‘In Every Story There Is a Silence’: Translating Coetzee’s Female Narrators into Italian


Translating is not only an exercise in the restoration of meaning. The translator’s true challenge lies in restoring meaning while preserving the way in which that meaning is expressed, because style is what is unique to a text. While working on a book, translators find many obstacles along their path in the form of innate tendencies, that are very difficult to resist and that deform and manipulate the stylistic features of the text. Working on Coetzee’s novels, this is particularly true when the narrator telling the story is a woman, due to specific aspects of translating gender. In my article I will explore some of the issues I faced when I translated into Italian two of Coetzee’s novels, In the Heart of the Country (1978) and Foe (1986). On one side, in telling Magda’s and Susan’s stories in Italian, the translator has to resist the temptation to rationalise the narrator’s language or to fill in the silence pervading the two novels just to make the text more coherent. And on the other side, she has to find a suitable language with regard to both diction and syntax, and to look for a way to address the question of what Magda calls ‘the pronouns of intimacy’, when the female and the colonised subject are marginalised by patriarchal authority.

If we consider the triangle author-critic-translator, it is clear that the translator’s position is the weakest of all.1 Paraphrasing what Coetzee has to say about these positions in Doubling the Point (206), it is clear that the translator cannot claim the critic’s salvific distance; she cannot even pretend to be the same person as she was when she last undertook the translator’s task. To further complicate things by considering the contrast between writer and translator, the writer writes to understand what she still does not know; you write because you do not know what you want to say. Writing reveals it to you. But when you translate, the opposite is true. You first have to understand and give an interpretation if you want to be able to translate.

Since translation is a form of interpretation (Eco 16), the first obstacle that translators are faced with – as readers taking on an enormous responsibility – is reading the text and understanding it. According to Peirce, when we read we produce a series of interpretants (I: 333). The interpretant is a subjective psychic sign that is closely linked to the reader’s life experience through particular words and, naturally, through the concepts, sensations and feelings associated with these words. Because the language we think in is not a natural code but rather, like the language in which we dream, a multi-media language (Osimo 611), the image conjured up in the reader’s mind might not be the same as that created in the author’s. Any ambiguous word found in the text is especially likely to provoke such divergence, as our own particular interpretant may influence how we read that word. Errors in translation are often thought to be due to poor knowledge of the source language, of one’s native language or of the cultural context, and although this is often the case, more often than not, errors occur because the author’s interpretant and the translator’s do not match (Cavagnoli 84–85).  

As in every reading process, the translator’s mind plays an active part in interpreting the text, and often does so unconsciously. It is therefore inevitable that, during the interpretation process, translators are influenced by their own personal story made up of feelings, memories, affections and traumas. It is also inevitable that the translator will unconsciously manipulate the text. Not only have the translator’s choices been unconsciously motivated, but the ‘rules’ that translators often deny applying while working ‘are likewise unconscious, subliminal, or possibly repressed’ and still active in the translation process (Venuti 33). Translators can only try always to be aware of this, and do their best to produce a translation that accomplishes the ethical aim of the translating act – that of receiving the foreign as foreign (Berman 277).

When I began translating Coetzee’s books, I had already translated works by Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, David Malouf and V. S. Naipaul; but with The Lives of Animals, Boyhood, Youth, In the Heart of the Country and Foe, which I translated in that order between 1999 and 2005, something new happened. I think the reason lay in what Coetzee wrote and how he wrote it: his pushing the limits of language; that constant being on the edge; his lexical spareness; the cutting away. All this initially generated a mostly psychic resistance. I was accustomed to resistance in translation: the text to be translated resists being uprooted from its terrain and the translator’s mother tongue resists receiving the foreign. This time, however, the resistance I was experiencing was of a different nature: it had to do with some peculiar characteristics of the protagonists of Coetzee’s novels, especially Magda and ‘He’ – John, the protagonist of both Boyhood and Youth. Since this symposium is devoted to Coetzee’s women, I will concentrate only on female narrators, namely Magda and Susan.

Translating is not only an exercise in the restoration of meaning. The translator’s true challenge lies in restoring meaning while preserving the way in which that meaning is expressed. As Boase-Beier reminds us, style is what is unique to a text and it relies on choices – either conscious or unconscious – by authors and their translators (Stylistic Approaches 50). The translator needs, therefore, to draw on every last drop of the source text to highlight the ‘unrepeatable aesthetic modulation of the text’ (Busi 2013). Moreover, ‘for literary texts, the cognitive effects can be assumed to be poetic effects: effects such as activating assumptions that relate to a particular area of knowledge in the reader’s mind or causing particular feelings in the reader’ (Boase-Beier, A Critical Introduction 38). To accomplish this task, the translator needs to work hard to preserve the literal meaning of the text so that the foreign may be received without being naturalised or assimilated. In this process, translators can profoundly transform the translating language and may also deeply modify their own.

