Martha Cooley, our Associate Professor of English and fiction instructor extraordinaire, is the author of The Archivist, a best-seller published in a dozen foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons, also published in Italian. She is an active member of PEN American Center and a contributing editor for several literary magazines. Her latest book is Time Ages in a Hurry, translations of short stories by the Italian writer, Antonio Tabucchi, and is co-translated by Antonio Romani. It is available via Archipelago Books. For more on the author and translator, visit marthacooley.com
martha cooley on language, craft, and the world of antonio tabucchi
by iris mahan
VoC: Time Ages in a Hurry is a world of fathers and sons, of strangers and neighbors, of the old and the young, of memory, and of the present moment. Antonio Tabucchi deftly documents what it means to be a human searching for a sense of identity and belonging in terms of self, family, and society at large. Novelist Moshin Hamid describes reading Patrick Creagh’s translation of one of Tabucchi’s earlier novels, Pereira Maintains: “Pereira’s politics grow more pressing by the day, as absolutist ideologies and paranoid states increasingly impact our lives.” Time Ages in Hurry feels very current in its themes. How did you discover Tabucchi, and what drew you to his work?
MC: What drew me and my co-translator and husband, Antonio Romani, was the novel Sostiene Pereira, which is translated in the British version as Pereira Maintains and in the American version as Pereira Declares, so we already have an interesting translation issue there. What do you do with this verb sostiene or to sustain—that’s one way it could be translated into English; maintain, declare are others. The word is nuanced and depends on context. If you’re thinking in terms of an interrogation, the words maintain, sustain, or declare could be used. I prefer declare, because it’s more emphatic…almost as if there were an implicit exclamation point after it. There’s also just an edge of wryness, a quasi-comedic overtone to the word declare. It can seem pompous: ‘He declared that…’— and we also have things like the Declaration of Independence lurking around in our collective consciousness. Pereira is no position, really, to declare anything at the time when he’s being interrogated. He’s defied the regime in Portugal, where he’s made a decision to go from being a reluctant, non-involved man to an involved, committed one, and he’s coming up against the authorities in a way that you realize at the end of the book will not bode well for him. So any declaring he’s doing is a bit Pyrrhic. One hopes he won’t die because of it—that he will be jailed is likely…
Anyway, that’s a bit of a diversion from your question, but when I look at my own engagement with Tabucchi, I always go back to that novel and the incredible rush I got out of reading it, because it did such a good job of taking the personal and the political and entwining and complicating their relationship. Tabucchi is very good at finding the moment of pure human loss, desire, need, that forms the connection between the realms of private life and political reality. In the case of Pereira, the connection is a dead wife and the lack of children. After he encounters a young man who stands in as a kind of would-have-been son, Pereira is kind of hooked. He can’t help himself. There’s something too important and urgent and painful in the feeling he has for this guy. The guy’s going down a political path that will get him in trouble—indeed, it gets both of them in huge trouble.
Tabucchi is very good at finding the moment of pure human loss, desire, need, that forms the connection between the realm of the political and personal.
I read the stories in Time Ages in a Hurry and was completely blown away—as was Antonio—by how diverse they are, in some ways, and how tightly unified they are. Time is a protagonist in all the tales, as is the act of story making. The narrator says in ‘Between Generals’ that the real protagonist of any story is the story, and that’s just a wonderful observation. All of these stories take the act of story making or telling as part of their concern. There’s an overall preoccupation with what language can and can’t do, what narration can and can’t do, how it is manipulated, how it’s manipulatable. In the beautiful story ‘Festival,’ a series of lies is built in, just as in ‘Between Generals.’ All the stories are about betrayal, deception, what has to be kept secret and what doesn’t; what one gains and loses through secrecy. These questions are at once very political and very personal. Tabucchi has an uncanny, unerring ability to find what is shared by both realms when we experience deception, and how we can’t disentangle the contexts of certain kinds of private choices and decisions from other contexts. Of course, it’s quite extreme when you have a story like ‘The Dead at the Table,’ where the protagonist sets out during the course of his career to become a spy. In ‘Clouds,’ in contrast, the protagonist isn’t an informer but a former military man who’s essentially dying at the beach resort where the tale takes place. He contemplates the variables that led him to this moment when, in the company of a young girl, he can meditate upon the absurdity of his peacekeeping role and pose some basic questions about war.
