When Betimes Books approached me about translating Vivir Venecia, a memoir by Argentine Abel Posse, I eagerly accepted, in large part because Posse’s life paralleled in many ways Pitol’s, whose seventh book I am currently translating. Not only are they contemporaries, they also share numerous biographical similarities: both are descendants of Italian immigrants, studied law, were career diplomats, and shared a deep connection to and admiration for Venice, which is the both the locus and a protagonist of Posse’s memoir, which I’ve translated as A Long Day in Venice. The similarities, however, end there. Their literary styles could not be more dissimilar. Where Pitol employs long, complex sentences, with interrupting parentheticals, Posse’s syntax is shorter, more linear, and includes the frequent use of fragments.
Syntax aside, one of the immediate challenges inherent in translating this memoir was the abundance of cultural and historical references specific to Venice, not to mention its topography. In short, one who has not been to Venice would find it very difficult to write—and by extension translate—about La Serenissima without betraying a certain ignorance. Equally numerous were the many political references to Italy and Argentina during the 1970s, which was a chaotic decade for both countries.
As for linguistic challenges, Porteño Spanish and voseo notwithstanding, Posse flavors A Long Day in Venice with occasional Italian words (palazzo, piazza, etc.), as well as others in Venetian (I refuse to refer to it as dialect); as a rule, however, he defaults to the Spanish equivalent of these words (palacio, plaza). Rather than recurring to English in every case, and because the Italian cognates are easily understood by a general readership, I have expanded the use of these and other Italian and Venetian words.
Also, rather than relying on interlinear explication to define or explain less obvious Italian or Venetian words, I’ve provided translations in footnotes. While footnotes in literary translation are (rightfully) viewed with scorn, their use in nonfiction can play an important role. My rule of thumb is simple: if the text lends itself to footnotes in the original, footnotes are permissible in the translation, but only when references in the text would be lost entirely on the contemporary U.S. reader, as you will see below.
A final note about this translation: it represents a collaboration of sorts between me and Michelle Mirabella, a former student of mine at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and an emerging literary translator, whose translations have appeared in Latin American Literature Today. Thanks to a stipend from the Tulsa Artist Fellowships, where I am a fellow, I was able to hire Michelle to work with me on the revisions of the translation, a role that allowed the student to become the teacher and vice versa. As we worked on a shared Google document, we found ourselves engaged in a mutually beneficial conversation not only about this translation but also, and more importantly, about translation in general. Each time I read, “Is this alliteration intentional?” (see: “frequent fragments” above) or “Think about the connotative meaning of this word,” I smiled, recalling how many times I’d written these very comments on her translations, but also with pride for the translator that my former student was becoming.
A Long Day in Venice will be published by Betimes Books in Summer 2022.
I had just arrived in Venice when Sabato called unexpectedly from Rome. It was the first bit of proof that Venice is indeed a universal drawing room,1 a sanctuary for pilgrims and pilgrimages. In this case a refuge. He disclosed that there were threats against his life and that he was doing interviews in Rome with the press. He was looking for a kind of PR deterrent effect. He’d made statements on the radio against terrorism.
Rega went to pick him up at the train station; he was arriving from Rome. He greeted us with the seriousness of a furrowed brow, as if he were fleeing an attempt on his life. He took the opportunity for a literary quote, from Thomas Mann, how arriving in Venice by train is like entering a palace through the back door.
“But what can I do! López Rega’s goons threatened my life… The clock started ticking on my life back in Argentina.”
“With calls to my home in the middle of the night. I’m sorry, I don’t want to get you involved, but this is not a pleasure trip,” and he gave a smile with a wince of bitterness.
“I read your interview in Rome, in the Repubblica newspaper.”
“Yes, I thought the best thing to do was to come to Italy and denounce what is happening to me. The only thing that can stop them is the press or an international outcry. It’s the Triple A.2 The people in Rome were indignant; they even offered to let me stay until the danger passes.”
I show him to the guest room. It’s still in need of furniture, only two single beds separated by one of those bedside lockers with a little door to store the chamber pot. The nineteenth-century remains of the palazzo. The guest bathroom has a bathtub from the same period as the bedside locker, with lion’s paw feet, and extraordinarily deep, so deep that someone could drown if they fall asleep. I say to Ernesto:
“By the way, your friend Nilda called me and told me that she’d traveled to Italy to do an article for the Clarín newspaper and that she’d likely pass through Venice. I told her to make sure to call me when she arrived.”
