Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (trans Clarissa Botsford ). And Other Stories. 256 pp. $15.95
Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has slowly and inexorably invaded me, little by little, like the sea.” Dones has worked as an interpreter for foreign tourists and as a literary translator of poetry. She has navigated between Italian and Albanian (and sometimes English) for most of her life, and she is deeply aware of the strain and discomfort of moving across languages. Her constant mindfulness of the struggles of inter-lingual shifts underpins every moment of this tight, utterly original story.
Tension between Albania and Italy is fierce. Albanians have been emigrating to Italy for decades, especially since the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, and immigrants have faced massive xenophobia from Italians, even at the highest official levels. In February of 2010, the ever-incendiary Silvio Berlusconi met with the then-Prime Minister of Albania, Sali Berisha, and requested his help in restricting the “scafisti”—human traffickers who use boats to transport illegal immigrants between the two countries. Silvio then continued off-script, commenting that Italy, and he himself, would “only make an exception for (traffickers) bringing over beautiful girls.” Because Berlusconi so frequently makes comments denigrating to women, this statement hardly raised any eyebrows. However, Elvira Dones, who is also a journalist and documentary filmmaker, published an open letter to Berlusconi in La Repubblica, which, she caustically points out, he does not read. In her letter, she tells the stories of a handful of these trafficked “belle ragazze albanesi” (beautiful Albanian girls) who have been forced into prostitution. She offers to send Berlusconi her books and documentary films on the subject, and rather reasonably requests that he be a little more thoughtful when endorsing illegal sex slavery. A staunch supporter of gender equality, and a victim of state oppression, Dones unsurprisingly was ignored by il Cavaliere. And though she says this book was “born” in Italian, it can’t help seeming like a partly political decision, knowing the extent of racism towards Albanians in Italy.
Dones’ work frequently deals with gender (Sole bruciato, Brunilda,) and cultural identity (Roulette, Piccola guerra perfetta, Balkan Beauty). Sworn Virgin plays out as a lengthy and aching choice between the two: the protagonist, Hana/Mark must choose to keep either the gender or the language she was born with. The violent “invasion” by the Italian language experienced by Dones herself finds its way into the novel’s text, as Hana/Mark is worn away at by an inexorable “sea” of choice, between remaining a man in Albanian, or becoming a woman in English. Hana’s decision seems needlessly tormented at times; parts of the novel are set in in the early 2000s, and such hand-wringing over wearing a skirt or looking at your own naked body seems occasionally unbelievable, or at the very least, frustrating. But as readers, we feel for Hana, imagining her terrific vulnerability as she’s asked to abandon one of the two most fundamental pieces of her identity.
The plot is given through flashbacks and memories, but the story begins with single-gendered Hana, a bookish university student living in the (relatively) cosmopolitan city of Tirana. Hana loves English, memorizes foreign poets, and fantasizes about France, where the boy who has been courting her will soon be headed on scholarship. At her uncle’s deathbed, when presented with an arranged marriage, Hana volunteers to become a man, as the tradition of Kanun will her permit to do. According to this tradition, she will take an oath to become Mark, to live her entire life as a man and to never relinquish her virginity. To become a “sworn virgin.”
Sworn virgins don’t undergo sex changes, or identify as homosexual; they dress as men, carry weapons, inherit and own property—privileges denied to women. Dones manages to present a world where this is a reality, where Hana genuinely seems have few other options. Unlike her decision to become a woman again, her decision to take the oath of virginity feels seamless. Dones simply has Hana walk upstairs and change her clothes. She scratches the date, November 6, 1986 into the wall, making it a strangely harrowing scene. All the conflict of the book hinges on this moment, which is rendered beautifully flat and understated in Dones’ prose.
Hana’s first thought as a newly minted patriarch is not, as we might expect, a wistful farewell to her past and future life as a woman, but rather: “Now what? . . . Now nothing. Now there is nothing. What time is it now in Paris?” She has not only lost her femininity, she has sacrificed the fantasy of an escape overseas, giving up any possibility of becoming elegant, foreign, and English-speaking. It’s a grim moment, which we simultaneously fail to imagine and completely believe. Living as we do in a world where gender fluidity is the norm, Hana’s despair might feel overblown or abstract to us; instead, this invocation of a Paris that Hana will now never see immediately hurts.
When she moves to the U.S., to a suburb outside of Washington, D.C., Mark, who is now given the chance to become Hana again, immediately begins to obsess over her English. She focuses on learning the language instead of embracing her forgotten femininity, to the mock chagrin of her very feminine cousin. She finds it hard, harder even than her transition from female to male, which she once described as “hell”: Hana “thought everything would be easier. When she had become Mark she had had no real experience of femininity. And now she’s even scared about her job interview tomorrow. Her English sucks.” The struggle to acquire English, to become Americanized, is more forced and challenging than taking on a new gender. Yet no one understands why she is making such a big deal of it. Her cousin is baffled:
“There’s no point,” she says. “You don’t need perfect English to be a parking attendant or a cleaning lady. All you’re trying to do is become a woman, not a Ph.D. or whatever it’s called.”
“Without language you can’t do anything,” Hana answers.
Reclaiming her gender is, for Hana, linked to claiming English and distancing herself from Albanian. Though she has dressed and identified as a woman for a year and a half, her final test of assimilation will, predictably, be to dispose of her virginity. She selects an Irish-American, the man she met while traveling across the ocean to be her partner in this culminating trial. As part of their (cringingly awkward) courtship, she presents him with a copy of her diary, which she has translated from Albanian into English. She can only have sex with him after he approves of her translation. As they’re having sex, he whispers to her “you’re not drowning.” Hana can survive Dones’ “inexorable sea” of translated language, she can cross the body of water that separates Albanian from English, as Dones did in crossing from Albanian to Italian—and as Clarissa Botsford’s translation does from Italian to English. Hana is not brought across the water by scafisti who will sell her body, as many Albanian women are, and she refuses to be sold into marriage by her uncle. She owns her own body, but only through sacrificing her native tongue, and embracing her translated self.
In translating a text that is already so explicitly fixated on the movement between languages, the translator must do tricky work. Botsford renders Dones’ text into clean, almost stark prose. Because large parts of the book are set in the United States, and because nearly every single character rhapsodizes over English, the translation seems impossibly at home in this language. Playfully Americanized sentences read flawlessly, and in a sense, it feels like Sworn Virgin was always intended to end up in English, that Hana is finally at home in the language she has always wanted to master. At one point, she says: “you know how much I loved that language, and how I never got to study it properly.” There is a sense of relief in reading Botsford’s translation, in the feeling that Hana has been rendered into the world of English that she has been painfully moving toward all along.
Through Dones’ unembellished writing, we grow closer to the distant reality of Kanun and rural Albanian life. The author’s background as a journalist, and her choice to write in a foreign language, serve her well; she flattens out Hana’s bizarre situation with terse, descriptive sentences that merely hint at turmoil. The strangeness of a poetry writing, transgender, raki-drinking farmer in post-Communist Albania is always maintained. The reader feels that Hana’s particular blankness echoes the bleak future offered to her, and to other Albanians. Dones’ strangely unemotional rendition of a story of suffering works not only because we feel for her protagonist; it works because we feel the stories of other sworn virgins, of other oppressed women, of other “belle ragazze” whose lives have been derailed, whose language has been invaded. It works because Dones wrote this book in Italian, in the language of a nation that has systematically abused her own, and because Hana has emerged not intact (exactly not intact) but ready to live.
Caite Dolan-Leach is a writer and translator who lives in Ithaca, New York.
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