Crossing “The Tartar Steppe”: A New Buzzati

Did this 1940 novel use symbolism not for aesthetic purposes, but, instead, to conceal its critique of Italian fascism from the regime’s censors?

At a frontier outpost called Fortezza Bastiani, soldiers yearn for glory in a war against legendary invaders who never materialize. This hopeful yet futile wait for a meaningful event suggests nothing much happens but waiting. Yet it propelled Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel Il deserto dei Tartari to a glorious spot in the modernist canon. From the very beginning, reviewers (in any language) would formulate humanistic interpretations, treating Buzzati’s amalgam of realism and fantasy as an allegory, a moral abstraction with universal application. Timeless.

Writing in the Corriere della Sera that year, Pietro Pancrazi marveled at how the novel characterizes the protagonist Giovanni Drogo not only as “an individual with a particular personality” but also as “mankind, poor Adam.” He saw “the final, bleak meaning” as “the importance of nurturing the hope that something can still begin and at the same time, as the years pass, of diminishing and slightly ironizing that hope.” A French translation appeared in 1949, and the novel was assimilated to existentialism. Marcel Brion’s 1955 essay in Le Monde described Buzzati’s “anxious universe” as “irremediably incoherent and governed by the absurd,” so that “all our attempts at revolt are crushed, without any hope of success.” The prevalent understanding of Buzzati’s novel quickly became what might be called existentialist humanism.

This reading was encouraged by The Tartar Steppe, the 1952 version by British translator Stuart Hood. For seventy years, the Italian text has existed in English only in Hood’s translation, which has seen print in some fifteen editions from eight publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Hood’s work is undoubtedly accomplished, not merely readable but resonant enough to have engaged several generations of publishers and readers.

In the intervening decades, however, the Italian understanding of Il deserto dei Tartari underwent a radical shift. By the 1980s, rather than a humanist allegory of timeless, universal truths, it was viewed as a critique of the Italian Fascist regime, presented in a symbolic form that evaded censorship. This reading, at once historical and political, might also animate a new English version of the Italian text. Would it better speak to our own troubled moment than Hood’s?

Although Italian writer and artist Dino Buzzati (1906–1972) hasn’t faded into oblivion, he has receded to the backlists of a handful of English-language publishers. Today the most widely known translation of his work is the Kafkaesque novel, The Tartar Steppe, which has long been published by Edinburgh-based Canongate. Recently a selection of short fiction from 1965 called Catastrophe and Other Stories was reissued in an enlarged and revised edition by Alma in the United Kingdom and by Ecco in the United States. This continuing interest shows that Buzzati has withstood, to some extent, the caprices of literary reputation that bedevil many distinguished foreign-language writers in English. Still, current debates about fiction, translation, and Italian literature neglect him entirely.

His marginality may soon change. Over the next two years, the Classics series at New York Review Books, which makes available a range of world literature that is both remarkably broad and unusual, will effectively relaunch Buzzati’s fiction in English. The press will reprint A Love Affair, the 1964 version of his novel about a May-December romance, Un amore (1963). NYRB will also bring out a new version of his science fiction novel, Il grande ritratto (1960), first translated as Larger Than Life in 1962, as well as a substantial selection of his work in the short story spanning some four decades. This initiative won’t turn back the clock to the early 1960s, which seems to have been the heyday of Buzzati’s English-language reception. But it will gather the materials necessary for a revaluation.

Meanwhile NYRB commissioned me to retranslate Buzzati’s most famous work, Il deserto dei Tartari. Inevitably, given the passage of time as well as my identity as an American, my retranslation is rather different, offering a substantially new interpretation of the Italian text. At the risk of causing confusion, for instance, I decided to abandon Hood’s deeply ingrained title, The Tartar Steppe, and revert to Buzzati’s original choice, La Fortezza, which his publisher deemed too reader-unfriendly when the world teetered on the brink of war. My version is called The Stronghold.

Hood’s translation is marked by the turmoil in his life during the war and after, as he tried to make ideological sense of his experience.

