I’m excited about seeing “Impure Acts” (my translation of Mauro Covacich’s short story “Atti Impuri” ) in print in the HFR. The idea of an English translation of a contemporary Italian story set in postwar Poland intrigues me in that it interposes several layers of mediation between the reader and the narrator. You have Covacich who conjured up this scene in the mountains outside postwar Krakow and described it in Italian, and then you have the translator (me) importing the story from Italian into English.
Thus “Impure Acts” delivers Krakow by way of Rome. I haven’t asked Covacich how much he researched the setting, but I’m sure he worked in part under the assumption that a young priest leading a group of high-school students on a daytrip into the mountains could unfold in much the same way then and there as it would in Italy (if not in today’s Italy, Italy a couple of generations ago). Indeed “Impure Acts” is not so far removed from the Italian experience as it is for the American reader. Besides Catholicism’s central role, we also see an alpine shelter (I had no idea what these were the I first time I encountered one in an Italian novel, but maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in the mountains) and a dance organized by the “rail workers club” (Covacich uses the word dopolavoro which literally means “after work” and refers to the state-sanctioned recreational clubs set up for workers under the Fascist regime).
I enjoyed learning about the diverse writers and cultural artifacts referred to in the story. There was a quote from philosopher Simone Weil, for which I first consulted an English translation and the original French before writing my own version—finagling the wording to best fit the narrator’s intended meaning. There’s also a synopsis of the short film, Falling Leaves, by silent movie director Alice Guy-Blaché. At some point, I decided I absolutely needed to watch the movie on YouTube in order to clear up some minor uncertainty.
Then there were the two quotes from the New Testament. The one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of my all-time favorites given the Gnostic/Manichean subtext one can read into his assertion that our battle is against the spiritual forces of evil. For quotations from the Gospel, I try to borrow from the King James or Standard Version for my translations, but—alas—here the passage alluded to in Mark didn’t really serve the purpose of defining the Greek term kairos (a new concept for me) so I ended up just translating Covacich’s version into English. And, finally, there are the hymns the students sing. I had no luck finding English versions of these; Covacich told me they were written in antiquated Italian which encouraged me to use words like “Thou Seraph.”
One last anecdote: when I first showed my draft of “Impure Acts” to fellow translators, they pointed out how—given the “touchy” subject matter—I had to be sure and steer clear of unintentional doubles entendres. This was made all the more challenging by the presence of hard sausage (dried sausage? salami?) in the story. Once you start thinking along these lines, even commonplace idioms like “on the other hand” can start to make you giggle.
Chris Tamigi was awarded a 2014 ALTA fellowship for emerging translators. He is a student in the University of Arkansas’s MFA program in literary translation and is currently translating Mauro Covacich’s novel In Your Name (A Nome Tuo). His translation of Covacich's "Impure Acts," appeared in Issue 55 of Hayden's Ferry Review.