Arduous Tasks

Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony

LINA N. INSANA
Copyright Date: 2009
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442687363
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  • Book Info
    Arduous Tasks
    Book Description:

    One of twentieth-century Italy's greatest thinkers, Primo Levi (1919-1987) started reflecting on the Holocaust almost immediately after his return home from the year he survived in Auschwitz. Levi's powerful Holocaust testimonials reveal his preoccupation with processes of translation, in the form of both embedded and book-length renderings of texts relevant to Holocaust survival. InArduous Tasks, Lina N. Insana demonstrates how translation functions as a metaphor for the transmission of Holocaust testimony and broadens the parameters of survivor testimony.

    The first book to study Levi and translation,Arduous Tasksovercomes the conventional views of the separation between his own personal memoirs and his translations by stressing the centrality of translation in Levi's entire corpus. Examining not only the testimonial nature of his work, Insana also discusses the transgressive and performative aspects of transmission in his writings.Arduous Tasksis a superb and innovative study on the importance of translation not only to Levi, but also to Holocaust studies in general.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8736-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface: Points of Entry
    (pp. vii-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-2)
  6. Introduction: Translation Matters
    (pp. 3-13)

    Holocaust survivors, returning home after liberation and the long homeward odysseys that followed, were faced with a two-sided dilemma: the ‘burning need’ to tell of their brutalizing experience, and profound confusion over how to go about representing its singular and unspeakable events. As Primo Levi tells us in the preface to his 1947Se questo è un uomo, ‘[i]l bisogno di raccontare agli “altri”, di fare gli “altri” partecipi, aveva assunto fra noi, prima della liberazione e dopo, il carattere di un impulso immediato e violento’ (SQI.5) ([t]he need to tell our story to ‘the rest,’ to make ‘the...

  7. 1 Transmission: The Witness as Translator
    (pp. 14-55)

    On numerous occasions in the course of his literary and essayist oeuvre, Primo Levi recounts that one of the most horrifying – and common – aspects of the concentrationary experience was a recurring dream of failed testimony.¹ This nocturnal infiltration of the prisoners’ brief allotment of sleep by the hellish realities of their victimization is described with particular force in Levi’s memoir of the eleven or so months he spent in the Auschwitz labour and death complex,Se questo è un uomo.² In one variation on this theme, in the chapter ‘Le nostre notti,’ the ‘main’ dream is introduced by a long...

  8. 2 Source Texts and Subtexts: Translation and the Grey Zone
    (pp. 56-92)

    In this chapter, we will consider Levi’s decades-long mediation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ through paraphrase, quotation, and eventually the translation of a synecdochic four-line stanza of the ‘Rime’ within the text of his own original poem ‘Il superstite.’ As it did for Levi, Coleridge’s poem directs us to organize reality in terms of zones of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and flux: the Ancient Mariner has much to teach us about the survivor’s complex and difficult navigation of subject positions between life and death, complicity and resistance, lived experience and relived narrativization.

    Levi’s attraction to the Ancient Mariner...

  9. 3 Transgression: Translation and Levi’s ‘Trapassar del segno’
    (pp. 93-124)

    Ernst Curtius, in hisEuropean Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, begins his discussion of metaphorics¹ with those nautical metaphors in which ‘[t]he poet becomes the sailor, his mind or his work the boat’ (129) and urges that ‘[a] commentator on Dante ought to be aware of’ his significant use of nautical imagery. Of course, the importance of this figure has not been lost on Dante scholars, for whom the metaphor of sea travel in theCommedia² is given double valence by the voyage motif inherent in the narrative’s ‘plot’ and the interplay between Dante’s two parallel privileged and transgressive...

  10. 4 Infinite Transaction: Testimonial Numismatics and the Narrative Exchange
    (pp. 125-176)

    If Levi’s fragmentary use of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and the twenty-sixth canto of Dante’sInfernoshows us how translation might be understood as a metaphor for processes of representational transmission, then Levi’s translation of the Dutch historian Jacob Presser’sDe nacht der Girondijnenoffers us our first indication of how a full-fledged narrative translation project might be read as a testimonial utterance in its own right.¹

    Primo Levi already listed the co-translation of a four-volume chemistry textbook,² some minor projects for Edizioni Scientifiche Einaudi, and the translation of English anthropologist Mary Douglas’sNatural Symbols³ among...

  11. 5 Palinodic Reversal: The Trials of Translation
    (pp. 177-225)

    Franz Kafka’s troubling representations of humankind’s encounters with modernity have long been considered harbingers of the Nazi Holocaust, with their tales of stifling bureaucracy, desolate alienation, and dehumanizing technology. As Sidra Ezrahi notes in the introduction to her landmarkBy Words Alone, ‘Kafka is the writer whose fiction so fully expressed the logic of modern technology, mechanized sadism, and bureaucratic depersonalization that Auschwitz appears almost as the realization of the fantastic world blueprinted inThe Penal Colony’ (5). Though the theme of large-scale mechanized justice in this story gives way to more psychologically oriented persecution and alienation in Kafka’s 1925...

  12. Conclusion: The Witness’s Tape Recorder and the Violence of Mediation
    (pp. 226-234)

    This study has focused a great deal on the way in which translation functions as a metaphor for the challenges and mechanisms of Holocaust testimony in Levi’s oeuvre; in this context, I have argued that Levi’s translation practices are consistently interventionist, and that they tend more often than not to undermine or even reverse their source text. This results in a foregrounding, variously, of the witness’s reacquisition of agency through the translating process; of the very real challenges of the transmission of Holocaust testimony; and of translation’s unique ability to figure the witness’s mediating role in transmission, as well as...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 235-290)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-308)
  15. Index
    (pp. 309-316)
  16. Index of Primo Levi’s works
    (pp. 317-319)