Five notes on Smarginature, by Natasha Soobramanien

Five Notes on Smarginature
by Natasha Soobramanien

(i) Resisting translation; translation as resistance

This thing I have for words that resist translation.

This thing for words that speak of things that I, in this language, my language, don’t speak about, can’t speak about, would struggle to find absolute (definitive) words for.

This thing that I have is writing: that’s what writing is for me. An ongoing struggle to find the words I mean (whatever that means).

A struggle/process of birthing thought into language, giving form in language to what I have thought, through the act of writing.


As I type up the words for the thoughts I’ve been thinking yet more thoughts are being thought while I type, and these will themselves require words.

What is the term for this anterior thought process, this proto-writing that (fore)shadows the typing-up process? I want to say underwriting but that definition relates now to the language of capital, risk and profit. (And is not, weirdly, the antonym of overwrite, which may mean either to write in too fancy a style or—more of interest to me here: to write over existing writing—in a sense to erase writing by writing).

The Italian word ‘smarginature’ —for which there is no direct English translation—acquires, in its iterations throughout Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels a sense beyond its standard meaning as a technical printing term—‘outside of the margins’ (overprinting?). Used initially to describe the protagonist Lila’s periodic states of depersonalization, and translated by Ann Goldstein as ‘dissolving boundaries’, the term comes to signify more broadly the marginal and transitional states, the provisional and contingent identities, of the women in her novels—those who are dispossessed, those ostensibly self-possessed and those who are at times, possessed.

(I’m thinking now of Melina, driven mad with passion, climbing up on the windowsill to get to her rival’s clean sheets which are hanging out to dry, and despoiling them with ‘the charred tip of a reed’—a kind of grotesque parody of writing, women’s writing, l’écriture féminine, and in a recent conversation with Daniela I have learnt of a story by Dinesen, whose work I am unfamiliar with, which concerns the collection and display by an esoteric female religious order of sheets despoiled by virginal blood.)

Smarginature signals also this condition of blur (thinking/writing/‘underwriting’) between the boundaries of thinking, and writing, of reading and writing, of thinking and reading, of reading and being, experienced by Lenù, Ferrante’s writer-avatar in a vocational, if not biographical sense (more about this later).

This condition of blur is not a state but a process, to me—the blur perhaps of something glimpsed in motion—and if I were to give this process a name I would call it, ‘translation’.

Notions of translation are at the heart of the Neapolitan novels. Lila and Lenù are translated beings, translating one another, shifting continually between the Neapolitan dialect of their childhood and the standard form of Italian both have a talent for expressing themselves in. And it is in this more rarified linguistic sphere that Lenù finds success, and her professional voice as a writer (a voice modeled on Lila’s writerly voice). In fact her access to the world of letters is via her prospective mother-in-law, herself a translator.

Early readers of the Neapolitan novels who could not read the original in Italian were obliged to wait until each volume had been translated before we could continue with the series. Though this applies to early readers in Italian who also had to wait for the next novel in the series to appear as these were published sequentially, this décalage became for me integral to the experience of reading Ferrante in translation. And, as an Anglophone reader (I cannot speak for other languages), at the heart of the book is this concept—smarginature—which resists translation.

What about the kind of writing that seems to know from the first what it thinks. Is.

Is such writing a more straightforward proposition for the translator?

Does such writing yield to translation?

One should write to comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable, it’s been said. I write because I am uncomfortable; disturbed—that is, unsettled. I write because I am unsettled.

To write is to test this feeling. What is its source? What, if anything, can be learnt from it?

Ferrante’s women are constantly unsettled. Especially when they are settled.


(ii) Women In Translation

I began writing this on the last day of August, the birth month of Rafaella (also Lina/Lila) Cerullo, and the month designated in recent years by the Anglophone literary world as Women In Translation month, after an initiative by blogger and translator, Meytal Radzinski.

Women In Translation. I like the ambiguity of this: it speaks to translation’s art of nuance.

To be a woman, I think, is to be in translation.

Historically, a translation in the Western sense—that is, a necessarily inferior version of the original.

But, as always, there are other ways of looking.

An essay by Sujit Mukherjee, ‘Translation as New Writing’, takes as its point of departure the title of a 1974 Penguin anthology edited by Adil Jussawalla, New Writing in India —which included, along with original texts, several translations into English of extant texts—texts that weren’t exactly new but, says Mukherjee: ‘Until the advent of Western culture in India, we had always regarded translation as new writing.’

He describes the historical practice of translating texts from one Indian language into another, and the fluid relationship between ‘original’ texts (often translations of translations) and the subsequent translations of these—as well as the high degree of adaptation and rewriting accepted as part of Indian translation practice.