Sabato looked at me and smiled at my discretion. Nilda was his young female friend. We used to run into each other when she was with him at the Café Dandy on Libertador. Nilda was ironic, sexy, charming, and anxious to the point of biting her nails, writing and becoming depressed, to the point of wishing to die. She had a good novel, The Sect.
“She made a reservation at the Hotel La Fenice,” Sabato told me quietly as if to reassure me.
In 1966, we had created, along with the musicologist Ernesto Epstein, Tomás Maldonado, and Sabato, the magazine Crisis, thanks to the generosity of Federico Vogelius. Tomás Maldonado had arrived from Italy; he was Inge Feltrinelli’s partner and a communist senator. The European gauche divine. He’d been director of the revolutionary Bauhaus, which was the experimental center of European plastic arts. Although Maldonado had more fame than work, the Bauhaus, as an aging avant-garde, gave him prestige.
Crisis was originally conceived to be a preeminent cultural and pluralist magazine. Its objective was to lift us out of provincialism, with an aesthetic directed at the profound and permanent, following the extraordinary literary boom in Argentina and Latin America. Faced with the reality of my transfer abroad, I disassociated myself from the magazine in December. I felt that Argentine politics was taking a dark turn. Months later, Vogelius dedicated Crisis to the politics of the revolutionary left without calculating the consequences. But it became a magazine of the time and an inescapable reference. Sabato also distanced himself.
It was then that I began to understand that my diplomatic career helped me to free myself from stranding and snags, whether existential, personal, or historical. Crises of love, sex, money. By then I already felt like an able sailor: destined to set sail. Always pulling anchor and setting sail. There is destiny, which is a mystery, and there is a will, perhaps naïve, to improve one’s destiny, even though we know it is inexorably written. Believing in destiny relieves us from accepting fortune and misfortune as surprises.
We were having an aperitif with Sabato on the balcony of the consulate before the radiant spectacle of midday. Ernesto recounted the episodes of Argentine politics and especially his own, with invariably dramatic tones. I tried to distract him toward our splendid reality by showing him the bustle of the Pescheria market. I pointed to the traghetto that the Venetians use to move people along the Grand Canal, a few seated, and six or seven standing, balanced by experienced sailors.
“You deposit a hundred lira coin and cross,” I said. The Pescheria is the oldest market: a thousand years in the same place.
“Charon,” said Ernesto somberly.
But nothing really caught his attention. Not even when Iván appeared, who’d returned from school, followed by the cat.
“Say hello to the most famous writer in Argentina,” I said to my son. Ernesto seldom paid attention; he was always distracted by his ideologies, judgments, protests. Reality was never visible in his words; it was merely heard in an eternal attempt to transform it or to remember it, or to revile it with irony and enthusiasm.
From the consulate balcony, the view stretching from the Pescheria toward the sun-soaked palaces of the opposite bank and the porcelain-blue sky formed a gigantic smile. I understood that it was a futile effort by Venice to break the stubborn Argentinianness of Ernesto Sabato, who continued talking to me about the crisis of the Crisis magazine as if he were accompanying me from the door of his house to Santos Lugares train station. I stretched out my hand toward the flock of pigeons that were gliding over the Canal and the party of seagulls cleaning the crates of seafood being discarded at what was now the market’s closing time. Sabato continued, engrossed in his complaint.
“Vogelius was dumbstruck when I told him to no longer count on me for Crisis. He tried to change my mind. I was already a communist back in the thirties—when it cost a life or martyrdom! What is coming in Argentina is regrettable childishness. For God’s sake! A Guevarized Peronism. Who would even think of such a thing! As you must know, Eduardo Galeano is now in charge of the magazine.”
“Jorge Vázquez, the Montonero-diplomat3—you’ll forgive the extreme oxymoron—told me that Perón, when he met with them, had told them: ‘Boys, you’re going to start with communism when communism is leaving history without anyone pushing it out…’” Sabato burst out laughing and praised his much-hated Perón.
“What a tremendous son of a bitch!” he said with warm approval.
