William Weaver has died

by Henry Farrell on November 20, 2013

The Guardian has an “obituary here”:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/18/william-weaver ; good translators so rarely get the attention they deserve. I knew him mostly through his translations of Italo Calvino – my Italian is (or was) just about good enough that I could begin to appreciate what an extraordinary job he did. His translations are not only lovely in themselves, but perfectly capture Calvino’s mixture of gravity and sly humour. I’ve “quoted”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/09/17/in-which-italo-calvino-discourses-on-the-fundamental-cleavage-of-the-social-sciences/#more-12990 Weaver’s lovely rendition of a couple of key passages from _Citte Invisibili_ before:

Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. … Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions; he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn … By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

But Marco Polo, it turns out, understands the chessboard in a very different way.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist. … Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down … This edge was scored by the woodcarver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding …

[viaThe Browser]



QS 11.20.13 at 1:50 am

Not to mention his translations of Umberto Eco! Agreed, brilliant man.


Substance McGravitas 11.20.13 at 2:12 am

I was always happy to see his name.


js. 11.20.13 at 2:21 am

So lovely. Thanks. I don’t know a word of Italian, but have loved Calvino for, oh, a couple of decades—thanks in good part to Weaver’s translations.


nnyhav 11.20.13 at 2:37 am


QS 11.20.13 at 2:55 am

@2 agreed, “William Weaver trans.” was sort of like a “it’s OK to put your faith in this translation” sign.


zbs 11.20.13 at 5:14 am

I will chime in for his trans. of Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana.


bad Jim 11.20.13 at 7:39 am

and also “If on a winter’s night a traveler”


Phil 11.20.13 at 9:45 am

Who’s doing the Jock Young post? I’m still getting over losing Barbara Hudson, and now this. Also Norm, of course, although his passing had quite a few mourners.


PaulD 11.21.13 at 1:36 am

I know bilingual Anglo-Italians who say that the English Eco is way better than the Italian one, all thanks to WW.


Gene O'Grady 11.21.13 at 5:05 am

Strange. I’ve actually read some of his translations, but I think him (apparently unlike the rest of you) as primarily involved with opera.


SC 11.21.13 at 6:22 am


I never paid attention to Weaver’s opera work, should I have? I did admire his Calvino, Levi, etc. work.


between4walls 11.22.13 at 3:30 pm

Looking at the full list of his translation- wow. That’s pretty much every major writer of the postwar period. Between that and his wartime ambulance service, he certainly did a good deal for his adopted country.

Weaver’s translation of “If Not Now, When,” reads very well indeed. It’s an interesting novel- Levi is writing outside his own experience (Italian Sephardic Jewish partisan writing about Ashkennazi Jewish Soviet partisans) and it shows, but it’s a beautiful book with an astonishing final line. There’s also a great bit discoursing on the virtues of Italy as a place where there’s no hatred of outsiders, which is a rather bitter irony given the attitude to immigrants at the moment, but I believe it was intended as an aspirational description in the first place and it’s certainly something to aspire to.

To be completely pedantic, it’s “Le citta’ invisibili” (I always get that one wrong too). And the libretti that the obituary says were by Puccini and Verdi were obviously not written by them. A bit of an ironic mistake considering Weaver translated the correspondence between Verdi and the librettist Arrigo Boito.


Dave Maier 11.22.13 at 3:38 pm

What Substance and QS said. Calvino and Eco for me.

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