As a writer and translator, I am particularly sensitive to the problem of the dialectic between two divergent discourses, that of the author and that of the translator writer – their personal use of their respective languages, their parole, their respective imaginary worlds. When working on someone’s novel, I do my best not to superimpose my own discourse on that of the translated author’s. I think I am prompted in this both by my sense of responsibility towards myself and the work I have chosen to do, and also towards both author and reader. I also try not to project on to the Other my own idiosyncrasies, my own allergic hypersensitivity to adjectives and nouns, my own distaste for certain punctuation marks – that is, I try not to make my own writing dominant. What I find fascinating about translation is how I can put my mother tongue to the test and see what the mother tongue is able to tolerate when the foreign tongue makes demands, shakes, dilates and mistreats it. The decision that is reached in the end – what we allow and what we deny ourselves – is a stark reflection of the relationship we have with our own mother tongue. I feel, so to speak, the desire to hand the pen to the Other, to make room within myself to discover an imaginary world that may be deeply different from my own (Cavagnoli 92). In other words, as Italo Calvino wrote in a seminal essay, when translating you feel ‘that kind of doggedness that is necessary to concentrate on digging in the same tunnel for months’ (49–50), which is the key to carrying out one’s task with a sense of responsibility. It is a task that is carried out, maintains Calvino, with

a scrupulosity that is liable to slacken at any moment, a capacity for discernment that could suddenly become warped, start to drift, and become prey to hallucinations and distortions of one’s linguistic memory, that obsession with perfection which inevitably becomes a sort of methodical madness, and has all the ineffable sweetness and wearying desperation of madness. (50)

In the very first few lines of In the Heart of the Country, Magda reveals her uneasiness with language: ‘Today my father brought home his new bride. They came clip-clop across the flats in a dog-cart drawn by a horse’ (1). What is clip-clop? An onomatopoeia? An adverb? Hardly two lines into the text we run up against the first obstacle. In this book, the language is no less experimental than the treatment of the narrative voice. As Coetzee remarked in an interview with David Atwell in Doubling the Point, both Kafka and Achterberg push the limits of language, and, if one hopes to follow them, then one has to push the limits of the linguistic disciplines (197). That is precisely what he does right from the start in In the Heart of the Country. I tried to leave the same ambivalence in Italian: ‘Oggi mio padre ha portato a casa la nuova sposa. Sono arrivati, clip-clop, dalla piana su un carro trainato da un cavallo’ (Coetzee, Nel cuore del paese 3). I only added two commas, which were more for Einaudi, Coetzee’s Italian publisher, than for my ideal reader: I was so scared they would not accept it, that they would prefer a rationalising translation. And rationalising is precisely what one must not do when translating Magda’s language.

One of the main difficulties in translating Magda’s words is that she lives in a permanent haze with her imaginings, fantasy and a variety of moods, quite like an adolescent. Hers is ‘a hovering life’ (Doubling 61). She inhabits an everlasting present, and she is prey to her passions, which she cannot govern. This makes her an unreliable narrator (Attridge 23). ‘Magda may be mad but I, behind her, am merely passionate’ says Coetzee in Doubling the Point (61). And in the same collection of interviews he adds: ‘I think of my own prose as rather hard and dry, but there remains in me a tug toward sensual elaboration – toward the late-romantic symphony’ (208). The translator behind the author has to be concerned with translating the words warped by Magda’s passions, and to be sensitive to the ‘sensual elaboration’ envisaged by the author, which make Magda unable to bridge the gap between the rational and the irrational. She is more at ease with what Musil calls rather vaguely ‘the other condition’, that is the unconscious, the repressed irrational (235).

