Thursday, September 29, 2005


Whitman, Aldo Buzzi, used and abused

For the last few days I've been working at the New York Public Library, the big branch on Fifth Avenue with the tired-looking lions out front. Mostly I sit in the Rose Reading Room--accessed via the appropriately spiffy Bill Blass Public Catalog Room--and peck away at the laptop. Yesterday, though, I stopped at the exhibition area on the first floor, where there's a tremendous (if physically tiny) show on Walt Whitman. Amazing stuff, including letters, manuscripts, emended copies of Leaves of Grass--which the poet compulsively revised and expanded for the rest of his life--and even a lock of his hair. (Pale gray, if you're curious: clearly Walt wasn't messing around with the Grecian Forumula.) I was moved more than I expected to be. There's a scribbly revision of "Starting From Paumanok," at the beginning of Leaves. There's a manuscript page from Whitman's essay on Emerson, which rang my bell in a big way. Now I can't recall whether it was from "Emerson's Books (The Shadows of Them)," in which Whitman expresses some powerful doubts about his fussbudget master:
For a philosopher, Emerson possesses a singularly dandified theory of manners. He seems to have no notion at all that manners are simply the signs by which the chemist or metallurgist knows his metals. To the profound scientist, all metals are profound, as they really are. The little one, like the conventional world, will make much of gold and silver only.
Zing! Anyway, the show is wonderful, well worth a visit. The lights are kept dim, presumably to avoid bleaching the 150-year-old paper, but you feel as if you've been transported back to a pre-Edison era: very appealing.

A couple of weeks ago, I translated a short piece by the excellent Aldo Buzzi. I've admired his work for nearly a decade, ever since I first read Journey to the Land of the Flies and other Travels in 1996. (You can read my brief Salon review here.) That collection, with its feverish, funny excursion through the literary world of 19th-century Russia, is still my favorite--by a hair. But everything Buzzi writes is touched with the same wit and sensuous delight: he's that rare thing, an Epicurean with a sense of humor. His most recent volume, The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets, is yet another delicious specimen of his art.

But let me return for a moment to that translation. It's short piece, from a collection called La lattuga di Boston (Boston Lettuce), about Key West, old age, and mortality. Relatively straightforward. Yet even a text this small, this simple, has enough potential pitfalls to make the translator tear his or her hair out. Let's take a single paragraph in Italian:
In certi momenti della mattina il sole brilla nel modo piu magico. E se, contemporaneamente, il vento si abbassa fino a lasciar alitare solo un quasi impercettible zefiro che fa vibrare le cime delle palme, allor qui, a Key West, in fondo alla Florida, si ha il clima del paradiso terrestre.
After a good deal of fiddling, I came up with this:
At certain moments during the morning, the sun shines in the most magical way. And if, at the same time, the wind drops until it sends forth only a mild zephyr, almost imperceptible, which causes the tops of the palms to tremble, then here, in Key West, at the bottom of Florida, one encounters the climate of an earthly paradise.
The first sentence is easy. The second one forces you to slalom around the clauses, trying to hit each one at the right angle. Should I go with the cognate for vibrare--ie, "vibrate" instead of "tremble"? You could argue that "one encounters" is too fancy a substitute for ha. And what about paradiso terrestre? Perhaps it should be capitalized as "Earthly Paradise," although that would give the phrase a stuffy, exalted sound that Buzzi avoids. And so on and so forth. It's enough to make a grown man cry. And at this point, I should salute the superb translator of Buzzi's earlier books: Ann Goldstein. Three cheers!

Finally: in the Washington Post (and elsewhere), Hillel Italie reports on the booming trade in used books. The impetus for his piece is the release on Wednesday of a white paper by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), attesting to the rapid growth of the secondhand sector. According to the report, "used book sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, an 11 percent increase over 2003. Much of that growth can be credited to the Internet. While used sales at traditional stores rose a modest 4.6 percent, they jumped 33 percent online, to just over $600 million." None of this is a big surprise. For publishers and authors, it's not a good development--although you can always argue that consumers, having obtained one book by a talented author on the cheap, may be willing to buy the next one at retail. I myself am typically ambivalent. As an author, I hate to see the brisk (well, semi-brisk) traffic in used copies of Amazonia. Still, a used sale is better than no sale at all. At least it's exposing another reader to the book. On the bright side, I haven't yet come across any personally inscribed copies--but apparently the King County Library System has decided to thin out its supply. Sigh.

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