Your questions about my literary work in Italian and English and the dynamic it entertains with my translation work were so interesting I cant come up with a self-sufficient piece and I’ll have to use them in my text if you’ll allow me.
Elisa Taber (ET): How do pleasure and translation intersect in your writing?
Francesco Pacifico (FP): My father-in-law was born in Buenos Aires in the early 50s and was yanked “back” to Italy when he was a teenager when his father concluded that migration had not bettered their condition enough—they had been living in Ramos Mejía, a city in the province of Buenos Aires, he had been working at a factory, there had not been financial improvement and even though his children and wife were loving that life he felt they were never going to feel at home. My wife-s father-s heart was so broken he has never made it back to Argentina since. He-s kept in touch with his childhood best friend over the years but only because his friend has visited Italy on occasion. My wife wanted to pay her first visit to Buenos Aires as a 40th birthday gift to herself, so we flew there in the spring of 2019. We went to her father-s best friend’s place for asado and we visited the pitch near the church where he learned to play football÷÷a skill he brought back to Italy with some success> he debuted with a second division team only to be yanked from it by his father, who decided that a footballer son wasn’t what he had broken his back for all his life, working in factories on two different continents.
You wrote me these questions after reading an essay I wrote about my novel Class, which I wrote three times in the course of ten years, twice in Italian with an English self-translation, or version, in between. I wrote the essay in English for a magazine based in NYC. It was the first time I wrote something long//maybe 7,000 words_ I don’t know, I-m not writing on my PC at the moment and I cant check, I-m on my phone, in a hotel on an Italian island, with a Bluetooth keyboard. Everything feels strange and the punctuation marks and other symbols are all wrong. This is the pleasure of writing in a different language. When I translate someone else-s novel, especially when it-s from another time and another rung on the social ladder, I have to be at my most whimsical when I choose how I-m going to play with the different registers the characters use to express themselves. I-ve just finished doing a new Italian version of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, you can imagine how delicate the matter is this summer, working on possibly the best and cruelest novel on American society from the perspective of an African/American. I have to follow a dream of what their language must sound like inside a book in Italian coming out in 2020. Ellison-s English is crisper and more 2020 than any past English I-ve worked on. His late 1940-s early 50-s English sounds so of this moment, so much of his slang and rhythm has become the English of the internet age that translating the slang as if it were some slang or dialect in Italy today or even worse in the 50s wouldnt make any sense. So I must use all my desire and whim to look for a sound that is not offensive, is vital, is not sociological, is creative. Sun Ra.
In the first anecdote, the one about Buenos Aires, I am trying to translate our, me and my wife, feelings for her father into English, but English turns out to be the only place I can tell that story, and so translating it from the language I got it is the only way to tell it. The second anecdote begs a more linear answer, one I don’t want to give. As I wrote in the essay, rewriting Class into English, maybe one of the most daring literary adventures of my life, was so painful and nerve-racking that I keep forgetting when it happened, what year it was, how long it took. It wasn’t pleasurable, but seeing literature from that unhinged perspective//a bit like performing surgery on your own body//opened up a world of literary pleasure, a pleasure that includes these musings and this interaction with an editor that lives where my father-in-law grew up.
ET: Is oral literature an influence, as authorship is communal and each retelling is a version?
FP: And so I’d never tell my father-in-law’s story in Italian. I already know how it sounds, there would be no magic. The rhetoric I employ in a borrowed language creates that imprecise, intense atmosphere where I want to surprise myself telling the story of this smiling grumpy generous man in my life. I wish everything sounded like an eerie translation of some alien language written down by a team of inspired scribes, copisti, in an underground lab. All language is a translation children do of sounds they hear from adults. Only some of us remember this truth while most people would feel soul crushed if their communication rested on this premise, they wouldnt know how to feel confident when talking about marriage and politics and economics, so they resort to a fixed set of images and chunks of words that makes them feel like they own the language, they can move through it at ease.
During Covid, I’ve only been able to discuss my struggles in English. I have had to sort through my psychotic reactions, but I haven’t been able to do it in Italian. A lot was swept under the foreign language’s rug, including some harsh passages about fathers, my father in particular. The other day I was at his place in the country and it was very windy, bordering on stormy. Elsewhere in Italy trees had fallen down; two girls had been killed by a tree in a camping site. I was afraid//I was very stressed out as I-ve spent all summer working on the stuff I left over from March and April. He ignored my expressions of fear, didn’t acknowledge them. I retreated back into the kitchen. He half smiled and said I was ridiculous. He said it to my friends who were there (he had crashed our lunch) and kept conversing with them. In the course of the weekend I noticed he often waited for me to end what I was talking about and then changed subject entirely, even if it was just the two of us. It’s so strange. It’s a bit Clarice Lispector and a bit Gogol.
See? Oral literature is an influence. Theater monologues, standup comedy, dissing in rap and trolling online and my vicars’ homilies when I was young.
