also of your translations of Tabucchi. What originally drew you to Tabucchi? Has translating multiple works by the same author influenced your process?

Elizabeth Harris: First, thank you for this interview and for your kind words about my translation! In answer to your first question, I didn’t actually propose any of Tabucchi’s books to Archipelago. Instead, I proposed myself to Jill Schoolman, the publisher. She had (very kindly) rejected a translated novel I sent to a different press she was working for, and when I saw the great books she was publishing at Archipelago, I asked if she might consider having me translate something for her. She sent me the first few pages of Tabucchi’s Tristano muore (Tristano Dies). That novel begins with a verse from a famous polka, “Rosamunde,” which I translated, along with some other evocative paragraphs about elephants finding their circle when it’s their time to die. Jill hired me to do the book, and I’ve been very fortunate that she’s liked my work and asked me to do others of his as well.

Over the course of translating three of his books now, I do feel that my process has changed, or at least crystallized somewhat. I believe in Tabucchi; I trust him as a writer, and so I try to follow his style as much as I can in my translations. I believe my translation style has grown wilder as a result of translating this adventurous author. I’ve also grown aware of some of his interests and some of the authors he echoes or cites in his writing (Pessoa, of course, but many others as well, Borges, Drummond de Andrade, Cavafy, Poe); I’m on the lookout now for those times he quotes another in his writing—it happens quite frequently. Then I have to decide how I’ll handle the citation, if I’ll translate it myself from the Italian or find another translator’s version and cite it, a sort of hall-of-mirrors of voices entering the translation.

Lisa Santos Silva, La religieuse portugaise

SZ: Tabucchi’s introductory author’s note offers a powerful reflection on the relationship between images and literary creation. Did the presence of the images influence how you translated the stories? Do you have a favorite image-story pairing?

EH: This is a great question. Yes, absolutely—the images definitely influenced my translations. Tabucchi discusses how the images and writing travel back and forth, responding to one another, speaking to one another, and I think my translations followed this path as well. I know the tone of each translated piece here was partly influenced by what I saw in the image; I don’t know that I can explain how, but I know it’s true. And at times, the image helped me find my way through a piece that was particularly opaque. I’m thinking of stories like “On the Road to Möbius,” with Lisa Santo Silva’s La religieuse portugaise as the accompanying image. The painting, if you take a look, does have the quality of the möbius strip, with its surface with only one side and no boundaries, in an infinite loop. The story very much plays with this idea of boundaries, and it was hard. If I looked at the image long enough, I could sort of figure out what Tabucchi was after. I hope I managed this, anyway.

As for your second question about image-story pairings, there were many of these that I loved. I especially loved when Tabucchi went far afield from the image with his story. I love his imagination! Pairings like “Story of the Man of Paper” paired with Antonio Seguí’s Ça bouge or “A Curandeiro in the City on the Water” paired with Júlio Pomar’s The Barrister (or Advogado). The final pairing in the collection is very moving: I teared up a little when I translated this final piece, “For a Catalogue That Isn’t,” a tribute to one of Tabucchi’s friends who died, the Portuguese artist Bartolomeu Cid dos Santos, whose artwork was used for the cover of Tabucchi’s Requiem. The last line of this, and of the collection, is heartbreaking, tied to this friendship and also to Tabucchi himself, who passed away not long after Racconti con figure was published: “I would have liked to publish this piece for one of Bartolomeu’s catalogues. But, as we know, sometimes, almost always, death is quicker than we are.”

Júlio Pomar, The Barrister (O Advogado)

SZ: Stories with Pictures is divided into three sections: “Adagios,” “Andantes, con Brio,” and “Ariettas.” Most of the stories removed from the Italian edition are from the “Ariettas” section. With the changes, do you think that Tabucchi wished to refine the rhythm of the collection in some way?

