Curzio Malaparte was born Kurt Erich Suckert in Prato, a few miles from Florence, in 1898. The contradictions and displacements that marked his entire life began at conception: his father was a German who had emigrated to Italy for business reasons, his mother was a beautiful middle-class girl from Milan. As an infant, he was farmed out to be wet-nursed, and although his mother would come to visit occasionally, he spent the first five or six years of his life in the working-class family of Eugenia and Milziade Baldi and their two sons. He was returned to his natural family for schooling, but his German name made him feel awkward in Italian classrooms and he repeatedly ran away from home.
These escapes culminated at age sixteen with a four-year flight to France at the beginning of the First World War, where he joined the French army in their fight against his father's native country. He served all four years, rising from private to lieutenant; he was gassed near Bligny and was decorated by the French. After the war, in 1919, he was given the job of director of press relations for the Versailles Peace Conference, became cultural attaché with the Italian embassy in Poland, then returned to Italy in 1921 and launched his literary career with a controversial novel about his experiences during the war (anticipating Kaputt by some twenty years). The following year he joined the Fascist Party.
Even the name Malaparte, which Suckert adopted in 1925, is as ambiguous as he was: Is it an ironic variation on Napoléon Buonaparte? Or an apt and fateful description of himself as the "bad part" who would never fit, or at least not for very long, any of the roles that he assumed or that society assigned to him? (At Hitler's suggestion, Mussolini threw him out of the Fascist Party and sentenced him to prison for five years in 1933.) The contradictions and collisions of his life seem like a sped-up film of the first half of the twentieth century: German-Italian, Protestant-Catholic, soldier-pacifist, Fascist-Communist, journalist-novelist, editor-architect, film director-composer, diplomat-prisoner.
As fascinating as Malaparte's life was, it was not this that attracted me to his writing, but a chance encounter twelve years ago in a French book about cosmology, where one of Malaparte's stories was retold to illustrate a point about conditions shortly after creation of the universe.The imagery was so strange and captivating, and managed so carefully to tread the tightrope between the real and the surreal, that I was compelled to find the book from which the story was taken: it turned out to be Kaputt, Malaparte's first-person novel about his experiences in and around the eastern and northern fronts of World War II.
It is impossible to overestimate the effect Kaputt had on me. I became (and remain) a little unbalanced on the subject: reading it resembled falling into a waking dream. I could not understand why I hadn't heard of Malaparte before, nor why Kaputt was not required reading for every citizen of the Twentieth Century. Its revelation of the inner workings, personalities, and experiences on the "other side," by a creative and sympathetic intelligence, is like a report from the interior of Chernobyl. Malaparte had gotten very close to the radioactive core of the Axis Powers and somehow emerged to tell the tale, simultaneously humanizing things and rendering them even more chilling as a result.
I bought dozens of copies to give to my friends, anticipating an explosion of interest. The result: a little smoke--perhaps a flame or two--and lots of raised shoulders and eyebrows. I read the two other books of Malaparte's that have been translated into English: The Skin (1949)and The Volga Rises In Europe (1943). I resumed my study of Italian, which I had left off in 1964, and asked friends in Italy to send me books of his that were unobtainable in the States: Mamma Marcia (from which "Partisans, 1944" is taken), Fughe in Prigione, Maledetti Toscani, and others.
But my interest never extended to translation. At least not until about a year and a half ago, after I had been interviewed by Parnassus on the subject of film adaptation. In the course of my conversation with the interviewer, Joy Katz, I offered an analogy: that filmmakers adapting a short story or a novel are performing a kind of multiple translation from the language of text to the languages of image, movement, and sound; and that the old Italian adage traduttore, traditore, (translator, traitor) particularly applies: an attempt to be overly faithful to the text often results in a damming up of the deeper currents of the project, so that an artful betrayal of the original work seems to serve an adaptation best, something along the lines of Picasso's famous statement that "art is a lie that tells the truth."
After finishing the interview, though, I was suddenly shaken by the knowledge that I didn't really know what I was talking about, at least as far as my personal experience of language translation was concerned. Under the circumstances, I decided to try my hand at it--and what better subject than Malaparte?
