Venuti and Drogo are similar in at least one respect: they have both spent their lives fighting against invisibility. The young officer of Il deserto is consumed by the idle hope that something grandiose will happen—the invasion of the legendary Tartars coming from the north, the glorious battle that follows—to make him the protagonist of his own life. After four years at Fortezza Bastiani (a sufficient interval, in Venuti’s translation, “to earn the right to a new post”), he nonetheless obtains permission to stay longer from the division commander, knowing that, as his mother says, “he needed to assert himself so he wouldn’t be forgotten.”
In the stronghold, Drogo ages and sickens to death. The more time passes, the more we realize that his “orgasmo,” the almost erotic yearning for some grand event that occurs too late, is the desire to make his name “immortal.” His life slowly assumes the material contours of the novel we are reading, in which “[t]he page turns” as “[m]onths and years pass.” There is an expression, “la fuga del tempo,” that is repeated four times in the Italian text. It is Time personified, rushing in the footsteps of those who live, closing doors behind them that will never open again. For centuries before Buzzati’s novel was published, this fixation on transcending time and death shaped the literary canon. The “classic” writer, as the Roman poet Horace famously conceived of him, is “centum qui perficit annos”: someone who, even after 100 years, still survives in the people’s imagination.
In similar fashion, Venuti has been fighting his personal, academic battle against invisibility for nearly 30 years. In The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation, the groundbreaking work that since 1995 has consecrated Venuti’s scholarship as the stronghold of translation studies in Britain and the United States, he argues that “domestication” has been the dominant translation strategy in the English-speaking world at least since the time of the poet (and translator) John Dryden. Translators and their efforts, Venuti explains, are too often “invisible”: they disappear from the text to create the illusion of transparency, so that an Anglophone reader gets the impression of being confronted by a text originally written in English, rather than by a translation. The practice that Venuti advocates, by contrast (in his academic work as in The Stronghold), is one that makes the translator’s choices visible by taking the reader abroad, back to the foreign author—what he calls a “foreignizing” translation. This strategy does not simply mimic the codes prevalent in the target language but retains elements of the source text to force readers outside of their comfort zone, striving for both a sense of distance and a more serious commitment to cross-cultural understanding. In retranslating Buzzati’s most famous novel, Venuti has made it his priority to change the way in which Il deserto has been read in English, to “Italianize” its reception.
By seizing the opportunity to combine theory with practice and register cultural and linguistic “otherness,” Venuti also shows that he is irremediably different from Drogo. While the latter undergoes a form of “domestication,” slowly getting used to a lifestyle that scrupulously disregards change in favor of “routine”—Venuti’s choice for “abitudine,” which together with its derivatives occurs more than 20 times in Buzzati’s novel—the American translator values difference as a distinctive feature of his work. “Translation,” Venuti told me in an interview last March, “should never allow for business as usual. This is the bottom line. It has taken me several years as a translator and a translation theorist to confidently say what I am about to say: I am interested in a translation that makes a difference.” What this means concretely is what Drogo never fully understood: if you want to be timeless, you must intervene in time; if you are hoping to live forever, you need to reinvent, even retranslate, yourself.
A new Il deserto dei Tartari can be interpreted as Venuti’s tactical blow to the fort of his predecessor, Stuart Hood’s The Tartar Steppe (1952). For 70 years, Hood’s translation has enjoyed a particular stronghold on the Anglophone reader’s imagination, a story of universal applicability for its lack of historical and geographical signposts. It’s been reprinted again and again: most recently by Penguin in 2000 and Canongate in 2007 and 2012. Yet Buzzati’s reputation in the English-speaking world has yet to be made three-dimensional. After a handful of short stories and two novels (Larger than Life and A Love Affair) were translated in the 1960s, nearly 20 years passed with Buzzati largely absent from the Anglophone literary scene.
