Features / Fiction / Interviews / Nonfiction

Q&A With NYRB Classics Editor Edwin Frank & Translator Stephen Twilley

Bloom: What prompted you to commission a new translation of these short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa?  Has this been long in the works, and/or was there a particular timing that seemed “right”?

Edwin Frank: The title story [“The Professor and the Siren”] is really wonderful—it is Lampedusa’s other masterpiece, and had been out of print in the States for quite awhile. The existing translation by the excellent Archibald Colquhoun seemed very English and a bit dated. I thought it would be good to add a new one to the mix.

Bloom: What is your sense of how Lampedusa’s work is received by English-language readers today, i.e. what context or tastes might they bring to Lampedusa’s subject matter and prose style that could foster an affinity for his work?

EF: I think The Leopard has established itself as one of the great books of the twentieth century, and a defining one of the second half of the century, which has seen a remarkable revival of the historical novel, for which Lampedusa’s book could be seen as a precedent.

Bloom: How did you select these three works?  The 1962 collection published by Pantheon and translated by Colquhoun collected “The Professor and the Siren” (translated “Mermaid”), “The Blind Kittens,” and “Places of My Infancy.” Why, for instance, the decision not to publish “Places” and to publish “Joy and the Law” instead?

EW: We simply published all the short fiction he wrote. “Places” is autobiography, and has been picked up, I think, by New Directions. I wanted to place the emphasis on the title story, which is the outstanding work in the volume: Lampedusa steps out of history into myth.

Bloom: Is there any more to the unfinished novel manuscript, or is what appears in the new translation all there is?  What does the title “The Blind Kittens” refer to?

EW: I don’t believe there is anything else. I assume the title refers to the hapless cluster of impoverished aristocrats speculating on the size and origins of the up and coming man’s fortune.

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Bloom: What were some of the challenges and pleasures of translating these three short works by Lampedusa?

Stephen Twilley: Tomasi di Lampedusa’s language, not unlike the aristocratic institutions to which he belonged, was in many respects untimely, reading more like that of a late nineteenth-century naturalist author like Verga or De Roberto than that of his contemporaries. It is relatively spare and direct but still formal and correct, and sprinkled with archaic terms. It is carnal and sophisticated, slyly humorous but still possessed of a kind of gravity and grace that the avant-gardes of the ’20s and ’30s had tossed aside. And unlike the neorealists, Tomasi di Lampedusa wasn’t focused on contemporary social problems. So it was a challenge (and ultimately a pleasure) to try to maintain some of the language’s characteristic old-fashionedness without making it stilted or fussy or otherwise compromising its vitality. Also, I am more accustomed to working with living authors (and sending them lots of queries), so there was both a new freedom and loneliness in this experience.

Bloom: The 1962 translation by Archibald Colquhoun gives us the title “The Professor and the Mermaid.”  What is the significance in translating “Siren” versus “Mermaid”?

ST: Lighea is a Siren, part of the Mediterranean classical world, meant to evoke the “song of the sirens” and Odysseus tying himself to the mast (even as Senator La Ciura provides a revisionist version of the “facts” of that tale). While the creature at the heart of the story is indeed half woman, half fish, a form that I learned only came to be associated with sirens in the Middle Ages, I think “Mermaid” is too literal and limited a translation of “Sirena.” I also wanted to avoid associations with the Disney franchise and such. “Siren” seems more classical, powerful, potentially dangerous, allusive. In fact I wanted to call the story simply “The Siren.”

Bloom: Lampedusa was a polyglot—in addition to Italian, he read Latin and Greek, studied English, spoke French and German.  Did you detect any of this in his prose style?

ST: Not really. There are a few words in English, some use of Piedmontese (which looks a bit French) and Sicilian dialects, but the language is far from macaronic. I expect, though, that the author’s linguistic abilities probably contributed to the credibility of the Senator’s erudition.

Bloom: The success of Il Gattopardo was not fully embraced in Italy in its time.  How is Lampedusa viewed by the Italian literati today?  By Sicilian culturati?

ST: While rejected by the few publishers he submitted it to while he lived, The Leopard was in its time a tremendous popular success in Italy, even as it divided the critics, mostly along political lines. Today it sits firmly in the national canon, its quality largely undisputed even by those who think that Italy doesn’t exactly need encouragement to appreciate its past glories at the expense of embracing a contemporary globalized world (not least in the form of the tens of thousands of African migrants arriving on the tiny island of Lampedusa, that of the author’s title).

The debate occasioned by Paolo Sorrentino‘s great film of last year, The Great Beauty, breaks down in part along similar lines: there was a big backlash in Italy against what was seen as over-the-top praise of the film (this semiotic square cleverly maps the negative reviews of the film).  But Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel is arguably more clear-eyed than Sorrentino’s film about the fate of decadent societies, of gerontocracies: Sorrentino’s Jep Gambardella may end up unfulfilled, but he’s alive to beauty and finds some solace in his companions; after the Prince of Salina dies, the relics associated with him and his age are consigned to the dust heap of history.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Sonya Chung’s feature piece on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

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