Our first Trailblazer in Translation spotlight is on Fernanda Pivano, the translator, journalist, writer and Italian literary icon of the 20th Century. Throughout the sixties, she played a groundbreaking role in bringing American literature to post-war Italy with her translations of Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. Her life’s work and mythic accounts of her friendships with the writers she worked with continue to press a lasting imprint on Italian counterculture.

Born in Genoa in 1917, Fernanda Pivano was brought up in an anti-fascist household during Mussolini’s reign over Italy. She was introduced to American literature as an adolescent by her mentor and classmate at Liceo D’Azeglio, the poet Cesare Pavese, who slipped her a copy of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology which was banned at that time. She was so enthralled with the book that she decided to write her thesis on it and translate it in secret.

Pivano later recalled this first “hidden” translation as a liberating expression from the cultural dogma of the times: “a kind of underground safe-conduct or pass” from the censors of the fascist regime. In a 2004 interview with The New Yorker, Pivano recalls her devotion to the American ideology of freedom:

“My America was FDR’s America, the America of his speech. For us, because of what we’d just been through in Italy, this speech was a beacon of democracy… It was also the America of my poets, who were cultural heroes because they gave up social privilege for their ideas.”

While Pivano managed to circumvent imprisonment for her courage, she did run into trouble with authorities towards the end of the war. In 1944, when the Nazis raided the Turin offices of the publisher Einaudi—who had released her Spoon River translation a year prior—they found Pivano’s contract for translating Hemingway’s magnum opus A Farewell to Arms. With Hemingway being banned and serving as a widely-recognised symbol of resistance, Pivano was subsequently detained and threatened by SS officers.

In a twist of fate, the arrest sparked a long-lasting friendship between translator and author when, upon hearing about her arrest in 1948, Hemingway sent Pivano a postcard inviting her to meet him in Turin. They remained friends and collaborators until Hemingway’s death, Pivano referring to the friendship as “the glory of my life”.

hemingway-pivanoErnest Hemingway and Fernanda Pivano circa 1948

Pivano’s well-documented friendship with Hemingway, the subject of many of her own published accounts as well as of bibliographists’, transcended into her work. Pivano claimed that “listening to him telling [a] story at the dining-table was more useful to understanding his writing than reading thousands of words of criticism on his [writing technique]”. Her translation of his A Farewell to Arms was released by Mondadori in 1949. 

While she obtained several university degrees as well as a doctoral thesis, and went on to teach at the university in Turin and then Milan, Pivano developed and maintained a disdain for academia, viewing it world as being out of touch with reality. She began to seek “a way out of the intellectual [hardening] that was stifling Italy during the sixties”, a quest that would lead her across the Atlantic, now drawn by the free-thinking spirit of the then little-known group of Beat poets.

It all started with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which Pivano first read in the Evergreen Review in 1960. “That was the beginning of the resistance for me,” Pivano recalls of her first reading of Howl in a 2002 interview with Anna Battista. She went on to devote much of her early career to translating Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs for Italian audiences at a time when the authors were hardly known in their own countries, later describing her collaboration with the Beats as “building a sort of anti-fascist movement”.

In an essay titled “The Beat goes on” (I Beat continuano, vanno avanti) from 1996 translated by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum, Pivano explains the fundamental values that drew her in, citing a ‘top 10’ list of ideals developed by Ginsberg, another lifelong confidant:

“Spiritual liberation, sexual revolution, freedom from censorship; demystification of any laws against marijuana; spreading of ecological awareness; opposition to the military-industrial complex; respect for the Earth and native peoples; less consumerism; Eastern thought; universal anti-fascism.”

More than just an interpretation of an ideology or counterculture, Pivano writes in her essay Modern Translations in Italian (1970) of a conviction that all “translation can only be a creation”. She professed herself to be one of those translators who “write and re-write a sentence over and over again to reach whatever dream they have about that sentence”.

Indeed, Pivano’s translation of the experimental Beat style played a revolutionary role in stretching the margins of the various forms Italian literature could take, in terms of vocabulary, rhythm and style. Her act of “creating” American literature in Italian was particularly commendable at a time before “numberless dictionaries and vocabularies and varieties of specific slang glossaries” and “English-speaking tourists in Italy”; for instance, creatively opting for regional dialects to fill in for slang.

Jack Kerouac e Fernanda Pivano
Fernanda Pivano interpreting an inebriated Jack Kerouac on live Italian television in 1966

With literary translation being so poorly paid, Pivano would also have to teach English and piano in Milan until her retirement. With only a modest pension to survive on, at the age of sixty she joined the Corriere della Sera newspaper as a cultural correspondent. There were many crossovers in her journalism and translation work, for example, her collaboration with Charles Bukowski in 1980 and in 1984, when she interviewed the author at his home in San Pedro, California. These interviews formed the basis of the book Charles Bukowski: Laughing with the Gods, first published in the United States by Sun Dog Press in 2000.

In Italian, Pivano wrote several essays and anthropological works on American identity, at times critical of what she saw as a descent into consumer culture of “rivers of Coca-Cola and economic imperialism”. In a poignant quote from her Italian essay on American identity, America rossa e nera (Vallecchi, 1944), she wrote of her skeptical stance on the existence of ‘peace’ in America: 

“The American Civil War did not last only three years: it began the day the first slaves were unloaded and will end the day when no one any longer cares whether a man is white or black.”

As dually noted in the essay Fernanda Pivano: Italian ‘Americanista’, Reluctant Feminist by the late Blossom S. Kirschenbaum, Pivano is admittedly less remembered for her work on women writers than she is for translating notoriously sexist authors. Kirschenbaum notes, however, that as a journalist, Pivano wrote singular portraits of other women writers including Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald. As a translator, she “introduced volumes by Jane Austen, Gertrude Stein (whose Everybody’s Autobiography she translated), Flannery O’Connor, Jan Kerouac (Jack’s daughter; the book is Baby Driver), Susan Minot, and Grace Paley (Later the Same Day as Più tardi nel pomeriggio, published by La Tartaruga in 1987)”.

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Portrait of Fernanda Pivano by Alessandro Moggi 

By all accounts, Pivano’s cult status as Italy’s bridge to American culture extends well beyond the Beats. In her lifetime, Pivano translated over forty books including The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s Intruder in The Dust and Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. A novelist in her own right, Pivano’s two novels were Cos’è più la virtu; romanzo quasi d’amore (Rusconi, 1986) and La mia kasbah (Rusconi, 1988), the former of which alluded to her married life with architect Ettore Sottsass and won two literary awards.

In 2006, as her final published work before her death, Pivano decided to revisit the Spoon River Anthology for one last time in Spoonriver, ciao (Dreams Creek) featuring photos of locations cited in the anthology by William Willinghton. She died in her apartment in Milan on 18th August 2002  at the age of 92 and her ashes were buried in the Staglieno cemetery in her hometown of Genoa.

Text by Salwa Benaissa & Edited by Charlie Coombe 

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