Venuti’s first intervention came in the 1980s, when he translated the two collections Restless Nights (1983) and The Siren (1984). His foreignizing translations introduced an unfamiliar author who had made the fantastic a key feature of his prose into a canon largely dominated by realism. Venuti justified this move in the preface to Restless Nights: “Even though Buzzati seems to lead us into strange worlds far removed from our daily lives, his technique is really to expose the fantastic element that lurks beneath the surface,” he wrote. Buzzati “chose as his subjects many of the ideas and developments that have shaped twentieth-century life since the Second World War, producing a body of fiction that is intimately linked to our times.”
The problem is that it was precisely this fantastic element that gave rise to the monolith of interpretations around The Tartar Steppe. As soon as it came out, Buzzati’s masterpiece in Hood’s translation was read as “a ‘fabulous’ tale, out of time and place, in a familiarly surrealistic world,” as Serge Hughes wrote for Saturday Review in 1952. Such is an interpretation that took its roots in French existentialism and has lasted until today. As late as 2017, Venuti remarks, Joanna Kavenna in The Literary Review preached that “We are all as doomed as Drogo.”
A glance at the opening of Il deserto confirms that such readings make at least some sense. “One September morning, the newly commissioned officer Giovanni Drogo set out from the city for Fortezza Bastiani, his first assignment,” Buzzati writes (and Venuti translates). If we substitute “One September morning” with “Once upon a time,” the result is no different. The lack of any geographical or temporal specificity has been taken as a sign of universalism. And as he alludes to in the preface for his Restless Nights translation, an interpretation of Buzzati rooted in “existentialist humanism” cast a spell on Venuti himself. “The Tartar Steppe was written during the rise of existentialism as an important European philosophy,” he explains, “and Drogo’s destiny bears a certain resemblance to this essentially nihilistic view of the world.”
But translation allows one to change their mind, to go beyond previous convictions and fixations in a way that Giovanni Drogo was only able to do on his deathbed. This becomes clear in The Stronghold, where Venuti not only (partially) revisits his position on existentialism but also registers a change that occurred in the Italian reception of the work throughout the years. If Drogo’s story continued to have “timeless” significance for Italian readers well into the 1960s—the critic Fausto Gianfranceschi, for instance, would write in 1967 that Buzzati offers an “X-ray of human existence, that of Everyman”—things started to turn the following decade. In Come leggere Il deserto dei Tartari (1976), Marcello Carlino argued that the novel tracks closely the decline of the Italian bourgeoisie in the 1930s, who had fallen for the dictator’s promises and who lived in a condition that Buzzati’s contemporary, Alberto Moravia, famously called “noia sociale” (social boredom), a state of collective numbness. Drogo incarnates the typical “borghese” (his father was a doctor), like all his companions. The way they act and speak, for Carlino, “thwart[s] any alibi of an eternally, universally human story.” Venuti’s interpretation in The Stronghold aligns with and tries to recuperate this historical dimension in an Anglophone context. Il deserto dei Tartari must be read, at least in part, as a tacit critique of fascist Italy. How does this translate into practice?
When I asked Venuti this question, he confessed that he was conscious of not completely overriding Hood’s translation, which is not only “very good” but also still widely read:
In a sense, the parameters in which I could use the Buzzati translation to make a difference were already limited, overdetermined to a certain extent by the existence of The Tartar Steppe. I had to pay attention to what Hood was doing. Unlike many translators—Lydia Davis for instance, who only looked at other Proust’s translations much deeper into her project—I had Hood’s translation on one side of my desk and Buzzati’s text on the other side of the desk.