Then you have another kind of story that might seem different but really isn’t: ‘The Circle,’ where the fundamental question that arises from that protagonist, the woman, is how the hell did I miss the business of having children, how did I not think about this? You don’t sense she was in massive denial and always longed for children. It was more like, how is it possible that my life got structured in such a way that it didn’t become pressing for me to ask my husband, who was researching a drug to save children, about having our own child— and somehow this got away from us. Who can say that the husband, working as a scientist to try and find a cure for children who’re dying—well, who can criticize him? The woman offers wonderfully subtle observations of her Swiss family’s inability to get where she came from, in North Africa. She also mulls over her own co-opting of memories that weren’t even hers, that belong to her grandmother—I love that part of the story. She’s aware that she’s stealing memories that she can’t possibly own, and trying to make them her own. They’re secret realities her Swiss family can’t grasp, but they’re not actually hers but those of her forebears…so what’s their status in her own life? She’s a character in a liminal state, an in-between state: the one who is neither here nor there, neither Swiss nor North African, who grew up in a fancy apartment in Paris. Not a spy, to be sure, but a keeper of secrets nonetheless.
Hamid also notes in Tabucchi’s work with testimony as a form in Pereira Declares—we’ll say declares— that “Pereira [is] presumably testifying to an account of his actions transcribed by someone else.” Many of the stories in Time Ages in a Hurry employ a similar storytelling device through testimony, letting the narrator give a second-hand account of particular story. How is the act of translation a kind of testimony? What are the obligations and responsibilities of a translator?
It’s interesting that you use the word testimony. It’s one I hadn’t really thought of associating with the act of translation, but it does make its own kind of sense. I tend to approach the act, first of all, as an act of carrying or transporting; of carrying music and meanings from one linguistic realm to another. Which is, of course, a ludicrous thing to say if that’s all one says about translation, because when one translates, one always has to think about the culture and the cultural moment in which that particular music and meaning—that language—arose.
For instance, take German—the language from which you, Iris, translate. Schiller’s German is pretty different from Günter Grass’s. If you don’t know that as translator, you forgo choices about how best to do the transporting. I like the word transport, by the way, because in English it’s a verb but also a noun that refers to an exalted state. But one mustn’t romanticize the act. As for testifying, I think of translation as related to witnessing, vouching for, and clarifying—adding to a sharper, truer picture. Testimony also implies some external judge. Of course, translations don’t go to court and get thrown into jail if they are bad—but they do have to pass muster with the target language. The people who are receiving the text in that language have to feel that the translation sounds ‘right’ in terms of the cultural moment and context.
This is why I think retranslations happen. You have retranslations of Dante or Don Quixote because there is always a desire to re-testify to the ongoing power and force and relevance of the original text; to carry it into a new linguistic and cultural moment, and thereby testify to an ever-renewing relationship. The way in which someone in Dickens’s time would have read Dante versus, say, T. S. Eliot sitting down and reading Dante in the 1920s, versus how Dante strikes us now, well, Dante is infinitely transportable and valuable to transport.
There is always a desire to re-testify to the ongoing power and force and relevance of the original text; to carry it into a new linguistic and cultural moment, to testify to an ever-renewing relationship.
Not all texts need that sort of testifying. But I guess that’s the spirit in which I would think about it: not just in the narrow sense of have I captured the essential sound and sense, but am I aware of the moment in which I’m working—and is the thing I produce, which is, after all, a new work, being honest with and true to the moment in which it’s being created? I could, for instance, imagine someone doing a Dante that would sound like more like one from John Ciardi’s time, imitative and loyal to that model—and then someone else coming along and saying no, that’s not really good enough for now, for our moment.
Tabucchi’s language has a breathless quality to it—the narrative and dialogue unfold as if the speakers just have to get this off their chests, to tell you this story. How difficult was it to recreate Tabucchi’s voice and style in English?
It was complicated. Antonio (my co-translator) read passages aloud so we both could hear what that breathlessness sounds like in Tabucchi’s Italian. We did a lot of reading and rereading, both silently and aloud. Tabucchi’s diction is not hugely challenging; usually, we didn’t have to struggle too much with that. Syntax was a whole other ball of wax, and quite challenging. In fact, we had some really interesting dialogues with Jill Schoolman, the founder of Archipelago Books and our editor, who most of the time liked what we did, but sometimes would write back saying ‘this sounds clumsy,’ or attempt a shortening or a cleaning up, as it were, in hopes of not having the reader find a passage too awkward. We would then say, ‘Well, there’s something deliberately odd in the original Italian, too. Ordinary Italian isn’t done like this, you don’t talk or write quite like this, so he had reasons.’ Jill was very helpful in saying, ‘Ok, I hear that it needs to be off, but let’s try different ways of getting there.’ At times, we erred in inverting phrases or clauses when there were other ways of achieving that same slightly off-kilter sensibility. You want the response of the reader to be that the text feels slightly destabilizing, without its actually being clunky. That, and getting the serpentine quality of his sentences, which is wonderful. Sometimes we used slightly different punctuation. In doing final edits, I tried to respect Tabbuchi’s commas, which often mark the breath as lineation would do in a poem. I didn’t introduce a lot of other punctuation marks, because he doesn’t use many dashes and semicolons or colons. Those have real personalities, and one has to be mindful of when to use them.
