On the Growing Reception of Primo Levi’s Works Worldwide

by Fabio Levi and Irene Soave

Primo Levi is the most well known contemporary Italian writer in the world. Over the last fifty years his writings have been translated into at least 41 languages. We say “at least” because we are not sure that we have tracked down all the potential editions in the extremely broad and stratified world of publishing.

Ours is an affirmation that has nothing to do with claiming firsts but rather with underlining how vast the international reception of Primo Levi is. If we examine how this has happened, we can better understand the universal validity of his writings. To date, there have been two important books on the reception of Primo Levi in the world, both of them collections of essays – the first edited by Giovanni Tesio in 20051 and the second by Philippe Mesnard and YannisThanassekos in 20082. The essays in both books deal primarily with analyzing the spread and the resonances of Levi’s works in single national contexts and this was inevitably the correct way to proceed. In fact, this was the only way to lay the foundations for any further investigation that could take on the issue from the perspective of the whole, focusing on the works of Primo Levi in all its expressions.

This is the work that the International Primo Levi Studies Center intends to commit itself to by asking for the contributions of experts in various disciplines. These few pages are meant to serve as a preliminary contribution to this effort, which will have to be a long-term endeavor that forces us to consider its many facets. First of all, there are the historical and cultural particularities of every context that is being examined. There are the many articulations of the larger linguistic worlds – the worlds of English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Thus the reading publics are varied for such a body of work that has many dimensions. Then, there are problems involved in assessing the various translations into so many languages. No serious discussion on reception can go on without a deep analysis of the linguistic and cultural implications of passing from one language to another. This is, by the way, something that Primo Levi worked on extensively and he did this not only in the interests of fostering an appropriate understanding of his own works in non-Italian contexts.

The aim of these few pages is to set up a provisional framework for the spread of Primo Levi’s work over space and time. It does this through several tables (which can be downloaded in full by clicking here). They can be consulted in order to illustrate the successive passages of the process.

Let us start out by taking a look at the current state of things, which is the result of a long process that began at the end of the 1950s. We can do this by looking at table 1, dedicated to the languages into which at least seven works of Primo Levi were translated. The first horizontal line indicates the works considered3, each of the works at the head of each column. The years indicate the years when the translations were first published. In some cases, when the first edition had a very limited following, the year of a second edition is indicated. The list of languages in the first vertical column on the left includes three groupings – English, French and German; five other European languages (Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Danish and Czech); and then Hebrew and Brazilian Portuguese.

Table 2 lists the languages into which at least 5 works were translated. Obviously, these languages include all the ones in Table 1 in addition to Catalan, Polish, Portuguese (of Portugal), Swedish, and, outside of Europe, Japanese. Notably, If This is a Man and The Truce were translated into all of these languages. The Drowned and the SavedIf Not Now, When? and The Periodic Table were translated into almost all of them.

At this point it is worthwhile to look back in order to understand how all these translations listed in Tables 1 and 2 came about in this manner. In order to clarify this, let us focus on what took place before 1984 (table 3). 1984 can be taken as a turning point: it was the year of the publication of The Periodic Table in the United States.  From this point on, the interest in Primo Levi began to grow considerably, starting out in the United States, but not limited to the United States. Before 1984 we witness the following progression. The first published translations were into English, French, and German; then it was the turn of Finnish, Dutch, Polish, Japanese, Rumanian, Hebrew and Czech. If This is a Man translations were being published most of all. However, those of The Truce and The Periodic Table were beginning to grow in number too. There were more translations into French and German than into any other language. For many of the languages in Table 3, Primo Levi’s contribution was decisive. He helped attract the attention of publishers and, above all, he reread and checked the quality of the translations.

Through all these years, there were quite a few of what we might call “rough starts” – i.e. situations where the first translation usually sold very few copies and a good number of years had to pass before a second edition or a second translation was published, perhaps a translation of the same work, very often a translation of better quality. All this had to pass before Primo Levi was to earn an established place in the publishing world. Let us stop to examine this particular issue, which is even more interesting because this makes us recall the very same fate of the original If This is a Man when it was being published in Italy. Here in Italy, this book had a very limited following in 1947. In fact, the book had to wait until the second edition, published by Einaudi in 1958, before it was to have an effective and long-time public success. The various cases are obviously very different from each other (table 4). The first work translated into Czech was The Periodic Table, in 1981. Then The Drowned and the Saved was published by Index, a publishing house made up of intellectuals who had sought refuge in Cologne beyond the borders of the then-Communist Czechoslovakia. In Finland there was a twenty year gap between the first translation of If This is a Man that of The Truce. The first French translations were very poor. It took a great deal of time and the repeated objections of the author for the translations to be re-done. In Japan the first edition of The Truce was printed in very few copies and no significant reviews were published. In Holland many years passed between the first and second editions of Levi’s first two works. In Poland, only a few chapters of The Truce appeared in a journal and 30 years passed by before the second edition of If This is a Man.