The result is a translation that displays foreignizing elements while sounding reassuringly familiar to the 21st-century Anglophone reader. Venuti deploys what Meir Sternberg has called “selective reproduction”—that is, he retains certain words and greetings to create the impression that the novel is set in Italy. He keeps “mamma,” for example (versus “mother” in Hood’s translation), “Buongiorno, major sir” (versus “Good morning, sir”), and “Buona sera, signori” (versus “Good evening, gentlemen”). If these relics ground the modern reader in a culturally and temporally distant place, there are also moments when, for the sake of the reader’s comprehension, the present takes precedence over the past in Venuti’s “historical” interpretation. As William Weaver—one of the most famous American translators from Italian and a major influence on Venuti—once put it, “[I]t is not the words that are a problem, it is the world that is a problem.”
Thus, for example, if “a whole drama of meanings [and] emotions” immediately materializes, in Weaver’s words, when one associates the term borghese with Buzzati’s Italy—for an Italian speaker might interpret it, as Carlino does, as “la crisi del borghese”—this would not have the same effect in English, where the French loanword bourgeois has a hopelessly different connotation. Both Hood and Venuti translate the expression “esuberanze da borghese” ahistorically, as “unmilitary display of spirits” and “civilian enthusiasms” respectively. The ending is also different in both translations. The last word of Il deserto is “sorride,” but Hood and Venuti invert the order to conform to English syntax (Venuti goes with “Then in the dark he smiles, although no one can see him”), with the effect of dramatizing Drogo’s condition of solitude. For them, Drogo leaves the world just as he had first entered it—invisible. Buzzati, however, gives a final close-up of his last (maybe first?) smile, as the soldier acknowledges that the real battle he needs to fight is against not the Tartars but himself, against his limitations as a mortal man.
The most notable feature of The Stronghold is the use of historical allusions, which resurrect the culture of masculinity that was typical of Mussolini’s regime. Venuti gives some examples in the afterword: if Hood translates “stivali” with the neutral “boots,” he by contrast uses the charged “jackboots” to recall the footwear worn by Germany’s Nazi soldiers. He also mentions the figurative rendering “goose-stepping in line with his ambitious aspirations” for “obbediva al suo ambizioso stile di vita” (literally, “obeying his ambitious lifestyle”), an allusion to passo dell’oca, the marching step performed during military parades. But there are other moments, too, when Venuti’s achievement appears even more successful, for his translation not only situates the narrative in a specific time and place but also stylistically improves Hood’s.
Take the following passage, which reports an exchange between two officers of different ranks, Angustina and Monti. Hood’s translation goes:
“How are you?”
“I beg your pardon?” said Angustina, “what did you say?”
And Venuti’s translation:
“How goes it, lieutenant?”
“Pardon me, captain,” replied Angustina. “What did you say?”
Hood completely omits the terms of address “tenente” and “capitano,” which are in the Italian text and which Venuti restores, knowing that nothing counts more than rank at Fortezza Bastiani. The effect is to recreate the hierarchical universe of fascist Italy, a world where order and discipline are more impressive than friendship or solidarity. A similar example from the same episode shows a divergence of interpretations when translating Buzzati’s impersonal phrasing “Alle volte si è maldisposti” (literally, “sometimes one is unwell/ill-disposed”), with which Monti maliciously implies that Angustina is “less of a man” by being tired of walking. Hood has Monti say:
“But are you really not tired? Sometimes a person doesn’t feel up to it.”
“But, really, aren’t you a bit tired? Sometimes a soldier feels he can’t handle it.”
In the second translation, the choice of “soldier” instead of “person” shatters the illusion that the story of the Fortezza is a universal parable applicable to Everyman, recreating instead the military setting of Mussolini’s Italy. At the same time, Venuti’s rendition “he can’t handle it,” against Hood’s neutral “doesn’t feel up to it,” captures more incisively the values implicit in the dictator’s code of toxic masculinity, those of robust virility and physical resilience.
