For seven years now, Angelo has picked open metaphors in Italian and held back those delicate flaps while I have a go at the tiny hearts, swabbing up enough DNA to construct their English equivalents. If left to his own devices, though, Angelo hews to the literal. Through three Pirandello plays, a Leo Ferrero, and Giovanni Verga’s Cavalleria rusticana, he has leaned on the tired old sawhorse “traduttore/traditore,” meaning that the translator who veers too far from the literal betrays both original text and author.
“So, you’d privilege a faithful rendering of text over an aesthetically pleasing read?” I want to know.
“A little foreignness reminds our Anglocentric readers that not every work was originally written in English. Pirandello hated the idea of translation. He didn’t want others taking liberties with his words.” Angelo had been especially insistent when translating Pirandello.
“And yet, the English versions always outsell the Italian.”
Last year in Rome, while dickering over a few lines of Verga’s, I lost it. “Don’t be such an author-genuflector. A beautifully rendered text in English doesn’t mean we’ve cheated—it means we’ve done our jobs.” Burying my hand deep in my lap so that even if he reached for it, he’d catch only my wrist, I said, “Why should the translated version play second fiddle?” I spoke in English, purposefully using an idiomatic expression, leaving him to rely on context clues. Though he’s fluent in English, we mostly speak Italian, but deep irritation brings forth a flood of native colloquialisms that I simply wouldn’t use back in New York with my husband and daughter.
It was my idea that Angelo and I meet up in Sardinia this time. I haven’t told him that our editor wants the full manuscript a month earlier than originally agreed. She informed me that Alice and Naomi Keene, the mother-daughter pair, are working on a translation of L’Edera for Italica Press, our press’s rival. I want our translation of Grazia Deledda’s Ivy as faithful as possible to the Sardinian rhythms, and I refuse to rush. We need this trip so we can render the wild, dry landscape dotted with nuraghi, those strange prehistoric sites with their conical stone towers and sacred pools. Yesterday, on our way to Nuoro, we stopped in Barumini to tour Su Nuraxi, the largest of all the nuraghi discovered so far. I peered from a tiny window cut into thick stone as the guide pointed out various ruins in that place once full of ritual and order, where people regularly congregated and knew what to expect of each other.
After breakfast on the balcony of our B & B, Angelo and I returned to our room. We’ve been at it three hours now, and Angelo seems to have finally come around. He’s looser, allowing me freer rein over these first few chapters, letting me gussy up certain lines till even I would admit, though never aloud, to taking too many liberties. Deledda’s the first female author we’ve translated; the link between her gender and Angelo’s laissez-faire attitude is not lost on me.
“Change of heart,” I say aloud, apropos of nothing, as I reach over and push open our bedroom window.
“What?” He looks up, text open on his lap, forefinger pressed between the pages.
I return to the phrase that’s giving us trouble and read it aloud with a different cadence each time: “Lascia passare trenta giorni per un mese.” I sense the meaning—something about letting things go, giving time its due—but can’t nail it in English. “Give time its due?”
“Let thirty days run by for a month,” Angelo suggests, shifting in his chair, out of his depth. “Let’s run thirty days for a month?” he asks, hopefully.
“I’ll flag it for now.”
We get through two chapters with few hitches, most of the heavy lifting reserved for future go-rounds. With the initial draft, we’re simply whacking out a pathway. We’ve got our quirks, Angelo and I. For example, during this first stage, we always perfect one passage in each chapter. After all these years, our rhythms have blended, each so finely tuned to the other that we instinctively know when to stop and revise. Those passages will become our guideposts, the beacons that light our way, setting the standard for full chapter revisions.