Table 5 continues our chronology by listing the languages into which the works of Primo Levi were translated and published for the first time between 1984 and 1990. Here we can notice that there was an increasing interest in Primo Levi in areas of Europe that we can roughly describe as less central. There are translations into Basque, Danish, Greek, Portuguese (of Portugal), Spanish and Swedish. In Eastern Europe there is a translation into Hungarian. In Israel the translation into Hebrew is, in effect, a new beginning. In South America, there is a translation into Brazilian Portuguese. This broader spread of the works of Levi can be attributed both to the above-mentioned success of The Periodic Table in the United States (after not less than 20 rejections from 20 publishers there) and to the unforeseen death of the author in 1987.

There is one outstanding tendency in the post-1990 translations (table 6) – the completion of the framework of European translations. There is Catalan and Turkish. Above all, there are numerous translations finally done in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall – into Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Rumanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovene, and Slovak. Outside of Europe, there are translations into Arabic, Farsi (Persian), Vietnamese, Korean and Malayalam (in India).

Let us now shift our focus onto some specific issues. First, let us keep our attention on Eastern Europe (table 7). The first translations were, in chronological order, into the following languages: Polish, Rumanian, German of the Democratic Republic of Germany, Czech, Hungarian, Slovene, Croatian, Bulgarian, Russian, Slovak, Albanian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Serbian. To repeat, the turning point was the fall of Communism. Before the fall, the vetoes imposed by various Communist states prevailed. These sometimes were joined by traces of explicit anti-Semitism that were still present in significant areas of the population, something that may easily be put up against an author identified essential as a witness to the Shoah. In a country like East Germany, the censorship even went down hard against other aspects of Primo Levi’s works, such as the good-natured representation of the Russian people that he gave in The Truce. It was in the face of just such problems that it became more and more important that single intellectuals or small groups in various countries decided to try to put out the first translations of Primo Levi’s works, perhaps avoiding If This is a Man as the first work to be translated. They did this just to open up to an author that was perceived to be someone who could offer original, groundbreaking contributions.

Table 8 features a list of the countries involved directly or indirectly in the Second World War. To the right of the name of each country there is a number, the number of works of Primo Levi that have been translated into the language of that country. There are translations of If This is a Man in each of the countries. They are subsequently joined by translations of his other books that cover the topic of the extermination. This is a way of saying that the experience of the war was undoubtedly a factor that worked in favor of the spread of Levis works. At first, these considerations may almost seem obvious. However, we should note that Primo Levi’s works spread more and more beginning with 1989 and this was something that was happening not only the countries of Eastern Europe but also in the rest of Europe. The fall of the wall indeed opened new perspectives that had before been screened off by the vetoes imposed by Communist power. In Italy and other Western countries, the topic of the Shoah had been more or less put aside in a less drastic way than in the Communist countries. It was put aside for reasons other than those in the Communist countries, yet for reasons that have always been very evident. Here is where a broader discussion can be opened, one that would naturally involve Primo Levi. It is a discussion that would regard, in general, the interest in the Shoah that began to be shown everywhere beginning with the later 1980s. This resumption of interest is doubtlessly connected with Europe’s need to re-found itself and to re-legitimize itself beyond the lines of reasoning imposed by a Cold War that had finally ended, starting off with a more attentive consideration of its own roots and its own crimes, the most egregious of which is the extermination during the Second World War, one that was certainly not committed by Germany alone.

Let us broaden our view to include the languages on the outskirts of old Europe and beyond them (table 9). Each of these languages tells a different tale. Firstly, there is the case of Hebrew. The Truce, the first work translated, was published in a limited edition in 1979. It took until 1988 for If This is a Man to be published. Thereafter, there were other re-printings and other publications. What was determinant here was, firstly, the particularity of Israel’s approach to the Shoah and the hard position that Primo Levi took against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was destined to have great repercussions both in Israel and in the Jewish world of the Diaspora. Perhaps it is no accident that most of the articles and essays written on Primo Levi in Israel have been published after 1987. Secondly, there is the case of Turkish. It should be mentioned that the very early 1967 translation of If This is a Man was done from German and was heavily censored. For example, the chapters “Our Nights” and “The Work” were put together into a single chapter entitled “Our Nights.” In addition, the term Musselman [the German word for Muslim] in reference to the lager inmates was substituted by the defeated. It took 30 years for a new edition to be published, but this was merely a new edition of the 1967 translation. Thirdly, there is the case of Japan, which we have already alluded to. Here, we should add how much the commitment of a single intellectual and translator counted, one who was convinced of how important the works of Primo Levi could be in a country that both had been an ally of Germany and had suffered the atrocity of Hiroshima.

