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Mag

Todd Portnowitz and the Adventure of Translating "The Adventures of Giuseppe Tucci"

Enrica Garzilli thangka_with_the_footprints_of_the_third_karmapa__detailI came to translate Enrica Garzilli‘s monumental biography of Giuseppe Tucci through Ann Goldstein, the renowned translator of Elena Ferrante’s work, who mentioned the project to me in January of 2014. Shortly after I was in touch with Enrica, and by March I found myself immersed in a text that covers over 1,360 characters—from poets to politicians, scholars, saints, and spies—and deals deeply with languages and cultures—Tibetan, Nepalese, and Indian above all—that I had little or no knowledge of. Suddenly I was confronted with precise Italian terms for Buddhist and Hindu concepts already foreign to me in English, typing out fifteen-letter words with diacritics I’d never seen. And translating is not simply a matter of converting one language into another, but of infusing the words with context. When the context is a foreign culture (or cultures) the work doubles (or triples!).

Living in New York City I have the good fortune of being surrounded by museums; since beginning the translation I have twice visited the Asia society, once for an exhibit featuring treasures from a Tibetan monastery, Golden Visions of Densatil, —including the photographs of Pietro Francesco Mele taken while on an expedition with none other than Giuseppe Tucci—and again to see an exhibit of Buddhist sculpture from Myanmar; I made two trips, as well, to the Rubin museum of Himalayan and Indian art in Chelsea. Almost more than to the artifacts my eye was drawn to the title cards, which are a glossary of cultural terms—stupa, thangka, bodhisattva, Vishnuite, Shivaite—and all thankfully used properly (the Buddha is capitalized, other buddhas are not, and so on), which served both as research and to stimulate my interest in the material.

Il duce's explorer widener libraryGarzilli’s approach is nothing if not exhaustive—her hunt for Tucci’s story brought her to libraries and archives throughout Italy, in Tibet, Nepal, India, London, Washington, Boston and beyond—and to carry that thoroughness over into English has been a large part of my job as a translator. My experience before this project was principally as a poetry translator, where exactitude can often be a matter of creative interpretation and a deep sense of musicality, with room to improvise. In scholarly writing, as I quickly learned, exactitude is exactitude: letting the Latin-rooted verbs wield all their Latin precision; regarding the punctuation with a lawyer’s eye; rendering original quotations without flourish or fancy. The tedium nearly overwhelmed me. I longed for the spaciousness of poetry.

But then I had a draft of the introduction, which meant I soon had Enrica’s sharp corrections. Her intense queries, her suggestions, her second-guessing of a word choice, a comma, a dash, tightened and improved my sentences. They revived the text. Bearing her counsel in mind, I returned to the translation with a keener sense of the book’s tone and intent, and began to find joy in exactitude. Not only my knowledge of Italian, but as a result of translating Enrica’s work, of corresponding with her over the numerous drafts and revisions, my knowledge of English has grown immensely, the ways the language can be stretched and twisted and coaxed into expressing more, and more precisely.

palanquin2

Which is not to say that the book leaves no room for poetry or adventure. Tucci bounds across borders, vacuuming up languages and cultures, speaking boldly before his peers, making enemies and friends with equal vigor. We follow him to Santiniketan, during the early days of Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University. The fascinating world of academia under Fascist rule is revealed, the hoops to be jumped through, the money and promotions to be applied for, the men of power to whom one must appeal.

Learning of Tucci’s own guru, Carlo Formichi, of his pet mongooses and his absurd palanquin ride up a mountain, was a particular pleasure of translating the first volume. This biography is filled with life and lives, policies and places, it spans the globe, and that Ms. Garzilli has managed to hold it all up on her own is an Atlas-like achievement.

Todd Portnowitz
New York, May 19, 2015

The Author

Enrica Garzilli Enrica Garzilli is a scholar of classical and modern Asia. Harvard Alumna, she holds a degree in Sanskrit and Indology from the Oriental School in Rome, where she studied with Tucci’s most famous disciples. She has taught in leading Universities, and regularly publishes in national and international newspapers, magazines, and TV.

Asiatica Association

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