Thoughts on Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (NYRB edition)


It’s bold to assert there was something lost in the translation of this memoir without having access to the source text and only basic knowledge of Italian. However, having translated since I could read, basically, and working as a professional translator I know enough to sympathize with the hard translation problems faced by Jenny McPhee, that translator, which don’t have satisfactory solutions. Ginzburg sets up the songs, expressions, and rhymes that characterized her parents and siblings as the framework for her story of growing up in Turin in the 1920s. Schoolyard chants, lyrics from old songs, jokes: texts that have a richness and particularity that are inextricable from the language they’re composed in. McPhee makes a valiant effort, but the results, rather than being charming, or funny or familiar, as is intended, are alienating to an English-speaking reader. They didn’t bring me closer, as a reader, to the people being affectionately, though honestly, recalled. There are also many mentions of Italian political and cultural figures that are obscure to non-Italian readers – for example, intellectuals involved in the anti-Fascist movement who are close friends of the Ginzburg’s parents.

The second half of the memoir, while much more serious and upsetting, is a better read. The kids are all grown up and facing the rise of fascism, anti-Semitism and World Word Two. Ginzburg’s father is arrested, and a brother has to flee the country. Her husband dies in prison, while their brilliant friend, the poet Cesare Pavese, commits suicide. Ginzburg and her young children are exiled to the countryside. The writing becomes more fluid, more direct and more analytical. While Ginzburg’s intention was primarily to draw a family portrait and obscure herself, I found the times she reveals her own thoughts, attitudes and experiences the most compelling.

Regarding the problems inherent in translating texts that rhyme, texts with cultural and historical associations, etc., an imperfect solution is to provide the source text in the end notes. More context concerning the family’s anti-Fascist friends, their place in Italian political history would have also been welcome as end notes, too, as Ginzburg does not reveal any of this background information, only their names and relationship to her family.

On the whole, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up this book, and I would definitely read other work by Ginzburg. The spare, unflinching descriptions of Turin during the war are powerful, and her portrait of Pavese is haunting. There is also a warm and a full understanding of her mother, an expansive depiction of a positive, kind woman facing hardship and choosing to remain kind.

Birthdays :(

I think there’s an edge of humor to the pathos in this poem by Fernando Pessoa… When the idea of birthdays becomes sad… 


Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I was happy and no one was dead.
In the old house even my birthday was a centuries-old tradition,
And everyone’s joy, mine included, was as sure as any religion

Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I enjoyed the good health of understanding nothing.
Of being intelligent in my family’s eyes,
And of not having the hopes that others had for me.
When I began to have hopes, I no longer knew how to hope.
When I began to look at life, it had lost all meaning for me.

Yes, that person I knew as me,
That person with a heart and family,
That person of quasi-rural evenings spent all together,
That person who was a boy they loved,
That person–my God!–whom only today I realize I was…
How faraway! …
(Not even an echo…)
When they used to celebrate my birthday!

The person I am today is like the damp in the hall at the back of the house
That makes the walls mildew…
What I am today (and the house of those who loved me trembles through my tears)–
What I am today is their having sold the house,
It’s all of them having died,
It’s I having survived myself like a spent match.

Back when they used to celebrate my birthday…
Ah, how I love, like a person, those days!
How my soul physically longs to return there,
Via a metaphysical and carnal journey,
In a duality of me to me…
To eat the past like the bread of hunger, with no time for butter between the teeth!

I see it all again, so vivid it blinds me to what’s here…
The table with extra place settings, fancier china, more glasses,
The sideboard full of sweets and fruits, and other things in the shadow of the lower shelf.
Elderly aunts, different cousins, and all for my sake,
Back when they used to celebrate my birthday.

Stop it, heart!
Don’t think! Leave thinking to the head!
O my God, my God, my God!
I no longer have birthdays.
I endure.
My days add up.
I’ll be old when I’m old.
That’s all.
If only I’d filched the goddamn past and brought it away in my pocket!

When they used to celebrate my birthday!

13 June 1930

Fernando Pessoa writing under the pseudonym Àlvaro de Campos, “the jaded sensationist”. Translation by the brilliant Richard Zenith.

Piano Solo

Since a man’s life is nothing more than action in the distance,
A bit of foam sparkling inside a glass,
Since trees are nothing but trembling furniture:
Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion
Since we, ourselves, are nothing more than beings
(Just as the god himself is nothing but the god)
Since we don’t speak in order to be heard
but rather so that others will speak
And the echo precedes the voice that produces it,
Since we don’t even have the consolation of
chaos in the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that must be solved before dying
In order to calmly resuscitate
When a woman has been used in excess
Since there is also a heaven in hell,
Let me do some things, too:

I want to make a noise with my feet
And I want my soul to find its body.

–Nicanor Parra (quick translation by echoseeker, alternate translation by W.C. Williams here

Slow, bitter animal

Slow, bitter animal
that I am, that I have been
bitter from the knot of dust and water and wind
which, in the first generation of man, would plead with God
Bitter like those bitter minerals
which in the nights of precise solitude
—damned and ruined solitude
without one’s self—
scale up the throat
and, scabs of silence,
suffocate, kill, resuscitate.
Bitter like that bitter voice
prenatal, presubstantial, which spoke
our word, which walked down our path,
which died our death,
and which we discover at every moment.
Bitter from inside,
from what I am not
—my skin like my tongue—
from the first living thing,
annunciation and prophecy
Slow since centuries ago,
remote—there is nothing behind—
distant, far, unknown.
Slow, bitter animal
that I am, that I have been.
–Jaime Sabines
translation by echoseeker