Translator’s Notes to “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino, excerpts of which I translated into Russian.

Italo Calvino Luigi Silori

Italo Calvino, Luigi Silori (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


(This was a class project, but I thought I’d share.)

Translator’s notes

It is often said that every translation is an interpretation.What is more, I often find that attempting translation leads me to better interpretation, and vice versa. The mind, when not in translation mode, has a tendency to skim over less-understood words, phrases, and concepts, or to fill in the blanks with its own biases. When translating, however, you must face directly what you do not understand, and painstakingly confront it. You go to dictionaries, encyclopedias, native speakers of the language, even, if they exist, other peoples’ translations.

Therefore, as I considered what to do for an “Alternate Journeys” project, I knew that I would best be served by a translation project. (Not to mention that it has been many years since I have practiced other creative arts.) Since Russian is my second language, and really the only one into which that I am fluent enough to translate, I knew that I was limited in what course materials might make good candidates for translation. Shakespeare is widely translated already in Russian (most of which with only moderate success), and I would guess that the same reasons that make the Bard difficult to translate (how far do you go in reproducing 16th- or 17th-century language?) would present difficulty in translating other older texts we read during this course.

I was already enjoying Invisible Cities, and, in fact, already considering it a candidate for translation, when I read the following passage:

The atlas depicts cities which neither Marco nor the geographers know exist or where they are, though they cannot be missing among the forms of possible cities: a Cuzco on a radial and multipartite plan which reflects the perfect order of its trade, a verdant Mexico on the lake dominated by Montezuma’s palace, a Novgorod with bulb-shaped domes, a Lhasa whose white roofs rise over the cloudy roof of the world. For these, too, Marco says a name, no matter which, and suggests a route to reach them. It is known that names of places change as many times as there are foreign languages; and that every place can be reached from other places, by the most various roads and routes, by those who ride, or drive, or row, or fly.

Suddenly it clicked. A Novgorod. In all the course materials, as closely as the travels and transformations have skirted the Russian empire (the actual Silk Road, of course, ran through Central Asian territory which Russia always sought to control), Russia has always been left out of the exchanges. Although participating in a world culture from earliest times, drawing culture from Byzantium and government from the Vikings, then inspiration from the Western European Enlightenment, then competition from the capitalist rivals of the 20th century, Russia has always been somewhat isolated. This is probably as practical (the country is vast and difficult to travel) as it is ideological: from Orthodoxy to Communism, there has always been a line drawn in the intellectual sand. Here, though, Calvino is reaching out to the far-flung cities of the world, and he includes Novgorod, one of the most ancient Slavic cities and the first capital of the people of Rus. Cuzco and Novgorod might be left out of Marco Polo’s itinerary, but intellectually they exist as equals with the myriad other cities mentioned in Calvino’s book.

Once I had selected the last section of the book to translate, I set about my task. The florid language with its many descriptive clauses at once presented a challenge. While Calvino’s vocabulary itself is fairly straightforward–I did have to find out the Russian words for things like stevedores and ocean beds, etc.–the way the sentences are arranged can create a fair amount of confusion if one translates them word for word and comma for comma. Since Russian generally requires more commas than English anyway, I decided that although I would try to preserve the language fairly literally, I would take some license with punctuation and in some cases put periods where the original text had used commas. There were a few times when I preserved a simile very literally because although it sounded a little strange in Russian, it was rather unusual in English as well: the city of York’s “bristling with towers” is one such instance.

There are always times in translation where one is able to place something known for another reason into the whole. Sometimes this means placing the familiar into a new context. For instance, the unhappy city of Raissa is an ironic homonym for the Russian female name Раиса, which is based on the pan-Slavic word for paradise, рай (rai or raj). Yet with every translation, I learn many new things about the Russian language. In this case, I learned many proper names, particularly the not-quite-intuitive Russian name for Kubla Khan, Khubilai. I also verified from a friend that one can speak of an atlas (the book, not the god) without having to specify that it is a “geograficheskii” atlas. The word “atlas” (referring to both the book and the god) is a cognate, by the way.

Every translation is an interpretation, it is true; yet every translation is also a new creation. There were certain phrases which, from an auditory standpoint, I think came out much more beautifully in Russian than they did in English. I do not speak Italian so I cannot comment on how Russian compares to the original original language of the text. Though I do have a friend who speaks both Russian and Italian, who tells me that the two languages have quite a few points of juncture which English does not share. I suspect that Russian, with its heavy borrowings from another Romance language, French, shares some cognates with Italian, particularly when it comes to the consumer goods that Russia was always hungry to import from Europe. Perhaps that is why a lackluster phrase in the English translation, such as “crowded with multitudes in clothing never seen before, all in eggplant-colored barracans, for example, or with turkey feathers on their turbans…” becomes poetry in Russian. In transliteration, the line goes, “prepolnennaya mnozhestvami v odezhde nikogda vidimoi prezhde, vsey v tsvetnom baklazhanom barakanye, naprimer, ili c peryami indeiki na ikh turbanakh…” There is a great deal of alliteration and assonance in this particular story in particular, the story of the city Laudomia. The poetic aspect of the translation convinces me that this alternate journey connecting Venice to Novgorod was ultimately a success.


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