Contrasted with this is the historical view of translation in the West as ‘inferior’ to the precursor text, based on a dearly-held notion of originality and the concomitant subservience to the notion of ‘fidelity’.

Of the concept of fidelity to the original in Indian translation practice, Mukeherjee says this: ‘That translation is new writing need not justify new writing being a form of surreptitious translation. Rupantar (meaning ‘change in form’) and anuvad (‘speaking after’ or ‘following’) are the commonly understood senses of translation in India, and neither term demands fidelity to the original. The notion that even literary translation is a faithful rendering of the original came to us from the West, perhaps in the wake of the Bible and the need felt by Christian missionaries to have it translated into different Indian languages.’

The acts of appropriation and reinvention which inform the practice of translation in

India are antithetical to conventional Western notions of boundaries, of legal and moral notions of ownership and authorship.

To translate, we are told, is to betray (a particularly feminized verb).

But to translate is also the opposite: it is to attend to.

Gyatri Spivak, in the preface to her translation of Mahasweta Devi’s poetry in The Politics of Translation refers to translation as, ‘the most intimate form of reading’.

Things may be lost in translation. But through translation they may also be reshaped, (re)discovered. This recuperative turn is the particular preserve of women—and the marginal.

John Keene in his essay ‘Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness’ writes about teaching himself non-European languages (including Sanskrit from a ‘Teach Yourself’ library book in 6th grade), in order to have access to untranslated texts, the origins of his translation practice.

‘What has been especially important for me as a translator is to focus on areas of literary cultural production that other literary translators tend to overlook for a range of reasons. These include writing, especially poetry, by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent, all of which (and whom) tend to be less frequently translated than writing by men, writing by white writers (in multiethnic societies), and cis-heterosexual/straight writers.’

In a section of the essay called ‘The Black Ones Have Veiled Names’ (taken from Keene’s translation of Edimilson de Almeida Pereira’s ‘Capelinha’) Keene calls, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, for the urgent need for more translations into English of literature by writers from across the African Diaspora:

‘What I’d like to raise today is an adjacent issue, which is #BlackNarrativesMatter, or #NarrativesofBlackLivesMatter, or to put it another way: #NonAnglophoneNarrativesStoriesPoemsandOtherFormsofExpressionofBlackLivesMatter.’

We—that is, those of us who recognise in smarginature an element of our own existence, perhaps associated with something like a less definite sense of our own right to be—have to take this care to care—in our reading, in our writing, in our translation—because, if we don’t, we are lost.


(iii) Unsettled

‘To place a work in translation (and one could argue that every piece of writing is a work of translation) is to place it in transition and to leave it there, unsettled.’ Lyn Hejinian, Forms in Alterity: On Translation.

In her essay on the experience of translating the poems of Dragomoschenko Hejinian continues (my line breaks):

‘The process of translating these works has had the effect

of providing me with something like

a life

apart from my own,

a life

led by an other—

though that other turns out to be me.

It is not that translation involves the assimilation

of someone else’s “otherness”—

and it does not consist in

the uncomplicated making of an American poem

out of the raw materials of

a “foreign” one.

Rather, translation catalyzes one’s own “otherness,”

and the otherness of one’s own poetry.

This is not the alterity that comes from radical introspection —

not the sort of making-oneself-strange

(or getting “weirded out”)

that results from staring

for a long time

in the mirror,

contemplating one’s own name, or prolonging

scrutiny of the visceral traces of

a strong emotion.

Rather, it is the otherness of

seeming nonexistence—

the coming into being

of nonbeing,

the disappearance into language

of ourselves,

the world of which we speak,

the poem itself.’


(iv) Transition

When I read of Lila’s periodic episodes of smarginature, first experienced as a young girl at a party, I wondered if she would go on to encounter this during childbirth.

We know from the very beginning of her story, after all, that Lila is a mother (in the prologue it is her adult son Rino who rings Lenù to alert her to his mother’s disappearance).

I wondered, because Lila’s experience of smarginature corresponds strongly with my own experience of transition.

I mean transition as it relates to childbirth, which is to say the hardest stage (the hardest stage is not—as Hollywood films might suggest—the bit where you squeeze the head out. In comparison, that bit is a piece of piss—and sometimes, shit).

Transition in labour signals a shift in the intensity of the process, a zone where you as the labouring woman risk existential annihilation.

It’s where you start to lose sense of where you end and pain begins. There was no thought, for me, of the baby at this point. It was me or it, whatever it was.

If you do not hold onto your self the pain will colonise you. You as you know your self will cease to exist.

I felt very much that this would happen literally.

The more you resist the pain, the more it overwhelms. But it takes energy and fortitude not to resist, to allow yourself to feel the pain, to override (which sounds like ‘overwrite’) rather than to resist. And pain is exhausting and debilitating.