This brings us to your own writing, and how this work fits in not only with the business of translating but with how you would interpret Tabbuchi’s fiction. In an essay in the literary journal The Common, ‘From the Stone House: On Belonging,’ you describe an encounter you had with the Sardinian writer Marcello Fois (whose novel’s title might be translated as In-Between Time). You and Fois discussed the subject of identity and belonging, and Fois asserted that “identity is assigned,” whereas belonging is something we create. As Tabucchi tells us in ‘The Dead at the Table’: “Thanks to a wall you belong to something.” His protagonist is speaking specifically of the Berlin Wall here, but much of this collection is concerned with the effect of borders on the human psyche. What is your definition of belonging? How are we redefining both terms—belonging and identity— in an increasingly globalized world?
When I hear that question, I feel myself flinching. This is where I become the obstructionist interviewee, the one who says, ‘I can’t, won’t, or daren’t answer such a question.’ Or maybe I’m interested in putting a little pressure on the question. To return to Fois, he would say that it’s a question of choicefulness. He told a wonderful little story about leaving Sardinia and being in an in-between space—traveling that bit of water you have to travel between his island and Italy—and feeling himself exit one sphere of emotional influence and enter another. And he realizes that he has to recommit each time to a new place. Some essential part of himself, because it’s linguistically based, belongs to Sardinia, and he would say—I think almost in the way he would describe a plant that belongs to the earth—that his root system is lodged there. But his identity also moves up out of the soil, and spreads…and my analogy starts to fall apart here, because for someone like Fois, Sardinia isn’t only a root but a patch of earth, surrounded by water. And that water (unlike soil) is forever in flux, yet Fois must traverse it to get to another place that’s supposedly fixed—in his case, the city of Bologna.
I guess it’s this notion of belonging as typically construed in terms of fixity that I find troubling. I belong here, I belong there, or even I choose to belong here… I think belonging is a more labile and fluid experience—changeable, fickle. What’s more, we resist it. Though I’ve never looked up the word in English, as I’m sitting here thinking of the word belong, my impulse is to take be and long and put them apart: be, I am, I long. Maybe whatever belonging is, as a noun and a state of being, should be connected to desire in some way; to persistence and desire. That’s about as close as I can get, not to a definition of the word but to making some sort of gesture toward its capriciousness.
I think belonging is a more labile and fluid experience—changeable, fickle. What’s more, we resist it.
Someone who’s been tossed out of their country or thrown in jail and can’t get back, or individuals in exile, would probably scoff and say, Well, yours is the luxury of someone who has a passport and is not likely to get tossed out of your country. If you look at Tabucchi’s story ‘Bucharest Hasn’t Changed a Bit,’ about a guy visiting his father, a Romanian who went to Israel, you have this sense that because of the way that being Jewish or Jewishness functioned psychically in Europe in the 20th century and does now, in the 21st century, there can be plenty of running back and forth between Israel, Romania, Paris (the physical triangle-points of the story), yet nothing is settled; no one gets to say I’m here. The father ends up traveling in his imagination; that’s the only place he can really live. Just as the child at the end of ‘Clouds’ frequently occupies a space of her own invention because the actual space she inhabits, full of domestic and other conflicts, is painful to her. In another story, ‘Drip, Drop, Drippity Drop,’ the protagonist’s dying aunt makes references to Silvio Berlusconi and the fakeness and vulgarity of much of what she has witnessed during that charlatan’s rule—the lies, the undermining of authentic connections… When she asks, “Do you remember how beautiful Italy used to be?”—that’s more than just nostalgia. This woman felt uprooted from the moment her brother told her, look, I’m going to go fight for Il Duce.
