The Afterlives of Natalia Ginzburg’s “The Road to the City”

By Stiliana Milkova Rousseva

Natalia Ginzburg wrote The Road to the City (La strada che va in città) in the fall of 1941, during a time of persecution, hardship, and deprivation. The previous year her husband Leone Ginzburg, a prominent intellectual and anti-fascist activist, had been confined to internal exile in the remote village of Pizzoli in the Abruzzo region. Natalia and their children had left their home in Turin and joined him in October 1940, forging a family and professional life in exile, despite the difficult conditions of their everyday reality.

The Road to the City came out in 1942, under the pseudonym “Alessandra Tornimparte,” which Ginzburg used to evade Mussolini’s racial laws restricting Jews from publishing. This novella was her first longer work, and it already contained the salient features of her poetics: stylistic economy and understatement, simplicity of diction, psychology constructed through details and actions, and a topographic imagination with the road and the city as its organizing figures. Her biographer, the Italian writer Sandra Petrignani, sums up Ginzburg’s style: “Natalia is never baroque, she never says a word in excess, she gets to the center of things with sentences whose simplicity dismantles the entire literary tradition.”

The Road to the City was first translated in English in 1952 by Frances Frenaye, an American translator from Italian and French who also published, in the same year, a translation of Ginzburg’s post-war novella The Dry Heart (È stato così, 1947). Since then, Frenaye’s translation has been reprinted several times, by Daunt Books (1970, 2018, 2021) and by Arcade Publishing (1990). But unlike Ginzburg’s 1963 memoir Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare) which exists in three different English translations (by D. M. Low, by Judith Woolf, and by Jenny McPhee), The Road to the City has lived in Frenaye’s translation since 1952. More than seventy years later, a new translation of The Road to the City (New Directions, 2023) extends the book’s afterlife and illuminates Ginzburg’s distinctive style. The translator, Gini Alhadeff, gives in to Ginzburg’s spare and concise narration without ever losing sight of the novella’s subtle meaning making.  

A story about a failed coming-of-age, The Road to the City centers on Delia, a seventeen-year-old, semi-literate girl who fantasizes about life in the city, picturing a carefree existence in the urban consumer paradise. Delia’s example is her sister Azalea who has fled the oppressive, boring reality of their village to marry a well-off older man in the city. Despite being a wife and mother, Azalea spends her time sleeping, shopping, and entertaining lovers. Lazy and lacking social or intellectual ambition, Delia sees marriage as her only way out. She fails to recognize her own feelings, or those of others, and stumbles blindly yet willingly into the seductive trap of the city. Although laden with promises for wealth and amusement, the streets and porticoes, the riverfront and the benches of the novella’s unnamed city embody a topography of unvoiced affect, of desire gone wrong and wasted opportunity.

Delia dreams of marrying the village doctor’s son, Giulio, a medical student in the city who can give her the lifestyle she covets. When Giulio gets her drunk and seduces her, Delia seems resigned to sexual violence. She accepts their subsequent trips to a hotel room in the city, the very antithesis of the joyful life of comfort and leisure she had pictured for herself. And here the two translators’ approaches to rendering Ginzburg’s narrative economy can be illustrated. This is how Delia describes her double surrender to Giulio and to the city’s ways:

Ginzburg’s original:

Giulio mi disse che a fare il bagno nel fiume ci dovevo andare con lui, e anche in città ci dovevo andare con lui e divertirci tutti e due insieme. E andai e nuotavamo nel fiume e prendevamo il gelato, e poi mi portava in una stanza di un certo albergo che lui conosceva. (35)

Frances Frenaye:

Giulio said I should go swimming in the river with him and have some fun afterward in the city. So we went for a swim and ate some ice cream and then he took me to a hotel called the Moon. (23)

Gini Alhadeff:

Giulio told me it was with him that I should go swim in the river, and to the city, too – that I should go with him so we could have a good time, both of us together. So I did go and we swam in the river and had ice cream, then he would take me to a room in a hotel he knew. (23)

Frenaye’s translation smooths out Ginzburg’s syntax and omits the repetitions in the original, creating a more fluid, fluent, and readable paragraph in English. Alhadeff, conversely, opts for a more literal translation whereby Ginzburg’s stylistic quirks – inversions, repetitions – are retained. Alhadeff’s first sentence emphasizes Giulio’s insistence, his verbal coercion mirrored by the repetitive diction in English (“go swim” “go with him” “the two of us, together”). Frenaye foregoes Ginzburg’s inverted syntax and repetitions and writes a shorter, more direct sentence. Ginzburg encodes violence through reported speech in a subtle, almost casual manner, very much in line with Delia’s limited lexicon and verbal expression.

