HUMAN CONNECTIONS IN EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES: New Writing On Translation By Cat Venner & Heidi Gilhooly

A Silence Shared (Pushkin Press): Written by Lalla Romano, translated by Brian Robert Moore

Reviewed by Cat Venner

Published in 1957 in Italy as Tetto Murato, A Silence Shared is the first of Lalla Romano’s novels to be translated into English.

Born in 1906, Lalla Romano worked as a writer, poet and translator from the early 1940s and based many of her works on her own life experiences, in particular her involvement with partisans during the Nazi occupation of Italy. A Silence Shared does not break from this overall approach, although Romano has made it clear that this book was not an autobiographical work – despite containing elements from real life.

In this edition, published by Pushkin Press, translator Brian Robert Moore goes above and beyond his duties as a translator by providing the historical and biographical context to this novel in his clear and informative translator’s note. He also includes footnotes in the text highlighting significant dates for those of us not well-versed in Italian history.

Make no mistake, the beauty of Lalla Romano’s compact writing would stand alone without this background information, but knowing the author’s backstory and how she survived the period in similar circumstances to the protagonists makes A Silence Shared a much more poignant read.

We meet Giulia (the book’s first person narrator), shortly after she arrives from Turin to live with her two female cousins in rural Northern Italy. She is there to shelter from the dangers of the war in the city. Her husband, Stefano, has stayed behind in the city to work and so Giulia is alone,  working on a translation of a classic novel. She does not fit in with her cousins and their gossipy friends, but at least they do tell her about the other city dwellers who have also sought refuge in the village. These other outsiders are Ada, Paolo and their daughter Nani.

Giulia feels drawn to Ada the first time she sees her in the village. The pair quickly develop a friendship, and Giulia integrates herself into the small family that eventually goes into a hiding of sorts in an impoverished hamlet (Tetto Murato) outside the village.

It becomes clear that Ada believes Paolo, who like Giulia is a writer and translator, is destined for great office once the war is over. However, he is dogged by ill health of an undisclosed nature, and the two women form a bond while trying to care for him.

This unconventional family and their intimate relationship with Giulia – and, by extension, her husband – forms the basis of A Silence Shared. The book is written in sparse, minimalist prose (according to Romano’s afterword, conversations between protagonists were deliberately clipped), yet her depiction of the character’s confined world comes alive on the page. In the spaces between things that are often left unsaid, we come to understand the complexities of their secluded existence in that long final winter of the Second World War.

Romano’s first love was art, and she continued painting throughout her life. We recognise this visual interest in the exquisite images drawn by her words, for example her description of a cold, winter night:

“Outside, the air’s purity had turned the sky clear, the moon, a thin crescent, was slanted and low, and the stars close enough to touch, the moon no brighter in comparison.” (p. 158)

As Giulia goes to visit Ada and Paolo, wandering along the snowy tracks in the foothills of the Alps towards the hamlet of Tetto Murato, and we revel in the pretty descriptions of the Italian countryside, we could almost be forgiven for thinking that all is well. However, Romano knows how to break this false sense of security and remind us of the ever-present threat of the Nazis lurking outside the hamlet:

Paolo recalled that it was the last night of the year – we wouldn’t have remembered otherwise – and how it was the German custom to celebrate in that way. But even as I thought that there was no battle, no killings, that unruly swarm of gunfire was no less harrowing.” (p. 122)

As an exploration of friendship against the backdrop of the Italian Partisan movement during the Second World War, A Silence Shared tells a story of the love and resilience that inhabits the places that words cannot reach. As Romano  says in her afterword, “The only true silence is a silence shared” and the sparseness of her writing serves to amplify this feeling.

At just 191 pages long, including the Translator’s Note and afterword, this is a short book but it leaves a lasting impression on the reader, long after the final page.

The Red Book of Farewells (Two Lines Press) Written by Pirkko Saisio, translated by Mia Spangenberg

Reviewed by Heidi Gilhooly

Born in Helsinki in 1949, Pirkko Saisio is one of Finland’s most eminent writers.  As well as 15 novels (some under the pseudonyms of Jukka Larsson and Eva Wein), she has written plays, film and television scripts, librettoes, short musicals and songs, digging into the social and political issues of the day with humanity, humour and realism.

The only child of communist parents, Saisio began her studies at the University of Helsinki, later switching to the Uniarts Helsinki Theatre Academy, where she studied dramaturgy and acting. She has appeared in films as well as in theatre, mostly directing the plays in which she has performed. She also worked as Professor of Dramaturgy from 1997 to 2001.

In 1974, Saisio was involved  in the setting up of Seta ry, the Finnish organisation for sexual equality. At the same time, she was also writing her first novel, Elämänmeno, published in 1975.

Saisio has been nominated for the Finlandia Prize (the most prestigeous literary award in Finland) seven times (once under her penname, Eva Wein). Her most-recent nomination was in 2021 for her novel Passio. She was awarded the Pro Finlandia medal for her services for the arts by the president of Finland in 2007 and has won a number of other prizes for her literary output.

Saisio has one daughter, the actor Elsa Saisio, the ‘Sunday´s Child’ of The Red Book of Farewells. She currently lives  in Helsinki with her partner.

