Walk with Me: Responsive Guides to Rome

Earlier this year I learned I had received the Katherine Edwards Gordon Rome Prize for Design 2014–5, an honor that will bring me to the Eternal City for six months starting in September to record a series of audio pieces on walking in Rome. An excerpt of my proposal, “Walk with Me: Responsive Guides to Rome” is shared below. Translator William Weaver, whose interview spurred my proposal, passed away last November, about two weeks after this was written. He will be greatly missed.

My project came into focus after reading a taped, transcribed interview from 2001 with celebrated translator and former American Academy in Rome member William Weaver by the Paris Review for their series, “The Art of Translation.” I have been interested in Weaver for some time, having delighted in his translations of Eco, then Calvino, and then other Italian authors since I was in high school. But I’m also interested in the figure of the translator within the discourse of graphic design. In his essay “Designer as Author,” designer Michael Rock proposes the translator as one of three alternative models for articulating a designer’s activity. “Design is, in essence, the clarification of material or the remodeling of content from one form to another,” he writes, calling translation “a second art,” that is “neither scientific nor ahistorical,” with each attempt at translation conveying a certain time, place, and attitude. As with the role of the translator, “the designer is the intermediary,” Rock suggests.

The Paris Review interview with Weaver is wide-ranging and digressive, covering everything from how Weaver first came to Rome with the American Field Service during WWII, to his travels, his process of translation with various authors, his thoughts on language and performance, and his work as an opera critic, biographer, and teacher. However, there were four anecdotes he shared that help to trace the contours of my proposal. I’ll splice the first one in here. Weaver describes refining a translation:

Quite often it can be technically correct but not sound right. The rhythm isn’t quite right, and maybe it just needs a comma somewhere, or something like that. This is particularly true of Calvino. With Invisible Cities I read the whole book aloud. Charles Darden, an American friend who was studying music in Siena, about twenty miles away from my house, would come over for weekends because I had a huge Steinway, which he liked to play. And on Saturday after dinner we would have an extra glass of wine, and I would read three or four “Invisible Cities” — my week’s work — to him. It was an enormous help. It wasn’t a question of getting the words right; it was a question of getting the sound, the pace and the cadences right.

Weaver couldn’t refine the translation entirely on his own. He had to do it over successive dialogues with a friend. The language was not just read it was performed, and it was done in a convivial setting, with wine and music. It is especially fascinating that Invisible Cites — a book that is structured as a series of conversations and whose subjects include topologies, urban inventions, endless potentials, and a guided tour — was translated this way. Calvino was interested in cybernetics: he gave a well-known talk in 1967 called “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” Cybernetics is a discipline that attempts to theorize the complex interaction of people and technology through the metaphor of guiding or steering. Integral to cybernetics is the notion of feedback, a word with many meanings.

Weaver’s next anecdote touches on this:

I had problems with Calvino because he thought he knew English. He would fall in love with English words. Every now and then he would fiddle with a sentence in his English. At one point he fell madly in love with the word feedback, and he didn’t realize that in America feedback is like closure or spinning out of control, something you hear constantly on television. It’s jargon and cliché, and you can’t use it anymore. The word is dead to literature, but to him it was new and fascinating. He thought it was fun and so he kept putting it into this story where it really didn’t belong, and I kept taking it out.

Feedback is a set of reactions to be read and interpreted. Here, Weaver resists Calvino’s feedback about “feedback.” He rebuffs Calvino’s reaction to his suggestion, his critique. Though Weaver suggests the word is trendy and “dead to literature,” Calvino, whatever his English fluency, may have been right. It’s still a word that’s with us. Weaver points out that it’s constantly heard “on television.” This, too, is telling — a technological word that arrives mediated by technology. Objects that broadcast an output signal like televisions and radios may get feedback distortion from receiving that information back as an input signal. Indeed, in cybernetics feedback is how technology shares information about itself to be interpreted by someone or something else. Between the oar and the oarsman there is feedback. Between the boat and the water there is feedback. Like Weaver and Calvino, or Weaver and Darden, or Weaver and almost anyone he describes, there is always a dialogue. Today, the word feedback is often aimed at a collective subject. “Call in and tell us your feedback,” says the anchor on the nightly news.

The third anecdote I’ll splice here from Weaver’s interview is about the mediating effect of technology on language. I’ll set it up by explaining that just before this point in the interview, Weaver has described how mass media has lessened the use of regional dialects in Italy:

I had a gardener in Tuscany. When I first knew him in the early sixties, we’d be in the vegetable garden and I would say, Arriguccio, do you think it’s going to rain today? He would look up at the sky, lick his forefinger and hold it up and say, No, I don’t think so. I think it’ll be OK today. By the end of our association, twenty years later, I would say, Arriguccio, is it going to rain today? And he would say, Well, there’s a low-pressure mass moving in from northern Europe … He would quote me the TV forecast, which is always wrong. He was much better when he licked his forefinger! Obviously, not just his Italian but his whole life had been influenced by television.

As someone who spends so much time outdoors caring for nature, the gardner’s lived experience is reliable, and he has developed a number of techniques for reading his environment on which others, like Weaver, have come to depend. With the mediated language of the weather report, the gardner’s home-grown intuition is substituted for abstracted data, to less accurate effect. Despite the fact that more standardized Italian might make the job of the translator easier, Weaver seems to mourn the change. Perhaps language is more straightforward, but in that case there’s less to translate. The localized, instinctive, human source, which provides so much of the translator’s spark of insight into the deeper meaning of a text, is gone.

Finally, I’ll bring up a soundbyte of Weaver describing his walks in Rome:

At Moravia’s there were a lot of Italian people, but there were Americans too. That’s where I met Francis Steegmuller. He liked to take walks, and Rome was a great city for walking. In those days people would call you up — Elena, who liked to take walks, would call up at lunchtime and say, What are you doing this afternoon? Why don’t we take a walk? You can walk practically everywhere in Rome and you see interesting things. I used to do the same thing with Eleanor Clark, who was a serious walker, with her notebook and her pencil out. Moravia took endless walks every day by himself. I would run into him on the street, and he would say, What are you doing? And I would say, Nothing. He’d say, Well, let’s walk, and we’d just walk up and down the streets with no particular aim. It was a city where you really felt that you could meet anybody. I mean, I could have met the pope. Well, I actually did meet the pope!

Weaver walks with people from in town and people from out of town. His walks are often unplanned and their routes, like derivés, are improvised. Some walkers record, transcribe, or translate the walks. The encounters, intersections, and discoveries he finds along the way are unpredictable and highly localized. He suggests the best way to understand Rome is by walking it with a friendly guide in this way. Moving through the city, in dialogue, with feedback, invariably uncovers a hidden Rome, a Rome deserving of a special kind of interactive translation.