Lost in translation: the expression is used to indicate a failure to transport the full freight of sense and subtlety when moving words from one language into another. Something missing. Having a book translated into Italian has been another sort of experience, of being adrift in a different zone, one where the story of my father who jumped from a train bound for an extermination camp and survived until he didn’t has been seen through different eyes. New words take you into new worlds. What emerges is something true to the original but also strange and, for me, a bit enchanted.
Not that I speak much Italian. Poco poco. I studied it for a year back in the day at the University of Auckland because studying another language was a prerequisite for doing a master’s degree in English and because Italian is beautiful. It wasn’t entirely a success. The next year, in Italy, driving around in a Kombi van with my boyfriend, trying out my stage one Italian, I got my “caldo” and “freddo” mixed up at a roadside establishment on an infernally hot summer’s day. The staff just stood there watching until I finished my nice big glass of hot milk. Cin cin!
But when the book arrived, sent by its translator, the wonderful Ilaria Mazzafero, I was soon understanding a little, with the dodgy assistance of Google Translate. Sentences I’ve read time and again, when rendered in Italian, make me cry. “Mio padre soffre.” My father suffers.
Viaggio a Treblinka. Voyage to Treblinka. In blurbs for some of the Zoom events Ilaria has organised in Italy, the title is sometimes translated back into English as Treblinka Trip, which catches the hallucinatory vibe of researching and writing a book that involves searching for the ghosts of your lost father, your murdered family.
Chapter names cut to the heart. “The Psych”, about the place where my father spent his last year, becomes, “Il ricovero dei matti”. The shelter of the mad. Some cut to the chase. My jokey, “A brief history of shouting at the newspaper” becomes “Breve cronaca di risentimento contro la stampa”: a brief account of resentment against the press. Quite.
Sentences I’ve read time and again, when rendered in Italian, make me cry. “Mio padre soffre.” My father suffers
The idea of the translation arose in 2018. I got a message on Facebook from Ilaria, a translator and literary scout from Fermo in Italy. She came across the book on the longlist for the 2018 Ockham Book Awards. As she later wrote to me, “When turning the last page, I promised Benjamin Wichtel that I would bring his story to Italy in one way or another.”
I put her in touch with my publisher, Mary Varnham, at Awa Press. Ilaria set about finding a publisher in Italy – Lorenzo Battaglia of the excellent publishing house, Battaglia Edizioni – and applying with Mary’s help for a translation grant from the Publishers Association of New Zealand (PANZ).
It was a long process, made longer by events. We were making plans to travel to Italy for the launch just as everyone had to start cancelling their flights to everywhere. Italy has suffered terribly throughout the pandemic and, as I write, things are still bad. But, thanks to heroic efforts by Ilaria and Lorenzo, the book happened. In early March this year a copy sent by Ilaria made its way to Aotearoa. A small, beautiful paperback. The vivid cover design by Giulia Tudori shows a man in a landscape, enveloped in concentric layers – a prison, a refuge, something seismic about to erupt – staring into an uncertain future, hopeful and haunted.
Ilaria translates when we do Zoom events: the BookMarchs Festival; a bookshop and wine bar in Bologna called La confraternita dell’uva: The Brotherhood of Grapes. The history we are talking about has been lived through in Italy. The discussion is exhilarating. There was a session with Virginia, who blogs, reviews and interviews writers on her literary site, LeggIndipendente. In introducing my book, the description of the particular twilight zone inhabited by children of Holocaust survivors – “an overwhelming sense that even the descendants of the victims are bound to bring themselves into a dimension that knows no limits of time and space” – captures the second generation experience better than anything I have come up with.
Ilaria has become a dear friend via the means of the times: email, Messenger, post and Zoom. Arohanui from New Zealand, un abbraccio (a hug) from Fermo. Ilaria points out things I haven’t thought of. She reminds me that my father’s story is now back in Europe where it began and, had he not jumped, where it would have ended. Full circle.
The preface to the book is by Alain Granat, founder of the late, lamented subversive French web magazine Jewpop. Ilaria asked him to write it after she saw the extraordinary 2019 film, #Anne Frank. Parallel Stories, in which he took part. He immediately agreed. We both have roots in Poland, he writes, “now the open skies graveyard of a Jewish world that has been engulfed by the Holocaust.” We are both, “part of that ‘second generation’ that has, most of the time, inherited nothing from its parents but silence.”
Thanks to Ilaria, Lorenzo, Giulia and Alain, there is now another small tear in that insistent intergenerational silence. And, far from where he ended his days in a small town in Ontario, my father has made new friends in the Old World who will remember him.
Viaggio a Treblinka by Diana Wichtel, translated by Ilaria Mazzaferro, is available online from Battaglia Edizioni for € 15.00. Driving to Treblinka by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45) won the 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book award for non-fiction, and is available from bookstores nationwide.