I was relieved to find that everything went smoothly, and although I had not done translation before, the process felt familiar and comforting. What was a surprise, however, was to find that, even though Malaparte wrote in prose, my English translations seemed to want to be arranged on the page in blank verse. This was particularly mysterious to me because I am what might charitably be called "poetically challenged." I love poetry in the abstract, but don't care for most poems in particular, somewhat like those unfortunate people who love humanity but have a hard time with human beings. Although there were some exceptions--I appreciated Rilke, for instance--my poetic "tone-deafness" bothered me, and I found myself eager to follow this road to see where it might lead.
Over the next eighteen months, I worked on ten of Malaparte's stories; none of them had been translated into English. All of them, like the first, wound up being "translated" from the language of prose into poetry.
With hindsight, there appear to be four reasons for this shift in format: the rich, almost overwhelming density of Malaparte's original text; the fabulous nature of his imagery; his frequent use of repetitions and chantlike sequences of words ("Dented wheels, transmission belts, gleaming steel handles, bearings, gauges, gearings, and crankshafts scattered on the factory floor"); and the cross-sensory nature of his metaphors ("the air filled with water and stone").
Giving more space on the page seemed to aerate the density of Malaparte's text, allowing it to breathe and permitting his startling images to be savored in a different, more measured way. And since Italian--particularly Malaparte's Italian--is a more musical language than English, the poetic form helped to restore some of the musicality rhythms lost in a prose translation.
In the process, I also rediscovered the obvious, which is that the ragged structure of free verse emphasizes the internal rhythms and tensions of each line and puts an added, if subliminal, emphasis on the line's last word, an emphasis that is independent of the grammatical construction of the sentence. It was this last realization that led me to the source of the familiarity I had felt earlier: translating from prose to poetry turned out to be similar to film editing and sound design, which are my central occupations. I found that although I was doing different things physically, the state of mind I entered as I translated these poems was identical to my state of mind when I am putting a film together.
Rhythm--both internal to the shot (or line) and in the overall sequence of shots (or lines)--is, of course, as central to film editing as it is to poetry. Once a shot is selected, the crucial decision becomes at what precise moment to bring it to an end, even though this decision is perceived only subliminally by the audience. Just as the end of a line in poetry is usually independent of the grammatical structure of the sentence, the end of a shot in a film is usually independent of the overt dramatic structure of a scene. But in both cases, the ending of a line (or shot) is a seemingly arbitrary but secretly architectural way for the creators to shape the arc of the poem or story, largely by drawing subtle comparisons and contrasts between the final image of the outgoing shot and the first image of the next.
There are also the larger questions common to translation and film editing: when to follow the text or the script literally; when to eliminate; when to augment or repeat; when to transpose; when to invent. Once the technical issues have been mastered, these become the dominant questions in the postproduction of film.
And then there was an added bonus: I found that the directness and immediacy of language translation helped to solve--for me, anyway--a persistent practical dilemma in the life of every film editor, which is that there is usually no way to edit, in a fully creative sense, without actually working on a film. It is as if a musician found he could only perform in official full-dress concerts, without the ability to practice on his own or in smaller groups; or a writer found he could only write when he was being paid to write. The resonances between film editing and translation provided me with an alternate, inexpensive, immediate, and relatively risk-free "cross-training," which is so important to the lives of artists and athletes but which is generally denied to most filmmakers because of the technical and expensive nature of our particular crafts.
Of the ten pieces I have translated so far, "Partisans, 1944" is unique--it is the only one where I mixed poetry and prose, which seemed to arise from the nature of the material: alternating contemplation and action. It is also the only piece that was unfinished at the time of Malaparte's death. The present ending is not invented, however, but created by the transposition of some existing structures and the elimination of others, until the arrangement seemed to resolve the piece as a whole.
There is no way of knowing what Malaparte himself would think of all this: he died more than forty years ago, in 1957. But I hope that he would approve, or at least be intrigued, given the multiplicity of the creative forms he himself employed, the languages he spoke, and the roles he played throughout the first half of this contentious century.