Walter Murch wasn’t looking to fill out his bio when he became a translator. An Academy Award–winning film editor and sound designer on such movies as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, and Cold Mountain, Murch also happens to be an amateur astronomer. In 1986, while reading a book on cosmology, he stumbled on a bizarre image: a stampede of flash-frozen horses in Russia’s Lake Ladoga during the siege of Leningrad. The image, which came from a fragment of a novel by Curzio Malaparte, was meant to illustrate a point about conditions in the universe following the Big Bang. Murch, who had never heard of Malaparte, was captivated. He tracked down Kaputt, the novel with the horses in it, and soon afterward had read everything by the writer available in English. It wasn’t much. Malaparte, whose given name was Kurt Suckert, was a soldier in both world wars and a journalist, diplomat, poet, film director, and playwright. He was and remains little known among English-reading audiences. Murch had friends in Europe send him what they could find of Malaparte in the Italian. Eventually he dusted off his Romance-language-degree Italian and started to translate the work, first for his own enjoyment.
More than 15 years ago, when I interviewed Murch for Parnassus, he described film editing as a type of translation. The Bird That Swallowed Its Cage is the result of Murch’s decades-long fascination with Malaparte—a recently published collection of his stories and journal writings, many of which, owing to Murch’s decisions in the translation process, avail themselves of poetic forms.
What made you decide to translate Malaparte? It was 10 years after you discovered him.
In the course of your 1997 Parnassus interview with me about film and poetry, I went out on a limb and said that the process of adapting a story for the screen seemed to me to be a kind of translation from the “language” of text to the “foreign language” of image plus sound plus time, and that there must be similarities with literary translation. A few weeks later, I wondered if my answer had been on the right track. Since Malaparte had made such a huge impression on me, I thought it would be good to translate one of his stories into English. Also, it was another way of getting under the skin of his work, uncovering the arteries, sinews, nerves, and bones of his writing. It turned out to be an exciting, immediately intoxicating experience. And indeed it did feel, as my intuition had suggested, familiar—a process closely similar to the trail of decisions one makes in film editing: this shot or that, this word or that, here or there, metaphor or literal. It also was simply a pleasure to absorb his images in a different way: the frozen horses that had hypnotized me 10 years earlier were just the tip of a vast iceberg. And since I was translating things that had never been translated into English before, there was also a thrilling element of discovery.
Why did you translate some of Malaparte’s prose into free verse?
It just kind of happened. Malaparte’s prose, in the Italian, is set in wide, dense blocks with very few paragraph breaks. I began by translating a four-page piece, adding paragraph breaks. Then I added more breaks. Eventually I started to experiment with even shorter breaks—or “carriage returns” [laughs]. The translation felt okay in that style, in lines of free verse. When I started to work on longer stories, I got more adventuresome and mixed prose and poetry in the same piece.
Since film editors think in terms of shots and scenes, I wonder if the poetry is, in a way, a series of “shots.” I can imagine you bringing images into English one by one on a piece of paper, and I can imagine you leaving them that way because you liked something about how they unfolded.
Where each line actually ends is very much like a cut from one shot to another. You can look at each of those lines as if it were a single shot that has a collection of images or things in it. Then the point at which I, as a translator, said, okay, let’s try breaking the line here, those would be the places that as a film editor I would say, let’s cut this shot here.
In the introduction you refer to the Italian adage “traduttore, traditore”: translator, traitor. Do you feel the decision to turn prose into poetry makes you a turncoat-translator, in the manner of Ezra Pound? Is the translation into poetry a way of keeping faithful to some aspect of the Italian?
I try to be loyal. But as translators know, you sometimes have to betray the surface of the text in the original language to communicate the deeper truth in the second. I haven’t arbitrarily cut anything. Translating the written word does turn out to be a form of “adaptation.” Using free verse was one way to stay closer to the original, by modifying it. Italian is a more musical language than English; the music makes the dense blocks of prose navigable. If I had kept those long prose paragraphs in English, it would be harder for readers to appreciate Malaparte’s images because of the different sound of the language. The free verse is a way of “aerating” the density of the text and restoring some of the rhythm that got lost in the transition from one language to another.
Short lines also read more slowly than long lines, so in effect, you were using slow motion by using poetry. In your translations that cut between poetry and prose, is there something about the poetry-parts that you wanted to linger over, “frame by frame”?
The content of those passages is more lyrical than the content of the passages I translated as prose.
What do you mean by “lyrical”?
Well, for instance, in “Murderer,” the soldiers sit down and start polishing their guns, doing something to pass the time, and then Malaparte starts to drift into lyricism—“we were like wild animals in the woods”—
He gets up to figurative tricks, using a simile—
And then into a cross-sensory mode, “those green voices in the yellow-green air of the woods”—
And this is all to describe the quality of that morning, the freshness of the air and the light. And when he returns to the dying boy, he’s just being very poetic, for want of a better word, about the weather that day, contrasting the boy’s impending death—a setting sun—to the actual sun that was still at high noon. At the end of the poem, three young prostitutes enter, we hear a scream, and then we switch back to prose, because Malaparte is describing in a more workmanlike way how the girls came to be there. The shift in format underscores the shift in tone.