As a long-standing member of PEN American Center, you’re engaged with issues of censorship and free speech. Tabucchi’s story ‘Festival’ was striking to me in its defense of “the right to think” and the lengths to which we are willing to go (or not) when trying to express ourselves. In January of this year, PEN published “Global Chilling,” an international survey of writers on self-censorship in the age of mass surveillance. The results revealed that “more than 1 in 3 writers in [so-called] Free Countries said that they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic.” Is this something you’re conscious of in your own writing? Is it something one has to be conscious of as a writer today?
A writer’s “right to think” is a right that only the writer can establish for herself. It begins with self-permission, even before one talks about consequences. To me, all these questions you’ve raised regarding freedom of expression—the right to it, and how that right gets abrogated or infringed upon—must begin with what we allow ourselves as individuals in the private, inviolate space of our imagination. But as soon as I say that, there’s a little voice inside me that says that’s horseshit, because no imaginative space can be utterly inviolate. If you haven’t eaten in three days, or if you’re walking around in a state of terror, your imagination is necessarily infringed upon. Nonetheless, amazing artists since time immemorial have preserved the sanctity of their imaginative space in situations that would surely break me. So I want to assert—to declare (to return to Pereira’s word)—that the act of giving permission to the imagination to be what it is should be viewed as primary. It’s the right we grant ourselves. All other rights granted by family, state, or nation are, I think, best looked at (for as long as we can, anyway) as secondary. Have I freed myself to say what I really want to say, to express what I really want to express? As for I’m afraid of what the government will do if I write x or y or z, most of us in this country don’t have to worry about that quite so much, and we’re very lucky that’s the case.
A writer’s “right to think” is a right that only the writer can establish for herself.
Let me back off a moment. What just came to mind is Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen. I imagine if she were listening in, she’d look at me somewhat askance. She might say, ‘I, Claudia Rankine, am not likely to be thrown in jail, but how I express what I feel, think, believe in, and how it gets received is very different from how you do these things. We each have what’s in our imaginations, sure; but as soon as you write, your being white assures you a privilege of reception that as a black person I’m not assured of. You and I could be saying things of equal validity, but historically, you are more likely to be heard, to be valued, to be recognized.’
All very true. Thus I’m not asserting that there’s a huge amount of space between the initial act of self-permission and what comes next; for as Rankine points out so beautifully in her book, that space is actually small. The writer of color immediately bumps into obstacles in our culture that will block her. But, that said, and I think Rankine would agree, she and I are still a hell of a lot luckier than writers in certain other places. Here in America, we are luckier than Vaclac Havel was in Czechoslovakia in his time, or than just about anyone is in Syria right now. Such things become relative really fast.
Fear is what creates that initial hesitation to self-express; everyone knows that. But fear often isn’t rendered with the specificity it needs when we have conversations about censorship and self-censorship. We need to get clear about what the fears are. Rankine is very specific and precise. And it’s this precision that every writer owes herself with respect to the particular features of her own fear. If I can’t name those features, I will not be able to get out of my own way. If I can’t be precise about them, I will not stop impeding myself. For someone in Syria, a precise statement of fear might be this: ‘I’m going to get shot for speaking my mind.’ For the likes of you and me, it’s not about getting thrown into jail or having a gun held to our family’s heads. It’s something else.
In an essay in A Public Space, you write about witnessing the shipwreck of the Italian cruise ship, the Concordia. You describe the strange image of the boat at various times of the day, changing from “a tipped-over toy” to “a huge dark blotch of sorrow,” and the ephemeral nature of the sight itself. You state that this too “will alter, will not be recalled as it is.” Tabucchi notes in ‘Between Generals’: “Sometimes the deep meaning of an event reveals itself at the point when the event seems settled.” How do we as writers render current events in truthful ways—or, put differently, in a way that acknowledges our propensity to alter, to distort facts in order to gain new and better insights into what happened?
You can smell right away when a writer has not done the work, either conceptually or aesthetically—or linguistically, in the case of literary art—to acknowledge the mutability of ‘what happened.’ Put differently, you can tell when the artist is more intent on a kind of point-making or politicizing. When I teach undergrads, as soon as they mention anything about messages or points, I say, ‘Stop. Halt right there!’ Then we have the conversation about how stories don’t do those things, that’s not what they’re for.
For my own part, I’m interested in whether I can find the language commensurate with whatever experience I’m trying to chronicle. It’s a question of getting out of my own way, so that whatever linguistic resources I’m able to tap within and around me can be well-matched with whatever quality of experience I’m trying to render or capture. Perhaps more than anything else, stories are a kind of grasping in the air at experiences that whiz by us. We grasp at them, and at what that handful of air can be shaped into—realizing it’s always air, in the end.
