A Perpetual Layering of Language and Meaning: An Interview with Writer and Translator Jenny McPhee

In the past year, Jenny McPhee has been the translator of three books that have been published by great Italian writers: Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte, and Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese. McPhee’s record of translations, publications, and other projects is spectacular — she also has also translated the work of Primo Levi and other writers, has three novels, is a prolific journalist and critic, and is the Director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at NYU.

Whether it’s her translations or her own prose, McPhee’s language is succulent and exact, and her writing often combines divergent elements. In The Kremlin Ball, we simultaneously experience the wealth of Stalin’s Court and the failure of communism all playing out on the streets of 1920s Moscow. Malaparte and McPhee richly layer the beauty and horror in each scene: “The smells of Russian rivers wafted off enormous trays covered with mounds of fresh caviar surrounded by blocks of ice,” McPhee translates. “The fresh caviar was gray and pink in color, like a cream made of butter and blood, like a pile of tiny slimy and bleeding pearls.”

I wrote to McPhee to ask if we could talk, particularly about her three most recent translations. She wrote back, “I am a devotee of all things translation as to me all writing is translation, translation the essence of all writing. I translate in order to become a better writer. I write in order to become a better translator. So yes, gladly. Ask away.”

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NATHAN SCOTT MCNAMARA: What first drew you to the Italian language?

JENNY MCPHEE: When I was 17, my best friend and I graduated from high school a semester early, bought Eurail passes, boarded a Freddie Laker charter flight, and took off into the wild blue yonder. We eventually wound up in Italy where we, two American blondes, were severely harassed on the streets, but we were young feminists and determined to be undeterred by men. We both fell in love with the country — infinitely varied — the culture — at once so new and so very old — and the language — it really does just roll off your tongue. We used to spend hours in our youth hostel devising rejoinders in our limited Italian to the whistles and lude commentary: our favorite, the one we were most proud of, was Guardati nello specchio! (Look at yourself in a mirror!) But that only earned us laughs and more harassment. Finally, someone taught us to say, Vai a fartelo stroncare in culo (Go get someone to break his dick off in your asshole), after which we were usually left alone.

My best friend and I had studied French for years but the lure of Italy was so strong that we left our respective undergraduate institutions to join up for a junior year abroad in Florence. We went on the Rutgers Program which, unlike most other programs, places the students directly into classes at the University of Florence. At the time, Italian was not a language that was offered at Williams, where I went to college, so my Italian was pretty rudimentary. Instead of studying Dante and Boccaccio or Cesare Pavese and Elsa Morante, I took courses in American Literature (the Noir) and in English Literature (the Victorian novel) in hopes of at least getting by. The Director of the Rutgers Program, perceiving my disadvantage, paired me up for language exchange with an Italian student who was on his way to graduate school at Rutgers the following year. Massimo and I spent a lot of time in bars drinking whiskey and at a retro cinema club in a communist community center watching old Italian movies, and although we became great friends for life, my Italian at the time didn’t improve much. All in all, my junior year in Florence was not a particularly good one. The city was overrun with Americans like me, and perhaps because of this, the Florentines seemed to me to be just as the Sienese described them: snobbish, arrogant, and rejecting. I vastly preferred other Italian regions and cities such as the Veneto, Sicily, Trieste, and Naples. I left Florence after that year declaring I was “never going to set foot in this town again.” And then, dear reader, two years later in New York City I met and fell deeply in love with the man I would eventually marry and with whom I have three children: Yes, a Florentine.

You mention the 1962 film Il Sorpasso as a significant event in your love affair with Italy. What is it about this movie that triggered something in you?

I can only take a stab at answering this as my response to that movie, which I saw with Massimo at that retro cinema club in a communist community center, was visceral. I had grown up obsessively watching classic American movies on TV and it was a language I was fluent in — noir, screwball comedy, suspense, the musical, the western, the B movie — I saw so many of them, classic cinema felt like home to me. So when I saw Il Sorpasso (The Overtake), a tragi-comic road trip buddy film that reaches very far into the Italian psyche and soul (accompanied by a sublime soundtrack), I felt two wondrously conflicting things at once: totally at home and on the threshold of an entirely new and thrilling world I wanted to know intimately.

Can you say a little bit about how you ended up working on each of your three most recent translations — The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte, Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, and Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese?

In the case of all three books, I was approached by the publishers — but there is, of course, a story. I had been pitching translation ideas to Edwin Frank at New York Review of Books for years but none of them ever panned out. When he suggested I do a new translation of Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, I couldn’t believe my ears. If there was one book I would love to translate it was that one. I knew there were two other existing translations so it never occurred to me that this book would be possible. When I was just learning Italian early on, a friend suggested I read Ginzburg because her sentences were relatively short, her language simple (deceptively so). I devoured everything I could by her and she inspired me to become a writer myself. Her essays are extraordinary and I can easily say “My Vocation” and “He and I” changed my life.

In writing my third novel, A Man of No Moon, set in post-war Italy and loosely based on Cesare Pavese’s love affair with the Hollywood actress Dorothy Dowling, in my research I kept coming across the writer, journalist, diplomat, dandy, opportunist, and absurdist Curzio Malaparte and was thoroughly intrigued by this strange character who himself seemed to have been invented by someone’s vivid imagination. When Edwin suggested I translate Malaparte’s unfinished novel The Kremlin Ball, I was keen to get to know the very complex Malaparte better. I have come to appreciate him immensely as a writer and satirist and in my view he foresaw our present political and cultural situation, not to say disaster. In The Kremlin Ball he insists often that if the political elite, whether on the right or the left, whether Communist or Capitalist, were allowed to continue their racist, classist, sexist agenda unchecked, then one day in the not so distant future he “and all of his readers would find themselves up against the wall.”

