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Dispatch from Florence’s Festival degli Scrittori

By Maaza Mengiste

The ninth annual Festival degli Scrittori and the Premio von Rezzori, a Florence-based literary festival that culminates in a ceremony conferring the Premio von Rezzori for best foreign literary work and best translation of a foreign work, was held from June 10 through  June 12, 2015. It opened with a provocative Lectio Magistralis by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri, and concluded with the announcement that Vladimir Sorokin was this year’s winner of the Premio, as it is affectionately called, for Day of the Oprichnik. The finalists for the prize were Andrew Miller, Pure; Daša Drndic, Trieste; Tommy Wieringa, These Are the Names; and Guadalupe Nettel, The Body Where I Was Born. Federica Aceto was awarded the prize for her translation of Don DeLillo’s End Zone.

But wait. Let’s back up, because what is a festival in Florence without a bit of Renaissance history? And what is the Renaissance without a little bit of bloody rivalry? The literary festival was held in Palazzo Strozzi, and it was hard not to be immediately awed by its extravagant architecture. Begun in 1489 and finally completed in 1539, it was built at the request of Filippo Strozzi, a member of one of the city’s wealthiest families. And it is huge. In fact, it was inspired by the Palazzo Medici, but it was also built to surpass it. Filippo wanted no doubts about who could build the bigger palazzo. Staring into the vast courtyard on my way to the panels, I imagined a confrontation between a Strozzi and a Medici. Perhaps in not-so-subtle words, this Medici would point out that size does not matter when one controls the politics of a city. History tells us that things got bloody between the two families. Somehow, Filippo died, heads rolled, and Cosimo I de' Medici took control of Palazzo Strozzi. I wondered about this confrontation, though. Here were two sparring families refusing to play nice and look what they spawned: spectacular sites that host year-round activities in the arts. Not bad (if you eliminate the violent turns of history). Could there be a literary equivalent to “not playing nice” on paper, in a book?

In her opening lecture, "Il vestito dei libri" (The Clothing of Books), Lahiri addressed the artificial and troubling identities that jacket covers set up for books, and hence, their writers. She noted the covers for one of her books, different for each country, and wondered how “it is possible that one book, the same book, can generate this panorama of image. . . . Translations notwithstanding, every sentence is the same. And yet they seem like twelve different books.” Lahiri went on to add, “Like the language in which the text is written, the book jacket can constitute a barrier.” Book jackets, then, should function under the influence of the story, beholden to language rather than sales. They should prepare us for the world of the book, one that will, if we are lucky, challenge us. Our journey toward the ideas on the page should be unhindered by barriers or false promises, Lahiri stated.

As the festival progressed, I found myself going back to her statements, particularly as I witnessed the “behind-the-scenes” work of translators as they sat next to their writers on panels and helped meaning cross the boundaries of language.

As you might have guessed, translation was an integral part of the festival and the Premio. Set in Florence, Italy, it brought together writers from several continents who felt more comfortable conversing in a language other than Italian. Though many discussions were led by moderators who asked their questions in Italian, translators were present, and for a moment, sitting in the audience or on a panel, listening to the fluid transmission of ideas from one language to the other, from one person to the next, from writer to reader, I was reminded of the need for more gatherings like this, for more linguistic confrontations that require an acknowledgment that we do not all speak the same, that we do not all write the same (and thus, I imagine Lahiri adding, our book covers should not all look the same).

Most striking in the jury’s comments about Federica Aceto’s translation of DeLillo’s End Zone was the nod to Aceto’s approach to the book’s linguistic complexity and its rhythmic prose. The judges commended Aceto for her sensitive ear and her rigor in maintaining the integrity of the text. Aceto translated without domesticating DeLillo’s words. It is high praise for a translator and an extraordinary achievement considering the challenges of the original text. End Zone, first published in 1972, was translated and released in Italy only last year. The gap in years might speak to the difficulties it posed for potential translators. Aceto’s refusal to “tame” this text is a testament to the spirit of that magical weekend spent immersed in literature in Florence, a lesson for all those who read and write. Every book that was a finalist or a winner of the Premio evidenced an imagination that sought complexity and asked those most intriguing and difficult questions about the human condition. No book was trying to “play nice” with what it means to exist in this world. Each traversed that tricky, unstable terrain that is often the territory of spectacular and necessary literature. If only Strozzi and Medici had picked up quills instead of swords.

See you next year, Premio von Rezzori. 


Published Jun 24, 2015   Copyright 2015 Maaza Mengiste

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