I read aloud; Angelo smiles. Reaching over, I touch his ear with my fingertips. It’s a lucky accident that this B & B is furnished with a desk and two wheeled chairs that make us both quite mobile. I pull him toward me for a kiss, shutting my eyes as a breeze sweeps in. We stop kissing long enough for me to read: “The scent of rosemary and rue recalled the mountain, the wild expanses, and the primordial valleys covered with scrub and brush that surrounded the town. At the end of the garden began the woods from which the mountain emerged with its enormous profile of a human back stretched out on the starry horizon.”
“Time for break,” Angelo says, grabbing both my arms and standing so quickly the book slides from his lap, splatting to the floor. Before I can even push away the chair, he’s slipped my blouse over my head. Still undressing, we fall back into our unmade bed, his kisses picking up where the breeze leaves off. I root around in the salty places that belong to me alone. I figure the others stupidly linger around his beautiful mouth or square jawline. I met one of his women—long red hair, green eyes. Slovak. I imagine her on the bed in his tiny apartment in Rome, moving down the uncommonly long plain of his torso, peppering her little discoveries with delighted “ohs,” “ahs,” “ehs” puffed out as she zigzags toward his belly button. She would be the type to halt and giggle before proceeding. Later, still warm from afterglow, she’d find the special shelf, the one lined with all our hardback copies, sleek as skin, co-translated, co-created by him and me: Angelo Treglia and Lori Kuntz. I am always with him, even in my absence.
Angelo’s inside me now, and I continue excavating the spot between neck and shoulder, egging to the surface all the crap no one else will tolerate.
“Non mi lasciare mai. Mai, Lori, mai.”
Together, we hold gratification at bay, leaving no explicit entry point, until finally, bearing down, down, we end, as usual, with him crying in my arms.
When we have washed and dressed, we emerge onto the little veranda, his body exhausted, rubbed to dishevelment, my own lovingly intact, pure and strong as daylight. With nothing left to burn, we peck each other on the lips, smile the way good friends do, and then head over the gravel driveway to our rented Fiat.
“Ora di pranzo.” Time for lunch.
Angelo has reserved a spot at a restaurant overlooking one of the smaller nuraghi sites close to Nuoro. We’re on the early side. The waiter shows us to the terrace where we have our pick of tables, and we select the one flush against the railing with a view of the five circular rocky arrangements. I need only lean a little to look straight down at a sacred pool. Angelo informs me that there are no menus; the waiter will simply bring meals made from whatever the chef deemed freshest at the marketplace that morning. I take out my phone, snap a photograph, and text it to my husband, messaging, “See? Sardinia is not all about the beach. I’m here in the mountains.” When I’d originally told Jeff about my plan to visit Sardinia, he asked teasingly whether R & R by the seashore was tax-deductible. “Ah, research,” he’d mocked, tonal air quotes buoying up the word. He never asks about Angelo.
I inhale slowly. Angelo lights the cigarette between his lips and takes one puff before using it to point toward the site below. “You Americans classify anything past a hundred years old as ancient. Look down there. Built 3,500 years ago.” He flicks ash into the pristine white ashtray between us. In general, I hate cigarettes, but I love the aftertaste they leave in his mouth.
“Su Nuraxi is better maintained, though,” I tell him, with unearned authority. Yesterday’s tour guide had told us these stone towers were most likely built to offer a place for powerful men from outlying villages to convene. Nuraghi may have also provided refuge if villages came under attack. When archeologists dredged the sacred pools, they found statuettes made of bronze, each one clutching a body part—belly, foot, head, a left or a right eye, sometimes both—that had been slipped into the pools so the water might heal their human counterparts.
I exhale. “Imagine the grating sound.” Unable to explain in either English or Italian, I probably shouldn’t try, but Angelo is looking at me, waiting. “Imagine,” I say, “if there were no sacred pools, if those statuettes were left on the mountainside, in the heat of the sun. Think of the grating sound they’d make if they all moved simultaneously to reveal their spots of pain.” My husband appreciates these sorts of musings. Jeff and I can spend hours in the hypothetical.
