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Michael F. Moore – Relearning History and Questioning the Present by Translating

Interview with the American interpreter, translator, and writer on the occasion of the release of the uncut edition of Francesco Rosi’s film, based on Carlo Levi’s memoir, "Christ Stopped at Eboli."

Michael Moore at his Long Island City's home. Michael Moore nella sua casa, a Long Island City (Foto T. Cartia)

At the Film Forum in New York from April 3-18.

When you have the privilege to interview someone at their home, the interview begins before you turn on your tape recorder. The warm welcome with which Michael F. Moore invited me into his charming home in Long Island City, New York, immediately told me a lot about his personality. Like his home, which is an open book of his memories; a house filled with books, art, travel, curiosity, research and discoveries. Friendly, smiling, he conveyed a clear sense of human and intellectual generosity, like the great teachers who remain imprinted on your memory, the ones who inspired you to read, to write, to be better informed. He asks me if I’d like an espresso. “I already added the sugar, like they do in the South,” he tells me, and from there begins a conversation that has the flavors and colors of southern Italy, with all its contradictions and points of light and dark.

The occasion of our meeting is the presentation of the uncut version, never before released in America, of Francesco Rosi’s film, Christ Stopped at Eboli, based on the book of the same title, for which Moore did the subtitles. Levi bore witness to an important story. A writer and painter from Piedmont, from 1935 to 1936 he was sentenced to internal exile, in Basilicata, by the Fascist regime for his anti-Fascist activities. This forced exile became an opportunity for the writer to be a witness to, chronicler and narrator of the southern question, painting in vivid tones the rural lyricism and magic realism of the landscape, on the one hand, and the deep socio-cultural backwardness of the peasants, crushed by the hegemony of the petty bourgeoisie of the small towns and the autarky of the ruling fascist regime.

The film is distributed by Rialto Pictures and is being shown at the Film Forum of New York, running from April 3 to 18. The first screening will be introduced by its American translator. This is not the first time Michael has tried his hand on subtitles. For Rialto Pictures he also did The Boom, by Vittorio De Sica, and Senso, by Luchino Visconti, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of a long and varied career as a translator, interpreter, writer and Italophile that has led the American intellectual to tackle some of the greatest names of Italian literature, from classics like Manzoni, Moravia, and Primo Levi, to contemporaries like Edgardo Franzosini, Fabio Genovesi, Erri De Luca, and Nicola Gardini, to name just a few. Moore also holds the important post of interpreter and translator for the Italian Mission to the UN, and has chaired the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, dedicated to supporting the art of translation in American through grants to deserving young translators.

Carlo Levi, 1955 (Photo by Paolo Monti)

Getting back to Carlo Levi, who before emerging as a writer already had a career as a painter, Michael Moore’s first love was art, and in particular, sculpture. It was his wish to learn the art of the great Italian masters that first led him to move to Italy, where he studied at the Brera Fine Arts Academy of Milan. And like Levi, who succeeded in transferring a graphic eye and sense of color to his writing, giving us splendid pictures of our Italy through his books, Moore has transferred the sculptural art of modeling and remodeling clay to his mission in life as a writer and translator, adapting the sinuous architecture of the Italian sentence to American English with the skill of a master craftsman.

Exploring the art of the translator together with Moore gives you the opportunity to rediscover the beauty of our literature, of our country, and of our relationship with America. We were able to speak freely about important issues, about socialism, fascism, politics, immigration, and intellectual osmosis and contamination, in an honest, simple and spontaneous exchange between different cultures and generations that is often missing from the times in which we are living, too often filled with fear of the other, with a closing of physical and mental doors, with violent attacks on freedom of thought, of the press, and of the word. So, while I was speaking with Moore about Christ Stopped at Eboli, that story echoed more relevant to today than ever, and more realistic than the neorealism it evokes. A pleasant, even romantic journey, alongside the American translator while he discusses his love for language, cinema, and literature. But Moore does not just translate words. He also translates his emotions, his memories of living in the Bel Paese, in stories that will be collected in the book he is writing.

Could you talk to us about how you started out? What got you into the world of translation and the Italian language?

I went to Italy for the first time in 1975 to study sculpture at the Fine Arts Academy of Milan. The moment I finished high school I wanted to travel, as far away as I could go. Above all I wanted to learn a foreign language. Strange to think that at school I had always done badly in languages! I was only able to learn Italian by moving to Italy. I studied contemporary art, after which I started to teach at a liceo linguistico in Como. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. Later I returned to the United States to get a Master’s degree in comparative literature, doing coursework in Italian, German, and English literature. Once I finished my Master’s I decided to focus on Italian, and I registered at NYU, where I won a graduate assistantship, and dedicated myself to studying the Renaissance and Petrarch. While I was there offers started to come in for work as an interpreter and publishing houses contacted me. The Italian Mission heard about my work and invited me to apply for a job.

Could you describe your encounter with Italian writers? In translating, what have you learned about Italian literature and about your mother tongue?

