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From the Translator: Titling “Tana”

By Elizabeth Harris

I’m very grateful to the editors of Words Without Borders for letting me discuss my translation of Giulio Mozzi’s “Tana.” This gives me the chance to discuss my failure.

Several years back, when I first met with Mozzi in Padua about his collection Questo è il giardino (This is the Garden), he told me that with “Tana,” a story named for its female protagonist, I should find an English name that also means “burrow,” as this is what “tana” means in Italian.  I told him I’d think of something.  And I did do plenty of thinking.

For English readers, Tana might sound like a fairly normal Italian name for a girl. But it’s actually strange, though perhaps not quite as strange as “Burrow” would be for a girl in English: as Tana explains to the angel in the story, her name is short for Gaetana, which is certainly an Italian female name, though not a very common one. So what equivalent could I find in English that also meant “burrow”? Something that would tie it to the story’s meaning, a girl’s mixed feelings about sexuality and her development as a woman, with the burrow perhaps symbolizing the womb or vagina. There are a lot of synonyms for burrow, depending on how the word is used: as a noun or verb, as a nest or hole of sorts or as (literally or metaphorically) digging into something. But I couldn’t seem to come up with an English name for it at all. Every time I thought of something, it sounded absolutely terrible (notice that I’m not giving any examples; I’m too embarrassed). Actually, just the sound of an English name was terrible: even if the story’s translated into English, turning the name to something English seemed too domesticating; I didn’t want to hear an English name, over and over, on an Italian girl.

One name that did occur to me that (perhaps) had a slightly more Italian ring to it was “Donna.” This name, obviously a very common one in English, also means “woman” in Italian, which some English readers might know, anyway, and might be able to interpret: while the reference to “burrow” would be lost, at least I could get at some of the thematic concerns of the story with this name as tied to a girl’s sexual awakening, her journey into womanhood, and so on. So in some ways, Donna might work.

But Mozzi didn’t just choose “Tana” for his character’s name because it means “burrow” as tied to the womb, the vagina, a girl’s sexual awakening, her journey into womanhood, and so on.  He also chose this name because of Kafka’s story, “The Burrow”—titled “La Tana” in Italian. In Kafka’s story, an isolated molelike creature tunnels—burrows—under the earth, creating a burrow to hide in over the course of a lifetime. So Mozzi’s story, “Tana,” of a girl who hides from her family and holes up in her room with an angel, certainly resonates with Kafka’s story.

And this isn’t the only story tied to Kafka in the collection. In “L’apprendista” (The Apprentice), a character named just “the apprentice” struggles to become a real worker on a mysterious, unnamed machine that produces unknown products: this mysterious, quasi-allegorical machine of course echoes Kafka’s horrible, indefinable punishment/torture machine in “In the Penal Colony.” In the opening story of Mozzi’s collection, “Lettera accompagnatoria” (Cover Letter), the narrator (a thief writing a letter to the woman whose purse he stole) refers to another’s letter: “A great writer, in a letter he wrote to the woman he loved at the time, said a letter is ‘some kind of trail marker leading to a human creature, along a path where you grow happier with every step, until one bright moment, when you realize you’re not moving forward at all, just going round and round in your own labyrinth, only you’re more excited, more confused than normal.’ ” The “great writer” is Kafka, and this passage comes from one of his letters. With the final story of Mozzi’s collection, we see a nod to Kafka as well: the title of this story (about a character named “the magistrate”) is simply “F.,” so recalling Kafka’s K. and Joseph K. (F. refers to the famous case of the magistrate Giovanni Falcone, who was blown up in his car by the Sicilian Mafia.)

So the word “burrow” as tied to Kafka is important. If I changed this name, if I lost the word “burrow,” if I changed the girl’s name to something else, I would lose Kafka. And if I kept the name, Tana, which means “burrow” but which English readers wouldn’t understand, I’d also lose Kafka.  For a time, I thought I had come up with the solution: I could title the story, “Tana’s Burrow.”  But this was forced. Then for a while, I thought I really had it: I could put the definition of “tana” into dialogue. In the story, when Tana explains to the angel about her name, she says “My name's Tana, but Tana’s really short for Gaetana. I've been Tana since I was little, though, and didn't really know how to talk—” So what if I inserted a small, unobtrusive definition right there, something like: “My name’s Tana—I know what you’re thinking—it’s strange being named after a ‘burrow’…” When I e-mailed this to Giulio, though, he didn’t like it. After a day or so, neither did I.

This might sound funny, but even if “Tana” includes an angel and a girl named “Burrow” who kisses that angel’s penis, I think this story’s pretty subtle. It really wasn’t my job to explain here—perhaps it’s never the translator’s job to explain in her translation, although there have been times when I’ve defined words, added a small defining phrase I thought was necessary. But here, in this story, it didn’t fit. “Tana” is just too spare, too mysterious, for explanations.

There was always the last resort: the footnote.  But I really don’t like footnotes—they yank the reader away from the story. I feel pedantic using footnotes, too scholarly.  This is fiction, not an artifact.

In the end, after mulling the word over a thousand times, I’ve given up, done nothing, or next to nothing.  I did toss in a “burrow” at the end of the story, as Tana “burrowed under the covers” after dreaming about the angel who’s flown away. But this tiny burrow’s certainly no substitute for a title: it’s barely there, just a small reminder to myself that there’s a burrow at all.  For now at least, I just have to hide my face and admit I failed. But maybe if I think a little harder, dig a little deeper . . .

Published Apr 9, 2012   Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Harris

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