This passage further exemplifies the process of Delia’s gradual degradation, from swimming and eating ice cream with Giulio to their repeated visits to a seedy hotel. This transformation of a one-time, innocent occurrence (“So I did go and we swam in the river and had ice cream”) into a habitual action transpires in Italian through a change in verbal tense. Alhadeff aptly employs “would” to indicate repetitive or habitual events in the past: “then he would take me to a room in a hotel he knew.” Here we see Ginzburg’s economy of expression: Delia’s corruption (by Giulio and by the city) and her passive acceptance are conveyed through spare details and verbal tense. The city becomes a site of sexual violence and male desire, of female compliance and lack of agency.

A counterpoint to the city’s and to Delia’s moral ambivalence is provided by Delia’s distant relative, Ninì, who used to live with her family but now works in the city. Industrious, intelligent, and keen on educating himself, he offers to help Delia by finding her a job in the city and thus pave the way to her self-reliance. Delia fails just as much at the job Ninì secures for her as she does at recognizing Ninì’s and her own feelings. Ninì’s love for Delia becomes self-destructive when Delia, pregnant by Giulio, is sequestered to a remote village to await the enforced marriage. She comes back to the city to give birth and settles down with Giulio, commencing a life of indolence. Only the news of Ninì’s demise shakes her momentarily, as she blames herself for his drinking himself to death. But soon Delia sinks into an oblivious mindlessness and even the memory of Ninì fades away. She is terrified of examining her past, her actions and motivations, and prefers to forget. Ginzburg’s final sentence masterfully captures Delia’s refusal to remember, the repression of her memories of Ninì and of the trauma of his death:

Ginzburg’s original:

Ma diventava sempre piú difficile pensare a lui, alla faccia che aveva e alle cose che diceva sempre, e mi sembrava già così lontano che metteva paura pensarci, perché i morti mettono paura. (81)

Frances Frenaye:

It was harder and harder to remember the way he looked and the things he used to say, and it frightened me to think of him now that he had receded far into the distance and become one of the vast multitude of the dead. (99)

Gini Alhadeff:

But it became harder and harder to think of him, of his face, and of the things he said, and to me he seemed so far away that it was scary thinking about it – because the dead are scary. (89)

Frenaye’s wordier translation attributes to the semi-literate Delia a loftier diction. The Italian “i morti” (the dead) becomes “the vast multitude of the dead.” Delia’s repetition of “pensare” (think) and “paura” (fear) to describe her fading memories of Ninì is omitted in Frenaye’s version which enacts what Antoine Berman might call impoverishment through “ennoblement.” Alhadeff, on the other hand, preserves both the repetition and Delia’s less cultured, more basic lexicon. What Ginzburg accomplishes through Delia’s repetitions, and in Alhadeff’s translation, is the resurfacing of Delia’s repressed fears and traumas, her inability to forget coupled with her refusal to acknowledge her complicity in her downfall. The compulsive revisiting of traumatic memories and truths haunts Delia’s psyche and her language.

In May 1941, a few months before Ginzburg began writing The Road to the City, she received a postcard from her friend Cesare Pavese whose book Paesi tuoi had just been published. He wrote: “Dear Natalia, stop making babies and write a book that’s better than mine” (Petrignani, 115). Pavese’s advice was prophetic. Natalia Ginzburg became one of the most important Italian writers of the 20th century, and her books continue to captivate readers and writers today. Contemporary Anglophone authors such as Sally Rooney, Gini Alhadeff, and Alexander Chee have acknowledged Ginzburg’s influence. Over the past decade many of her books have been reprinted or (re)translated in English while literary critics have embarked on examining Natalia Ginzburg’s global legacies.

Despite their differences, Frenaye’s and Alhadeff’s translations join forces to recreate in English Ginzburg’s unique approach to narrative. Or, as the Italian translator from German Anita Raja proposes, “the totality of the original text is not reproduced by a single translation, but by a series of translations: those that preceded the translation and those that will follow.”

Read Saskia Ziolkowski’s interview with Gini Alhadeff published simultaneously with this review.

Stiliana Milkova Rousseva is a scholar, translator, and writer. She is the author of Storia delle prime volte (Voland, 2022) and Elena Ferrante as World Literature (Bloomsbury, 2021), the editor of Reading Natalia Ginzburg (2021), and the co-editor, with Saskia Ziolkowski, of Natalia Ginzburg’s Global Legacies (Palgrave, 2024).

Works Cited

Berman, Antoine. “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign.” Translated by Lawrence Venuti. In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 240-253. Routledge, 2012.

Ginzburg, Natalia. La strada che va in città. In Cinque romanzi brevi. Einaudi, 1993.

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Road to the City. Translated by Frances Frenaye. Daunt Books, 2018.

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Road to the City. Translated by Gini Alhadeff. New Directions, 2023.

Petrignani, Sandra. La Corsara. Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg. Neri Pozza, 2018.

Petrignani, Sandra. “On Female Genius. A Conversation with Italian Writer and Ginzburg Biographer Sandra Petrignani.” Translated from Italian by Stiliana Milkova and Serena Todesco. Reading in Translation. February 2021.

Raja, Anita. “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance.” Translated by Rebecca Falkoff and Stiliana Milkova. Asymptote. 2016.

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