Academic journal article Italica

Translation and Treachery: Historiography and the Betrayal of Meaning in Anna Banti's Artemisia

Academic journal article Italica

Translation and Treachery: Historiography and the Betrayal of Meaning in Anna Banti's Artemisia

Article excerpt

Susan Sontag begins her introduction to a new English edition of the Italian novel, Artemisia, a piece of historical fiction about the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi published in 1947 by Anna Banti, by citing its famous opening words "non piangere" ("don't cry"), returning repeatedly to the phrase (Sontag 1). Sontag's repetition emphasizes the ways in which Artemisia is laden with mourning, its two worlds--the twentieth-century "present" and the seventeenth-century "past"--saturated with loss. But what is it that has been lost? Sontag calls the book a "phoenix"--it rose from its own ashes, Banti's recreation of an original manuscript that was burned in the battle for Florence in 1944. (1) The materiality of the text is a recurring conceit in the novel, the destruction of the "first" Artemisia manuscript, related to us by the narrator, the "author" in wartime Florence, a central image. The text as a whole, then, is self-reflexively constituted by loss, which emerges as an originary metaphor defining the interaction between past and present. This loss haunts the relationship which is at the center of the novel, the dialogue between the "author" in 1944 and her historical protagonist, the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi: the words "don't cry" are spoken by the literary character, Artemisia, to comfort her grieving interlocutor. Loss is irreparable: though something may rise phoenix-like from the ashes, it will always be in some sense secondary, an imperfect copy. The destruction of the manuscript as material object stands in for the larger destruction of epistemological certainty. As Banti approaches the "past" there is no confident "knowledge," just an awareness--part elegy, part exhilaration--that old ways of representing history are no longer tenable. The injunction, "don't cry," addressed to both the author-figure and by extension the reader, invites us to consider the possibilities arising out of this incalculable loss; the true "phoenix," perhaps, is the opportunity implicit in the crisis of epistemology and of historiography that the novel offers.

Representations of "the past" are always acts of translation, attempts to recast something that is fundamentally alien into a comprehensible idiom, to make the strange familiar. In discussions about historical representation and about translation, the same polemics tend to arise: to what extent should either adopt transparency as its ideal, the taming of alterity as its goal? The work of Anna Banti, known both as a translator and as a historical novelist, has been the subject of argument in both these areas. As the first authorized translator of Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room into Italian, Banti played an important role in the popularization of Woolf in Italy; a defender of literary modernism, Banti extolled Woolf's embrace of fragmentation and indeterminacy. Banti's translations have been the focus of recent scholarship, notably by Nicoletta Pireddu. (2) Pireddu, while acknowledging the complex understanding of Woolf's modernist project that Banti shows in her critical writing, argues that Banti has, in a sense, "betrayed" Woolf as a translator. She states that Banti's translations of Jacob's Room "accomplish a stylistic domestication of the high modernist Woolf, who is tamed into the more traditional Bantian rhetoric, favoring readability and easy meaning without allowing Woolf's 'verbal texture' to predominate 'over narrative structure'" (Pireddu 69-70). To turn to a perhaps overused Italian maxim, one to which Banti herself refers in a 1983 essay on translation, it would appear that Pireddu sees Banti as more "traditore" (traitor) than "traduttore" (translator). (3)

Whatever Banti's perceived shortcomings as a translator of English literature, however, I would argue that, in her own fiction, Banti is again a "traditore;" however, her "treachery" in this case is much more in sympathy with Woolfian modernism. Banti as a historical writer betrays "history," leading her readers into a maelstrom of indeterminacy, where any expectations we might have about transparency or knowledge are not fulfilled. …

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