Anna Maria Ortese’s Neapolitan Chronicles (Il Mare Non Bagna Napoli) is a classic of Italian literature and a fundamental Naples text, along with Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, and Norman Lewis’ Naples ‘44. Michael Wise, co-founder of the excellent new small publisher of translations New Vessel Press, approached me about Ortese and I jumped. But I wanted to translate the book with my friend Ann Goldstein, with whom I had previously collaborated on several projects. I knew Ortese was something of an inspiration for Elena Ferrante, and I thought Ann’s knowledge of Naples and of Ortese’s literary legacy in the Ferrante novels would enhance our translation experience.

It was of course my honor, privilege, and good fortune to have the opportunity to translate these three astonishing works. It also felt to me both serendipitous that they came my way and  destined to be.

Natalia Ginzburg was from Sicily, Curzio Malaparte was from Prato, Anna Maria Ortese was from Naples. Did the language shift in translating writers from three distinct regions of Italy? 

Yes. Both Ginzburg and Ortese used a fair amount of dialect throughout their books and this proved challenging. Malaparte’s novel was written almost a third in French to show how much that language was still the language of the elite, even if the elite was now communist. But the language shifts among these three authors was less a regional thing, though that was present, and more of a personality revealer having much more to do with who they were as writers, humans, citizens of their time and place, all expressed through their individual tone, style, syntax, and word choice.

Each of these books emphasizes a great commitment to political and historical reality. Many of the historical figures, places, and events trigger recognition but many have grown obscure, at least to an American audience. How do you keep the reader alert if you can’t count on political and historical recognition?

Well, you hope that the storytelling is compelling enough that a reader will want to find out more about the books’ political and historical reality. That said, I am a devoted footnoter, or better yet, endnoter, which is controversial among translators. I like as much information as possible at my fingertips as I am reading a text, but some readers find footnotes intrusive and disruptive to the reading experience, especially in fiction. Of course, there is always Google but I like to have the relevant information as part of the text. Part of the experience of reading a translation is being exposed to another culture you may not be familiar with and so to offer a reader some guidance on specific cultural, political, or historical references seems to me only to be a boon.

You collaborated with Ann Goldstein on your translation of Anna Maria Ortese’s Neapolitan Chronicles. How was the translation and editing process different working in collaboration with Ann versus, say, the editors at NYRB Classics?

I think good editors are crucial to any text written originally in English or translated into English and I have had great editors who make my work glisten.

Ann and I have worked together over the years on various translation projects. I edited her translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Petroleum and she edited my translations of Primo Levi’s Flaw of Form and Natural Histories. We have always had a great time working together because we are both word nerds and can happily spend hours discussing the appropriateness of a semicolon. On the Ortese, however, we wanted to do something different. We wanted our translation conversation to go deeper, to become a kind of meld with each other and with Ortese. In order to achieve this, we split the text but swore that we would suffer the humiliation and give each other the very first ugly, horrible, incoherent, embarrassing draft. We each then did another draft and began passing the drafts back and forth and back and forth until neither of us really knows anymore who translated what initially. The result we hope is something positive. The process itself was a huge success for both of us and we can’t wait to do it again.

Do you find your translation work influences your writing? Do you find your writing affecting your translating?

To be a good translator, you must revel in the language you are translating into, in my case English. You must come to know it intimately, see its possibilities and limitations, know what it is capable of and where it falls short, rejoice in its strengths, tolerate where it disappoints. In other words, you must love English and writing in English.

Translation has taught me more about being a writer in English than any other training I have had. With each translation, the author of the book becomes a sort of linguistic spirit guide, teaching me about the process of writing, the impulse to write, and then pushes me to understand my own language and my own ambition as a writer.

I am now of the mind that every serious writer needs to experience translation — and by that I don’t necessarily mean that one has to learn a language and translate a text, although I would recommend that, but that a writer needs to deeply explore languages and cultures that are not her own, immerse herself in the unknowability of another language — and that can be any other language, for example, a dialect, music, cosmology, shoemaking, anything that has a lexicon of its own that needs to be translated so that everyone can have a better understanding of that world’s soul. It is my deep belief that all writing — and translation is a very obvious example — is palimpsest, a perpetual layering of language and meaning, a conversation among writers, readers, and translators across time, present, past, and future and I am deeply grateful to be part of that conversation.

You’ve worked in fiction, nonfiction, translation, criticism, and more; what do you enjoy about the differences between these genres?

I think mostly I love the way they all speak to each other and merge together at points and at others diverge sharply. I have never felt comfortable in just one genre and I think that really and truly these distinctions are far more fluid than we often allow, relying on the apparent safety of  distinctions and definitions, even if they are ephemeral. But these categories are distinct and moving from one to another is often a great relief to me. Translation can be frustrating and painstaking but I really love it: it has all the fun parts of writing fiction without the terrible burden of creation.

You’re the Director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at NYU. You’re a fiction writer, translator, and journalist. You also have three kids. How do you carve out time for reading?

Really the question should be: How do I carve out the time from my reading, writing, and translating for those other things in my life. But my reality is that everything in my life feeds into the story I am reading, telling, living. My job, my kids, my writing they are all integral and inform one another continuously. If I separate any part of my life out from another, that is when I begin to feel overwhelmed and panic.

What writer would you still like to translate?

Dante; Laura Cereta; An Italian translation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest back into English; and so many more. I look forward to translating books from the great immigrant literature that is just beginning to come out of Italy and is certain to become a significant expression of Italian culture in the future.

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