The humiliation and tenderness in what follows! The young girls hiding in the trench, the soldiers urinating on them…
There was that item on the news about a video of American soldiers pissing on the dead bodies of Taliban soldiers, back about 10 months ago. What we might have seen if there were video phones during the First World War …
In your book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, you explain what drives your decision to say “cut here.” It has to do with an actor’s reaction to what she sees; it’s an emotional cue. Would you say the cuts between poetry and prose are the same kind of “blinks”?
The choice to use poetry or prose depended on point of view, content, what was going on in the passages. When I switch back to prose, it’s where, if the story were a film, we would be back in nonmusical reality. The prose passages are where the action happens, moving the story forward. The poetry is where the music would come in.
During his lifetime, Malaparte was challenged about the veracity of his stories. People wondered how he could have witnessed so very many bizarre and remarkable things.
When he was on the eastern and northern fronts of the war, in 1941–42, he was simultaneously a journalist and novelist. His war reporting is collected in the book The Volga Rises in Europe, and there is no controversy about the events in Volga. His book Kaputt, written surreptitiously at the same time, is subtitled “A Novel,” which tells us what we are in for. From this distance in time, it is impossible to tell which events in the book are factual and which are creations, or collages, made from the raw material of facts. But as a novelist Malaparte was after bigger game than simply “this is what I witnessed on such and such a date.” He was recording what he perceived as the collapse of a civilization, a way of being that was dying in front of his eyes. Hence the title: Kaputt. In “Partisans, 1944,”one of the stories I translated for the collection, there is this exchange:
This war is interesting for one reason only, laughed the Russian. It has murdered Europe.
Exactly, I said.
But Europe was already dead before it was murdered, said the Russian.
Not everybody knew that, I said. Now everybody does.
Malaparte seemed to enjoy the controversy about his stories. He seems to have the wit of an Apollinaire; he’s a little subversive. In “That Character Called ‘I,’” you discuss the part of Kaputt where a character named Malaparte pretends to eat the fingers of a human hand that has been blown off by a grenade and landed in the soup kettle.
His strategies are playfully devious. You can find examples of self-referentiality throughout his work. The people in his stories say Malaparte this, Malaparte that. But remember that the name Malaparte itself is invented. His given name was Kurt Suckert, and “Malaparte” is a play on “Bonaparte.” I think another reason, though, that people accused Malaparte of being “unreliable” has to do with the nature of his images. They are so vivid and weird, beautiful and awful, that we want them to be true.
A reindeer cemetery with multicolored antlers, an amputated leg cruising down a springtime river—Malaparte is an almost-but-not-quite magical realist. …We don’t know whether it’s possible to freeze horses, but … why wouldn’t it be? It makes you want to Google “flash-freezing + livestock.”
The gamble, of course, is that what he describes has to seem based in reality. If he were not such a good imagist, that gamble would not pay off. Speaking of magical realism, Malaparte was a big influence on Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
Malaparte died before finishing “Partisans, 1944.” Amazingly, you shaped a seamless ending. Was the process of finishing Malaparte’s unfinished stories anything like one of your messier film-editing projects—for instance, shaping the unrelated and partly related footage into the montage that opens Apocalypse Now?
Yes, I think it was similar. I did what might be called literary-editorial suturing in some of the posthumous stories. I remember the feeling when I was doing it of balancing on a tightrope. Can I do this? Will it work? Can I do it and be faithful to Malaparte, to what he wrote and what had come before in the story? I was acutely conscious of the whole translator/traitor thing then. But it did feel like the kind of things I do routinely in film editing—taking scenes and reworking the order of them to get the emotion and logic to work together in interesting ways.
Malaparte also wrote poems. Is your poetry translation close to his poetry?
I was happy to discover that his format for poetry was almost exactly the same as what I had come upon—the free-verse line, sometimes with 6 syllables, sometimes 20. He would modulate the length of his line depending on the rhythm and the content. It was nice to find that I hadn’t strayed very far at all from his own style.
Can you tell us something about the pieces here that are translated entirely as poems?
The ones completely in free verse are, again, more lyrical, the emotions are softer; there’s more reminiscence of a certain kind. In “Today We Fly," Malaparte is recalling the first time he saw an airplane, when he was about 13. In the poetry, nobody dies. People almost die in some of the poems, but it’s not the intestines-cascading-onto-the-ground kind of a death that you find in the prose.
Back to when you first discovered Malaparte: Did it turn out that reading Kaputt IS a good way to understand the universe following the Big Bang?
Well, yes: the story of the frozen horses is a vivid example of what physicists call a sudden phase shift, in this case of supercooled water. Something equivalent happened at the subatomic level shortly after the Big Bang. The rest of the book doesn’t continue in that vein. But elsewhere, Malaparte is very alive to that kind of thing. In “Partisans, 1944,”describing an arctic summer sky, he writes:
Over our heads shimmered the void,
the absolute void,
of experimental physics.