Naomi Klein’s Doppelgänger’s Italian Doppelgänger: Misadventures in Translation

by Wu Ming 1

In a longform article on climate change and conspiracy fantasies which Italian magazine Internazionale published in two installments, I quoted and commented on several passages from Naomi Klein‘s latest book, Doppelgänger: A Trip into the Mirror World. I read it in English about two months ago, and I consider it an important work, one it is useful to engage with.

For those quotations, I thought it was right, as well as formally correct, to use the official Italian translation. It was recently published by la Nave di Teseo—henceforth NdT—with the title Doppio. Il mio viaggio nel mondo specchio. So I bought the electronic edition, and looked up the passages I wanted to quote. I was astonished. I did some spot-checking, and astonishment became discomfort.

I decided to forsake the NdT edition and translate the passages directly, also because in the NdT edition some of the sentences I had underlined—well, they weren’t there.

After I finished writing the article, I decided to make the matter public. it is only fair that readers, and Naomi Klein herself, be informed.

Doppio is a pale imitation, or a mutilated relative, of Doppelgänger. It is precisely its doppelgänger, its reflection in a distorting mirror. Yet another irony of fate that Klein has to suffer, after those she recounts in the book itself.

I am not going to speculate about what exactly happened, what part was played in this affair by the increasingly precarious working conditions and the increasingly rushed timelines of an over-publishing book industry. I will not even name the people who did the job. Pointing fingers at individuals does not interest me. What interests me is to explain what exactly ended up in the hands of the people who bought Doppio.

Methodological premise

The two texts I compared are that of the British trade paperback edition (Penguin Random House UK, ISBN 978-0-241-62131-8) and that of the Italian ePub edition (La Nave di Teseo, ISBN 978-88-346-1517-1).

I checked and compared the many passages I had underlined. I did it for the first 200 pages, at which point I desisted. It was too much. The Penguin Random House edition, excluding the notes and index, has 347 pages.

The list is divided by types of error or problematic rendition. In each section the examples are in order of appearance. The page numbers are those of the Penguin Random House edition.


Cuts (sentences missing in the NdT Italian version)

■ «Me treating Wolf like a branding problem would be about as off-brand as I could get» (p.47).

■ «Ahem.» (p.57)

■ «I am? I mean: she is?» (p.83)

■ «Once an issue is touched by “them”, it seems to become oddly untouchable by almost everyone else» (p.93)

■ «It seems the right time to reassess anyway.» (p. 94)

■ «He means it.» (p.99)

■ «If the claims are coming from the far right, the covert plan is for a green / socialist / Venezuelan / Soros / forced-vaccine dictatorship» (p. 101).

«He skates lightly over more traditionally conservative issues that he may care about but that are likely to alienate some of his newfound friends, including abortion and gun rights.» (p.127)

«Many gym owners took on large personal debts to keep operating under stringent new rules, only for the rules to continually change in arbitrary ways as the pandemic wore on.» (p.171)

Sentences that were misunderstood, misinterpreted, and/or turned upside down

■ «The video was bananas» (p.35).
NdT version: «Il video era banale»
[The video was banal]

■ «the [Australian] government» (p.79).
NdT version: «il governo USA»
[The US government]

■ «We can have legitimate debates about the decisions of governments» (p.80).
NdT version: «Possiamo discutere sulla legittimità della decisione dei governi»
[We can discuss the legitimacy of the governments’ decision]

■ «Wait until they hear about cell phones» (p.86)
In this passage Klein reports a joke told by liberals, by which they mean that “conspiracists” care about QRcodes in vaccine passports but not about everyday digital surveillance.
NdT version: «Mi aspetto che da un momento all’altro dicano: “il mio telefonino mi ascolta, ho le prove”»
[I expect them to say at any moment, “My phone is listening to me, I have proof of that”]
Aside from replacing a seven-word line with a paraphrase counting seventeen words, such rendition seem to treat that statement—phones listen to us, a truism—as either moronic or insane. That is not Klein’s intent at all.

■ «They know all about cell phones. They just don’t know what to do about cell phones» (p.87).
Klein is saying that those people know about widespread surveillance, but they don’t know how to act against it.
NdT version: «Sanno tutto dei cellulari, ma non sanno che cosa farne»
[They know all about cell phones, but they don’t know what to do with them]
This sounds as if they don’t know how to use phones. While in the original sentence those people are desperate, in the Italian rendition they’re just inept.

■ «Barely submerged fears» (p. 90).
NdT version: «paure superficiali»
[superficial fears]

■ «The result is a troubling dynamic» (p.93).
NdT version: «Si tratta di una dinamica esiziale»
[It is a calamitous dynamic]
Unlike troubling, esiziale is a rarely used, high-register adjective. It is used for something that has a disastrous outcome. In addition to changing the meaning, then, translators lifted the register for no reason.

■ «Extreme historical analogies» (p.104).
Here Klein is talking about the similitudes, recurring in Naomi Wolf’s rhetoric, between such and such thing and Nazism. The so-called Reductiones ad Hitlerum.
NdT version: «parallelismi storici inauditi»
[unheard-of historical parallelisms].
Actually, Reductio ad Hitlerum is very far from being unheard-of.