Punainen erokirja, the final volume of Pirkko Saisio’s autofiction trilogy (the first two books being ‘The Lowest Common Multiples’ and ‘The Backlight’) was published to wide acclaim in Finland in 2003. The novel’s subject matters of love, loss, search for identity and dealing with prejudice are as relevant today as they were then.

The book received glowing reviews and earned its author the highest literature prize in Finland. It is now available in English as the Red Book of Farewells in Mia Spangenberg´s excellent translation. The remaining two volumes in the trilogy will also be published in English, in due course.

The Red Book of Farewells begins in 2002. Narrating as “I”, “she” and “Pirkko”, Saisio recounts her experiences as a student in Helsinki in the 1970s and 80s, when she came out as lesbian and was active in the Finnish students’ movement – at a time when intercourse between same-sex couples was still a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years´ imprisonment (under laws which dated back to 1894, when Finland was still a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire).

Over 1000 men and some 50 women were convicted under this law before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1971. Homosexuality remained classed as a psychiatric illness until 1981.

The global tide of student activism, that had begun in Western Europe and the United States had reached Finland. The war in Vietnam, the political situation in Chile (Finland took its first official refugees from that country) and environmental concerns were on the minds of the students of the day.

The culture of the time – with music by bands such as Agit Prop and theatre groups like KOM-teatteri (to name just a few), also reflected the left-wing radicalism and desire for change prevailing amongst the young people of Finland.

Having found her lesbian identity, Saisio recounts the beginning of her relationship with the clown-eyed girl. After their breakup, she gets together with Havva. She engages in student activism and challenges authority. Saisio’s parents disapprove of her sexuality and their relationship becomes strained.

The arrival of her daughter, the ‘Sunday´s Child’, does not mend her relationship with Havva and Saisio has to face the inevitable conclusion that their relationship has come to an end.

The translator of the novel, Mia Spangenberg, has succeeded in the delicate task of  rendering the novel into English without losing its poetic style and humour. It is clear from her translation that whilst ensuring that the novel is an acceptable read to an English speaking audience (e.g. by using less repetition than in the original text and changing the passive voice commonly used in Finnish into active), she has been able to bring the spirit of the novel into the English version.

Examples of the subtle ways that Spangenberg conveys the atmosphere of Helsinki include retaining the names of the shops (e.g. “Stockmann’s department store” and later just “Stockmann’s”, rather than just calling them ‘department stores’ or ‘clothes shops’), trusting the reader to understand the context. In a similar way, she introduces various characters familiar to the Finnish reader by adding qualifiers such as ‘the poet’, ‘the diva’, ‘the socialite’ etc.

Spangenberg also takes the bold step of leaving the word-play of “rakas” (beloved) and “raskas” (heavy) in their original forms without an attempt to find a suitable English word pair. This works well, adding a sense of comfortable “Finnishness” to the writing.

When asked how she came to translate the novel, Spangenberg (who lives in Seattle, USA), replied that she has always admired Pirkko Saisio’s writing. When she found out that no English sample translations existed for Saisio’s books, Spangenberg contacted the agent in Finland and was  given the permission to produce one. She then approached some publishers and Two Lines Press purchased the US English language rights and commissioned her to translate the novel.

Spangenberg, whose previous translations include non-fiction and children´s literature, has also translated Small Crescendos, an essay by Pirkko Saisio, for the Asymptote journal

”I was excited by this opportunity,” Spangenberg told me, “Saisio is one of my favourite authors and I feel it is fitting that this book that was originally published twenty years ago, will finally be available in English.”

Spangenberg said that she has consciously chosen to retain the Finnish names for bars, restaurants, cafes, and shops as she feels that Helsinki is an important character in Saisio’s book.

“I meet up with Pirkko Saisio when I am in Helsinki,” Spangenberg said. “We have walked together on the streets that she writes about. While walking she has talked to me about her life. Getting to know Saisio, seeing her voice, has made a difference to the translation process. I have seen Saisio on the stage, too,” Spangenberg added.

Spangenberg thought that Saisio’s novel would appeal particularly to readers of novels by the Norwegian author Karl Ole Knausgaard and Tove Ditlevsen, whose Copenhagen trilogy portrays the author’s early life.

When asked what she will be doing next, Spangenberg was pleased to say that she has just signed the contract to translate the other two volumes of Saisio’s autofiction trilogy (of which, ‘The Red Book of Farewells’ is the third volume), which are Pienin yhteinen jaettava and Vastavalo. So, the English language reader is in for a feast – and the first course (in the form of this marvellous book) has already been served. 

About our contributors

Cat Venner (Twitter – @cat_venner) is a translator from German to English based in Durham, England. She has been working as a translator from German to English since 2005; initially on translations of academic publications in the social sciences field, then later on legal and financial translation. She has been a freelancer since 2013 and recently began focusing on literary translation. her first, full length literary translation will appear in 2023. She has also translated several craft and lifestyle books.

Heidi Gilhooly is passionate about language and literature. After completing her secondary education in Finland, she came to the UK with the intention of staying a year, and is still here many years later. Heidi holds an MA in Creative Writing from the Middlesex University and has completed a Finnish into English mentorship programme with FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange. She is also an alumna of the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School. Currently Heidi divides her time between working as a university counsellor and freelance writer and translator. She lives in the south of England.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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