How exactly does a translator inscribe an interpretation in the work being translated when we’re supposed to be getting its meaning and style? Keywords can make a difference, becoming nodes of new meanings. In a text that consists roughly of 57,000 words, Buzzati used various forms of the word speranza (hope) ninety-seven times. Hood increased this repetition to 117, introducing it even where a different Italian word appears.

Late in the novel, for example, when Drogo fails to perceive signs of enemy movement, Hood’s English reads, “little by little his hopes grew fainter.” Here the Italian avoids “speranze” for “fiducia” (“a poco a poco la fiducia si affievolava”) which is related to “hope” but might be translated variously as “trust,” “faith,” “confidence,” “credit.” Any of these other choices for “fiducia” would nuance Drogo’s thinking by suggesting that he questions the delusion of heroic militarism. Buzzati repeats the word in the same passage as if to underscore the change in Drogo’s character: “la fiducia cominciava a stancarsi.” But Hood again replaces it: “hope began to wane.”

With these choices Hood bolstered the humanist allegory while preempting another possibility, an emerging self-awareness in Drogo, potentially critical. That Hood was successful can be inferred from Adrienne Foulke’s 1952 review in The Nation. She praised his work by articulating the prevalent reading. “Here the human dilemma is humanely conceived,” she wrote. “Men are born into a world of immensities they may not even recognize but to which they are constantly responding with unformulated fear, hope, bafflement.”

Much of Hood’s translation is written in standard English—the most accessible form of the language—but he also relied frequently on idiomatic phrasing that is even more familiarizing. This sort of verbal choice, more concrete, distinctly colloquial, occurs throughout. He used “time was running short” for “erano gli ultimi istanti” (they were the final moments), “in a lather” for “tutti sudati” (all sweaty), “in the air” for “impregiudicata” (unresolved), “could not believe his ears” for “udito un’enormità” (heard an absurdity), “seeing things” for “allucinazione” (hallucination). The strain of colorful colloquialism strengthens the realist illusion created by the narrative, inviting the reader to identify sympathetically with the characters’ hopes and disappointments.

The sheer familiarity of Hood’s language also raises the question of what other, recognizably anglophone values he might have insinuated. Judy Rawson astutely remarked that Hood would handle the recurrent references to “la fuga del tempo” (the flight of time) by resorting to speech-like formulations that avoid or minimize the abstraction of the Italian phrase. Thus “proprio quella notte cominciava per lui l’irreparabile fuga del tempo” (just that night the irretrievable flight of time began for him) becomes “that very night time began to slip by him beyond recall.”

Rawson felt Hood’s colloquializing tendency was peculiarly “English” translating. “Abstract concepts repel the English,” she explained, so that “in English narrative it is necessary to stick with verbs and actions, and Stuart Hood chose the only workable possibility.” In this respect, Hood’s translation would seem to have assimilated the existentialist humanism that figured so prominently in the reception of Buzzati’s novel to a key feature of British cultural discourse, an empiricist distaste for philosophical abstraction, what Antony Easthope described as a long-standing stereotype of “Englishness.”

Yet Rawson acquiesced too readily to what she saw as English narrative conventions. A translator can easily imitate Buzzati’s abstract phrasing; after all, Hood used “the flight of time” twice in his version. This sort of imitation could confront anglophone readers with an important cultural difference, discouraging the self-congratulation that might derive from an encounter with values they recognize and esteem.

As if prompted by the Eurasian landscape evoked through Hood’s repeated use of “steppe,” some reviewers instinctively cast the novel as a Cold War allegory in which individual freedom is compromised, if not foreclosed. Foulke believed that “Drogo has sensed the meaning of his surrender to apathy but can make no more than a feeble motion to break free.” In the New York Times, Frances Keene described him as “a man weighing the senseless round of a life not of his own making but to which he is subject.” In the Saturday Review, Serge Hughes saw Drogo faced with “the desperate need to affirm oneself as an autonomous entity against the forces of solitude and persecution.”