Let us take up one last issue, putting off our specific analyses of more recent translations into languages very far removed from Italian. Here, we have one opening word of caution. Naturally, we realize that we should not force the writings of Levi into slots with rigid boundaries and label them works of memory or of narrative or draw borders between Levi the witness and Levi the writer. Nevertheless, we are reasoning in terms of his reception and, in this vein, itmay very well be useful to make such a distinction because it helps us detect positions and attitudes that are very present in reality. Therefore let us take a look at table 10, which lists the languages into which Primo Levi’s works of memory have been translated – i.e. those works where explicit references to Levi’s own personal experiences prevail, according to our functional definition. As we can see, the translations tend to proceed in this order: If This is a ManThe TruceThe Periodic Table and then The Drowned and the Saved. Looking at this, we can easily figure out what the prevailing perception of Primo Levi in these contexts has been. Namely, the figure of the Auschwitz deportee and witness remains the indisputable focus point. To this figure are added his having been a chemist and his indisputable skill as an essayist, features that are considered distinctive but not essential. Reasoning along this line of thought, his skills as a writer have necessarily remained in the background.

Table 11 provides us with some interesting corroboration. In fact, it shows us the languages into which only one work of Levi’s has been translated, this work almost always being If This is a Man. This is also true recently, over the last several years. Likewise, Table 12 shows us languages into which at least two works that most properly can be called narrative have been translated. This table reveals that translations of these narratives were made only after editions of the five basic works of memory had already become available, essentially Levi’s five works on the Shoah. Consequently, this progression has seemed to prevail in such a decisive way as to condition the image of Levi that has taken shape in international culture.

In conclusion, we would like to propose a last set of data that can be used to do further research beyond what we have considered so far. The chronology shows us the order in which Primo Levi’s translated works were published in the six languages where they have spread the most.  The numbers in the column at the left indicate the first, second, third, etc., book that was published. The numbers next to the abbreviations of the titles indicate the dates of publication. Each book is illustrated in a different color. Thus it is easy to follow how this book fared in the various linguistic contexts. If we read the first horizontal line, we can notice, for example, that the first work to be translated and published was If This is a Man, except for Hebrew. The second horizontal line shows something similar for The Truce. As we go down the chart, the situation becomes more complicated, raising issues of interest that are surely worth going into.

At this point we should conclude by making several considerations. All in all, the data that we have presented here trace out a long and rather uneven path. There were several factors that played a decisive role. First of all, Levi put a lot of effort into encouraging and checking up on the first translations of his books. Second of all, a number of intellectuals, translators and publishing houses stimulated the interest of reading publics in various countries, even in the face of entirely unfavorable circumstances. This leads us to underline how important the ethical-political dimensions were in the study and the spread of Primo Levi’s works and their contents, thereby extending a set of problems already present in the Italian scene beyond it into the international context.

On the other hand, there were many factors that led to the removal of the Shoah from the cultural and political horizon in and outside of Europe over the course of the decades. These were the same ones that conditioned the reception of the works of Primo Levi. Nevertheless, there were still factors that led to maintaining the memory of the Shoah, also conditioning the reception of his works. This is true in varying degrees for Western Europe, Eastern Europe and for countries as different as Israel and Japan.

It is just as intriguing to consider how much the prevailing image of Primo Levi as a witness ended up putting into the background not only his image as a great writer but also other essential features of his personality and work. From this point of view, the upcoming publication of his complete works in English will be a decisive step in changing this situation – in effect, a new beginning – as was the first American translation of The Periodic Table in 1984.

1Giovanni Tesio, ed., La manutenzione della memoria: diffusione e conoscenza di Primo Levi nei paesi europei [Keeping memory up: The spread and the recognition of Primo Levi in European countries] (Torino: International Primo Levi Studies Center, 2005).
2P. Mesnard and Y. Thanassekos, eds., Primo Levi à l’oeuvre [Primo Levi at work] (Paris: Kimé, 2008).
3Abbreviations. Asterisks denoting partial translations into English:
ITIM – If This is a Man/Survival at Auschwitz, T – The Truce/The Reawakening, D&S – The Drowned and the Saved, INNW – If Not Now, When?, PT – The Periodic Table, , W – The Wrench/ The Monkey’s Wrench, NS – Storie naturali [Natural histories], Poems – Collected Poems / L’osteria di Brema / Ad ora incerta, FD – Vizio di forma [Formal Defect], AW – Auschwitz Report, MM – The Mirror Maker/selections from Racconti e saggi, Stories – Racconti e saggi, Camon - - Conversations with Primo Levi, OPT -- Other People’s Trades, Regge – Conversations, L – Lilit, Reprieve – Moments of Reprieve [selected stories], Voice -- PL: Conversazioni e interviste/ The Voice of Memory, Roots – The Search for Roots, CW – Opere [Collected works], A&L – “Asymmetry and Life” and other stories/essays, LCW – “The Last Christmas of the War” and other stories/essays
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