Last year, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, quipped that human trafficking between Italy and Albania was not such a terrible crime, so long as the girls were “pretty.” Elvira Dones’s indignant response circulated widely in the blogosphere:

“I wrote a book (Sole bruciato, Feltrinelli 2001) on the ‘pretty girls.’ Years later I created a documentary for Swiss television: I went to look for another beautiful girl by the name of Brunilda, after her father begged me in tears to find her. He was a father like many other Albanian fathers, whose daughters disappeared, were kidnapped, raped, or even hung upside down in abandoned butcher shops if they dared rebel. […] It’s a long story, Mr. Prime Minister, […] But if I could get your attention, I would send you a copy of my book, send you a documentary, or happily sit down and chat with you. But I have to warn you, Mr. Prime Minister: I respond to your remarks, I don’t swallow them.”

[from an open letter translated by Michael Mottola]

I had come across the Albanian writer and filmmaker’s work years before, writing for the web pages of an Italian literary magazine, Leggendaria. Her combative nature, so evident in the letter, attracted me from the start. Dones expressed my frustration—and at times fury—with the way facile generalizations gain currency when there is too little shared knowledge and experience. Through her books I instantly felt her voice could be my voice, and that, as a translator into English, my voice could become hers in the English-speaking world. We share a ‘middle’ voice in Italian. We are both what you could call ‘reluctant’ Italians, in transition from and to some other place.

The project for which I won the PEN Translation Fund grant represents these aspects and many more. Sworn Virgin (Vergine giurato, Feltrinelli 2007) touches on many frontier themes: disorientation, gender and trans-gender identity and uncertainty, intercultural misunderstanding, immigration, emigration, and transition countries. The story is literally a story of transition.

Abandoning her literature studies in Tirana to look after the aunt and uncle who had brought her up, Hana is forced by her uncle’s imminent death to take an oath and assume the persona of Mark, a hardened mountain peasant, rather than accept an arranged marriage. As Dones shows in a documentary on this ancient Albanian tradition, if there are no male heirs, a woman can ‘opt’ to become a man—and enjoy his privileges in a backward, rural society where women were born to obey and serve men—as long as she swears herself to virginity for life. Mark’s decision to shake off the oath and reappropriate, after 14 years, what is left of Hana’s body and mind by moving to the United States makes for powerful narrative. The transition to a new life there as a woman wanting to shed the deadweight of her virginity is fraught with challenges, and the first-generation assimilated cousins with whom she tentatively undertakes her new life make her task no easier.

There are many exciting challenges for the translator, too. The book is written in contemporary Italian, representing a new ‘blended’ generation of non-Italian writers choosing to write in the language. Dones emphasizes the difficulties faced by a rural Albanian approaching American culture first-hand by ‘foreignizing’ her language, style, and descriptions. Identity issues are reflected in the fact that Italian nouns and adjectives have masculine or feminine endings, in the smatterings of Albanian mountain dialect, and in the often comic contrast between the received ideas of the youngest American-born niece and the equally received ideas of the Albanian tradition that Hana finds herself impelled to justify, after accepting them for so long. Hana’s voice, like Elvira Dones’s, is loud and clear, both in the third person narrative and in the frequent shifts to her past, which creates instant intimacy and empathy with the character, despite the ‘foreignness’—in every sense—of her situation. These features accumulate to create a strong impact on the reader, who is transported back and forth between Hana/Mark’s different lives.

It is fascinating and quite gripping to read, and I think it deserves to be read by more people. It will expose a wider audience of English-speaking readers to a darker, less obvious side of the Europe they think they know from more stereotyped sources. As Dones says in her letter to Berlusconi, she responds, she doesn’t just swallow.