Dialogues with Pavese: Tim Parks

For Tim Parks the good translator reconstructs the original text: read our interview with the author of the new translation of Cesare Pavese’s The Moon And The Bonfires, recently published by Penguin.

Tim Parks Tim Parks was born in Manchester (UK) in 1954, grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard before moving to Italy in 1981. He is author of eighteen novels, as well as various works of non-fiction including four memoirs covering aspects of life in contemporary Italy. His many translations from the Italian include works by Moravia, Tabucchi, Calvino, Calasso, Machiavelli, Leopardi and Pavese. He has written widely on the subject of translation and his book Translating Style is an unusual attempt to fuse literary criticism with translation analysis. For more than a decade he ran a post-graduate degree in translation at IULM University, Milan, and he continues to be a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. At the end of January, Penguin published his new translation in English of Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires, whose most recent translation came out in 2002. In this interview, we discussed his approach to Pavese and to the elliptic style of this novel.

Pavese is one of your favorite Italian authors: Paesi tuoi was one of the first books that you read in Italian. Did that book help you to approach a different culture and language? And how?

Paesi tuoi was one of the first novels I read in Italian, though I suspect the very first was Natalia Ginzburg’s much easier È stato così. Obviously, the foreigner is immediately struck by the representation of peasant life in Paesi tuoi, which has nothing of the sentimentalizing or romanticizing agenda one tends to find in British fiction about country life, or indeed in a lot of lesser Italian fiction. However, what fascinated me from the start with Pavese was the position his protagonists assume towards the world: they wish to be involved, but constantly fear contamination. And again the position of Pavese as a writer toward his reader: the relationship is never cosy; Pavese is never altogether comfortable with us and clearly doesn’t want us to be entirely comfortable with him. He doesn’t want to please too much. It is as though he, as writer, were as afraid of contamination in our regard as his protagonists are anxious that they will lose their purity. The only sense in which this told me something about Italy was that Pavese saw it as a place likely to corrupt you, to flatter you, to draw you in, dangerously. But I think he would have felt that wherever he was.

You wrote many reviews of Pavese’s works. In the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and in the introduction to this translation, you focused on Pavese’s biography. Art and life were inextricably tied in Pavese, but don’t you think that critics focused too much on his biography, trying to find explanations for Pavese’s artistic choices in his life?

A text has meaning when we bring knowledge to it. The first knowledge we must bring is language: if I can’t read it, the novel doesn’t even exist. That’s why we need translations. And then we bring knowledge of life: if I don’t know much about relationships between men and women, then many novels will be obscure to me. This is why texts grow richer as we grow older. Then there is the particular context in which the narrative takes place. If I don’t know anything about Italy’s situation in the Second War, then both The House on the Hill and The Moon and the Bonfires will lose part of their potential meaning. Biography is another element of context. One can do without it, but once we know certain things the text changes for us. It is not necessary to know that Pavese killed himself some ten months after writing The Moon and the Bonfires, but once we do know it the book changes for us, and we can’t unknow it. The achievement of a great writer, it seems to me, is to allow the reader to experience in the most intimate way possible the position he writes from, the mental world he lives in. The more we read a writer like Pavese (or Morante, or Bassani), the more we want to know about them. It is not a question of ‘explaining’ anything. I’m not the least bit interested in explaining literature, or reading explanations of it. It is a question of being fascinated by the way art and life vibrate together, which is arguably the subject of Pavese’s great diary. The patterns of behaviour that characterize Pavese’s life illuminate his books, and vice versa. It’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in these things.

In the introduction, you mentioned the “advantage” of the two previous translations by Louise Sinclair (1952) and R. W. Flint (2002) for your work. How much do these two previous works help you? Also, what are the most relevant innovations and changes that your translation provides, compared with them?

I got to know these translations when I wrote an essay on Pavese for the New York Review of Books, so I suppose the first thing that has to be said is that they alerted me to the space for a new translation. Pavese is difficult, as far as I know this is the only novel Louise Sinclair translated: although much is good, she makes endless straight mistakes. Banal example: 

“Poi venne il treno. Cominciò che pareva un cavallo, un cavallo col carretto su dei ciottoli”.


“Then came the train. It began by looking like a horse, a horse with its cart raised up on the rough stones”.

Which stones? Why would one raise up a cart on them? It’s difficult in the English really to get a sense of what’s going on.

Flint is a more practised translator: he often ‘overwrites’. Here he gives

“Then the train came. At first it was like a horse, a horse rattling a cart over stones”.

