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Toma Gudelytė was born in Lithuania in 1983. In 2006, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Lithuanian philology and foreign (Italian) language from Vilnius University. From 2005 to 2006, she studied at the University of Pavia in Italy and participated in the Erasmus international exchange program. In 2008 she completed her master’s degree in modern comparative literature at the University of Genoa in Italy. In 2013 she earned her PhD in Comparative Literature (Slavic studies). She is a freelance translator and journalist and a member of Lithuanian Literary Translators Association.

In 2016 Gudelytė obtained the status of art creator (from the Ministry of Culture). She translated four Lithuanian plays for theater (written by contemporary Lithuanian playwrights Marius Ivaškevičius and Sigitas Parulskis) into Italian in cooperation with the Italian translator Stefano Moretti. She contributed articles and translations to the Italian theater magazine Hystrio for a special issue dedicated to contemporary Lithuanian theater.

Since 2015 Gudelytė has collaborated as an author and translator to Literatura ir menas, one of the most important literary and culture magazines in Lithuania. In 2015 she was awarded the Dominykas Urbas award by the Lithuanian Literary Translators Association for the best debut translation of the year, for translating Igor Argamante’s novel Jericho 1941, dedicated to the memory of the Vilnius ghetto. In 2016 she translated the Italian historical novel Q by Luther Blissett, nominated as one of the five best literary translations in Lithuanian of the year. She has also translated works by Primo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Umberto Eco, Michela Murgia, Curzio Malaparte, Fabio Stassi, Roberto Calasso, and Italo Calvino. Her recent translations include the Ascanio Celestini novel War Idiot and the GIPI graphic novel A Story.

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Graphic Novels

From the author's archives - University library of Naples courtyard
Virginija Cibarauske

by
Toma Gudelytė

Translated by Gabija Barnard
Authors photo by Sima Šilingytė

 

There are so few Greeks now in Leningrad.
Joseph Brodsky

There is probably no translator who has not encountered the dilemma of the untranslatable. I could say that, as a translator myself, such moments bring about existential dread and helplessness. Is the word (or saying, or the emotional or semantic charge) I am stuck on an indication of the limitations of my language skills, or does it express the uniqueness of the foreign territory I am invading? To writers, language is everything. It is their nervous system, asserted Joseph Brodsky, who demanded his translator have a trained ear, and preferably, psychological congeniality.

Scholars of interdisciplinary translation studies, along with translators themselves, have supplied various descriptions and types of their trade: translators are tight-rope walkers of language, toughened philologists, dissectors, crazy archaeologists, metaphor hunters, builders of bridges, the psychoanalysts of the authors, et cetera. To some, the translator is a mediator or an intermediary, to others, an invisible author and a creator. Claudio Magris notes that, having undertaken a careful excavation of language and context, a translator ends up with an understanding deeper than that of the author’s.

Jorge Luis Borges went as far as calling the translator a traitor, thus drawing attention to the wonderful phono-semantic sounds of the Romance languages: to translate is always to slightly betray (traducir – traicionar in Spanish, tradurre – tradire in Italian). Umberto Eco seconds Borges and, to our great comfort, adds that a translator can, at best, say almost the same thing in a different language as translation is not merely a swap of one language or culture for another. To Umberto Eco, the translator is a tireless negotiator in the conflict zone of languages.

Eco was an admirer of labyrinthine libraries. His novel The Name of the Rose features one of his invention. And in real life, he had accumulated, in the heart of Milan, a personal library of impressive dimensions. For him, the library was both a work implement and a way of restraining the chaotic world: the library represented creative power. Alongside his studies in semiotics, Eco spent many years developing his encyclopedia theory, which he believed to be crucial for a deeper interpretation of texts and symbols. He saw the encyclopedia as the “library of libraries” proliferating the previous knowledge of humanity and, simultaneously, accommodating contradictory versions of the world, lies and truth, and dogmatic and heretical thinking. It is a whole made up of all the things that have already been said. The goal of the encyclopedia is to restore weight and consistency to language in an age of accelerated omniscience and haste.

The ideal translator’s library could be based on similar principles, as a multilingual space in which infinite versions of the world can coexist and the dead can speak to the living, like in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The rooms of this library are shrouded in reverent silence, yet the turning pages echo with the chaos of Babel, a polyphony dear to the ear of the translator – previously read stories, recurring themes and structures, paraphrase and dissonance. Each translation is a continuation of an earlier cultural dialogue, a continuum, a biblical Jabob’s ladder that  primordial images and archetypes ascend like angels.

As I was translating my first Italian author, Igor Argamante (Gerico 1941. Storie di ghetto e dintorni), I acutely felt the physicality of this library. Wandering through Argamante’s memories, in my mind I could see scenes from Grigory Kanovich’s stories about the vanished Lithuanian shtetls and the Jerusalem of the North. Next to the day-to-day lives of two boys, Igor and Hans, I saw the tears secretly shed by Aunt Hava, and Uncle Leizer’s dream about the Great Synagogue, and the bead-embroidered skullcap. In these separate yet somewhat similar realities, there is an overlap of the experiences of the Holocaust and of the specific geographic location, the city of Vilnius, where “cats walk on rooftops like angels, and angels walk like cats” (Kanovich,  Dream About the Vanished Jerusalem, 1993), where for many years the archives hid the secret file of Argamante’s father, a former Polish officer.