Stories are a kind of grasping in the air at experiences that whiz by us. We grasp at them, and at what that handful of air can be shaped into—realizing it’s always air, in the end.
This gets back to my love of Italo Calvino and his essays on the qualities that make literature effective. One of those qualities is lightness—and by that, Calvino doesn’t mean frivolity. He does mean an essential precision, and a respect for the ephemeral, airy nature of reality—for whatever shifts and changes. In my own work, I always try to keep it nimble, to stay light on my feet, to not lock into any particular way of proceeding or fixed perceptions about what the material in front of me may be trying to do or be.
The poet Jane Hirschfield wrote a series of poems called assays, which is related to the verb essayer in French. To try. All good fictional and nonfictional narratives are assaying—experimenting, trying out, putting on and off. Ah, all those nice phrasal verbs we have in English, where we can attach a preposition to an action verb: under, in, up, down, around—I love that about English! It makes my co-translator Antonio both happy and crazy: he can never remember all the phrasals. This speaks to Calvino’s point: one must be mindful of ever-mutating meanings. For instance, putting out sexually is not the same as putting out the glassware on the table, is it? One has to know what linguistic resources work in what situation, and one learns this only by endless trial and error.
The narratives in Tabucchi’s collection invite us as readers to experience the idea of story itself as the ultimate protagonist. ‘Between Generals’ is about the act of storytelling, and it asks us to meditate on “what stories are given to us, and what are the stories we give to others.” What is a story that was given to you, which has informed the way you perceive yourself as a writer?
Just about any human being, even one orphaned from birth, would say that the crucial story given to her or him is the story of where her or his parents came from, whether it’s just the two of them as individuals, or a whole lineage.
The informing story of my youth was the story of three out of my four grandparents immigrating to the United States. Europe loomed very large in my imagination. We’re talking England, Ireland, Holland. Those three nations were fascinating for me as child, because several people I knew well (my maternal grandmother, whom I knew until I was five or so, and my paternal grandmother, much longer), along with people I didn’t know but had heard about, came from those places. And they spoke different languages over there. Even the English they spoke was different.
I never had a harder time than the year I spent in England when I was twenty, studying at the University of Warwick. I arrived thinking this will be totally easy, and I’ve never been so perplexed and frustrated as I was that year. It was much easier for me to travel abroad to places where I didn’t expect to understand or speak the language. I was often flummoxed by British English. In any case, my experience there awoke in me a lifelong desire to be around other languages.
You’re offering Tabucchi’s Time Ages in a Hurry to English-speaking readers. Could or should we think of translation as an act of giving stories to others?
How not? I feel that the fundamental story that translation imparts over and over again is the story of humans’ relationship to music. As the poet Donald Hall says, “Poetry begins in the mouth.” Indeed, all language begins in the mouth—as much in the mouth as in the ear. You know, babies literally roll sounds around in their mouths… Something internal happens inside us that we could call noise or sound, which we experience at the level of the nervous system. And so much of our imaginative life is tied to our body, in particular to our nervous system—both the sympathetic and the autonomous parts of it. We have the fight/flight part and the more subtle part. Translation begins there: with the registering of sound and music within the body.
The truth, though, is that we live in a time when English has become the hegemonic language, and it’s anything but free.
Among other things, language reflects roots of trade, commerce, and the transportation of goods. We can’t disassociate the act and art of translation from the dissemination of language itself, which has always been connected to the commercial and transactional realms. Yet we believe language itself is free. The truth, though, is that we live in a time when English has become the hegemonic language, and it’s anything but free. It’s the price of entry for many professions, and if you don’t have the money or the education to learn it, you’re locked out. This is one of the main reasons why so little literature from other languages and cultures is translated into English.
When we think of the imaginative life being tied to the body, we interpret the body as a kind of instrument or tool to aid us in the act of writing. What is your own engagement with this?
Well, I can say nothing that hasn’t been said fifty ways to Sunday, but…it startles me when I teach a class in the middle of the day, and everyone in the room is dehydrated and hasn’t eaten, and they also probably haven’t moved much. Physical movement allows for a special kind of mental sifting of perception and feeling. I sometimes feel as if my own nervous system is one of those strainers with a very tight mesh, and somehow the act of walking almost seems to—well, there’s a beat to a walk, right?—it’s almost like with that beat, there’s a gradual shaking loose of the strainer’s apertures. As if the mesh widens, and what sifts through can and does change.
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