Tendering the Unbuttoning: Translating Stein into Italian

Marina Morbiducci


Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday.

This means clearness, it means a regular notion of exercise, it means more than that, it means liking counting, it means more than that, it does not mean exchanging a line. 1


I like a thing simple but it must be simple through complication. 2


As it appears from the above quotations, Stein was intrigued by the agency of translation, which she assimilated to “a clean dream” and “an extravagant turn up” (to be dancing at). She disregards (as is typical) “the authority”, and envisions in translation the possibility of showing the agency of choosing. She is simultaneously ironic about an urge to secure “the steady rights” and the anxiety of making “mistakes”: “no more than yesterday”, she recommends. And yet a qualitative feature of Stein in translation lies, exactly, in this fatal occurrence of errors, either by mistake or misprint. Stein also suggests that translating implies “clearness,” interpretable as the following statement: in order to translate, one must clarify the real uncovered meaning of the word or text. This involves “a regular notion of exercise” — nothing in writing comes for free or permanently, but is a continuous struggle with language.

Those who still believe Stein composed by way of associative techniques will be disappointed to realize how much Stein relied instead on the rational power of our mind, and consistent intellectual self-discipline: systematic application, methodized procedures, serious commitment, and finally “counting” — to be “liking counting”, that is, loving the mathematics and geometry of language, the universal rationalizing quality implicit in any utterance and form of discourse (a pre-Chomskian thought?). Translating therefore “means more than that,” but most of all “it does not mean exchanging a line.” That is, translation is never an automatic one-to-one correspondence, nor a linear relation of substitution. In life nothing repeats itself; no two things are the same. Translating means discovering with a mental microscope the most minute cell of meaning and bringing it to the surface of signification. Similarly, there cannot be any trade with words — we cannot sell, market, or exchange them — they are entities on their own. Stein apprehended much of her writing through this inter- and intra-dialectics of language/s. Initially showing itself as disruptive and complicated, such tension then unravels into simpleness and clarity: “I like a thing simple, but it must be simple through complication.” It has the lightness of a dance in the mind: “Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up.”

Translating Stein thus means entering the very gears of the mental operations which produce thought and language; penetrating them to their remotest roots, capturing the essence, resorting to the origin.


Translating ab origine

Constantly exposed from the beginning of her life to the sound of other languages, Stein soon became accustomed to the transforming mental operations and transmuting processes of translation. Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in February 1874, she was living in Vienna a year later with her family in a multilingual environment: “There were servants, a Hungarian governess and a Czech tutor for the children.” 3 Her first surrounding sounds were not only American, but also German, Slavian and, later on, French. “Of course I had been born in America […]. But all the same when I was eight months old we were not there.”4 “Our little Gertie is a little Schnatterer. She talks all day long and so plainly. She outdoes them all,” her aunt Rachel reported of her when she was two (Hobhouse, 4). What Stein referred to as “aggressive liveliness” — as a feature of her childhood — manifested itself in verbal playfulness.

When in 1878 the whole Stein family moved to Paris, Gertrude and her sister Bertha “were sent to a little boarding school, where they improved their French and began to make contact with children outside the family”. But due to [Gertrude's father] Daniel Stein's legendary restlessness, “the pleasures of life in Paris were not to last” 5 and in 1879 the Stein family, with “dozens of gloves, wonderful hats, riding costumes […] a microscope and a whole set of famous volumes of French history of zoology,” sailed home for America via London. They eventually settled in Baltimore and it was here that “emotions began to feel themselves in English” (all quotations from Hobhouse, 4). As a teenager Stein attended a cosmopolitan school in Oakland, and started reading and loving Shakespeare. Indubitably, as Gertrude Stein herself remarks, her first years were spent with the sounds of “Austrian German and French French, and now American English.” 6 Such a full immersion into other and mixed languages created a truly pluri-linguistic environment for the young talented “Schnatterer.” Her mother's letters and diaries of the period record the fact that Stein's first words were spoken in foreign languages. They also reveal the difficulty with which Amelia [Gertrude Stein's mother] — the daughter of recent immigrants from German — herself used English. Neither was Daniel's command of the language perfect. (Hobhouse, 5)

From her biographies and autobiographical works, we can draw full account of Stein's peculiar linguistic sensitivity and the encircling permeation of different idioms. Upon moving to Paris in 1903 and becoming an expatriate, Stein completed this estrangement from her mother tongue. She was constantly in a process of translation, obviously conscious of language differences and dilemmas:

[S]omething else which Picasso and Gertrude had in common was French as a new language. As expatriates they were hardly unique in a city which drew foreigners from most of the world. Nor did their awkward French prejudice them in conversation with the various exiles […]. It even enhanced the childlike enthusiasms and outbursts in which they communicated. But most important, it allowed them — when they ceased to strain to understand the language around them — means of withdrawal from the general society in which they worked, Picasso as a painter, Gertrude as a writer. It brought them both a kind of solitude and privacy in which to carry on the formal experiments in which they were both engaged. (Hobhouse, 69)

Referring to those years, Stein points out that

one of the things I have liked all these years is to be surrounded by people who know no english. It has left me more intensely alone with my eyes and my english. I do not know if it would have been possible to have english be so all in all to me otherwise. And they none of them could read a word I wrote, most of them did not even know that I did write. No, I like living with so very many people and being all, alone with english and myself. 7

Beyond the usual veil of humour and subtlety, language — both native and acquired — evidentally performed an intimate and identity-shaping function for Gertrude Stein. She was herself a translator of literary texts, translating Flaubert for instance, and even in her more mature years implicitly translating from French (see also the case of Bernad Fäy, as reported in the Autobiography ). In her earlier Harvard years as a student of William James, she researched the habits of perception, discovering that repetition was the most common feature in our linguistic behaviour. In those experimental studies Stein developed a scientific perspective of language and speech analysis that eventually helped to shape her idiosyncratic style, and became for her the substance of further artistic enquiry. Her process of linguistic deconstruction may have been activated precisely by her lifelong co-presence with an alternative language. Under this frame of reference, translation could be imagined as the other side of the moon, the figure behind the screen, the mirror glass of a projective mind. Never a duplicate, a copy, a fake, or mere repetition — rather a disclosing conjecture, an expansive construct, a textual insistence.

Translating Stein implies strain, inasmuch we have to follow her compositional dynamics and undergo the same excruciating process of creation to make sense of the resulting text. As a peculiar form of close-reading and re-writing, translation gives us a way of understanding the original writing by reenacting its making, which provides the congenial interpretative framework Stein calls for. There are intimate constitutive similarities between the text Stein produces “ab origine” and the textual essence of translation as a “derived” form. In both cases, meaning is a conquest after striving to (momentarily) give (graspable) form to a text's status of flexibility, mutability, lack of permanence, certitude, and (patriarchal) “authority”. Both texts (the original and the translation) are navigated by sight in the sea of signification. Translation thus becomes a “dance” in harmonious motion with the ongoing rhythm of the original text, always fluttering in centripetal radiance, pursuing decentering:

Act so that there is no use in a centre.


If the centre has the place then there is distribution. That is natural. There is a contradiction and naturally returning there comes to be both sides and the centre.8


Pursuing the Untranslatable

I have always been puzzled by the higher or lower degree of translatability of some texts. According to George Steiner, we generally assume, by virtue of an “ a priori leap”, that every linguistic production is translatable:

There is an a priori leap which precedes every act of translation; there are assumptions/ presumptions, usually unexamined, of ‘translatability'. We take it that the text in front of us can be, more or less exhaustively, deciphered and transferred. This axiomatic motion is based on philosophic and formal expectations together with pragmatic evidence. The epistemological premises are at once so thoroughly internalized and so diffuse that we hardly bother to elicit or examine them. Thus translation may be said to proceed from bases of more or less occult conventionality […] But I want to see whether we can bring to partial light at least the substance, the authority of the a priori foundations of ‘semantic trust' which underwrite […] the actual business of translation. 9

Stein strongly questions any form of “more or less occult conventionality”, and undermines the “ a priori foundations of ‘semantic trust'” necessarily uncovered and debated with regard to any act of translation.

The challenging untranslatability of experimental poetry undoubtedly can be very appealing. Among texts I have worked upon (primarily by Olson, Creeley and Fraser 10), Stein's Tender Buttons — defined by the author herself as a work of poetry — has been the hardest to unbutton. The deviousness of poetical language is likely to find its apex in Stein's polysemic linguistic deconstruction. The apparent surface-nonsense — often based on homophones, rhymes, alliterations, parallelisms, oxymorons, chiasms and all kinds of devices — more than being misleading, risks becoming a cul-de-sac. Inhibition, fear, demotivation, lack of courage and lack of faith [in language]: these are the ritual, initiatory trials Stein demands we undergo. The temptation of giving up, or giving in, is sometimes irresistible.