I laboured alone in a corner of the bedroom and I was struggling. How to survive this?

And then, and then—all went zingy and he came to me:

into my head and my room, in the corner, by the airing cupboard—

William Burroughs—there in his fedora, zinging and drawling

Don’t Fear The Pain!

Don’t Fear The Pain!

And I was laughing.

In laughing, I was restored to myself.

I find it chilling and bleakly funny to read in The Neapolitan Novels—praised for their expansiveness, their ‘cinematic detail’, their unflinching scrutiny of the visceral realities of women’s lives—Ferrante’s brisk accounts of labour and birth by her two protagonist mothers:

This is what we learn of Gennaro’s birth (Lila’s son), from Lenù via Carmen:

‘She almost died,’ she said, ‘so in the end the doctor had to cut open her stomach, otherwise the baby couldn’t be born.’

Lenù on the birth of her first child:

‘Our daughter was born on February 12, 1970, at five-twenty in the morning. We called her Adele, even though my mother-in-law kept repeating, poor child, Adele is a terrible name, give her any other name, but not that. I had atrocious labor pains, but they didn’t last long. ‘

And on the birth of her second:

‘At four in the afternoon I had my first labor pains. I said nothing to my mother, I took the bag I had prepared, I got in the car, and drove to the clinic, hoping to die on the way, I and my second child. Instead everything went smoothly. The pain was excruciating, but in a few hours I had another girl.’

And that’s it. The process is not dwelt upon. When so much in The Neapolitan Novels is dwelt upon.

And yet.

Smarginature speaks too to those early days of first-time motherhood: the daze of broken sleep, a broken body, the rupture in your sense of self.

‘This life of another, she said, clings to you in the womb first and then, when it finally comes out, it takes you prisoner, keeps you on a leash, you’re no longer your own master. With great animation she sketched every phase of my maternity, tracing it over hers, expressing herself with her habitual effectiveness. It’s as if you fabricated your very own torture, she exclaimed, and I realized then that she wasn’t capable of thinking that she was her self and I was my self; it seemed to her inconceivable that I could have a pregnancy different from hers, and a different feeling about children. She so took it for granted that I would have the same troubles that I was my self; it seemed to her inconceivable that I could have a pregnancy different from hers, and a different feeling about children. She so took it for granted that I would have the same troubles that she seemed ready to consider any possible joy I found in motherhood a betrayal.’

I take from this conversation the confirmation of a private truth: our own personal experiences make us lonely, they are not universalized, they are unique and thus isolating. Sisterhood relies on shared experience. I have never felt so alone as I did when I was in labour – but of course I wasn’t, I was as far from physically alone as it is possible to be, with another life wholly inside me—and what got me through was wanting to be alone to restore my own boundaries to get this thing out of me.

Lenù and Lila:

“It was a wonderful experience,” I told her.


“The pregnancy, the birth. Adele is beautiful, and very good.”

She answered: “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”

The feeling of post-partum disconnection that in some cultures goes by the name of ‘postnatal depression’ was for me a necessary reaction to the smarginature of those first hours, days, weeks, months of motherhood. The feeling or idea that I had somehow replicated but that it was the ‘original’ that was blurred, indistinct, is what persisted during this time, though, symptomatic of this very blurring and diminishment was my failure to articulate this in any meaningful way which would at least have allowed for full awareness of my actual state of headfuck (and to compound such feelings is the nagging feeling I have heard this idea before, that what I write here is not original…).

I can mark the point at which the fog began to lift.

The baby pointed to her rubber duck, and, visibly delighting in the power she was about to make manifest said, ‘duck!’.

Her acquisition of language marked the point at which our selves began to assume more distinct boundaries.

(Though when she drinks her milk in the evenings now she likes her hand to have contact with my skin. Her hand seeks out my arm in its sleeve and rests upon it. An act of reassurance. But nowhere close to the blurring of boundaries that came with breastfeeding her in her infancy, a dissolution of selves that felt utterly requited).

And I think of transition as it relates to gender presentation, and the smarginature of Alfonso’s fluid gender identity in the Neapolitan Novels, Alfonso who ‘becomes’ Lila for his lover Michele, Alfonso in whom ‘the feminine and the masculine continually broke boundaries’, just like Lila’s exploding copper pot and the belief—or rather hope— it inspires in Lenù that no one form could ever contain Lila.

Could contain any of us.