When you translate, you’re responsible for every word, which makes you learn both Italian and English better, because when you start looking for English equivalents of Italian words, you rediscover or discover the vocabulary of your own language. In Italian authors, both contemporary and classic, I find this great love for and interest in landscape. The plot can sometimes be weak, and there’s less use of the suspense so typical of American writing. The rhythm is slower, the sentences longer, and they try to recreate the setting of the story through words. Italian literature is also greatly influenced by lyric poetry. In Manzoni, however, whom I am currently translating, the serious overarching plot is broken up by lighter and even comic moments, and he does brilliant character studies. The Betrothed is a novel that has everything. It’s a veritable encyclopedia. To translate it I have to consult experts from various fields: priests, historians, lawyers, Italianists. In Manzoni, too, you feel the echo of the lyric tradition of Dante and Petrarch. The same could be said about Moravia. But the situation today is very different. Many contemporary writers try to imitate the style of American writers, whereas once upon a time French literature was the model.

In the art of translation, how do you balance the need to remain faithful to the Italian language but also faithful to your own language and to the American reader?

It depends on the writer. For example, I translated a beautiful novel by Fabio Genovesi, Live Bait, which is a very lively, funny book, so the humor had to work in English, too. I had to be true to that spirit. Take, for example, a simple word like gelato. I translated it as ice cream, even though ice cream and gelato are hardly the same thing. If you write gelato in English, it conveys the idea of a fancy artisanal product, which would have been totally wrong for this story, which is set in a small downtrodden town. Ice cream is more common, and although in Italy gelato is a common, everyday term, it’s not in English. Manzoni is a tougher case. Take the periodic structure of his long and complicated sentences. To do him justice, you need to understand the differences between Italian and English grammar. Like the semicolon. In Italian, to use a period, a full stop, is somewhat violent, final, but not in English. So sometimes I “translate” a semicolon with a period, since it is not so terminal in English. In Italian, it’s almost vulgar to use the nominal pronoun at the start of a sentence, the tu or io, also because it’s implicit in the conjugation of the verb. In English we need those subject pronouns to understand the sentence. If a translator is too literal, the result is a mess, and difficult to read.

Is it very different to work on the subtitles of a film?

In a book all you have is the word. In the film there are many different “languages”: the cinematography, the actors, the music. The subtitle should not overshadow these other languages, and has to be as concise as possible. You don’t want the viewer to spend too much time staring at the bottom of the screen.

Could you talk to us about your work on Christ Stopped at Eboli?

In both this film and in the previous one that I subtitled, Senso, by Visconti, the historical background, the Risorgimento and Italian unification, is very important. In Senso the challenge was to explain to an American audience terms such as bersagliere and garibaldini, while in Christ Stopped at Eboli, the phenomenon of brigantaggio is crucial. In theory your only tool is a single word, but in books you can use a stealth gloss, by adding an adjective or a parenthetic explanation. With subtitles you don’t have this opportunity, so when you can it helps to add an introductory note at the start of the film to provide some context.

How meaningful is this new edition of Francesco Rosi’s film and how current are the social and political themes that Levi addresses in his book?

Working on Christ Stopped at Eboli gave me the chance to revisit a book of my youth and to be reminded of what fascism really was. More in the film than in the book, perhaps, there is a surprisingly friendly relationship between Levi and the mayor despite the latter’s very sinister character. The book shows us the smiling face of fascism without of course hiding how insidious it was, especially in its suppression of the opposition and in the racism implicit in the invasion of Abyssinia. This is the first time that the full-length version has been shown in America, and it’s vital that it be seen today, at a historical moment in which we talk a lot about fascism, the problems of the southern countries, and the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean. Levi’s book is the most important work on the question of southern Italy. In the small town in Basilicata where the story takes place, most of the citizens have emigrated to America at some point in their life. In the film and book, the peasants declare, “New York is our capital, not Rome.” We need to know our history. Nowadays there’s almost an idealization of fascism, and this soft-focus on history can be used to justify actions in the present. At the end of the film, there is a discussion of possible solutions to the southern question, and Levi argues that any form of government, fascist, socialist, or liberal, would run into the same problem. Levi through the book and Rosi through the film seek to restore a new ethics of the peasant, in very Marxist terms. In the almost pre-Christian world that they describe, all forms of government are distrusted and outside interference is rejected. This reading sketches out a defining characteristic of Italians. Levi writes, “The real enemies of the peasants, who cut off any hope of freedom and a decent existence, are the petty bourgeoisie tyrants of the small towns.”

Actor Gian Maria Volontè in “Christ Stopped at Eboli”.

What kind of stories are you yourself writing?

My stories are based on my experiences. I’m about to travel to Italy for three months. I love going back to the places where important events in my life happened, to break away from my everyday life, relive my memories, and write about them. I write short stories and essays about the art of translation.

You are finishing up the monumental job of translating Manzoni’s The Betrothed. What will you be working on next?

Yes. The Betrothed is due to come out next year. The biggest challenge was to understand Manzoni well enough to be able to translate him into good English. Sometimes I ask myself what we mean by “good English” today. I wonder whether the English I am using to translate Manzoni is a little old-fashioned, with long sentences and even rare ecclesiastical language. When you translated a canonical author like Manzoni, however, you rediscover the richness of your own language, and your critical sense becomes sharper. After Manzoni I’m translating something shorter and “lighter”: I racconti romani and La disubbidienza by Alberto Moravia.

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