Even single words can make a great difference. Venuti corrects Hood’s “clockwork” with “automatons” to describe the mechanical—no less than punctual—movements of the sentries patrolling the Fortezza. This is not only closer to Buzzati’s Italian (“automi”), but further contributes to the historical dimension as well. In Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Unfreedom (2016), Scott Selisker notes that Americans have used the concept of “automaton” to try to understand the subjects of fascism and totalitarian drifts since World War II. The Stronghold also achieves an ideal fusion of foreignization and domestication in the use of ambivalent words like “Bravo,” as in “Do you give a damn Lazzari is dead? Shout bravo to your Moretto! Give him a grand commendation!” Instead of simply translating “Well done,” as Hood does, Venuti is able to create a double valence. In the common Italian use, “bravo” simply means “good job,” which is ironical in this context; yet the borrowing also takes on a theatrical dimension in English—something you would shout at a performer—thus alluding to the performative culture of fascism, with its empty fanfare and parades. It adds extra pathos to a scene where Tronk silently blames Matti for taking pride in the precision with which the striker Moretto ruthlessly shoots his companion Lazzari to death.
Venuti’s take on syntax responds to the same historical agenda. Much as he strove to keep Hood’s blend of a fantastic and a realistic register, he also took Ernest Hemingway as a model. This choice makes sense: not only were Buzzati and Hemingway contemporaries, but both also worked as journalists, sharing a preference for a clear, direct prose, and each had their works censored under the Italian fascist regime. I asked Venuti about this fusion of styles, and he explained that Hemingway’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation and syntax offered one further way into the masculine world of Buzzati and other 20th-century modernists:
Hemingway wrote in a very forceful and masculinist way, like Pound. Think of what Pound said of Rossetti’s translation of Cavalcanti, that it lacked “robustezza.” I thought it might be interesting to try to bring some of that into Buzzati, to have short punchy sentences in a military novel where there is so much failure of will and imagination.
To come to the really thorny question—that of the traduttore traditore, or the faithfulness of translation—do Venuti’s choices succeed in capturing Buzzati’s spirit? I dare say they very well do. The strength of The Stronghold is that it does not yield itself to a straightforwardly historical interpretation, for Venuti takes Hood’s existentialist humanism seriously too. And it would be wrong to assume that historicism is what Buzzati hoped for all along as a default approach to his novel, forcing the reader’s imagination to work with nothing else than a blatant critique of fascist society. What gave Buzzati the inspiration for Il deserto, as is well known, was less “the philosophical schemas of fascism,” as Venuti writes, and more the dull headquarters of Corriere della Sera, the newspaper where the Italian writer worked for years.
In an interview with Yves Panafieu, Buzzati described how colleagues would waste away their time hoping for a more prestigious assignment, a notable reportage, a glorious trip abroad—much like Drogo. And when asked why he did not set the story in a newsroom, he responded: “In a military setting, I thought, my story could even take on the force of an allegory concerning every man” (“allegoria riguardante tutti gli uomini”). For Buzzati, the potential for his story to be “timeless” and “universal” was there from the beginning. And yet, much as he resisted it, he could not escape what Venuti calls the “political unconscious,” something hidden in the dreamlike texture of his work. The success of The Stronghold can be seen in the extent to which Venuti has been able to bring these two distinct aspects together.
The “political unconscious” of Buzzati is best revealed by an anecdote. In 1939, just after delivering his manuscript to the publisher, the writer departed for Addis Ababa, the dream of every fascist colonizer. It was there, in his role as a special correspondent from Ethiopia, that his journalistic prose displayed the fable-like quality he had perfected in Il deserto. In the article “L’ascari Ghilò, leone,” which appeared in Corriere on September 21, 1939, Buzzati tells of a brave Eritrean soldier who could reproduce with ease the cries of dogs, jackals, and even lions, and at one point a Lieutenant Drogo makes an appearance. The way in which the local soldier dies is also recounted in the very same fashion as the ominous dream that Drogo has about Angustina’s death in chapter 11. Buzzati imagines Ghilò’s soul as traveling upwards, “al cielo degli spiriti semplici e buoni” (“toward the sky of simple and good-natured spirits”), recalling Angustina’s own conversation with the “formerly lovable” spirits of Drogo’s dream (“I fantasmi, già amabili”) who, after Angustina sits down on a chair laid out for him, “rose into the sky in the direction of the moon,” as Venuti translates.