Her language was hard to translate precisely for this reason, because I had to yield to the process by which thought thinks itself out in metaphors and similes. To enter ‘the other condition’ one must abandon logic and take up analogy (235). As in a fever, her perceptions are either very keen, in fact often heightened to excess, or they are blurred and out of focus. One of the problems in translating Magda’s passionate language is the difficulty of keeping up with her unbalanced narrative, and the temptation to tone down her irrational outbursts and therefore to rationalise her language, dulling all its sharp edges. The same occurs with her silences: one has to resist the rationalising impulse to build a bridge between words where there is none, or to build links between sentences where there are none. Magda’s prose fragments, precisely numbered as they are, point to what is not there between them. Were these brief sequences not numbered, their position in the narrative might be inverted, anticipated, postponed. But as they are, they have to be read consecutively by the reader. Sometimes, I wished they had been written in circles – in balloons as in comic books or graphic novels – and occupied different positions on the page, so they could be perceived simultaneously by the reader. Magda’s perceptions are simultaneous rather than consecutive. Again, we have analogy and not logic. ‘The infinite of irrationals is “greater” than the infinity of rationals. In particular, between any two rationals, no matter how close, lies a cluster of irrationals. Stepping from one rational to the next is like crossing a bridge whose piers are joined by something that does not ‘really’ exist’, as Coetzee the mathematician reminds us (Doubling 234). The silences of Magda’s story condense into such clusters: I had to have great respect for them, for this ‘textual otherness’, this ‘textualterity’ (Attridge 30). The book is a verbal artifact that speaks of that about which it has to remain silent and shows ‘how otherness is engaged, staged, distanced, embraced, manifested in the simultaneous exhibiting and doubting of the novelist’s authority. Responsibility to and for the other’ (Attridge 30–31). In short, I had to resist the temptation to fill in the silence to make the text more coherent.

In Foe, my difficulties as a translator lay mainly in finding a suitable language in Italian to tell Susan’s story. This meant finding a suitable language for her voice: that is the peculiar feature of technique used by Coetzee in this novel, as montage was the peculiar feature used in In the Heart of the Country. In an email Coetzee sent to me on 7 January 2005 to answer the questions I had asked him about the novel while I was working on it, he wrote:

The language of Foe is not, to my mind, a pastiche of early 18th-century English or even a pastiche of Foe’s English, but it is certainly an imitation of Defoe’s English, somewhat analogous to the way in which Alexander Pope (for example) writes imitations of Horace that are not translations of Horace. I am an admirer of Defoe’s style – which is a kind of ‘null’ style, without any ‘ornamental flowers’ – and try to reproduce it, but without ostentation. With regard to diction (dictio), this means that, for the most part, I do not use words that Defoe would not have used. With regard to syntax, it means that I follow the more obvious patterns of Defoe’s syntax.

I tried to keep the prose in Italian as bare as it is in English, without any ‘ornamental flowers’. I tried not to use lexical anachronisms, and resorted only occasionally to slight archaisms. And I closely followed the transparency of Foe’s syntax, even when the syntax was quite complex (length of sentences, punctuation, choice of active or passive voice). I also kept all rhythmic and syntactic repetitions, such as ‘I say/ I try to say; without breath/ without interruption; through the cabin/ through the wreck; against my eyelids/ against the skin of my face’, or ‘it flows . . . it passes . . . it runs . . .’ (Attridge 66). Repetitions are more common in English than in Italian, and this is, to my mind, one feature of the foreign text to be preserved in the translated text. Variatio and repetitio are two different rhetorical traditions, something that has to do with the precise stylistic choices of the author and not those of the translator. As Schleiermacher reminds us, if readers want to meet the foreign, they have to move towards the author, go abroad so to speak, and not sit comfortably in their sitting-room (42). Therefore, I tried to use a variety of Italian with an antiquated feel to it, but whose effect on the reader would be similar to present-day literary Italian – formal, neat, elegant, with no ostentation.

A second issue in both texts came with pronouns, especially what Magda terms the ‘pronouns of intimacy’ (In the Heart of the Country 43). The problem with pronouns in In the Heart of the Country was easier to solve. Although I used the South-African Ravan Press edition, where the Afrikaans language is used for the dialogue, I could not leave the sections in Afrikaans but had to translate them. But I noticed in the Afrikaans sections that Magda used the ‘jy’ intimate form of ‘you’ and not the formal ‘u’ when referring to the relationship between her father and Klein-Anna. So, the I/You relationship was easy to solve in Italian: it became io/tu (I chose the informal tu and not the formal lei), that is something that ‘acknowledges the precarious nature of the perception of master/servant roles’ (Kossew 72).

But in Foe the issue was more complicated. In the early eighteenth century there were three forms of address in Italian: the ‘lei’ form of address was the most formal; the ‘voi’ form of address was slightly confidential (for example a child addressing its mother); and the ‘tu’ form of address, which was the most informal of all. In contemporary Italian, the ‘voi’ form of address does not exist anymore (it only survives in some local varieties of Italian, especially in the South of the country), so we can only choose between ‘lei’ (formal) and ‘tu’ (informal). If today’s readers heard Susan addressing Crusoe or Foe with the ‘lei’ form of address, they would not realise at once that the novel is set in the seventeenth century. They would feel they were reading a contemporary novel. The temporal distance would be more apparent if she addressed them using the ‘voi’ form. But using all three forms of address would have puzzled the reader, since this pronoun tripartition is known only to very cultivated people, hence my decision to rule it out.

