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Blue Lines on Black Ink: A Look at a New Book on Censorship and Translation

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Verónica Albin photoBilliani, Francesca (Ed.) (2007) Modes of Censorship and Translation: National Contexts and Diverse Media.

Manchester, UK & Kinderhook (NY), USA: St. Jerome Publishing

ISBN 978-1-900650-94-6 (pbk)

The TJ's editor asked if I would do a write up on a volume on censorship and translation edited and introduced by Francesca Billiani, a Lecturer in Italian Studies and member of the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester in the UK. I immediately agreed, for censorship is one of the things that have fascinated me for a number of years. However, when I got the book and read the mammoth title, Modes of Censorship and Translation: National Contexts and Diverse Media, it felt so heavy that I thought my summer vacation had evaporated. Yikes! Imagine my surprise when I found myself first smiling, then hooked, and then having a blast while reading this book.

Fabre gives us names of translators and censors (a.k.a. "readers") which include the expected cronies of the police and political informers.
One of the reasons I found Modes so wonderful is that it offered me a serendipitous experience akin to surfing the Web. What I found between its covers was quirky, sexy, unpredictable, smart, witty, and even hilarious at times. It is not at all a staid book. It is a book that matters, for sure, but it is very much a book written by a group of scholarly owls who obviously enjoyed writing about their pet obsessions and who were not afraid to shake hands with folks outside the Ivory Tower. It is most certainly a volume accessible to layman and specialist alike. And believe me, it is great fun.

Not every work is perfect, though. And what I'm going to say next does not really take anything away from the volume, but I'm going to say it anyway because... well, because every review has to have its negatives. Ok. So here it goes. One of the few drawbacks (other than the infelicitous title) is one that Billiani herself acknowledges in the introduction: this collection is representative of only a small portion of the world. It would have been wonderful to have had chapters on national contexts for the US, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Americas and on more diverse media and means of communication to avoid overlap. Billiani sees this book as a work in progress and hopes that it will encourage further research in the field. I have no doubt that it will, for she did a brilliant job in choosing her authors and editing the work.

I'll kvetch a little bit more and hope that Billiani will forgive me for it. There is bit of a problem with the onomastic index. For example, when Fabre mentioned that Mussolini had translated Kropotkin, I was not sure whether he was referring to Pyotr (Peter) or his father. The index was of no help, for it just listed the surname—no first name—and the page number. But in the case of Kropotkin there are exonerating circumstances, for Fabre did name the specific work, The Great French Revolution, and I could thus remove all doubt by Googling the book. But this was not true for Kautsky and Malot, whom I did not know, and for others whom I didn't recognize because of, in at least one occasion, a diacritic that threw me off. I'm thinking specifically of Admiral Alexandr Vasiliyevich Kolchak, a Russian who appears in the text and in the Index as a last name only and, for unexplained reasons, with a Czech transliteration of his Russian name: Kolčak. I find that this (the Index) is the one place where the book is a little sloppy and confusing.

In spite of what I just said about the Index, this is a book written with accessibility in mind. It is also a rigorous, scholarly book replete with references that offers generous quotations from myriad primary sources. For Billiani, the term 'censorship' covers overt and covert forms of control (in various degrees) and it "...describes the multiple cultural and linguistic locations at which censorship meets translation," and is " act, often coercive and forceful, that —in various ways and under different guises—blocks, manipulates and controls the establishment of cross-cultural communication." Organized under four headings, the contributions in this volume explore the trends in diverse lands and media.

The first heading, "Dictatorships," includes five essays: "Fascism, Censorship and Translation" by Giorgio Fabre; "Tailoring the Tale: Inquisitorial Discourses and Resistance in the Early Franco Period (1940-1950) by Jacqueline A. Hurtley; "On the Other Side of the Wall: Book Production, Censorship and Translation in East Germany" by Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth; and "Translating—or Not—for Political Propaganda: Aeschylus' Persians 402-405" by Gonda van Steen.

Under the second heading, "The Censor on Stage," there are two articles: "Good Manners, Decorum and the Public Peace: Greek Drama and the Censor," by J. Michael Walton, and "Anticipating Blue Lines: Translational Choices as Sites of (Self)-Censorship Translating for the British Stage under the Lord Chamberlain" by Katja Krebs. The third heading, "Self-Censorship" also contains two essays: "Semi-censorship in Dryden and Browning" by Mathew Reynolds, and "Examining Self-Censorship: Zola's Nana in English Translation" by Siobhan Brownlie. The final heading, "Censorship and the Media" contains three essays: "Seeing Red: Soviet Films in Fascist Italy" by Chloë Stephenson; "Surrendering the Author-function: Günter Eich and the National Socialist Radio System" by Matthew Philpotts, and "Take Three: The National Catholic Versions of Billy Wilder's Broadway Adaptations" by Jeroen Vandaele.