Angelo looks away. He rubs his newly shaven jaw. I have categorized his various jaw rubbings, and this one falls solidly under the umbrella of having something unpleasant to tell me. He leans forward. “We spend two and a half weeks a year together, Lori. Some years we get no more than a few days. We’re not kids anymore.” Then, fist on the table, he tells me he can no longer take it: “Non ne posso più.”
Fortunately, the waiter interrupts by sliding plates of fresh gnocchi in front of us. The sun has tipped past its midway point; despite the warmth in the air, a veil of steam rises from our dishes. I allow a few seconds of silence before saying, “What’s going on?” If he keeps forcing the situation, I may finally confess that more time together would only thin my desire, fed and sustained by my yearning when we’re apart. After all, consider what happened to me and Jeff. It’s not that I don’t love my husband.
I hear a crow squawk. I look up.
Angelo shifts, sucks his lower lip, then lets it go with a pop. “That passage about the mountain and the rosemary, the one you pronounced ‘finished.’ The pacing is completely off.” He points his fork at me. “That’s what you do. You pick a passage in each chapter even though we’re still in the rough draft phase. You insist on perfecting that passage. What a waste of time. But you don’t ask my opinion. You don’t want to know what I think.” He swallows. “Once you consider a passage ‘perfect,’ you never want to touch it again. That’s you, Lori.”
“That’s how we work.” My pulse quickens, but I keep my tone measured and firm, managing to smile, even, while gently reminding him, “That’s our way.”
He gives a quick, single shake of his head. “Your way. Not mine.” At some point, he mashed out his cigarette. The butt lies crumpled in the ashtray between us. He takes his fork and pushes at a gnoccho. “Those lines about the mountain. They’re overblown and flat. The words hold no . . .” Angelo purses his lips and rubs his fingers together: flavor, spice, innuendo. “You lost the grit of the original.”
The fact that he’s mucking around in what’s always been our procedure, the marrow of who we are together, cannot go unpunished. I conjure up an image of my husband and me. These revenge scenes are always domestic, conjugal, Jeff with his arm around me as we watch TV on the couch, or maybe we’re walking along the beach, holding hands. Or sometimes I’ll recall a rainy afternoon at home, cooking together. Jeffrey’s got this way of smiling with just the left side of his face, an expression I adore. Without a trace of irritation, I speak slowly in English, as though Angelo risks misunderstanding. “If it makes you happier, we can bulldoze all the way through to the end of the book and clean it up afterwards.” With a nod, I add, “I didn’t know you felt so unhappy. My mistake.”
Another crow dips into the valley. Poor Angelo. I reach over and cover his hand with mine, announcing boldly, “Stiamo bene.” We’re fine. I place my wrist firmly against the table’s edge and watch him stab at two fat slices of mushroom. He takes a piece of bread before turning toward the ancient rock face. For each statuette found, archeologists estimate another two still lie buried. I say, “Let’s just enjoy ourselves. It’s a glorious day, the food is good, we’re together, and . . .”
My lover raises a hand, which I mistake for a gesture of dismissal, but as I carefully cross knife over fork on my plate, prepared this time for a full-fledged argument, I hear it as well: a collective, ancient grating. The sound trails away over the mountainside, leaving a fine, metallic dust floating in its wake, hovering a moment before settling, casting us as we are, bereft of any ritual for coming clean.
Martha Witt is the author of the novel Broken as Things Are (Henry Holt, 2004). Her short fiction, some of which has been translated into Italian, has appeared in One Story, AGNI, Boulevard Magazine, The Literary Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. In collaboration with Mary Ann Frese Witt, she has translated Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (Italica Press, 2013) and Henry IV (Italica, 2016), as well as Grazia Deledda’s Ivy (Italica, 2019). Her translations of Giovanni Verga’s Rustic Chivalry and Leo Ferrero’s Angelica are forthcoming from Italica Press this year. She is professor of English and creative writing at William Paterson University. (updated 4/2020)