A story told in visual and cinematic style: Part 2

By Patrizia Burley-Lombardi

A good translation is one that helps the reader achieve a better critical understanding of the literary work.

It is the little things that are the mark of a well-grounded translation; examples abound but, for lack of space, let me just mention one small observation: the family, which is central to the story, is the Vivaldis.

When describing them in their home, the translator chose to leave the Italian definition casa Vivaldi, thus drawing us, the readers, into a truly Italian household without the mediation of the translated English. One other aspect of translation which needs to be understood is the dominant.

Again quoting Cavagnoli, “…when beginning a translation, one must clearly know for whom the translation is meant, that is, who the reader of the novel or short story will be. But it is equally important to know what the function of that translation is.

“One must focus on the dominant, that is, the component which is the focus of the text … What the author tells is important; however, the way the author tells it is not less important… To isolate the dominant of a text in its contents, or in the style in which the story is told, can influence choices….

“It is even more important when the stylistic choices are peculiar … and the chosen words heavy with meaning”. Grave understands the above and A very normal man as a translated text ticks all the boxes. I recommend it for its merit as a very accomplished translation and a good read, but also a very useful text for those who study or teach translation skills and techniques.

A very normal man is a celebrated work of modern Italian literature, written in 1976 and set in the so called years of lead (1969-1981), when bombs would explode in crowded places or guns would be levelled at innocent people, murdering them in the name of a new order.

Cerami was a well-respected writer of film scripts. Even if we were not aware of this, we would notice that the dominant here is manifold: to tell the story in a visual and cinematic style, creating scenes for the reader to see through the eyes of imagination, in the most immediate way possible.

It also tells a major piece of history, as it completely overturns the quiet and well-planned lives of a little bourgeois family in Rome in the 1970s, using the language spoken then by average Roman citizens living average Roman lives.

The work describes the metamorphosis of Giovanni Vivaldi, a fastidious and respected employee in a Rome ministry office, a good man, into a chilling monster, and his descent into his own private hell. At the centre of the novel is a tragedy: the accidental killing of Mario, the dutiful son of Giovanni.

This occurs while he is accompanying his son to take an entry examination which will gain him employment in a government department. Giovanni’s all-encompassing ambition has already been introduced in the opening page, when father and son are out fishing:

“Farai strada, quant’è vero Iddio ... Comincerai proprio da dove sono arrivato io, dopo trent’anni di servizio ... e tu hai soltanto vent’anni ...”

(You’ll go a long way, swear to God you will. You’re only twenty and you’re going to start out from the very spot I got to after working for thirty years…)

As the tragedy unfolds, this is Cerami’s masterful and potent description of the absurdity of the young man’s death:

“Il sangue usciva dai calzoni del ragazzo come da rubinetti lasciati aperti. A ucciderlo furono alcuni colpi di arma da fuoco [...] Cosa successe? Una rapina al Monte di Pietà, alla luce del giorno …”

(Blood gushed from the boy’s trousers as if taps had been left running … He’d been killed by gunfire [...] What had happened? A daylight robbery at the central Monte di Pietà pawnshop.)

Of the many novels set in this period, this is the one which conveys all the above with efficacy and immediacy. It concisely, succinctly and yet beautifully captures a great many of the nuances.

It is no wonder that the novel was later made into a successful film directed by Mario Monicelli, starring Alberto Sordi in the lead role.

In this case, the film doesn’t add to or detract from the written text, both in the original Italian and, commendably so, in Isobel Grave’s masterful 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. This article was reproduced with permission. You can read Part 1 here.

Published: 08/08/2016