It just feels odd, where the Italian is so straightforward. My version is simpler:

“Then came the train. At first it looked like a horse, a horse and cart on cobbles”.

Essentially, there is a constant problem of register, of the translator understanding where the Italian is ordinary and where it is doing something special. In the English, everything begins to sound clunky and odd, with little differentiation. Pavese opens a chapter in this way:

“Nemmeno per la Madonna d’agosto Nuto ha voluto imboccare il clarino”.

And Flint follows the structure, adding information:

“Not even for the mid-August Feast of the Madonna was Nuto willing to take up the clarinet again…”. 

This is a highly marked form of phrasing in English. Sinclair thinks it is important to keep “imboccare” in a literal sense, which gives her version a quaint feel:

“But Nuto didn’t want to put the clarinet to his mouth, even for the feast of the Assumption in August”. 

A standard English would say “lips” here, not “mouth”. I have tried to keep what I sense is the same register of direct spokenness:

“Nuto didn’t even want to pick up his clarinet for the August Madonna”.

When the passages get longer, more contorted and more thoughtful, the earlier translations risk serious stodginess.

“If I began to think about these things, I was stopped, because so much came back to me, so many desires so many old affronts, and I remembered the times I thought I had made a refuge for myself and had friends and a home where I could really put up my name and plant a garden”.

That’s Sinclair opening a chapter where Pavese had written: 

“Se mi mettevo a pensare a queste cose non la finivo più, perché mi tornavano in mente tanti fatti, tante voglie, tante smacchi passati, e le volte che avevo creduto di essermi fatta una sponda, di avere degli amici e una casa, di potere addirittura metter su nome e piantare un giardino”.

Flint has:
“Whenever I started thinking about these things I never stopped, because so many events, so many desires and old failures came back, and the times I thought I’d reached solid ground, had made friends and found a house where I could post my name for good and plant a garden”.

One never feels the voice is confident, homogeneous, credible. “Failures” doesn’t give the humiliation of “smacchi”; “desires” is a high register in English. Here, I offered:

“Once I started thinking about this stuff there was no end to it, because all kinds of things came to mind, longings, humiliations, times when I thought I’d got something together, some friends, a house, somewhere I could put my name on the door and plant a garden”.

Obviously. expressions like “essermi fatta una sponda” are difficult and the danger is that, in looking for a solution that works semantically, one loses the register. Later in the same passage, Pavese offers this key idea, talking about the land:

“Bisogna averci fatto le ossa, averla nelle ossa come il vino e la polenta”.

Sinclair goes for something more generic: 

“You must have grown up there and have it in your bones, like wine and polenta”.

The “there” has a curiously distancing effect in English, since we are talking about here. Flint decides to act as though English had the same idiom as Italian:

“You must have made your bones here, must have the place in your bones like the wine and polenta”.

The problem is that “made your bones” sounds bizarre in English. I spent ages thinking about this, about what Pavese really means, what the expression “fare le ossa” really means, what is the equivalent expression in English. I gave: 

“You have to have cut your teeth here, have it in your bones, along with the wine and the polenta”.

These issues of register are the main problem of the earlier versions, though there are also plenty of straight mistakes, due to problems with Pavese’s very local vocabulary and use of ellipsis, for of course these translators didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and weren’t able to email friends in Piedmont. That said, both versions were helpful. After translating each chapter, I could check my version against theirs, occasionally finding mistakes of my own: you’re bound to make them translating this prose. This is a huge advantage and a duty, I think, to the reader. It is unlikely that all three translators will make mistakes in the same place, so where our texts were different I could go back and examine the original more carefully. Very occasionally, where they had just the right word, I took it. In the end what you’re trying to produce is the best possible version: the important thing is, to hear the original text as well as you can hear it, to seek to recreate that in English; but having done that you would be crazy not to use the resource of previous translations to check your own. No doubt at some future date some new translator will make the same use of mine. In answer then, to the second part of your question, I hope my translation gets closer to the tone, the voice, the moody music and rhetorical shifts of Pavese’s work. But it’s for others to judge how far I managed that.

In the introduction you wrote that “many ambiguities, allusions and some of the carefully crafted eroticism of the description are inevitably lost”. What did you have to sacrifice to give English readers the same atmosphere of Pavese’s novel?