In order to keep this review brief, I will comment on just two of the contributions that really grabbed my attention and sent me to Amazon to buy a few handfuls of books. Let me begin with Giorgio Fabre's essay, beautifully translated from the Italian by Carol O'Sullivan, which is perhaps one of the brightest gems in this collection. A journalist for the Italian newsmagazine Panorama who specializes in historical journalism, Fabre has dedicated most of his life to the study of censorship and Fascism, beginning with the poet/journalist cum politician Gabriele D'Annunzio—figurehead of Italian Fascism and mentor to Mussolini— up to his most recent book Il Contratto, published in English as Hitler's Contract, in reference to the deal cut between Mussolini and Hitler for the translation into Italian of Mein Kampf for subsequent release in Italy.

In this essay we discover that Mussolini, in his youth and largely for financial reasons, had translated widely from French and German. Among which Fabre lists works by (Peter) Kropotkin, (Klaus?) Kautsky, and (Hector?) Malot. The Duce was thus quite conscious of what translation can, cannot, should, should not, and ought and ought not to do (for good or for bad) and this essay sheds light into the very convoluted process of determining what was to be allowed and what was to be forbidden.

The Duce was personally involved in many of the decisions and communications with the various publishers regarding what was to be published or translated. The author's research shows that Mussolini was clearly hostile to certain literary genres such as anti-militaristic books, Central European, anti-Nazi, and Francophile literature. The article gives us a very interesting picture of Mussolini's classist and racial policies, and sheds light on why the campaign against foreign books was "late, cautious and carefully paced" in an effort to build a collective Italian identity in consonance with the regime.

Furthermore, Fabre gives us names of translators and censors (a.k.a. "readers") which include the expected cronies of the police and political informers, but also of those one would not expect to have collaborated with the regime, such as anti-fascists, Jews, and even the widow of a democratic leader killed by the Fascists. These translators and censors were an eclectic bunch and were for the most part, as Fabre says, "of reasonable rather than exceptional quality."

In his essay, Fabre relates the banning of foreign Jewish authors in Fascist Italy and hints at and reveals elsewhere that there were Jewish translators and censors (including the translator of Mein Kampf, whose identity is disclosed in Hitler's Contract) who toed the line of what he termed Mussolini's "developing racial campaign," a topic that he expands on in his controversial but rigorously researched book of 2005, Mussolini razzista.

Fabre tells us that four to five months before the Fascist racial laws of September 1938 a series of confiscations removed Jewish, and particularly foreign Jewish authors, from the Italian market. I would have liked more information on the reaction of these authors, the enforcement of the Jewish laws, and an explanation of how the laws were circumvented. I know that Giorgio Bassani published under the pseudonym Giacomo Marchi and Primo Levy under that of Damiano Malabaila in order to avoid the Jewish laws, but since this volume revolves around the theme of censorship and translation, the stratagems used by Italian Jewish writers to defeat the censors regrettably fall slightly outside the scope of this article to be given more attention than what the author gave it in this book.

The only flaw I found with Fabre's article was that in the list he supplies of twelve titles banned outright in the ten months between April 1938 and January 1939 he spotted some but not all the mistakes made by whoever compiled the list, e.g., Antoni Ossendowsky should have been Antoni Ossendowski, and Anderson Sherwood should have been Sherwood Anderson. However, in the Index, Anderson appears correctly alphabetized and Ossendowski appears correctly spelled elsewhere in the book.

As much as I loved Fabre's piece, and liked most of the others very much, the contribution that gave me the most pleasure—the jewel in the crown of this eclectic collection—is J. Michael Walton's "Good Manners, Decorum and the Public Peace: Greek Drama and the Censor." Walton is Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Hull in the UK where he was also the Director of The Performance Translation Centre. He has lectured widely in Europe and the US and has published myriad books on Greek drama. But it was not his credentials that impressed me; it was his wit and sense of humor that made me want to marry the man and have his babies. I think that had I been fortunate enough to have Professor Walton as a teacher in college, I probably would have switched from Romance Languages to Classics. This contribution alone is worth the price of the entire book.

This article centers on the censoring of Greek plays for the British stage, of course, but it also covers contemporary ground. It tells us, for example, that plays were censored by the Lord Chamberlain until the stage was freed by the Strauss Bill of 1968. But up until that date in the twentieth century alone 411 plays were banned outright. Here the fun commences because the Lord Chamberlain did not give reasons for their being forbidden (didn't have to), but Walton gives us his take on why.

Taking off from the premise that every period has its own decorum and its own boundaries—and the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries were pretty starchy—the repertoire of much of the classical comedy was unacceptable; after all, Walton tells us, the playwrights relied for many of their laughs on shitting and farting. Because of this, translators gentrified the stage and Walton takes us on a delightful walk through the various renditions of "objectionable" passages. I'm not going to give you any examples because I could not possibly set the stage (pun intended) the way Walton does it in these much too brief 20 pages. You just absolutely have to let him tell you the tale himself.


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