A story told in visual and cinematic style: Part 1

Patrizia Burley-Lombardi reviews Isobel Grave’s 2015 translation of A very normal man (Un borghese piccolo piccolo) by Vincenzo Cerami (1976).

At times the day starts with some kind of plan in mind, but fortunately fate has other ideas. This is what happened to me when I first came across this novel of only 117 pages. I went to the launch because I am a translator and this was the launch of the translation of Cerami’s Italian novel Un borghese piccolo piccolo.

I was mainly interested in analysing the translation hot off the press. It is unusual, although not unheard of, for the translation of an Italian novel to be published in Australia. It is also unusual to translate a novel nearly 40 years after its original publication, unless it is a work of love.

Here I found a model of a translated text where the original Italian maintains its voice and colour faultlessly. The mark of a good translation is not realising it is a translation, but Isobel Grave has taken this text to a higher plane, where we can feel we are reading an Italian work of literature, written by a very clever author with a unique voice.

We are touched by how the passion, the tongue-in-cheek dark humour and the beating heart of unfolding evil are never lost to the English reader. All this in 117 pages written in an unforgettable style. This translation of Cerami’s first published novel, 39 years after its first publication, is an unexpected treat.

It brings to the non-Italian reader the enjoyment of the original Italian narrative quality and flawless style, introducing them to a classic work of Italian literature. I wish more literary works were translated so well.

Unfortunately, translations are usually noticed or discussed when there is something not to be liked about them. Translation is not just a skill and a craft but also an art form. The Italian translator Franca Cavagnoli says “to read a lot helps one to meet the challenge of a typical aspect of a literary text – its ambiguity.”

She continues, “linguistic difficulties are actually only one aspect of the cultural difficulties one has to confront when a literary text is poured from one language into another”.

So was the challenge of ambiguity met here? Did the literary text fare well from the source to the target language? These are very important points in translator terms, along with the issue of whether the images described by the author transition smoothly into the target language and are received equally well by the readers.

“A translation must be faithful to the original text. It must transfer and preserve its meaning and its aesthetic integrity. Some translators opt for adaptation, that is, for rewriting the original text and adapting it to the target language and culture,” says Alda Marini.

“As much as possible, I try to avoid this …The translator, however, deals not only with words, but with what lies behind the words. In a text to be translated, as in any work of art, what cannot be seen is just as important as what can be seen.”

As a reader, I felt the translator surpassed the author without distorting meaning. I was able somehow to see the images in translation even better than in the source text. But then again, the role of the translator is to also open up new worlds to which one would have no access but by reading literature in translation.

Patrizia Burley’s professional experience spans about 40 years. She has lectured in Art History and Italian Studies and in Interpreting and Translating Studies in Australian and Italian Universities.

She has worked as a freelance interpreter and a translator in Australia and Italy and as a radio journalist in Melbourne. Stay tuned next week when we publish the final part of Patrizia’s article.

Published: 03/08/2016