As for the ‘pronouns of intimacy’, I always had the feeling, both during the translation and during the various revisions I did, that whatever form of address I chose for Susan and Crusoe and for Susan and Foe, I should use it throughout and she should not move from one form to another after their sexual encounters. Sex with Foe occurs only once and I cannot remember any more sexual encounters between Susan and Crusoe apart from the one on the ship after their rescue. I think I had this feeling because, in fact, no real intimacy has been reached between Susan and Crusoe on the one hand, or between Susan and Foe on the other. What kind of reticence is there? What kind of silence? ‘The story won’t tell . . . not in any literal vulgar way’, as Henry James wrote in The Turn of the Screw (10). As for Foe, Susan makes a very clear statement. Comparing Friday’s silence with her own, she says: ‘Whereas the silence I keep regarding Bahia and other matters is chosen and purposeful: it is my own silence’ (Foe 122). Both the female and the colonised subject are marginalised by patriarchal author/ity (Kossew 168). As for Susan, she is subjected to both Crusoe and Foe, the patriarchal coloniser/author figure. Her own form of resistance is silence. On another occasion Susan remarks: ‘In every story there is a silence’ (141). It is precisely this silence that I had to accept and respect, as I had with Magda’s. Susan’s relations with Crusoe and Foe are in fact without intimacy – no inner self is touched. Lacunae are essential in a narrative. They can tell more – and get nearer to the truth – than what is actually written. Silence is the most powerful lacuna we might meet.

When I asked Coetzee’s opinion on the matter of pronouns, he answered, in an email on 7 January 2005, as follows:

I can’t guide you in the choice between ‘voi’ and ‘lei’, but I would say that whatever form of address Susan uses to Foe should be used throughout, that is to say, there should be no moment when a threshold of intimacy seems to be crossed and she moves from one form to another.

It was good to know we agreed entirely. 

Lastly – and this has nothing to do with Coetzee’s women but much to do with gender – the translation of the last section of the novel required particular attention since the narrator changes, and the narrator of the last few pages is genderless. Some critics say it is the author himself, some critics say it is ‘poetic imagination', and some critics say it is still Susan. For the translator, the narrator is the narrator. Period. And it is a genderless narrator. It may be a He, a She, or an It. The story will not tell, not in any literal, vulgar way – again. And this is a fact. Superimposing one’s own interpretation would be a great mistake. Once again, there is a silence. There is a lacuna. And the translator can only respect that silence. My problem as a translator was that I had to avoid any specific reference to gender. The fact that this section is told in the present tense helped a lot. But sometimes it is possible to use the passato prossimo instead of the present indicative in Italian. For ‘I crawl beneath them’ (Foe 157) one could say: ‘Striscio sotto di loro’ or ‘Sono strisciato/strisciata sotto di loro’, but the latter choice would express gender. So I had to be very careful. It was a problem I had already faced with another novel, Jazz by Toni Morrison, where the narrator is the book itself (although Foe was published before Jazz, I translated Jazz first). In that case, it was a problem I had to deal with throughout the entire novel. Luckily, in Foe it was only a question of a few pages. But I still remember how wary I was, how cautious, in translating those few pages. And I still remember my restlessness after I delivered the translation, after having read the first and second proofs, thinking that my copy editor might put in, carelessly, at the very last minute, an incautious reference to gender.

‘The last pages of Foe close the text by force.’ It is a powerful ending: ‘The suffering body’s power is undeniable’ (Coetzee, Doubling 248). It still moves me, especially because we see Friday under water. It reminds me of the Middle Passage, of course. But as an Italian, it moves me because it makes me think of the dead African bodies in the Mediterranean, of their suffering in the world. It is a powerful ending. But at the same time, the last few pages reveal the narrator’s powerlessness and helplessness. The foetus-like Friday. The foetus-like narrator. Genderless. And so movingly powerful in its vagueness, in its impotent vagueness.


  1. This paper arose out of a shorter version delivered as part of a Translators’ Panel at the ‘Reading Coetzee’s Women’ Conference held at Monash University’s Prato Centre, Italy, in September 2016. Professor Michael Hollington chaired the panel and provided editorial input on this paper.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Narrative voice, Translations & translating, Women - Literary portrayal, J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Cavagnoli, Franca. ‘‘In Every Story There Is a Silence’: Translating Coetzee’s Female Narrators into Italian.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.1e27bf3fe3.