(v) Buried/hidden/stripped

Under the text of Ferrante’s novels is another language, one which is buried: Neapolitan. When I first met with Daniela to talk about this project and to talk about Ferrante we talked about buried languages; half-forgotten languages. She talked about the Neapolitan in the novel (which, in the original, Daniela tells me, is almost never directly rendered—as letters on the page). Daniela has written in her miraculous book F.M.R.L. about this idea of language made friable with time in the experience of recalling a lullaby in dialect sung by her Neapolitan grandmother. I have a similar experience of half-forgotten language: until the age of five I spoke no English, my parents spoke only Mauritian Kreyol with me. When I went to school and could not immediately communicate my parents stopped speaking to me in Kreyol. Thereafter it became the language of adults: my parents continued to speak it with each other. It was also the language of intimacy—of being shouted at, of being petted and cuddled, with words which resisted translation: ‘Come and fe gate’—come and have a cuddle. Gate means spoilt and a spoilt child is a zenfan gate. I have always liked how it sounds like gâteau, which, in French, the lexifier of Mauritian Kreyol, of course means ‘cake’.

Isabelle de Courtivron in her introduction to Lives in Translation writes about the experience of overwriting a forgotten language. One can be inhabited by bilingualism, she writes, even if one does not speak two languages fluently, but ‘writes from the absence of what should have been. For sometimes, after the loss of an early language, the music nevertheless remains alive en creux, leading one to write as on a palimpsest, in one tongue but always over the body and sound of a buried language, a hidden language, a language whose ghosts reverberate in words…’

And Ariana Reines—poet, translator, activist:

‘I know French because my mom’s parents, who were Polish and survived the Holocaust, spoke French to her because they had just come from Belgium where they had met in a Displaced Persons camp.  My mom knew French when she was very young and then she forgot it.  She always wanted to remember it, so she made me learn it when I was little, and then I forgot it when I was a little older, and I wasn’t allowed to see her anymore, and after missing her and feeling confused I learned French again in college, because something pulled me to it.  French probably attracted me because I missed my mom.  It is probably my mother tongue even though I am not good at it.’

I write this in November—long after Women In Translation month. I had previously read of the rumour that the writer of The Neapolitan Novels was also the Italian translator of Christa Wolf; the former had spoken freely in interviews of the influence of The Quest For Christa T on her work.

(And I felt in that case One Day A Year 1960-2000 must surely be an influence too: Wolf’s near life-long project continuing, for 40 years, the practice of writing up in detail the events of a single day each year, after Gorky’s ‘One Day in the World’ project, when Wolf and other writers were invited by the Russian newspaper Izvestiya to record their thoughts and experiences on the 27th of September 1960, for Wolf a full day with its account of the minutiae of work and life and family, of political meetings, of writing and baking and marital discussions and talking with friends and hanging out with children—the comingling of all of these things on the page, as in life, so Ferrante-like).

Since August, the woman who writes as ‘Ferrante’ has had her birth name (and story) unveiled.

I think of this specifically as an unveiling as it is linked, in my mind, with the burkini hysteria of this summer: the banning of this mode of beachwear in public by French civic authorities, and the violent policing of this Islamophobic and misogynistic ban.

And this ban and Ferrante’s unveiling—an act of violence—brought to mind Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’. A rewriting (not overwriting) of a story from the Mahabharata. In a note to her translation (from Bengali) of this story, Spivak discusses the relationship between the two texts:

‘It would be a mistake, I think, to read the modern story as a refutation of the ancient. Dopdi is (as heroic as) Draupadi. She is also what Draupadi—written into the patriarchal and authoritative sacred text as proof of male power—could not be. Dopdi is at once a palimpsest and a contradiction.’

In Devi’s story, Dopdi/Draupadi, a tribal activist, is on the run. She is arrested, and gang raped in custody. When she is ordered to be presented to the chief’s tent, she is ordered to dress herself with her ripped off ‘cloth’. She refuses.

‘What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again?’

Spivak’s note gives us the original story:

‘The Scriptures prescribed one husband for a woman; Draupadi is dependent on many husbands; therefore, she can be designated a prostitute. There is nothing improper in bringing her, clothed or unclothed, into the assembly” (65:35–36). The enemy chief begins to pull at Draupadi’s sari. Draupadi silently prays to the incarnate Krishna. The Idea of Sustaining Law (Dharma) materializes itself as clothing, and as the king pulls and pulls at her sari, there seems to be more and more of it.’

In accidental tribute to the spirit of Mukherjee’s essay I knew Spivak’s translation note long before I came to read Devi’s ‘Draupadi’. This I did in July, in issue 7 of the South As A State of Mind. The foreward, by editors Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, which introduces the issue’s themes of ‘Silence as resistance; masks as resistance’ ends (as I do here) with a reference to the ‘mysterious Elena Ferrante’. Ferrante since has been unmasked.

But as Spivak says of Draupadi, she is ‘infinitely clothed and cannot be publicly stripped’.





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