Geeking Out on Primo Levi — and Elena Ferrante — With a Master Translator

The great Italian writer Primo Levi is primarily known in this country for memoirs detailing his experiences in Auschwitz, his long journey home after the end of the war and his life as a chemist of Jewish descent in the quiet precincts of Piedmont. These books, published in America as “Survival in Auschwitz,” “The Reawakening” and “The Periodic Table,” give the impression that Levi was primarily a writer of Jewish trauma.

He wasn’t.

Or maybe it would be fair to say that he both was and wasn’t, but to limit him to this role in our literary culture is to belittle and distort the accomplishment of one of the great writers of the postwar years.

In books like “The Wrench,” “Other People’s Trades” and “If Not Now, When?” his intellectual curiosity led him toward a wide range of subjects, some Jewish, some not. He looked at the nature of work and how it engages the mind, the strangeness of our mundane daily lives, the way we construct patterns by which to give ourselves the illusion of safety and comfort. He even dabbled in science fiction. The one constant in his work is a precise, considered reasoning, a kind of scientific method, through which even his most fantastical imaginings are grounded in a clear and logical vision of reality.

Luckily, Liveright Publishing has recently brought out an omnibus, three-volume edition of Levi’s complete works that should serve as a corrective to our misconceptions. It contains the full text of all of his published books, newly translated and restored to the form he intended for them to take, as well as the entirety of his uncollected writings.

The task of commissioning the new translations and editing and molding the final books fell to Ann Goldstein, the renowned translator of Elena Ferrante, among many other writers. I was interested in what insights she’d gained about Levi over the course of the ten years the project took to complete. She graciously accepted my invitation to meet, and we grabbed a coffee and geeked out about translation at a Le Pain Quotidien near the downtown Manhattan offices of The New Yorker, where she has worked for many years.

J.F.: What are you drinking?

A.G.: What am I drinking? Coffee.

So am I. Let’s start with what got you interested in taking on this massive, massive project.

It was offered and it seemed interesting.

Did you have a pre-existing interest in Primo Levi?

No. I had read the obvious things — “If This Is a Man,” “The Truce,” “The Periodic Table.” I don’t think I’d read anything else by Levi, actually. Bob Weil, an editor at Norton, got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in editing the complete works. It was really his idea to do this. He had done the complete works of Isaac Babel and he decided he wanted to do the same thing with Primo Levi. It turned out that the rights were very complicated. They were all scattered among many publishers. He spent five years collecting the rights, and then he looked for somebody, an Italian speaker or translator, to put it together. He got in touch with me, and it seemed like an interesting project. Then, as I began to look into the situation, I realized that not only had certain things — essays and stories, mainly — not been translated, but many of the things that had been translated had not been published in accord with the original Italian books. For instance, the book published as “The Sixth Day” contains some stories from “Natural Histories” and some from “Flaw of Form.” So I said, you know, I really think we ought to retranslate these things.

It was interesting to me that you wanted to retranslate everything.

Bob had originally thought, oh, we’ll put together the existing translations. But when we started looking at the translations, there would have been such a variation. For example, the first two translations, “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce,” had been done in the ’60s and they’d been done by a British translator. So there was already, as you can imagine, a real difference in tone and flavor and word choice, really, between the British and the American. You would end up with a real mishmash of translations.

Just in terms of tone.

Yes. So it seemed to me, and to Bob too, that if you were going to do this elaborate, huge project, you should do it as well as you could. That’s when we decided that we would do all new translations, with a variety of translators but with one editor.

So, in that case, how did you ensure that the great variety of translators didn’t…

Well, I gave them a few instructions. I mean, I didn’t give them instructions, but I sort of knew their work. Well, I didn’t know all their work, but I knew enough of it. And I think I knew that they’d all be pretty faithful translators and not try to do anything too fancy. And then I guess I — I really had no idea what I was doing. I had the idea that I would then edit everything and that would make it, at least as far as we could, the work of one person. There was one exception: “If This Is a Man,” which it seemed that we would never be able to get the English rights to. But it turned out that Stuart Woolf, the original translator, had always wanted to revise it. I worked with him on the revision, and we were able to get the same tone. At least I think. That was my hope. I think we succeeded pretty well.

I was reading what Woolf was saying in his afterword. It seems like there’s some sort of symbolic value in including him and his translation.

There’s that too. He actually worked with Levi. So, yes, there was. It was great that he was able to do it and that he wanted to work with us.

What was the scope of his revision?

In one sense, it was pretty big, because it was translated from British into American. And then he had quite a few things that he wanted to change. Apparently, the story is that, when it was published, he didn’t even know it was being published. He’d done this translation because he had wanted to do it. His wife was the niece of Leonardo De Benedetti, who had returned from Auschwitz with Levi.

