Il miglior fabbro: mourning the passing of the great Italian translator William Weaver

pasolini ragazzi di vita

Above: William Weaver is remembered by many for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino. But to many Italian literature cognoscenti, his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works by Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini (image via Barnes & Noble).

It was with great sadness that I read the news this morning (published over the weekend in the New York Times) that the greatest Italian translator of our generation William Weaver has passed at age 90.

I never had the opportunity to meet him but his work had a huge influence on my career as a translator and my intellectual life (and two of his students were mentors of mine).

Many American college graduates and literary buffs will remember him for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino.

But his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works from the twentieth century by authors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Carlo Emilio Gadda.

Weaver brilliantly translated the title of Pasolini’s 1956 Ragazzi di vita — a novel written in urban Roman dialect — as A Violent Life. The title alone (ragazzi di vita — which, slavishly, means the boys of life — is a colloquial expression that denotes street hustlers) marked a new era for Italian translation and translators. As in this case, he often abandoned accuracy for the verve and ethos of the original. And this bold approach set a new tone and a new benchmark for the generation of translators who would follow in his footsteps.

When I frequented literary circles during my New York years, Weaver’s name was invoked by translators from all fields — poetry, prose, French, Spanish, etc. He was a Virgil for many of us. And he taught us — in theory and practice — that the fact that translation can never be perfect does not stop translation from being great.

If you are so inclined, please read this essay (very short but indicative of Weaver’s work) which he published as an introduction to his translation of Gadda’s Acquainted with Grief (again, another brilliant rendering of a challenging title).

He was il miglior fabbro (the best smith [of the mother tongue])

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