Who would have thought I’d write my father-in-law’s story and find empathy with him by means of blaming his own father for forcing him away from his desire? I would never do that in Italian, and the unsettling limits posed by Covid have helped me understand I have a different language I can dump my unease into, like howling at the moon or sending synth melodies to space for other forms of life to hear.
I’ve never been this sloppy but writing to an Argentinian editor in English on a phone is helping me cope. I would never use the equivalent of “cope” in Italian, that’s glossy magazine talk, I’d hate it.
Since the pandemic, I have started clenching my teeth and yesterday an inlay I have on a molar popped and I decided to keep it a secret from my wife, who has freaked out every time I’ve had to see my dentist during the pandemic (or do anything outside our house), so I went by myself. As I lay on my dentist’s chair, I felt like I was having the most satisfying lunchtime adulterous sex. Two women sticking their fingers in my achingly wide-open mouth. It was my first day of rest after spending the summer finishing the Ellison translation. Now I store this secret here, where my wife won’t read it, and so again, after almost twenty years in publishing, writing has transformed back into the secret room it was when I first dreamt to be a novelist at sixteen.
ET: Does self-translation transform the original into a version?
FP: It does. What is my Uomo Invisibile going to be_ Italian is a language that has no feel for the uptight self-righteous poses of the Wasps that are the books- Kafkaesque foils, but it also has no feel for the position of the lowest rung. You would have to victimize the voice or make fun of it. In Italian, an attempt at actual translation would either sound pious or punching down nasty. In my version, I hope the editor will allow me to make the translation feel like playing, like my version is bursting at the seams because Ellison-s playful, spacey English is trying to eat me from my guts after I’ve spent half a year eating it. It’s going to be a version, I hate the very idea of translation. I find that a translation that pretends to be an autonomous piece of writing that should never point its admiring finger to the original and to the brittle magic of the transformation is just//selling a defective product, reducing literature into a commodity.
ET: Does exophonic writing, like your own, and literature in translation enable peripheral literatures and languages to affect the core? Perhaps this relates to what you were saying about South American literature and not attempting to write “well” in English.
FP: You wrote this after our Skype conversation and I-d love it if the reader could get a glimpse of the two of us talking for that one time, during the lockdown, in our houses. The intensity! 0 to 100 with a stranger in no time. That’s the reason why literary magazines will always be much better than publishing houses.
“Affect the core” with stranger mindsets. I would say yes. I think a pidgin English is the only English that can stay out of the mega complex of market and nuclear family mores that the English empire has stifled us with. But the reason I’m writing in English these days is to have a place where I can let loose; which mean it would be too sleazily and conveniently teleological to state that by escaping my language I-m also helping the state of writing out by affecting the core values and stance of self-righteous white English/language literature.
It definitely is something I want to play with. The internet-s first raison d-être is to sell a certain kind of soft power and it’s a fact that, when all mainstream papers sell the same kind of wishy-washy visions I-ll subscribe to The New York Times because it has better production values than La Repubblica. Whatever part of me stays connected to that core will spend money to be a part of the empire. There is only one music magazine, now, and its Pitchfork. So you want to play with that language, because they’re pumping your stomach with it. Writing in English for us is like writing about malls for postmodernist American authors. English is our mall.
I-m hanging out at the mall, like I was doing all the time when I was young.
ET: In addition to French realism, is French and Italian decadence an influence in your novels? Does it contribute to your idea of puritanism? (I meant Huysmans and D’Annunzio. I understand if they’re not an influence, just thought I’d ask.)
FP: A big International author of my generation recently started writing in English. They told me that their editor, their US editor, sent them very weird moralistic notes that caught them off guard. When, for instance, a parent would smoke a cigarette or drink a beer in front of their kids, the editor would write “bad parenting” as a note. The author was supposed to change it.
Huysmans is not an influence because he is too harsh on the pleasure seekers. I stand with the ancient Roman view of pleasure. Pleasure is not chaos. Pleasure cant be without continence, prudence, because I want it to last, to keep cycling through its dopamine/related ebbs and flows. So I cant consider an influence someone who treats pleasure as a slippery slope.
Same with D-Annunzio, in a way. He was using pleasure for ideological reasons. Pleasure was supposed to take you elsewhere, but D’Annunzio-s Heterotopia was an unforgiving place I’m not interested in.
But their two languages… Bresson discussing the power of the image in French… Montaigne thinking out loud… Boccaccio gossiping about nuns having sex… French and Italian are these dripping languages…. Also, Spanish…. Take Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The English language there //stretches itself to mimic Spanish. The languor, the booze, the being lost… Lowry wants English to stretch itself stony and unhappy. It-s such a great play on the use of English. My writer/translator friend Marco Rossari has translated a new version of Sotto il vulcano and his Italian is this drunken dream where an English that is mimicking Spanish is staggering back into a Latin language, into the Italian of a sensitive Italian author who loves drinking. Such pleasure, such drifting!