Anyway, Woolf didn’t even know that the book was being published. And suddenly he had these galleys and he didn’t have time to correct the galleys. And, apparently, there were many things that he would have liked to correct. And over the years, for whatever reasons, he never was able to correct them. So he was very willing to do it.

How did you go about choosing the books that you yourself would translate? Or was that happenstance?

To some extent it was happenstance. I chose “Lilith and Other Stories.” And I chose “The Truce.” And then “The Periodic Table” went through two different translators who ultimately decided that they didn’t have time to do it. So in the end I took “The Periodic Table” too, which I was really happy about.

What was it that drew you to “Lilith” and “The Truce”? I mean, it’s obvious what drew you to “The Truce,” but —

The first part of “Lilith” had been translated before. But I liked that it was made up of three parts — the different tenses that he chose. [Each of the three sections of “Lilith and Other Stories” is titled after a different verb tense.] And I really liked a lot of the stories. There was such a range, I wouldn’t say of styles, because his style is quite consistent, I think, but of subjects. There were those little travel things. And then there were the stories based on scientific things. But they were different from the ones in “Natural Histories” and “Flaw of Form.” And I thought it was interesting that he did such a range of short stories.

We should talk about what you mean by the three tenses because I’m sure my readers don’t know.

Passato prossimo is the first one. Which is the past.

Present perfect is what you called it in English. The three in English are: present perfect, future anterior and present indicative.

A.G.: English doesn’t quite correspond. Present indicative is clear. It’s what happens now. The present perfect are the ones that are in the past. Literally. The “I did” past. The ones that are about Auschwitz. Future anterior is like the possible — the “I would do, I will have done.” They’re the more futuristic ones. I don’t think these are tenses that even exist in English.

No, I looked them up. They sort of do.

They sort of do.

It’s interesting that the Italian passato prossimo is specifically the past and in the English translation you’ve got to call it the present perfect. There’s something evocative about that idea. That the things in the past are existing in the present.

Because it’s really the “have done.” In English, you’d say “I have done” and “I did.” In Italian they’re the same. “Ho fatto” is “I did” and “I have done.” It’s the same construction. There are other tenses — the imperfect, the pluperfect and all the rest. But the passato prossimo includes both those English tenses, so it’s hard to differentiate.

But it also says something about Levi. I feel that he exists in a different place from other Holocaust writers — a much more interesting place. Part of this is because of those tenses. And the idea of bringing what I think of as the three large points of inquiry in his work as a whole into one volume makes “Lilith” a unique and important piece of his larger oeuvre.

I’m so glad you’re pointing that out, because it’s a book that gets forgotten. Especially because the first set of stories were translated and published separately. It goes back to some of your other points. The first group of stories are about the Holocaust, and with the addition of a few other Holocaust stories, they were published as “Moments of Reprieve.” It continues to pigeonhole Levi as a Holocaust writer, even if the stories are — well, I don’t know if you could say that they’re lighter, but they’re different.

They’re anecdotal.

Yes. And they’re looking back. They’re not so immediate. But the fact that he put those three groups of stories together was meaningful.

You worked with the text in such an intimate way. I wonder what you learned about him through that. Or about his goals as a writer. The relationship between his writing —

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think he necessarily wrote [the stories collected in “Lilith”] with the idea that he would make this book. He really wrote in stories. Even his full books are stories. I mean, books that are intended as books are written in short sections or chapters, self-contained. So I don’t think that he really did intend it. But when he saw that he had them he put them together … I don’t know. I’m not really a critic.

The second part, “Future Anterior” — they’re not quite sci-fi. They’re working in this kind of European fabulist tradition, which is interesting. Here, we never think of Levi as working within a fabulist tradition.

That’s true. But there he is. The stories in “Natural Histories” and “Flaw of Form” lean a little more toward the sci-fi. These seem milder to me in some way. He tells them as if they were really happening.

I sort of dipped into “The Complete Works” in that way that, when something is this large, you can sort of pleasurably explore and learn larger things about the work. There’s something throughout his work, even in “If This Is a Man,” the first Holocaust memoir. It’s like there’s a screen between himself and the emotional content. There’s an analytic mind. It’s moving us, on a stylistic and formal level, through the experience. So that it ironically feels more lived than a dramatized scene would feel. Because it feels experienced.

That’s an interesting way of putting it. It seems to me that people say, “Oh, Levi is cool and scientific and detached.” It’s true, but it’s also true that you really end up with the emotion in the end. It’s a very powerful emotion. You may not think so immediately.

And authority.

Yes. You end up with authority. Definitely. But as you say, experienced. From the experience.

