On Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg

Jeanne Bonner

Translated by Jenny McPhee. New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2017. 221 pages. $14.95.

Anyone who loves tiny Italian linguistic curiosities knows the 1963 memoir Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, which has reemerged in a new translation by Jenny McPhee, published this spring by the New York Review Books (NYRB).

It is a memoir about her prominent but delightfully wacky family, told largely through the recollected conversations and little phrases shared over the dinner table that were unique to her parents, her siblings and herself. The book brims with silly little words her father, a prominent professor, invented—often out of annoyance at Ginzburg and her siblings—and satisfies any Italophile’s craving for whimsical grammatical constructions. It’s also full of characters—her parents, in particular—whose traits and predilections show up in more fictionalized versions in Ginzburg’s other books, which included the novels All Our Yesterdays and Voices in the Evening. (Although Ginzburg and others term the book fiction, she prefaces the book with a note saying everything in the book is real).

Ginzburg’s memoir is an important book in the twentieth-century Italian literature canon and the author’s best known. It won Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega, in 1963. She was considered one of the country’s literary greats, along with her post-war contemporaries Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, and Giorgio Bassani.

And McPhee’s new, extremely fluid translation comes at a particular moment in the life of Italian literature in the world. The phenomenon known as #FerranteFever dedicated to the secretive Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante has put Italian letters on the map in a way few other writers have since, arguably, the post-war heyday when Ginzburg first emerged.

Ginzburg provides an interesting, understated counterpoint to a postmodern author like Ferrante, whose books, including the 2002 novel The Days of Abandonment and the so-called Neapolitan series, feature strong-willed, almost dangerously ambitious women who straddle the pre- and post-feminism eras. Ginzburg, in some ways, also negotiated that transition. Although she was born in 1916, she was a career woman, working at the Italian publishing giant Einaudi while also writing very successful novels, short stories, and essays. Yet she also had children, and it appears from the book that she negotiated this dual existence in a way that’s far more subtle than Ferrante’s characters, perhaps squeezing in a line or two of writing while engaging in some family activity.

Ginzburg’s book has been translated into English before, of course—several times, in fact. New translations serve several purposes—although sometimes, they serve no purpose at all. The existing translation is perfectly adequate, for example. Yet even in that case, a new translation can reintroduce the work to readers, and even among American sophisticates, few people are full up on their Italian literature quota.

In the case of McPhee’s translation, the work should absolutely serve to bring Ginzburg to a new generation of readers. McPhee’s prose is quite fine, and she should be thrilled to know readers often forget the book was originally written in Italian. (There’s also the not-minor innovation of giving the work a slightly different title in English. Other translations used the off-putting title Family Sayings, which always struck me as the title of a personal scrapbook I had no interest in thumbing through.) This new translation also smooths over some of the awkward wording of previous translations. In an earlier translation, for example, the word for stamina was rendered in one passage as “wind,” which caused the reader to stumble a bit.

As with any translator, McPhee faces challenges. Dare I say, something is lost in translation? (I say this as a literary translator, myself.) But that’s the nature of the beast. And Ginzburg’s work provides a particularly difficult set of linguistic obstacles to surmount. In the original, Ginzburg zeroes in on specific words from a quasi home dialect; her father, for example, would exhort them while they ate meals not to fare sbrodeghezzi, which McPhee innovatively translates as, “Don’t dribble!” It’s one of many fanciful words he used, often with a weary, impatient sneer. (A previous translation instead rendered the word sbrodeghezzi  as “messes,” which is accurate since it comes from the verb “to stain,” but also a bit awkward in English.)

Nonetheless, Ginzburg wrote the book almost as though it were one long conversation, and as a result she employs very typical Italian conversational tics that simply cannot be reproduced in English without taking liberties that would probably not be warranted. When she writes of her sister Paola, for example, she uses an appellative Italians use in conversation to refer to a third party: “la Paola.” Literally: the Paola. Ginzburg at one point writes, “La Paola era innamorata di un suo compagno d’università.” La Paola was in love with one of her college classmates. A few sentences later Ginzburg tells us that despite their father’s disapproval, “la Paola tuttavia continuò lo stesso quelle passeggiate”—she kept up her walks with him anyway. The use of “la Paola” and the rhythm of Ginzburg’s recollections make me think, “Ahhh, la Paola!”