Pavese is a highly conscious writer and in The Moon and the Bonfires he was at the top of his game. He can create a suggestive idiolect between literary language and dialect, he can eroticize the landscape with the use of this or that adjective and turn of phrase. His love of ellipsis is a constant challenge, likewise his determination not to give the reader an easy ride. He frequently refers to things, situations, usages that the Italian reader knows and the English reader does not. The first challenge for the translator is to read Pavese well. Reading is not a passive activity. One has to bring an awful lot to the text, as a reader, to exploit its potential. Then, as a translator, one does one’s best to reconstruct it, with the problem that although English is a rich language, with all kinds of resources, they do not necessarily offer the same opportunities as the Italian. So some wordplay, some moments where there is a special and immediate relationship between an Italian word and an Italian reality, are lost. But the real danger for the translator (and for any reader to a point) is to introduce a more sentimental voice that is not there, to make the text ‘nicer’, more ‘comfortable’. At times Pavese is determinedly harsh, even brutal. One has to avoid any temptation to prettify.

In a letter to the editor Bemporad, who criticized his translation of Lewis’s Our Mr Wrenn, Pavese explains the criteria he follows as a translator: “Intendere il più fedelmente possibile il testo e rendere quel che s’era inteso, non colla letterale equivalenza linguistica, ma col più italiano, col più nostro, sforzo di ri-creazione possibile». How would you define yourself as a translator: faithful to the original text, or artistically unfaithful, like Pavese?

Like I said, the reading is crucial to me. I immerse myself in the book. In the case of Pavese I already knew the text well. I try to reconstruct the same experience. Which is my experience. But I know this will only work if the English is really English. The last thing we want is calques. So, as Pavese suggests, a great deal of creativity is necessary to be faithful. In passing, I don’t see Pavese as an ‘artistically unfaithful’ translator. I followed a PhD student through an examination of his translation of Faulkner’s extraordinary novel The Hamlet, comparing this with Vittorini’s translation of Light in August. Pavese went to great lengths to recreate in Italian the same adventurous difficulty he finds in the English. Vittorini normalized everything and basically rewrote the book. Again, one needs creativity to be faithful to creativity.

In the introduction you wrote that “for any reader Pavese is a challenge. We are quickly seduced, but the enchantment is never an easy one”. In the New York Review of Books you wrote that “reading Pavese is characterized by a tension between our admiration for his evocations of landscape, character, and milieu, and our resistance to the self-destruction to which his writing seems to point”. How can you as a translator render this sense of ambiguity for English readers?

I don’t think this is a technical problem, but a problem of approach and maturity, something I have already alluded to. If the translator has read the text well, if he has accepted that Pavese is profoundly pessimistic (though never without an intense awareness of life’s pleasures), then he will allow this to come across in the translation. If, on the contrary he resists this and somehow imagines that all literature must be optimistic and ‘progressive’, then he is likely to subvert the text even without being aware of it. I see this all the time when looking carefully at translations of ‘difficult’ authors, D.H. Lawrence in Italian for example. The curious thing is that the closer one gets to Pavese’s characteristic brusqueness, the more seductive the text becomes and the more powerfully the moments of pleasure enchant.

As a writer yourself, did you find Pavese’s style inspiring?

I confess to being fascinated, always have been, by the particular mental and literary space Pavese creates, his voice, his signature. Translating The Moon and the Bonfires in particular more than The House on the Hill (scheduled to be published by Penguin in August 2021), I was astonished at how patiently, quietly, but also rapidly, the most powerful effects are achieved. It feels like we’re being offered a few random memories, anecdotes, descriptions, reflections, then all at once we realize we have been told a harrowing story. The style is never emphatic, never melodramatic. You never feel any particular effort is being made, yet the effects are extraordinary. The novels are short, but the experience seems vast. It is inspiring, but also dangerous. As a younger author I was careful not to try to imitate voices that were too distinctive. But I confess that in the novel I have completed since translating The Moon and the Bonfires, I have used some of his tricks, particularly his laconic ellipsis. With what success remains to be seen.

“Un Pavese ci vuole”: I used this misquote from The Moon and the Bonfires for a series of web interviews with Pierluigi Vaccaneo, director of Fondazione Pavese. Last year we celebrated the seventieth anniversary of Pavese’s death: do you think that Pavese is still necessary? Your translation seems to confirm this.

‘Necessary’ is a big, even dramatic claim. Necessary for whom, when, in what circumstances, to what end? Certainly one yearns for writers and thinkers who can offer a clear-sighted, independent vision of experience, free from wearisome agendas and the craving for celebrity. Pavese is one such. 

An interview by Iuri Moscardi

>> Read the other Dialogues with Pavese

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