Ralph Ellison in Italian
How would you translate “Women? Godahm, mahn!”? Three words, so many unsayable things going on. Moments like these make themselves felt slowly when I’m translating a book. The ramifications, the impossibility, the horror of the subject matter all take their time to surface. One heavy word after another — and I have to turn it all into prose. Prose is when it flows, but when words like these jump out at you it feels absurd that you have to make sentences of the onslaught, of the overstimulation flooding your brain — and that you have to do it all in a different language.
Plus, the chapter you’re translating is getting increasingly dark: “Is that equality?” the dialogue continues. “Is that the black mahn’s freedom? A pat on the back and a piece of cunt without no passion?” What sound would you go after if you were translating this? Does it sound “poor”? “Unhinged”? Maybe “in the know”? You have to make a bunch of interwoven calls about a different culture’s sounds and vibes and attitudes. The task feels preposterous.
However you choose to translate these words, could you imagine thinking you’d done a good job? What would doing a good job even mean? In the end what you’ll have done is cover up a huge, ambiguous mess of sounds and meanings by massaging them into your own language.
The person speaking in these quotation marks is Ras the Exhorter, a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man who rants anytime he takes center stage. He is the hyper-perceptive Harlem leader on a horse who thinks collaboration with white people is utterly impossible. Although it has a strong first-person narrator, Invisible Man is, at heart, a novel of voices. Throughout the novel the young protagonist finds subtle ways to relinquish the mic to many interesting characters who are able to speak a truth that is more nuanced than his own. The narrator is a young Black man who’s been singled out by the white power structure by means of a scholarship, so his voice has inherited a lot of the slick, cumbersome white “refinement” he’s been taught. At the beginning of the book, after the prologue, we find a society of white men that wants to make an example of him and show off his virtue — and which will soon sabotage him in spectacular fashion. His entanglement with white power and culture is the unspoken reason he has to let other voices speak in different, less certified kinds of English, so that he can paint a more expansive picture of America. Ellison’s America, after all, is a place that calls for polyphony and cacophony — it’s a place where a Black painter works at a factory that produces the whitest white in the land, leaving him at once a prisoner and a leader in a scorching hot cave where he mixes the chemicals that create Liberty Paint’s Optic White. This kind of irony can’t be entrusted to a lone, reasonable voice.
I translated Invisible Man into Italian in the spring of 2020 for an independent publisher that had won the recently expired rights to Ellison’s entire body of work. I’d first attempted to read the novel in my late twenties, as a sort of continuation of his friend Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, but I never made it past the prologue, which I found boringly preachy. I recently looked back at that old edition, and the copy on its back cover underscored that this was a very serious work of literature, rather than a crazy, spaced-out blast of a book. At the time, Invisible Man felt like required reading — I didn’t expect and I wasn’t told that it was going to go berserk as soon as the first chapter announced itself. The relationship between that prologue and the rest of the book turned out to be the whole point of Invisible Man, which I gradually understood as I worked on the different voices.