On Being the Middle Voice: Maria Massucco Interviews Translator Clarissa Botsford

Those following the ins and outs of Italian-English translation might recognize Clarissa Botsford’s name as attached to a truly eclectic list of consistently wonderful works. I first encountered her translation work through the eerily captivating prose poem Condominium of the Flesh by Valerio Magrelli, where her willingness to lean into English consonants appeared to me a stroke of genius. Her extracts of Magrelli’s similarly haunting third prose poem, Geology of a Father, won special mention for the John Dryden Translation Prize. Others might know her as the translator of Elvira Dones’s novel Sworn Virgin, a project for which Botsford won the PEN/Heim translation grant in 2011. Dones also made a documentary on the same subject, and her novel was the basis for Laura Bispuri’s feature film by the same name.

Still others have likely come across Botsford quite recently, thanks to her crackling, vivid translation of Sacha Naspini’s Nives, published by Europa Editions this year. Botsford has fairly exploded lately, since the pandemic’s shuffling of publishing schedules has resulted in releases of her translations of Alessandro Baricco’s The Game, Viola Ardone’s heart-rending The Children’s Train, Lia Levi’s Tonight Is Already Tomorrow, and Naspini’s Oxygen as well as Nives all in the last twelve months.

But in the several years between Sworn Virgin and these more recent projects, Botsford was entrenched in the translation of Primo Levi: An Identikit. This 780-page encyclopedic examination of Levi’s life and work as a witness, writer and chemist was composed by none other than Marco Belpoliti, a master storyteller in his own right whose seminar on Levi I was fortunate enough to attend while a student in Bergamo. Botsford’s translation of the Identikit makes Belpoliti’s wealth of detail and analytical acumen accessible to Anglophone readers, and it serves as a definitive compendium to The Complete Works of Primo Levi (Norton, ed. Ann Goldstein).

I find Botsford’s engaged and voice-driven translation style wonderfully refreshing and the diversity of her collaborations intriguing, so I was thrilled by the chance to talk with her about her recent work, her take on the Italian-English market, and her approach to the craft. Residing in Rome and dividing her time between translating, teaching, music-making, and conducting ceremonies as a humanist celebrant, Botsford’s world gives the impression of having been pieced together in the pursuit of beauty and joy. I leapt at the chance to speak with her live, though virtually, because I selfishly hoped to enjoy a bit of what I imagined would be an infectious love of life. Dear reader, I was right. What follows is a reconstruction of a portion of our conversation, edited with the interviewee’s approval.

                                                            Maria Massucco

Maria Massucco: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, first off, about this funky and unexpected novel, Nives. I was blindsided by this work. I read it in a single sitting, which was not my intention, but it wrangled my attention and wouldn’t let me go. How did you encounter this work and what can you share about how you came to translate it?

Clarissa Botsford

Clarissa Botsford: You know, it’s great that you read it in one sitting, because that is basically what the narrative reflects, one telephone conversation, it is something that should be read that way if possible. I was approached by Michael Reynolds at Europa, since I had been working on a couple of other things by the same author. When Michael asked me to translate Nives it was an interesting arrangement because they wanted to publish Naspini’s Oxygen, but it is a very dark piece of work, and he thought that Nives would be a good introduction to the author for a larger readership in English – almost a primer or a preparation for investing in the author’s darker angles when the time came. Personally, I think he was right, and I hope the tactic proves successful. Then the project was a fantastic journey, because, like you, I was completely awestruck by the technique and the way Naspini managed to create that single stream of conversation – how it moves backwards and forwards in time and how the agricultural setting and the typically Tuscan, coarse sense of humor gives the work it’s body and soul. When a novel starts with the husband flat out dead on the ground and the pig nibbling at his ear, you just have to dive in and say it. This is Grand Guignol. It’s over the top.

Maria Massucco

MM: There’s a common critique of 20th-century Italian novels, that they are philosophically rich and linguistically beautiful, but that they’re not very good at telling stories. Nives does not fall into that at all. It is almost a theatrical experience. How was it to translate a work driven by dialogue?