For some time, Igor Argamante and I had been exchanging letters, not emails but old-fashioned letters hand-written on graph paper torn out of a school notebook. Argamante would either start or end each of his letters with “Lietuva brangi” (“Dear Lithuania”) as that was all the Lithuanian he could remember. Born in Vilnius in 1928, Argamante (Argamakov) spoke Russian, Polish, and a little Yiddish. After the war, he found himself in refugee camps in Italy – first in tri-lingual Trieste and then in Pisa. When asked about his nationality, he would say he was an inhabitant of Vilnius, who belongs to a place. Throughout the years, Vilnius remained Argamante’s caput mundi: a space of personal mythology and nostalgia.

I remember how genuinely happy he was upon learning that Gerico was being translated into Lithuanian. To Argamante, who had chosen to write in Italian, the language of his emigration, the translation became a way of returning to Vilnius and to the blissful time of his childhood, which can only be revisited in literature or dreams. In one of his letters, Argamante confessed to seeing the translation as a way of escaping the loneliness of the strangely hybrid bilingual identity, the experience of which we share somewhat: I, too, have spent roughly half of my life elsewhere and return to my native language through translation.

Loneliness is part and parcel of this trade. Every literary translator knows the feeling of the daily tête-à-tête with a book and a computer screen. Much like the author, the translator spends long months in a galaxy of their own visions and thoughts, talking (or joking, or swearing) to themselves. In the end, however, you are never actually alone. To me, one of the most beautiful pages on the trade of translation was written by Paul Auster in his 1982 novel The Invention of Solitude:

A. sits down in his room to translate another man’s book, and it is as though he were entering that man’s solitude and making it his own. But surely that is impossible. For once a solitude has been breached, once a solitude has been taken on by another, it is no longer solitude, but a kind of companionship. Even though there is only one man in the room, there are two.

The phenomenon of library acoustics recurred when I was translating The Skin by Curzio Malaparte. This was the author’s intention: he leads the reader around the nine circles of the hell of Naples, thus re-enacting Dante’s journey to the afterlife in The Divine Comedy. The vocabulary and poetic imagery of Malaparte’s novel are often heavily infused with a Dantesque vernacular, the one that in the sixteenth century turned the local Italian dialect (lingua volgare) into a respectable literary language capable of expressing the most frightening allegories and the most subtle emotional nuances. The dialogue with Dante was obvious, so conversation between translators was also crucial. In translating certain scenes of The Skin, I found guidance in Sigitas Geda’s Lithuanian rhymed tercets of The Inferno as they helped me find the right tones and to overcome the resistance of language. A few of us were conversing in the library about translation and it was a unique moment of communion and intimacy.

Translating a new book often begins as an adventure, but after some time adventure is replaced by an instinctive panic attack brought on by a fear of not being up to the task or of being unable to find the right word or sound, and by the anxiety of loss (Eco’s almost). Then your breathing calms down and you arrive at a mental state similar to meditation. Translation requires slowness, balancing between ours and theirs in search of familiar elements, all the while enjoying the otherness and the challenge posed by the boundaries of the languages and worlds in dialogue. And although Paul Ricoeur suggests forsaking the illusion of the perfect translation, the longing for it remains. This is closely connected to the ethics of the trade as such: the translator still feels a great responsibility for the written word and practices this responsibility every single day. It is true that world literature is created by translators, but the reverse process occurs as well. World literature is a translator’s only possible genealogy; it is their personal library accumulated over the years, which can be drawn upon when they need answers, links, or analogies.

Osip Mandelstam, a Litvak from Žagarė whose 130th birthday we are celebrating this year, liked to emphasize that feeling of domestic intimacy imparted by world literature: like a fan, literature opens up different epochs along with their vibrating voices, in an eternal present and communion. According to Mandelstam, the creative state is always “a wandering” through the ornaments of the cultural fan, and all a writer can do is to embark on a journey, cross the boundary, become a little bit Hellenic, a little bit Italian, or just nomadic, and use their sensitized ear to catch meanings and “the phonetic light” Conversation about Dante, 1933–1935). “The wandering of a Greek portico into the latitude of the tundra is a translation,” wrote Brodsky in The Child of Civilization in 1997. It is a difficult yet blissful pilgrimage.

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Italian author Igor Argamante with the translator of his book Gerico 1941.
Storie di ghetto e dintorni
 Toma Gudelytė.

Igor Argamante and Toma Gudelyte 01Photo by Agne Buckutė

Igor Argamante and Toma Gudelyte 02Photo by Agne Buckutė

 

 

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