The Occurring of Chance

Then at once chance intervenes, and what in the Steinian original reads “this makes sa n d” 11 — a transposition or playful variation (lacking any form of referential grip, we go tentatively and can only make hypotheses) of the more common expression “this makes [me/you/us] sad”, as a canonical text probably would have presented — transmutes into the splendid Italian ambivalent “questo fa s abbia” (sabbia= sand ). Here the formulaic conversational utterance “questo fa r abbia” (rabbia= rage ) — which incidentally describes the emotive reaction produced in a reader by the text at hand, engaging her/him in a sort of responsive attitude — beautifully meets, by pure phonetic coincidence, the need of a polysemic solution, simply with the mere sliding of one consonant. Following the passage, sa n d > sad = s abbia > r abbia: in English there is an elision, in Italian a substitution, but in both cases two layers of meaning overlap. The version in translation adds to the polyvalence of the original. Tension is created as the “primary” and “secondary” texts enter a dialogical interplay. The words themselves, in such mutual relation, become agents of unexpected meanings generated by the confrontation of two linguistic codes, and the initial obscurity suddenly is illuminated. Tender is the Button, when the keyboard modulates new unforeseeable resonances of meaning: rage (= rabbia) crumbles into sand (= sabbia), and sad (= triste) disappears.


The Intervention of Mis[s]prints

Cases like the ones above described are not frequent, but do happen. Our reading and understanding depend, similarly, on interventions of chance when a misprint occurs (this is more frequent!). Let's consider some of the misprints in the first Italian print of Tender Buttons :

“all the stein is tender” instead of “all the stain is tender”;
princes are sweet” instead of “if prices are sweet”;
saintly ” instead of “ daintly ”;
pope ” instead of “ hope ”;
lunch ” instead of “ bunch ”;
violent ” instead of “ violet ”;

just to quote a few. This is quite a normal event in the course of publication. But at times with Stein, the misprinted version surprisingly makes as much sense as the original one, if not more. In the last example here — “viole n t” instead of “violet” — Stein's complete text reads:

Cutting shade, cool spades and little last beds, make violet, violet them.12

An idea of “violence” is conveyed by the words “cutting,” “spades,” and even by the verbal form: an imperative “viole n t”, followed by a personal pronoun in the function of an object, “them”. Thus “violent” does not appear out of place.

Via the accidental occurrence of misprints in such open-ended texts, which can be supported by numerous other examples, the wonder of language continually surprises us, so that, delighted, we can say (with the distract printer who made the initial mistake): “All the St e in is Tender.”


De-construction / Ambivalence / Polysemy

Stein's consciously-performed play with deconstruction offers another aspect of linguistic delightfulness. It often leads to neologisms or ambivalent constructs; as in the verbal string “suppose an eyes,” where we either have to postulate a new verb “supposenize”, or the sequences “suppose a nice” / “suppose an ice.” 13 Other related examples could be:

this dress > distress
be where > beware
any collar > any color
ear rings > earrings
a to let > a toilet
any motion > an emotion
a point it > appointed
reader > read her
aider > aid her
rubber > rub her
satin > Satan,

and so on. Any of these examples work within an interpretative discourse about an overarching Steinian macrotext, while also disclosing a series of questions that can't be treated here. In Italian translation, the only possible resource for demonstrating this ambivalence was to place a footnote and make one choice, as Stein recommends:

translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday. (emphasis mine)


Tender Buttons : Multiple Polysemy

From its very title Tender Buttons presents itself as a programmatically polysemic work. “Tender” can be an adjective, an imperative, or an agent noun. “Button” can be a verb (imperative) or a noun. As a noun it can have different meanings, either literal or allusive. In Italian, “buttons” could translate as “bottoni,” “gemme/germogli”, or “capezzoli”. There are 291 discriminating footnotes in the first Italian translation of Stein, witness both to the delivering pain of the translators, and our decisions about specific, multiple options: “show the choice.”

“Objects,” the opening section of Tender Buttons , exemplifies some of the problems implied by translating Stein. The original text reads:

A carafe that is a blind glass

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Here, the primary challenges were to convey the polysemy of “kind” and “spectacle”; to render the almost synonymic pair “system” / ”arrangement”; the oxymoronic parallelism “not ordinary” / ”unordered”; the pervading “-ing” form, used indifferently as verb and noun; and to give a sense of the meaning we thought the piece had.

The Italian version came out as follows:

Una specie in vetro e una parente, una lente e niente di strano un singolo colore ferito ed un arrangiamento in un sistema volto a indicare. Tutto questo e non ordinario, non disordinato nel non rassomigliare. La differenza si espande.