As a fervent Italian conversationalist, I should cop to being in general quite besotted with a phrase like “la Paola.” The linguistic quirk seems to introduce an odd formality to conversation, as if one needed to address Paola with a title like Her Highness. At the same time, to my American ears, the phrase conveys a sweet familiarity as if someone were saying, “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know how Paola is!” I imagine today’s generation using air quotes to refer to Paola or saying “Miss Paola.”

But the Italian is subtler, and in any event there is no easy way for McPhee to honor this from the original; hence “la Paola” becomes simply “Paola” in the translation.

Similarly, Ginzburg often uses another favorite Italian linguistic tic: repetition. In one passage, she quotes her mother as saying, “Come mi piace a me il formaggio,” which literally means, “Oh how cheese pleases me–me.” It’s a way in everyday speech to provide emphasis and convey pleasure or habit. That tiny Italian linguistic curiosity is naturally lost in McPhee’s translation when the lessico becomes the lexicon.

In a good translation, more is found than is lost, and that’s the case with McPhee’s translation. The sum total experience is worthwhile for many reasons. And McPhee’s history as a novelist, including the books The Center of Things and No Ordinary Matter holds her in good stead.

One can be forgiven for thinking the original memoir lacked a structure; Ginzburg, who wrote the book very quickly from memory while living in London, gives the reader the sensation of walking into the middle of a long, meandering conversation that’s been underway for a while. Moreover, there are no chapters.

But in fact, there is a structure—her life pre-war, during the war, and post-war. And it’s tempting, in a review like this, to say that the most interesting section is the one on the war years. That would not actually be fair—the first part of the book that’s full of silly dinner conversations and exasperated exclamations by Ginzburg’s goofy mother is memoir at its best. You find yourself wishing somehow you’d grown up in a bourgeois Italian family of intellectuals from Turin. (Indeed, it reminds this reader of a 1993 collection of the English novelist Nancy Mitford’s letters, published by Hougton Mifflin.)

Nonetheless, when the book gently shifts to an account of Ginzburg’s war-time exile, along with many other Italian intellectuals, to southern Italy, it emerges that the writer of this cheerful narrative full of exclamation points has suffered. She has seen the worst that life can dole out.

It’s part of what makes the book (and this new translation, as well) so important, and part of what makes Italian studies such a fascinating field. It can sometimes be easy to forget Italy’s gruesome political past. But Mussolini existed, and he persecuted anyone who didn’t fall in line with Fascism. What also emerges in this account is how Italy always does things a bit differently. Internal exile as a punishment consisted of leaving home for rather small, almost primitive towns in the South. (In the case of gay men, Mussolini exiled them to Southern islands.)  It was almost an affront all around. Ginzburg, not surprisingly, bonded with the locals who protected her—despite probably having almost nothing in common with the successful novelist and editor.

In this section, Ginzburg writes, per McPhee’s translation,

Fascism didn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Indeed, it appeared to be here to stay indefinitely. . . . For years now, Turin was full of German Jews who’d fled Germany. Some of them were even assistants in my father’s laboratory. They were people without a country. Maybe soon, we too would be without a country, forced to move from one country to another, from one police station to the next, without work or roots or family or homes.

There is poetry and longing in those lines, and McPhee renders it all beautifully. The reader’s heart aches to see Ginzburg describe those assistants as “people without a country,” aching for those individuals while also anticipating Ginzburg’s next thought.

In that section of the book, contrasting so strongly with the rest of the account of Ginzburg’s life, there’s no end to sadness. The author rather stoically reports the death of her husband, Leone Ginzburg, an important newspaper editor, a noted anti-Fascist, and a member of the Italian Resistance. In one of the tenderest passages, she relays how her beloved mother, whose presence in the book is constant (she visited them often in exile, and would later recall those years fondly), didn’t like to talk about such sad matters of life, and so she rarely mentioned Leone’s death, an event that she nonetheless felt very keenly because the two were quite close. The trick is so subtle, it’s hard to know exactly what Ginzburg might have been feeling. Was she saying that she longed to grieve with her mother but had no opening? Perhaps, but Ginzburg’s gift was to pay very close attention to others, and it’s likely she simply wanted to record her mother’s feelings of loss as Leone’s mother-in-law. As Ginzburg tells us in this section, for the first time in her life, she realizes her mother cannot protect her from any of the war’s atrocities. It’s poignant, it’s subtle—a tender moment that McPhee’s new translation renders beautifully.

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