CB: I felt sometimes that, more than theatrical, it had the trappings of a radio play. It struck me as a captivating, dramatized aural experience. For example, when, on the other end of the phone with Nives, the speaker is answering his wife, who is in the same room, and both Nives and the readers are confused because there’s no indication of who is saying what. Or when Nives can hear the wife snoring like a trumpet fanfare upstairs. There is also a very strong sense of Tuscan, of the Grosseto accent. Even between one small town and another, in Italy, there’s going to be rivalry. Grosseto is considered the ignorant part of the region, we’re not talking about Dante’s upper class literary Tuscan, the Italian of the literate class. It’s much more a country bumpkin accent, and when people imitate it, it immediately has the resonance of agricultural working class. The actual sound, the fact that it is dialogue, also makes it so human and relatable that you can sort of gauge it I think, as a translator, more easily. I’m a musician with a good ear, and I’ve lived in Italy a long time, and so I think I’m very sensitive to the nuances of the sounds of voices. I think that’s where some of my skill comes into it. Actually, while working on the translation, I experimented with a dictation software. And that worked well, not only in terms of a tight deadline, but also in terms of hearing and recreating the “voices.” Once that first draft is down on the page, it’s not so intimidating and the hard work of editing and perfecting can begin.

For this text, dictation was a particularly appropriate technique given the fact that practically the whole book is a dialogue. It was a happy discovery. In later drafts, in collaboration with Michael Reynolds who was very engaged in the editing process, we got into the nitty-gritty and it was great fun. I have some friends in Grosseto with whom I consulted on particular expressions, and they spoke to neighbors and came back with lots of different options. I wanted to go back and really hone it down so that it was readable and instantly recognizable as being somebody’s confession: one moment punchline, the next moment pain. It is coarse in the explicitness and brashness of the humor, but at the same time, it is a very dark tale.

MM: With respect to this balance of humor and despair, is the work really a comedy in the end? There’s so much in the chicken that’s comedic, but then there’s also the line, “I gave my life to a man I’ve been able to replace with a chicken.” It’s devastating, but also hysterical. A laugh-to-keep-from-crying, rather feminist wake up call.

CB: In another moment — when she says that, ultimately, trimming the chicken’s claws wasn’t any worse than cutting her husband’s toenails — it’s physically repulsive and yet so intimate. I think that this is the balancing act that Naspini has been so successful at carrying off, and what was so difficult to catch in translation. With death as well, which is used brilliantly here not as a conclusion but as an opener for the story, we are asked to acknowledge the fact that taking care of a physical body — dead or ill — is an important part of the life of so many older women. You’re not wrong, the feminist cry is very, very strong. Another theme is the trope of an older woman coming into her own once she has been widowed and once she no longer has children to look after. When she finally confronts her demons. She often also leans into that particular freedom of not being focused on primarily as a sexual object anymore. She gains a unique degree of dignity and distance from no longer being identified in society’s eyes as an object of desire. It’s a problematic assumption, but these protagonists are able to work it to their advantage. It’s a credit to Naspini that he leaves an intentional degree of openness, of relatability, in the attention to themes of aging, bitterness, and desperate attachment. 

MM: In a way it’s a gift for the translator because, if it were intentionally a book about a cultural particularity, by embodying the dialect or by being incredibly specific down to the street signs, then perhaps it would have required an entirely different translation approach. And it’s all the more captivating since one doesn’t expect a rant with the strength of a steam engine to come from a reticent older farm woman.

CB: I think so. Translating Nives was a pleasure. Metropolitan readers may have an idea that “red-necks” are not primarily verbal in their communication. But what is so wonderful about Nives, and also about certain contemporary films which feature older women such as Nomadland, is how they engage in incredibly profound philosophical conversations without recourse to jargon and without fear of language. I wouldn’t want readers to get the sense in encountering Nives that her outpouring is only possible because of the cliché that Italians are so talkative and always shouting and arguing – the important thing is to recognize and appreciate the element of trust and shared experience that goes into creating spaces in which these conversations can take place.

MM: With respect to establishing trust and making space for an exchange of voices, I would also like to ask you about your collaboration with Elvira Dones. This is an artist who insists on foregrounding marginal voices, and in doing so is complicating what counts as a “literary” voice. What has the collaborative experience with Dones been like for you?

CB: I love her work; I love her documentaries. She’s just an incredible character. The first project was my discovery of Sworn Virgin and sending it to Stefan Tobler at And Other Stories, because I had won the PEN/Heim translation grant for it.  I’d really love to get her explosive novel Burnt Sun published in English too, because it gives voice to trafficked women and girls who have never been given the chance to explain why and how they show up in the Italian prostitution circuit, they’re only seen as objects, chattels. And Elvira, because she’s a documentary maker, has spent time with these women, and has gained privileged access to their point of view. She tells their story so forcefully. It’s not that she modulates the tone – every chapter is different, there are diary entries and there are narrative scenes, there are dialogues between the various girls, and letters from the girls to their parents. There’s a huge range of styles within what we could reductively call “ordinary people’s voices.” The paradox in the publishing world is that, on the one hand they want the product to be different – and it’s the same with authors from different experiences and backgrounds – yet writers are encouraged to refine experiences into an aesthetic object. Unless publishers are willing to widen their expectations of what will sell, these “different” experiences will remain inaccessible to a reading public. It’s a delicate balance, because you have to accept these voices as they are. You must really embrace redundancy and other elements of rhetoric that have been edited out for centuries. And it’s even more difficult when the material is painful or touches a cultural nerve.