During that circular six-year day, Borges and María Kodama arrived in Venice. They traveled frequently and all over the world. Borges was in the midst of his most intense years of worldwide fame. He had been denied the Nobel Prize for having accepted Chile’s highest national decoration, but from the hands of Pinochet. We know that European hypocrisy makes noise from the left but lays its eggs on the right, like the tero bird.4 They did not give him the Nobel Prize, which in the end is an annual award, handed out more frequently than creative literary talent. Instead, destiny corrected the oversight with the unavoidable diligence of María Kodama. One must consider what would be to his greater interest. Kodama accompanied the absentminded Borges with discretion and keeps his presence alive in the world, moving about with astuteness and efficiency, carrying his name urbi et orbi. In those days I thought that she’d rather invigorated Borges himself, in certain literary lacunae in relation to post-World War II literature. He eased, as best he could, his tenacious and sincere views on politics. I believe, I think, that because of Kodama he stopped praising South American dictators and became aware of the tortured and disappeared.
He arrived very Borgesianly. They took rooms at first in a hotel with a name worthy of Southeast Asia or Mandalay, located impractically and a hundred dollars away by motoscafo from the historic center and the consulate.
The Italian editor of the Biblioteca Borges, Franco Maria Ricci, helped María find accommodations in the historic center. Borges didn’t want a five-star lodging other than the one he used in Paris, which provided peace and quiet, not to mention the prestige of having been the abode of his admired Oscar Wilde.
They found one a few steps from the Doge’s Palace and moved in the next day. Borges believed he’d caught a glimpse of the hotel’s letters and logo. “What does it say?” he asked. “Albergo Londra,” María replied. He told Ricci and María that it seemed like a coincidence, but it wasn’t a coincidence. “It’s the same hotel where I stayed with my parents sixty years ago.”“Am I perchance fifteen this morning? Is time circular and we’re where we were and will be again? Will my parents be waiting for me downstairs in the lobby for our first walk in Venice, just like before?”
When I was seventeen or eighteen years old, I’d met Borges at some festivities of the Society of Writers, in the old house donated by Victoria Ocampo on Calle México. Then Borges was indeed “a more or less bereaved man who travels by tram.”5 But when I saw him arrive at the consulate sitting in the back of the water taxi, and as he got out at the pier holding Kodama’s hand, I noticed his elegant gabardine suit and silk tie of matching colors that Borges would never have imagined as he ambled through the Florida neighborhood after drinking his glass of milk at La Cosechera on Avenida de Mayo. I walked by him more than once as I was leaving the Nacional Buenos Aires, when he wasn’t blind and not as admired worldwide. Around 1950, Angel Battistessa, a renowned professor of Spanish and Literature, invited our class to the Alliance Française, where Borges was giving one of those lectures that allowed him to survive, because he was on Peronism’s blacklist. The Alliance was a small theater, with a dais and comfortable seats. I was on the far side of the second row and was able to see, between the side wings, Borges’s head leaning toward a hand holding a tortoiseshell comb. He was a boy whose mother demanded that his hair be combed. And I speculated much later, as he would say, that it was his mother, Leonor Acevedo. His sweet but inescapable guardian angel.
Borges could only see certain shapes in intense daylight. He entered the Palazzo Mangilli Valmarana without hesitation in his step, rather as if his blindness possessed an unbelievable quality or were a negligible minor difficulty. He was at the height of his fame in England, where he was translated by Norman di Giovanni, and in France by Roger Caillois. He’d spoken at the great world forums, from the United Nations to UNESCO, Honoris Causa at Yale. Yet he had a natural Taoist shyness, born of a certain skepticism or visceral precaution toward worldly convention. No situation, no matter how exotic, ever removed him from his distance, his aesthetic self.
1 This is a reference to Napoleon’s alleged description of the Piazza San Marco as “le plus elegant salon d’Europe” [the most elegant drawing room of Europe].
2 The Alianza Anticomunista Argentina [Argentine Anticommunist Alliance] was a Peronist death squad operated by a branch of the Federal Police and the Argentine Armed Forces.
3 The Montoneros were a left-wing Peronist guerilla organization in operation in the 1960s and 70s, which took their name from the 19th-century cavalry militias called Montoneras.
4 This metaphor is a reference to the South American tero, which is said to lay its eggs in one spot then emit loud noises in another to draw predators away from the eggs.
5 A line from The Cultural Life of the Automobile: Roads to Modernity. Guillermo Giucci. Trans. Anne Mayagoitia and Debra Nagao. UT Press.