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Sunday, March 13, 2011


Primo Levi’s introductory poem, or invocation, to his “memoir” (a difficult label, inasmuch as he takes some liberties generally afforded only to novelists, though everything in its essence in the book is true and speaks of his 11 months in Auschwitz), If This Is a Man (Se questo e’ un uomo in its original Italian) has a handful of English translations, none of which really satisfies me (which could break us into a great discussion of translation philosophy, but I don’t want to be the one doing the talking in this case—not yet, anyway).  I have far less problem with a memoirist taking liberties with characterizations and weather details of his own story than I do of another writer jabbing his stamp at and into another’s words.  For some reason it’s different with something like Dante’s L’Inferno, of which I enjoy three or four different English translations as much as I do the original.  In this case—and this much more modern than anything of Dante's—I’ll try and let you be the judge.  I find the original Italian just so much more powerful.  

Here is Levi’s prefatory poem first in Italian, then as translated by Stuart Woolf (who was supervised by Levi), then in an anonymous translation, and finally by my own deliberately hyper-literal “translation,” with very nearly google-translater obtuseness (meant solely as a utility for comparing the translations to the original):

Italian, original

Voi che vivete sicuri
nelle vostre tiepide case,
voi che trovate tornando a sera
il cibo caldo e visi amici:
Considerate se questo è un uomo
che lavora nel fango
che non conosce pace
che lotta per mezzo pane
che muore per un si o per un no.
Considerate se questa è una donna,
senza capelli e senza nome
senza più forza di ricordare
vuoti gli occhi e freddo il grembo
come una rana d'inverno.
Meditate che questo è stato:
vi comando queste parole.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore
stando in casa andando per via,
coricandovi, alzandovi.
Ripetetele ai vostri figli.
O vi si sfaccia la casa,
la malattia vi impedisca,
i vostri nati torcano il viso da voi.

English, Woolf
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
                Consider if this is a man
                Who works in mud
                Who knows no peace,
                Who fights for a crust of bread,
                Who dies by a yes or a no.
                Consider if this is a woman
                Without hair, without name,
                Without the strength to remember,
                Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
                Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
                Or may your houses be destroyed,
                May illness strike you down,
                May your offspring turn their faces from you.

English, Anonymous
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

English, Me (again, not intended as a real translation)
You all who live secure
In your warm houses,
You all who find returning at evening
Food hot and faces friendly:
Consider if this is a man
                Who works in the mud
                Who doesn’t know peace
                Who fights for half bread
                Who dies for a yes or a no.
                Consider if this is a woman,
                Without hair and without name
                Without more strength to remember
                Empty the eyes and cold the womb
                Like a frog of winter.
Meditate/Contemplate that this has happened:
I command you these words.
Engrave them in your heart
Standing in house going by street,
lying down getting up;
Repeat them to your children.
                Or your house be ruined for you,
                The sickness get in your way,
                your babies turn their face from you.

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