EH: I think the pieces that were removed weren’t as strong as others in the collection. I translated the entire book, and it was only about a year later that Jill had a conversation with Tabucchi’s widow, Maria José de Lancastre, about what her husband had wanted removed from the collection. Nearly all of the pieces that were removed I concur were not as good. And they were sometimes very difficult to translate! I think many translators will agree that some of the hardest things to translate are those that aren’t very good. For one thing, I think they suck the life out of you. Anyway, I’m glad those pieces are gone, at least for the most part. I feel sad about a couple of them not making it into the final collection. But this is what Tabucchi wanted. There was one piece that was taken out that I was very fond of, and I begged for it to stay, also because it resonated with the pieces surrounding it. Jill put this one back in, which made me really happy.

SZ: In an interview, Tabucchi said he hoped his readers would be open to the unpredictability of existence and would be flexible, without great convictions. What sort of readers do you hope will read your translations of Tabucchi, especially Stories with Pictures?

EH: Well, I hope the people who read this collection will be adventurous and open to not always fully understanding what’s there on the page, will just let what they read and what they see wash over them. Clarity is overrated. So is plot.

SZ: From Mario Rigoni Stern and Antonio Tabucchi to Andrea Bajani and Claudia Durastanti, many of the authors whose works you translate reveal the multilingual diversity of Italian fiction and put Italy in dialogue with other places. Are your translation choices in part a purposeful move to bring global Italian fiction to a wider audience? Are there certain qualities you tend to be drawn to with the authors you translate?

EH: My answer to your first question here has to go back to what has been happening for a few years in my career as a translator: I haven’t been the one searching for projects. Instead, I’ve been asked to translate certain books. I know I’m really lucky, and I fully expect my luck to run out at any moment. The books by two of the authors you mention here, Tabucchi and Bajani, are works I’ve translated for Jill Schoolman at Archipelago. It’s her vision you’re seeing reflected in what I’ve translated lately. But, yes, I love both these authors, the music of their prose, the international nature of their work, the thematic weight. Durastanti’s book is coming out next year with Riverhead, Fitztcarraldo, and Text, and this one I’m very excited about. I didn’t propose this book, either; I was asked to “try out” to translate it, and I jumped at the chance. I’ve really wanted to translate some women writers and Durastanti’s book is special. I’ve been very lucky, like I said.

Every book I’ve translated I’ve fallen in love with; each book has pushed me to try on different voices and stylistic techniques; I’ve been engaged with the characters, the subject matter. I think I’m most drawn to writers who have a strong voice in their prose, and I tend to prefer books that are not strictly realistic, that play with what might be considered more traditional narrative forms. I’m not as drawn to books that have a lot of scenes and dialogue, for instance—I prefer fiction that relies more on exposition, I think, or at least where the scenes are complicated by the style. I’m not very interested in translating books that might fit more into genre fiction, although Tabucchi’s For Isabel: A Mandala was something of a detective novel. I’m a snob, no doubt about it. I want to translate the best literary fiction I can.

SZ: Some readers seem to seek out translated fiction to “visit” the homeland of the authors. Since Tabucchi’s works are so international, with references to literature from multiple traditions and stories that take place all over the world, his works offer readers a very different experience, but also build on multiple Italian traditions. Is conveying the “Italian-ness” of Tabucchi’s works in translation difficult?

EH: It’s a great question, but perhaps you’re the one to decide how I’ve done in conveying “Italian-ness” in Tabucchi: it’s all I can do to convey “Tabucchi-ness” in Tabucchi! No, perhaps I can say that while Tabucchi’s work is very international, he also has scathing critiques of Italy within his novels and stories; this was very apparent in Tristano Dies, for instance, where an unnamed Berlusconi takes a beating. In translating his work, I’ve tried to be as aware as possible of the political undercurrents to his prose.

I can also say that Tabucchi’s international tendencies result in my having to reconsider how I bring even the smallest elements of Italian and Italian culture into the translation; there are simple ways to bring a quality of Italy to a translation, words that I’ll leave in Italian, for instance, like “piazza” or perhaps “gelato.” These small touches can give a slight wash of Italy to the translation, although I have heard people comment that these sorts of additions exoticize the original culture too much. I haven’t decided how I feel about that. I like piazzas, and I like them to show up in English; they make me happy. With Tabucchi, though, if the story is set in Portugal or Greece or Macao, then we have to walk into squares, I think. And we have to eat ice cream in our cones.