As often happens in translating Stein, the puns, word plays and suggestive ambivalences pivoted on different words, in Italian, than those in the original. Only in rare cases did they overlap. Let's consider the lexical item “kind.” In English it can be an adjective and a noun. As a noun it can have many corresponding words in Italian: “specie,” “tipo,” “genere,” and so on. It also has Shakespearian resonances ( Hamlet , when he says “more than kin, less than kind” 14). Stein presumably could not ignore this echo, and for this reason we did not find strange the word “cousin”. We decided to shift the polyvalence of the word “kind” to the word “cousin,” which is not polyvalent in English. So we chose the Italian “par ente ” — which literally means “relative” — instead of “cugino” (= “cousin”), for three reasons:

1. a rhyme with “l ente ” (= “spectacle”, polysemic in English but restricted to one meaning in Italian, if translated with the corresponding “spettacolo”), and “ni ente ” (= “nothing”). This accidental triple rhyme in Italian presented as very appealing and not to be missed;

2. the phonetic and morpho-syntactic ambivalence of two Italian words: a) “un'apparente” (literally in Italian, “something which appears,” but also “something which seems” — “a carafe”= “a kind in glass” does appear, and does seem); and b) “una parente” ( = “ a relative”);

3. the precise term of family relation, “cugino,” did not appear crucial to understanding the rest of the piece, and therefore could be changed to the benefit of other multiple suggestions.

We thus shifted polysemic agency from one word to another, according to what circumstances offered. Keeping rhythmic and musical aspects of the piece was a strong guiding urge. We thought, felt, that the tempo represented a feature not to be altered. This is possible with Stein, since for her the referential meaning is not prior to phonetic and auditory qualities of a word.

For the “-ing” form of “pointing”, we took the liberty of splitting the verbal form into two words, one of which is ambivalent: “vòlto” or “vólto,” according to the stress, can be either “face” or “directed, pointed.” We thus did not respect the word's singleness but opted for a form of ambivalence. Once again we shifted polysemy from one lexical item to another.

Our translation, in the end, happened exactly after Stein's description in Tender Buttons: “the difference is spreading.” And this is part of Stein's captivating magic. On many occasions translating Stein, we experienced what she had written and we were reading. This is her peculiar pedagogy. She takes you where she wants, even though you go there spontaneously by simply following her composition. As Creeley later put it: “looking for a path, the feet find it.”



1. Gertrude Stein, Teneri bottoni, ed. and trans. by Marina Morbiducci and E. G. Lynch, intr. Nadia Fusini. Macerata: Liberilibri, 1989, p. 310. Ital. trans.: "Danza un sogno lindo ed un'estravagante apparizione, assicura i diritti permanenti e traduci più che tradurre l'autorità, mostra la scelta e non fare più errori di ieri." This has been the first (and so far the only) Italian translation.

2. Gertrude Stein, " 'Afterword', A Transatlantic Interview" in What Are Masterpieces, ed. R. B. Haas. New York: Pitman, 1970, p. 104.

3. Janet Hobhouse, Everybody Who Was Anybody. A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: Putnam, 1975, p. 2.

4. Gertrude Stein, Wars I Have Seen. London: Batsford, 1945, p. 1.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ed. Carl van Vechten. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, p. 76.

8. Stein, "Rooms", Tender Buttons, quot., p. 280-2.

9. George Steiner, "An Exact Art," No Passion Spent, Essays 1978-1996. London: Faber & Faber, 1996, p. 190.

10. I was privileged to have the opportunity to discuss with Robert Creeley and Kathleen Fraser in person their problematic (un)translatability as authors.

11. This example is drawn from "Food", Tender Buttons in the bilingual edition above mentioned, pp. 152-3.

12. The piece is titled "Pastry," from "Food", Teneri bottoni, p. 242.

13. For this and other "discoveries" I'm indebted to E. G. Lynch, co-author with me of the Italian translation of Tender Buttons.

14. As Nadia Fusini suggested to me.


BIO: Marina Morbiducci is a critic and translator of contemporary poetry. She is the Italian translator and editor (with E. G. Lynch) of Tender Buttons (Liberilibri, 1989). She has also edited, with Annalisa Goldoni, an anthology on the Black Mountain Poets and Robert Creeley. She has translated Kathleen Fraser's Etruscan Pages (Cloud Marauder, 2001). Among her recent publications are an essay on Gertrude Stein and the garden ("Having It Having the Being Being There: The Garden in Gertrude Stein/ Gertrude Stein in the Garden" in Riscritture dell'Eden, ed. A. Mariani, Liguori, 2003). In March 2003 she was awarded her PhD for a dissertation on Stein in Tempo (Univ. of Pescara). Her translations and edition of Maltese poet Oliver Friggieri's Haiku are in print. She is presently lecturing at the University of Malta in the Italian Department.

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