For these reviewers, all US translators from Italian during a period rife with anti-communism, The Tartar Steppe called forth a deep-seated fear of totalitarian government. Hood’s translation triggered this subliminal response by choosing the ideologically loaded “comrade,” suggestive of the Soviet Bloc, to translate “compagno” (companion, friend) and “collega” (colleague) on twenty-four occasions. The term depicts the fort as a socialist collective, despite the rank-based military hierarchy, while the fear of invasion by the “northern kingdom” hints at an anti-Stalinism.

Il deserto dei Tartari resonated with Hood’s experiences during the Second World War. While serving as a British intelligence officer in North Africa, he was captured by the Italian army and sent to a prison camp near Parma, from which he escaped in 1942 just after Italy signed an armistice with the Allied Forces. For the next year he lived among rural workers in Tuscany, fighting with the partisan resistance against Fascist militias and the Germans.

In his 1963 memoir, Pebbles from My Skull, Hood described his “reasons” for joining the resistance. “I was suffering still from the deep trauma of capture and the fear that I had somehow been lacking in a moment of test.” Hood’s need to pass a military “test” resembles the dream of battle prowess nurtured at Fortezza Bastiani, although he politicizes it by invoking his decision to sit out the Spanish Civil War. “Behind that again,” he continued, “shamefully tucked away, was the greater guilt that I had been content not to fight in Spain. [The partisans] were men who would give me the chance to prove myself.”

In an epilogue to the 1973 edition of the memoir, after years in psychoanalysis, Hood found it expressed a “romanticism” symptomatic of his political naïveté at the time, when he was a committed socialist opposed to any form of totalitarianism. “Together with my Italian comrades,” he recalled, “I looked forward to the social revolution which must, it seemed, be the outcome of their struggle.” This use of “comrades” reverberates back through the military romance of The Tartar Steppe. Hood’s translation is marked by the turmoil in his life during the war and after, as he tried to make ideological sense of his experience.

It was Italian commentators who first broached the historicizing readings of Il deserto dei Tartari. As early as 1958, in the newsweekly L’Espresso, the critic Paolo Milano announced that “the world of that novel, sealed off in a never-ending, futile wait, was, psychologically speaking, the Fascist regime.” In a 1986 study, Le paure e le speranze degli italiani: 1943–1953 (The Fears and Hopes of Italians), historian Ennio Di Nolfo was more precise: Buzzati’s novel was “not political but rich in political meanings insofar as it expresses the dissonance and detachment of a certain type of culture and environment (many Milanese intellectuals linked to the Corriere della Sera) in regard to official pronouncements.”

Although Buzzati worked at the newspaper for more than forty years, he rarely advocated or criticized a particular ideological stance, so that in Italy as elsewhere his writing had long been seen as apolitical. In an interview the year before his death, he denied that “the philosophical schemas of fascism” were connected to his core theme of heroism. If his novel registers any ideological “dissonance,” then, it can only be perceived obliquely, through peculiarities in the dream-like narrative that disclose a political unconscious.

The task I set for my retranslation was to release that unconscious by opening a space for the historical interpretation. I had to work, of course, with the same Italian words that Hood did to support the existentialist humanism that readers have favored for decades. And I wanted to hit the general meaning of words and phrases, strictly, such as you would find it in dictionaries. In my version too, the Fortezza Bastiani is obsessed with a hopeful yet futile wait for military glory. But some of my choices were made “with Latitude,” as John Dryden called it, “where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified.” Whether a translator can amplify a meaning in the source text without changing it seems dubious. I can, at any rate, confess to amplification in translating Buzzati’s Italian: I created allusions to historical events, practices, even clothing.

An officer with a strong military commitment wears “jackboots,” for instance. They are called merely “stivali” (boots) in the Italian text, but in English the term “jackboots” quickly came to symbolize authoritarian government, whether under Hitler or Mussolini. Hood had used “jackboots” twice, since the officer’s footwear is ill-suited to mountain climbing. But the term went unnoticed by reviewers keen on the humanistic reading. I tripled its use.