Each generation of readers can release their own allegory, based on a different political unconscious. For Buzzati it must have been fascism, while for several American reviewers the “steppe” of Hood’s title must have clearly alluded to Cold War themes. The more time passes, however—and the more one travels across countries—the richer interpretations get. Venuti told me how he recently discovered that Il deserto has been translated into a variety of Balkan languages. “I don’t know what the reception was there,” he admitted, “for I don’t have Slovenian and Macedonian and so on. But certainly the political unconscious of these countries, and of their translators, was neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union. The existence of such translations is a marvelous and suggestive thing in itself.” It turns out that readers in Croatia, where Il deserto was first translated in 1972, held the War of Independence as the dominant historical horizon. In a 1991 article in the periodical Slobodna Dalmacija that describes the siege of Osijek, bombarded by the Yugoslav People’s Army, the reporter pays homage to Buzzati:
[S]urrounded by enemies, by damaged monuments, the city of Osijek exploded with all its Central European spirit. Like an extreme Fortress on the edge of the Tartar desert, Osijek continues, in the rare moments of respite, to display the most elite traditions of western civilization.
And when I asked Venuti about today’s collective historical reference, he left the question open:
Would people plug in Russia? Putin? We might well think of Ukraine … This is the closest I can get to a very contemporary intervention, though, and it depends on my reader to release that. I have tried to create a plural text, to complicate what had become the typical, or stereotypical reading. We’ll see how that takes on. It’s going to divide audiences and expose all kinds of fixation.
For me, the main takeaway in reading The Stronghold was the reminder that—to borrow from the title of a book Venuti published in 2012—“translation changes everything.” It holds the power to shift literary perceptions and tastes, to change the way in which the “classic” of a particular culture is read and understood in another. South African novelist J. M. Coetzee—who took inspiration from Il deserto dei Tartari for his own novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)—argues in his famous essay “What Is a Classic?” that a “classic” is something that continuously needs to be tested and contested. And translation, I would add, offers the best possible testing ground. Interpretations change swiftly, and we soon need new practices.
The review of Il deserto that struck me the most, in this sense—as an Italian reader with an Italian horizon—was one I found in L’Europeo, a liberal magazine that covered news, politics, arts, and entertainment in postwar Italy without interruption until 1995. On February 10, 1972, the reviewer, Oreste del Buono, defined Il deserto a classic “bound to last [even] longer, I suppose, than ENI […] one of the very few Italian masterpieces, if you will: one of the few things Italians have accomplished, in this century.” Thinking of ENI—the Italian multinational oil company established in 1953—today, it is not hard to see that del Buono’s judgment (which I read as partly ironical anyway) has aged poorly. Much like Buzzati’s novel, ENI was a product of its time. When Italy came out of World War II defeated and destroyed, the country’s economy was at a standstill. ENI’s founder, Enrico Mattei, immediately realized that methane would be the key to boosting the national industry, making the Italian gas pipeline the third largest network in the world after the United States and USSR within a few years. He was hailed as a savior.
Today, however, in a battered world that screams for mercy and a break from fossil fuels, ENI’s agenda has become less a blessing than a threat, the privileged target of Fridays for Future protesters. Perhaps, in this lesson imparted by time, there is some universality after all. Like Drogo and like Buzzati, striving to be “classic,” we can keep on living, generation after generation, only if we change our economic policies—and our literary practices. We will always need new and better translations, just as much as a better world.
Caterina Domeneghini, a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Oxford, writes freelance for literary magazines in English and Italian. Her writing has appeared in Artribune, Oxford Review of Books, Asymptote, and The Times Literary Supplement, and she has also published poetry in The Oxonian Review and Lucent Dreaming.