The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was

From The New Yorker:

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses. Repetitions in particular rise instantly to the surface, and they give the translator particular pause when there is more than one way to translate a particular word. On the one hand, why not repeat a word the author has deliberately repeated? On the other hand, was the repetition deliberate? Regardless of the author’s intentions, the translator’s other ear, in the other language, opens the floodgates to other solutions.

When I began translating Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” about a teacher, Pietro, who’s haunted by a secret that he confessed to a one-time lover, the Italian word that caught my ear was invece. It appears three times in the volcanic first paragraph and occurs a total of sixty-four times from beginning to end. Invece, which pops up constantly in Italian conversation, was a familiar word to me. It means “instead” and serves as an umbrella for words such as “rather,” “on the contrary,” “on the other hand,” “however,” and “in fact.” A compound of the preposition in and the noun vece—the latter means “place” or “stead”—it derives from the Latin invicem, which in turn is a compound of in and the noun vicis, declined as vice in the ablative case. When, after completing a first draft of my translation, I looked up vicis in a few Latin dictionaries, in both Italian and English, I found the following definitions: change, exchange, interchange, alternation, succession, requital, recompense, retaliation, place, office, plight, time, opportunity, event, and, in the plural, danger or risk.

But let’s move back to the Italian term, invece, of which Starnone seems either consciously or unwittingly fond. Functioning as an adverb, it establishes a relationship between different ideas. Invece invites one thing to substitute for another, and its robust Latin root gives rise in English to “vice versa” (literally, “the order being changed”), the prefix “vice” (as in the Vice-President, who must stand in for the President, if need be), and the word “vicissitude,” which means a passing from one state of affairs to the next. After investigating invece across three languages, I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel. For if Starnone’s “Ties” (2017) is an act of containment and his “Trick” (2018) an interplay of juxtaposition, “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution: an operation that not only permeates the novel’s arc but also describes the process of my bringing it into English. In other words, I believe that invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker