The fragile boat of the magazine “tradurre” (2011-2021) Interview with Gianfranco Petrillo

With an editorial in its December issue, the magazine ‘tradurre’ announced its closure. We interviewed the former editor in chief Gianfranco Petrillo to better understand how this decision came about.

Director Petrillo, in the editorial of the number 0 of “tradurre” (Spring 2011), we read that the aim of the magazine was to “give cultural dignity to the job of translating, revealing, in all its aspects, its complexity and richness, its depth and inventiveness, its hardness and lightness”. It was therefore an appeal to a Reader with a capital “l”, hidden behind the Market, also with a capital “l”, to persuade the publishing industry to return to having cultural dignity. In this decade of publications, how has the relationship between the cathetes (Reader, Market and Publishing) of this triangle evolved? Which direction has the magazine tried to follow?

[Gianfranco Petrillo] In a decade many things have changed. The fear, nurtured at the time, that ebooks would replace paper did not make much sense: they were still books, whether they were on papyrus or parchment, on paper or on display; and what’s more, it has not yet materialized. On the other hand, a trend that had already been underway for decades, namely the replacement of the transmission and circulation of knowledge through books and magazines with the web and social media, has definitively emerged. For its format, “tradurre”, “paper magazine pretending to be digital”, was already demodé at birth: in recent years it had become even antediluvian, that is, prior to the flood of tweets and fake news and uncontrolled Wikipedia entries (although in this last area the progress is undoubted, yet insufficient). The market and the publishing industry are struggling to keep up to date and the reader to orient himself. The Market, moreover, is careful not to let pass a concept on which “tradurre” has insisted so much: translation is a different and autonomous text with respect to the original, which not only must be evaluated for itself and not as a perfect replica of the original, but which, in turn, creates its own consequences in the destination culture.

I must point out that for a couple of years before the magazine ceased to exist, I was no longer its director, but Aurelia Martelli. But I don’t think – nor does Aurelia, I am sure – that it is an improper appropriation for me to answer these questions.

Browsing through the section of the site labelled “editorial staff”, it is possible to find a historical group and a variable number of collaborators for each issue published. Can you give us a brief profile of those who belonged to the inner circle?

[GP] There are actually two distinct groups in the editorial staff: the “founders” and the “youngsters”. The founders, in 2010, were Giulia Baselica, Susanna Basso, Paola Brusasco, Ilide Carmignani, Enrico Ganni, Mario Marchetti, Aurelia Martelli, Paola Mazzarelli, Maria Nicola and myself. Unfortunately, Ilide and Maria left immediately, and the late Enrico after a couple of issues, but in the meantime we have co-opted Anna Battaglia and Ada Vigliani, considered to all intents and purposes co-founders. As you can see, they are mostly translators, some – like Giulia, Aurelia, Paola Brusasco and Anna – with one foot in the university, others, like Enrico, with both feet in publishing. Mario, in addition to being a superb non-fiction translator, is the president of the Calvino Prize for debut novelists. I, a historian with a few bad youthful attempts at translation, was a white fly. We immediately enlarged the group to include some of the best ex-students of the School for Editorial Translators of the TuttoEuropa Training Agency in Turin, with a twofold purpose: that of dialoguing with young people and that of collaborating in the tiring work, voluntary and unpaid, of packaging the magazine, to which the group of founders, except for me, did not have the time to dedicate themselves. From this collaboration were born the very useful blog “blocnotes”, present in the site, and the column “Quinte di copertina”, but the magazine as a whole remained the responsibility of the “old”. The monthly plenary meetings have always been a rich mine of suggestions, indications and fruitful (and often amusing) discussions. A significant addition in its own right was the one, desired by himself, of Bruno Maida, a historian with no experience in translation, who came to strengthen the cultural axis around which the whole experience of “tradurre” revolved.

The variant commitments of each of them led to successive departures and replacements and new aggregations. Particularly important was the confluence of the research group of Letteratura tradotta in Italia (Ltit) coordinated by Michele Sisto, Anna Baldini and Daria Biagi, which fed a special column of biographical medallions.

In the editorial that announced the end of publication, it is stated that (perhaps) it is no longer time for a magazine like this: “a six-monthly magazine with a paper soul, but published online. Made up of substantial and impressive bibliographies, articles written with meticulous attention to detail and supported by ‘extreme’ fact-checking”. If this soul had also been a body, would the debate on the proposed topics have had more weight?

[GP] No. The only difference would have been higher costs, more effort and less circulation. Otherwise, I would have gladly printed the magazine as it came out in each issue. But perhaps I need to correct myself. There might also have been another difference: greater attention by the academic world to the overall sense of the operation, demonstrating the delay in which most (not all) of that world lingers.

In the same editorial, it is argued that a true dialogue with academia has not been possible. In particular, it has not been possible to overcome the separation between “academic” and “non-academic” ways of talking about translation. Why does this separation exist and what are the resistances that do not allow it to be overcome?

[GP] The academic world of the humanities is inward-looking and self-referential. University reform in a professionalizing sense has been interpreted as supine acceptance of the existing surrounding world, in which it would be neither possible nor desirable to make changes. As far as our field is concerned, classes specifically aimed at translation have been introduced, as if translating a pharmaceutical bill and translating a Shakespeare sonnet involved the same problems. In particular, no distinction is made between “specialized” translation, i.e., technical-scientific translation for academia and industry and commerce, and “editorial” translation, i.e., literary and non-fiction translation. Therefore, the teacher who cultivates the study of Rabelais proposes the text to young people who aspire to work in the tourist-hotel industry, who are completely ignorant of French literature, especially that which preceded the last thirty or forty years, which is not taught there, enclosing it instead in the enclosure of literary specialisms. There is also a widespread belief among teachers that the theory of translation is preparatory to the training of translators, confusing philosophical (but perhaps it would be better to say political-ideological) problems with problems of general culture on the one hand and professional trade on the other.

In this context, the proposal of the journal “tradurre” to think of editorial translation as a field of encounter and growth between different cultures, aimed at the maturation of self-awareness and awareness of the world and of the depth and complexity of the problems it poses, and in which intellectuals of great value work, seems for now to have fallen without raising the slightest attention: but the seed has been sown and something will emerge. We have had valuable collaborations from numerous and valiant professors in different and useful directions, to whom I do not cease to address a thought of gratitude, but as each in its own right, while no debate has been opened, no questions have been raised about the central role of translation in the formation of individuals and the development of society. All we got, for example, with the large monographic issue, issue 15, dedicated to “teaching/learning to translate,” was the outburst of a researcher who, though unnamed, felt insultingly represented in the testimony of a student and peppered us with superfluous and ridiculous registered letters sent for notice even to the rector and the legal representative of the university.

“tradurre” was certainly read in academia as well, but each sought there what he could grow in his own little garden. This means the total abandonment of the sense of humanistic study, reduced to a sum of specialisms like any other. An end in itself and to its own reproduction, each humanistic specialism is sterile and useless. And so governments are right to cut funding for culture that is not destined to “goods” (the term well represents the object) that have economic effects “on the territory”. It will soon be discovered that these self-reproducing teachings are useless and will be cut as well.

But I want to add: even worse, in our eyes, has been the behavior of the editorial world and the mass media. Our efforts to have the overall cultural role of translation and therefore of translators, both literary and non-fiction, recognized in this direction have been in vain: in this decade, there has been an increase in the publicity batting around certain translations and certain translators based more on the value of the original texts than on the overall function of the translation operation. Reviewing a foreign novel in translation by talking about its absolute literary value is a real miscalculation: what we have before our eyes is an autonomous text, which has its own values and disvalues, one of which is the literary (not merely linguistic!) adaptation to the original text, which should be considered taking into account the constraints imposed by the publishing industry. This is almost even more true for non-fiction, whose translators do not enjoy – except in very exceptional and mostly negative cases – even the slightest respect for their name. Much less do we dwell on the significance that such translations have for our culture, as translations. Regardless of the name that this or that translator has managed to make for himself or herself, we never ask ourselves about the origin, training and overall production of the translators as we usually do for other authors.

If, however, there was this partially negative outcome on both fronts, evidently our premises were wrong. Yet, I am not able to understand where the error lay.

What are, in your opinion, the numbers that have most accurately expressed the themes proposed by “tradurre”?

[GP] I would say that each issue has been sufficiently successful in pursuing our goals. I would like to point out the monographic issues (on the translation of theater, on poetry, on didactics and on translations of history) that each indicated a path to follow and that, had we had the strength to continue, could have been multiplied.

The topic of translatability in Gramsci can also be found in this review of the book Gramsci, Language and Translation, signed by Mauro Pala and published in the first issue of the journal (Fall 2011). In a letter from prison addressed in 1932 to his wife Giulia, Gramsci advises her to become an increasingly qualified translator of Italian. He goes on to describe the ideal profile of this figure: “[…] not only the elementary and primitive ability to translate any author, whether literary, political, historical or philosophical, from the origins to the present day, and therefore the learning of specialized and scientific languages and the meanings of technical words according to the different times. And that’s not all: a qualified translator should be able not only to translate literally, but to translate the terms, including conceptual terms, of a given national culture into the terms of another national culture, that is, such a translator should have a critical knowledge of two civilizations and be able to make one known to the other by using the historically determined language of the civilization to which he or she provides the information material […]” Can this little manifesto of qualified translation still be considered current?

[GP] In the facts, as I have summarily described above, that Gramscian “manifesto” seems completely out of date. In spite of all the hubbub about “clashes”, or pseudo-clashes, “of civilizations”; in spite of the urgency of the circulation of knowledge on a worldwide level in an era of globalization; it is certainly not “to know critically two civilizations and to be able to make one civilization known to the other by using the historically determined language of that civilization to which it provides the information material” what is expected from a translator today. But it will become relevant again because Gramsci, within the four walls of a cell, had a long view and the need for that awareness will become apparent.

At least, that is my hope: the hope that for a decade or so has made me take on the task of directing and then collaborating in directing the slender and fragile, but resolute, little boat of “tradurre”.

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