MM: That strikes a chord. I’ve read that it takes decades to establish a critical mass of voices around painful topics in order to push the publishing world towards hosting and marketing those accounts. They need an established category.

CB:  It’s been true throughout history. I’ve just finished a profile of Primo Levi, and he talks a lot about the fact that immediately after the war nobody wanted to publish anything to do with concentration camps. He wrote the very first report from Auschwitz in 1946, just after he’d returned home to Turin. But then it took a long time for that to develop into a critical mass, and for witness accounts like his to become accepted as “literature”.

MM: With historical events, there is the passage of these stories, then, across generations. They become part of the canon of memory. But, in what you’ve just said, I get the sense there is an inheritance not only of the accounts, but of the time in which the accounts were unwelcome and a feeling that there are so many things still unsaid. In your work translating contemporary authors on the topic of the Holocaust and WWII, how do you feel recent works add something to this fraught, ongoing dialogue?

CB: One of the things that people talk about a lot is the fact that, of course, the partigiani and the whole resistance movement, followed by the Referendum and the Republic created a very strong narrative that became the dominant narrative in Italian postwar life. That postwar narrative is encapsulated in Ardone’s work The Children’s Train. We have the very beginning of the economic boom, the narrative of progress and affluence. But the true story she tells shows another aspect of this narrative, one that’s only really coming into mainstream discourse now, which is that under the guise of helping the underdeveloped regions in the South, the richer North was sowing the seeds of the inequalities in opportunity that have dominated the discourse since. All this in parallel to the young protagonist’s developing awareness of the world, and the heartbreaking consequences for him of his mother’s proud rejection of the North’s so-called generosity. The author herself is a teacher of Italian and History, and her emphasis is very much on the fact that we can learn a lot about our history by writing new stories.

MM: In order to bring these works to life in translation, and coax these important stories into a plurilingual conversation, one of course needs to attend to both sides of what we’ve discussed so far: the prolonged work of multiple drafts and the struggles of marketability. How do the micro-level of detail-oriented tactics and the macro-level of battling for the attention of publishers fit together to form for you something of a “philosophy of translation”?

CB: Well, I like being the middle voice, even in music I prefer the middle parts. I like creating the harmonies. And I also love finding other people’s voices and singing alongside them, so you know I love that aspect of translation. I have wishes and ideas about how the translation market could work better – the Elena Ferrante phenomenon has indeed been very important for Italian-English demand on the one hand, but there’s a tendency to say things like, “Oh, Viola Ardone’s Children’s Train is like Elena Ferrante because it’s set in Naples,” but it’s just not. I would love to see more nuance within the wave of publicity and promotion. But the English market is tough, it’s highly competitive, so the main thing is to remember that we’re doing this because we believe passionately in the stories, and we want more people to be able to read them. And to that end, I guess this is the blissful micro-level, the best practice for translation for me has been teaching and workshopping translation for 40 years. I think of conversations I’ve had with my students every day when I’m translating. There’s something about a room full of people obsessing over a definite or indefinite article, which is better and why, or spending an hour discussing the varying impacts of different sentence structures. While I’m translating, these discussions come back to my mind, and I have developed a strong sense of how these different linguistic scenarios can play out.

MM: Do you have the feeling of being, in a sense, a much “quieter” literary critic with your interpretations after having worked on translating a text?

CB: Yes indeed, because you “listen” really hard for so long when you translate, certain subtleties make their way to your conscious attention. This is another reason I have immense admiration for Elvira Dones, and why I believe her work is so urgent: as an artist, but also as a person, she lives translation, and for her that means listening more than speaking. As a result, her work is able to walk the fine line of being culturally particular – Albanian mountains or Italian streets – while pulling at strings that connect to other sites and situations. Take Perfect Little War. It’s a novel that’s ostensibly about the tragedy of Kosovo. But it’s also about women anywhere taking care of the business of survival as bombs fall around them – a scenario which, sadly, can be found in any number of settings, past and present. The sense of sliding in and out of different worlds, points of view, and possibilities of identity is entangled, in her literature and in her films, with a deep and painful longing for awareness, recognition and understanding. Which is at the essence of translation, too.

Maria Massucco is a PhD Candidate in Italian at Stanford University with minors in French and in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her current research draws together works of Italian prose, poetry and film from the last century in an investigation of gendered madness. Her work as a translator includes collaboration on several essay volumes, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Twentieth-Century Italian Literature, ed. Comparini.

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