The same officer is described as “obbediva al suo ambizioso stile di vita” (obeying his ambitious lifestyle). I translated this phrase figuratively as “goose-stepping in line with his ambitious aspirations,” glancing at Mussolini’s importation of the Nazi military march as the “passo romano.”

I also retained Italian words and phrases, although not so much as to risk unintelligibility. Not only does this move situate the narrative in a specific culture, but in crucial scenes it can allude to the political context, particularly the aggressive irredentism and colonialism of Mussolini’s regime. Thus, when soldiers from the “northern kingdom” arrive first to demarcate the border, beating out their counterparts from Fortezza Bastiani, they taunt the Italians with the “arrogant shout” of “Buona sera, signori” in my version instead of “Good evening, gentlemen,” which is Hood’s choice.

Similarly, following feminist readings by Italianists like Ellen Nerenberg, I took advantage of opportunities to point up the Fascist ideology of masculinism, highlighting the potential critique. Where Hood had translated “fiducia” as “hope,” I used “confidence” to indicate Drogo’s distance from macho chest-thumping: “Little by little his confidence faded.” In a passage where Drogo considers how he interacts with other men at the fort—“Con i colleghi ufficiali, doveva farsi vedere uomo, doveva ridere con loro e raccontare storie spavalde di militari e donne”Hood’s choices typified masculinist cultures of the early 1950s: “With his colleagues, he had to be a man, had to laugh with them and tell swashbuckling stories about women and the soldier’s life.” Hood’s reversal of Buzzati’s word order, putting “women” (“donne”) before “the soldier’s life” (“militari”), imbues the sense of swaggering adventure in “swashbuckling” (for “spavalde”) with a predatory sexuality. I read the Italian, however, as contesting the gender roles in Hood’s version by raising questions that remain implicit. So, I made them more emphatic: “With fellow officers, he had to act like a man, had to laugh with them and tell cocksure tales of the military and women.

Of course, the most conspicuous departure from Hood’s translation appears in my title. To promote a historical approach, as well as to differentiate my interpretation from his, I needed to avoid any mention of “steppe.” Otherwise, its suggestion of a Eurasian landscape might be taken as an anachronistic reference to the Soviet Union—although today Hood’s title might prompt readers to create an allegory of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The fact is that Buzzati’s novel generated considerable interest in the Iron Curtain countries: before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it had been translated into Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, and Slovenian. For readers of these languages, Buzzati’s vague reference to a “northern kingdom” could easily suggest the political and military threat posed by the USSR.

Deciding to revive Buzzati’s initial title, La Fortezza, could also be limiting. Using simply “The Fort” would have emphasized the debt to Kafka’s The Castle that so many critics have recognized. The slightly archaic “fortress,” to consider another possibility, would have seemed poetical yet appropriate, taking up the fantastic dimension of the novel by locating it in a vaguely defined past and giving it a romantic, fable-like quality. I sought more: an English rendering that registers the various associations I discern in the Italian. While the primary meaning of “fortezza” is “fort,” the word also signifies “strength,” alluding to the cult of virility championed during the Fascist period. I chose “stronghold” because it carries all these meanings while conveying the sheer tenacity of the soldiers’ heroic fantasies, as well as their impotence to escape their debilitating obsession.

Since its first publication, Il deserto dei Tartari has been translated—and periodically retranslated—into some forty languages. If translation interprets a source text instead of mechanically reproducing it, creatively drawing on values, beliefs, and representations that already circulate in receiving situations, then the international reception of Buzzati’s novel means that it has supported interpretations both diverse and disparate in appealing to heterogeneous audiences.

This capacity, in the end, is testimony to its status as a classic. “The books we call classics,” Frank Kermode once wrote, “possess intrinsic qualities that endure, but possess also an openness to accommodation which keeps them alive under endlessly varying dispositions.” Just how alive the present accommodation may be remains a question only my reader can answer. icon

This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín. Featured image: Rocca Maggiore, photograph by ccarlstead / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Author photo: Karen Van Dyck.