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This interview was conducted in William Weaver’s Greenwich Village pied-à-terre on a beautiful autumn day in October of 2000. Weaver also lives in the former house of Mary McCarthy on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, two hours north of New York City. He has been a permanent member of the Bard faculty since 1991, and he regularly teaches courses in translation as well as comparative studies that involve the interrelations of music, literature and the fine arts. Although he still maintains an apartment in Rome, in 1999 he sold the Tuscan farmhouse he had lived in since 1965.

In addition to his books on opera and a biography of Eleanora Duse, William Weaver has been the premier translator of Italian literature into English during the past fifty years. His renderings of Georgio Bassani, Italo Calvino, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luigi Pirandello, Italo Svevo, and most popularly, Umberto Eco, have brought him, as well as them, considerable acclaim. They also have helped the upward revaluation of translation as an art on its own terms.

Weaver was born in 1923 and raised in Virginia. He has the typical Southern gift of gab, and because he has known so many writers, artists, and other celebrities in his career as journalist and man of letters his stories are a constant source of wonder and delight. He is a marvelous cook and what the British would call a “clubbable” fellow. A pacifist, he dropped out of Princeton University shortly after Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II and joined the American Field Service; during the war he drove an ambulance, first in Africa and then in Italy, a country with which he fell in love and to which he returned—after completing his undergraduate degree and a year of teaching at the University of Virginia—with the vague idea of “becoming a writer.” He never really considered himself an expatriate, he says; rather, during his years in Rome in the fifties he kept saying, “Well, when I go home I’ll have to . . .” until he finally realized that Italy had become home to him.

 

INTERVIEWER

The title of this interview should be “The Art of the Man of Letters,” since you cover so many different aspects of literature. Your life has unfolded as a series of fortuitous events. How and when did you begin to write?

WILLIAM WEAVER

I was the youngest of a rather large family with four older brothers and sisters. One sister and one brother are writers, and both sisters-in-law were writers. My parents were not writers, but my father was a great bibliophile. When most young people say to their parents, I want to be a writer, the parents say, No, no, you have to go into the family firm, or, You must be a lawyer or a doctor! When I said at age twelve that I wanted to be a writer my family said, Certainly. When I went off to boarding school, my going-away present was a typewriter. Becoming a writer was like going into the family firm. I started writing—mostly ghastly poetry—in boarding school. At the same time, I was absolutely fascinated by “abroad.” The minute I learned there were foreign countries I wanted to go to them.

INTERVIEWER

Was it because of languages or because of customs?

WEAVER

I’d read a series of children’s books with titles like The Japanese Twins and The Dutch Twins, which told you what the children ate for breakfast and what toys they played with. I had the whole series. I didn’t know any foreign languages, but I used to pretend I did, and on long solitary walks in the country I would talk to myself out loud. So it seemed perfectly natural to combine the two things.

INTERVIEWER

Did you go to Italy by choice or by chance during the war?

WEAVER

Pearl Harbor occurred at the beginning of my freshman year. I was determined to be a conscientious objector and was planning to go to jail. And then I heard about the American Field Service through which, remaining a civilian, you could drive an ambulance in Africa with the British army, if you could get permission from your draft board. Since I was under the draft age by a couple of years I got permission and went to Africa. I was in uniform, but I was, happily, not allowed to carry a gun. Then I went to Italy, which was pure coincidence. It could have been Greece or anywhere else. Then I returned to college.

INTERVIEWER

And you became a famous short-story writer.

WEAVER

For about a week I became a famous short-story writer—a short story I wrote when I was in Italy when I was twenty was published in Harper’s Bazaar when I was a senior at Princeton, and I felt, I’m on my way; I’m a writer of fiction! I thought I was going on to become a famous novelist. Instead, after the war, and after college, as soon as I could collect enough money I went back to Italy for a year or so.

INTERVIEWER

The translations coincided with your introduction to life in Italy?

WEAVER

When I went back to Italy, I went to Naples and lived with the family of a friend in an apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples. It was absolutely wonderful; it was tiny, like being in a dorm. That’s when I really began speaking Italian. And I met—one of those marvelous coincidences in my life—this young group of people in Naples, all of whom wanted to be writers. They were my age. I didn’t know any Italian literature at all. They gave me the poems of Montale and Ungaretti as a present. I gave them books that they had never heard of—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isherwood, and so on. I couldn’t read the poems unless I tried to translate them, so I did it for myself. I started translating before I really knew Italian. I did it for myself, not with any idea of becoming a translator.

INTERVIEWER

Were you overwhelmed with dictionaries? Did you sit there inside a library?

WEAVER

Dictionaries were very hard to come by. I didn’t have an Italian-English dictionary. I had an Italian-German dictionary, the problem being that I didn’t know German. But then I had a German-English dictionary. So I would translate by way of German. Also, my friends knew some English and some French and, being Neapolitans, they were very good mimes. It was a form of charade really. They would act out Ungaretti poems; I have vivid memories of somebody trying to illustrate for me “M’illumino d’immenso,” by opening his arms, mouth, and eyes wide to be illuminated by immensity! When I finally learned Italian, I stopped translating poetry immediately because I realized what I was doing to it. I started translating prose a few years later simply because my friend asked me to translate his novel and I found that I enjoyed doing it.

INTERVIEWER

When you lived in Naples, were you speaking Neapolitan dialect?

WEAVER

I could pretend to speak Neapolitan dialect and still do, but I can’t really speak it. I know a lot of Neapolitan words, and I love Neapolitan dialect, and I go to the Neapolitan theater whenever I can. After about six weeks in Naples I went to Rome and lived in an Italian theatrical rooming house with two of the Neapolitans who had moved there. There were about four or five of us living in three rooms.