Which is part of why — and you would know better than I, but I feel like when “The Periodic Table” was published, it was riding a line between fiction and non-fiction, at least in the way it was talked about in the press. It was presented as literature, as opposed to as a memoir.

I suppose that’s true. Because it is sort of odd as memoir. You don’t really read it as memoir except for your knowing that it’s a memoir.

There’s a complexity to the way he was marketed in America that, one, wasn’t authentically true to who he was as a writer, and, two, seemed to make him very uncomfortable.

That’s right. It did make him uncomfortable. He did not like it.

And was this was because of the crass way we use our Holocaust narratives to suit our mythologies or —

I think that it had to do partly with the time — the period of people being interested in the Holocaust. The whole hopeful thing. The emphasis on survival. The way that [“If This Is a Man”] was retitled “Survival in Auschwitz.” The way that “The Truce” was retitled “The Reawakening.” Everything was meant to be interpreted as “It was a bad thing but we came out of it.”

A different narrative from the one he was conveying was layered on top of the work.

Definitely. And then the Jewish focus was layered on top of that.

There seems to be a conflict in him —

There is. And there’s a conflict in what is said about him as well. My knowledge of it, or my sense of it, is that he wasn’t especially Jewish. He was probably Jewish in the way that people are here. He grew up in a very assimilated family. Most Italian Jews — many Italian Jews — were very assimilated. They felt that they were Italians rather than Jews. When he was arrested he thought that it was less dangerous to say that he was a Jew than a partisan. He went to Hebrew school and he did the sort of standard things, had a bar mitzvah. But he didn’t feel that that was part of who he was. Although later, in “The Periodic Table,” he does talk about how he sometimes felt different from his gentile classmates. But being Jewish didn’t bother him, in a way. Until the racial laws — until the late 30s, when he started to be made to be different. And then he began to think about it and to feel that he was different. Not that he should be different but that they were making him be different. And then, later, much later, he became more in touch with his Jewish roots, so to speak.

From my limited knowledge, it seems that he never wanted to fully embrace the identity of being, you know, Jewish first.

No. I don’t think so.

And yet an inordinately large amount of his writing is about Jews and Judaism. Often almost anthropologically. As though it’s something alien to him but something that he’s interested in.

There’s the whole first chapter of “The Periodic Table” about the special language of the Piedmontese Jews.

And he gave lectures and was willing to present himself as a moral authority in discussions of Israel at various times.

Yes. In the “Uncollected Stories and Essays” — in the essays especially — there are a lot of occasional pieces, occasional in the sense that they were written for an occasion, about Israel and about being Jewish. Well, not so much about being Jewish but about Judaism.

Not about being Jewish but about Judaism. It’s fascinating.

You know, it’s funny because I haven’t actually sat down and read through all of them. I’ve always been working on them. I know what impression I wanted people to have but I’m not really sure what impression we got.

In light of the way that his literary objectives were twisted in this country, I’m curious about where he falls in the 20th-century Italian corpus and how he’s seen there.

He’s not seen as a Jewish writer. He’s seen as a classic writer of the 20th century. He’s taught. He’s read in schools. He’s seen as a great writer. And he himself was very interested in going around to schools and talking to schoolchildren. He was really seen as a classic.

I feel like stylistically he has a lot in common with people like Calvino and Borges. I was struck by how many times I thought of Borges while reading his stories, even the stories of everyday life and some of the later Holocaust stuff. He frames the story within the context of his own inquiry.

He’s really a great framer and twister. Especially in the essays in “Other People’s Trades” where he starts out with one focus and then he ends up in another place. You hardly even know you’re being taken in this twisty direction. Also with the more fictional stories.

That’s part of what creates the sense that they’re all part and parcel of each other. A certain turn of thought or reflexiveness is always present no matter what mode he’s writing in.

Yes, that’s true.

I feel like translators are the holiest people in the literary world. They understand the work better than anybody else. They’ve read more than anybody else. They read in a way that is more reverential toward the work than an academic does but they read more widely and with less ego than a writer does. They play the central role in keeping literature alive. And so I deeply admire what you do. In that context, people are always talking about the state of translated literature in America, and I feel like I’ve started to see some signs of hope in the last few years.

It’s gotten a lot better. More attention is being paid. I think it’s great.

What besides the fact of Italian draws you to a specific book or writer? Is there a relationship between the Levi books you chose to translate and Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri and all the rest?

No. I don’t think so. I think it’s actually kind of random. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had the chance to translate some amazing books and mostly they’ve come to me. I’ve never really looked for them.

Joshua Furst is a contributing editor of the Forward and the author of “The Sabobtage Café.”


Joshua Furst

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