SZ: Currently there is an exciting diversity of Italian translation and a great range of Italian translators, suggested for instance by Archipelago’s collection of Tabucchi stories, Message from the Shadows, which includes translations by you, Anne Milano Appel, Tim Parks, Francesca Frenaye, Janice M. Thresher, Martha Cooley, and Antonio Romani. Italian translation seems to be having a deserved period of success that hopefully will continue to grow. Are there other Italian-to-English translators with whom you feel your works are in conversation? Do you have other favorite translated works from Italian? 

EH: There are many Italian-to-English translators I admire! I’d be afraid to mention one for fear of leaving another out. I will say that I came to translation through my admiration of William Weaver’s translations of Italo Calvino. I started to learn this artform by translating Marcovaldo and then comparing my pathetic version to Weaver’s. I have some very good friends who translate from Italian, and also into Italian—several years ago, I got to stay at a translation residency in Rome and I met some wonderful people whose work I deeply admire.

In terms of my translations being in conversation with others, I think I can say that I have a particular stance toward translation that is heavily influenced by my own training in creative writing: I have an MFA in fiction-writing (as well as an MFA in literary translation) and taught Creative Writing for many years. There are others who may have started translating more out of their academic training in Italian language, literature, and culture. And still others, of course, who have come to Italian translation down different, winding paths.

My goal when I translate is to create a work of art in English that also speaks very clearly to the original. I try to create a translation that echoes the structure of the original, follows the patterns of its sentences and paragraphs. I don’t break up sentences; I don’t move things around in paragraphs, and when editors want me to, I resist. I believe that beautiful, complicated thoughts—and Tabucchi’s thoughts are beautiful and complicated—require beautiful, complex sentences. I don’t see the goal of translation as making something read smoothly in English; if there are bumps and twists in the Italian, I want to capture those bumps and twists in my translation, but I want them to be as beautiful as they were in the original. I also believe that translating fiction—what I mainly translate—is not just about capturing words on the page but about the rendering of character, point of view, setting, and so on. All of these elements require my deep understanding of the book I’m translating as a work of fiction and then my recreation of this fictional world in English.

In terms of works from Italian that I love: William Weaver’s translation of Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. Geoff Brock’s translation of Disaffections: Complete Poems, by Cesare Pavese. Tim Parks’ translation of The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, by Antonio Tabucchi. Dick Davis’s translation of The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg and Minna Proctor’s translation of Ginzburg’s Happiness, as Such. There are many others. There are some young translators translating from Italian now whose work is fantastic.

SZ: What current projects are you working on or plan to work on? What future translations of yours do we have to look forward to?

EH: The last translation I completed was the Durastanti. I did that during our covid year, and it just about did me in. A great book but an exhausting time. I think it’s coming out in early spring 2022. My next projects are Tabucchi’s Viaggi e altri viaggi (Travels and Further Travels) and Giovanna Giordano’s Un volo magico (A Magic Flight).  I have been hoping, for a while, to co-translate the novel Il Baleniere delle montagne (The Whaler of the Mountains), by Romana Petri, with my friend and colleague, Louise Rozier.

SZ: We look forward to these being available in English! Thank you for all of your answers, you have given readers of Stories with Pictures even more to think about as they contemplate this collection, as well as suggestions of other great works to read.

Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski is Assistant Professor at Duke University. She works on Italian literature from comparative perspective, especially in terms of German-language literatures, modernism, and Jewish studies. She has published articles and chapters on Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, Italo Svevo, Scipio Slataper, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. Her book Kafka’s Italian Progeny (University of Toronto Press, 2020) explores Franz Kafka’s sometimes surprising connections with key writers — from Italo Svevo, Lalla Romano, and Italo Calvino to Antonio Tabucchi, Paola Capriolo, and Elena Ferrante — who shaped Italy’s literary landscape. She received her Ph.D. in Italian and Comparative Literature & Society from Columbia University. She is writing a book on Jewishness in Italian literature.

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