■ «And there is something else that I have noticed while listening to Bannon – he sticks, fairly judiciously, to the issues where there is common ground: hating Biden, rejecting vaccines, bashing Big Tech, fearmongering about migrants, casting doubt on election results. He skates lightly over more traditionally conservative issues that he may care about but that are likely to alienate some of his newfound friends, including abortion and gun rights. He doesn’t ignore them, but they don’t take up nearly as much airtime as one might expect.» (p.127)
NdT version: «Ho notato anche un’altra cosa: Bannon tocca sempre con prudenza temi come l’odio verso Biden, il rifiuto dei vaccini, le critiche alle Big Tech, la fomentata paura nei confronti dei migranti, i dubbi sui risultati delle elezioni. Non è che li ignori, ma non occupano lo spazio che ci si aspetta.»
[I also noticed another thing: Bannon always cautiously touches on topics such as hatred of Biden, rejection of vaccines, criticism of Big Tech, fomenting fear of migrants, and doubts about election results. It is not that he ignores them, but they do not occupy the space one would expect.]
Not only is the pivotal sentence—from «He skates» to «gun rights»—missing, but Klein is made to say the exact opposite of what she means.

■ «I cannot believe this feminist chick actually went further than I ever would.» (p.130)
Klein is imagining Bannon’s thoughts as he listens to Naomi Wolf, a former ideological foe who now not only collaborates with him but sometimes outdoes him in incendiary rhetoric.
NdT version: «Non posso credere che quest’oca femminista si sia spinta così in là, più di quanto io stesso avrei mai osato fare.»
[I cannot believe that this feminist goose has gone so far, further than I myself would have dared to go].
Figuratively speaking oca (goose) means, according to a stereotypical view, stupid woman. Naomi Wolf is not stupid though, nor does Bannon thinks she is.

■ «moving parts of education permanently on line» (p.148)
NdT version: «definitivo spostamento su piattaforme online di buona parte dei programmi di formazione del personale da parte di istruttori in presenza»
[definitive shift to online platforms of much of the staff training programs by in-person instructors]
It’s already a problem that one uses twenty words to translate a seven-word sentence, but here the translators didn’t understand the context, so they made up a different one and crowded it with presences—the staff, the instructors—that weren’t there in the original text.

The Far Right Meets The Far-Out (p.159).
Okay, this wordplay is untranslatable in Italian, but they could have at least translated it as The Far Right Meets New Age or something like that, instead they translated it as L’estrema destra, l’estremismo [The Far Right, Extremism].

■ «therapeutic work didn’t allow for social distancing» (p. 171)
NdT version: «le terapie non possono agire se non vige il distanziamento sociale»
[therapies cannot work if social distancing is not in force legally].
Klein is talking about the closures of gyms, health clubs, massage and physical therapist studios, etc. Here again the translators seem to have completely misunderstood the context.

■ «gender-marginalized people» (p.176)
NdT version: «soggetti genderfluid»
[gender-fluid subjects]

Sentences that were roughly summarized

■ They Know About Cell Phones (title, p. 75)
NdT version: «I nostri telefoni sono controllati»
[Our phones are controlled]

■ «What many of us who were cringe-following Wolf at the time missed was the extent to which her new messaging had struck a chord» (p.84).
NdT version: «Quello che a molti di noi sfuggiva era la portata delle iniziative di Wolf»
[What many of us missed was the scope of Wolf’s initiatives.]

■ «But here is what got my attention about this steep drop-off in Wolf’s Covid roller-coaster ride: what she was describing on Fox was actually not a vaccine passport at all.» (p. 79)
NdT version: «L’assurdità e l’ossessività di queste affermazioni mi hanno alla fine portato a pensare che il Suo bersaglio non fosse tanto il green pass […]»
[The absurdity and obsessiveness of these statements eventually led me to think that Her target was not the green pass but…]
NOTE. About the unmotivated emphasis on all pronouns referring to Wolf and the use of the expression «green pass,» see the following paragraphs.

■ «In the name of getting back to business as usual» (p.81).
NdT version: «sempre in nome del profitto»
[always in the name of profit].
Of course it’s always in the name of profit, but Klein is talking about something more specific here. She’s describing the moment when governments and the media focused exclusively on vaccines, and any talk of structural change disappeared from the public discourse.

■ «As the climate crisis accelerates, with the land heaving beneath us and burning around us, I expect that many of us will continue to find comfort in whatever small bodily obeyances we can muster. There is solace to be found here.» (p. 173)
At this point in Doppelgänger Klein has just recounted how yoga helped her combat stress and endure the period when she had cancer.
NdT version: «Con l’accelerazione della crisi climatica e il pianeta Terra che sta collassando, penso che molti di noi continueranno a trovare conforto in pratiche di questo tipo»
[With the climate crisis accelerating and planet Earth collapsing, I think many of us will continue to find comfort in practices of this kind.]
No more images of burning earth, and especially no more bodily obeyances, a direct reference to what Klein has just told of her illness.

Sentences that were replaced with completely different ones

■ «I gently push back on this: Why should surpassing a certain follower count preclude the possibility of feeling real pain?» (p.63).
NdT version: «Non condivido quest’affermazione: quando hai superato un certo numero di follower non devi pentirti di nulla.»
[I disagree with this statement–when you have exceeded a certain number of followers, you should not repent for anything.]

■ «The words she was saying were essentially fantasy.» (p.86)
NdT version: «Se dal punto di vista logico tutto ciò non aveva alcun fondamento […]»
[While from a logical point of view this all had no basis…].
A reference to the fantastic is replaced a reference to the illogical, and a short, self-contained sentence is replaced by an adversative coordinating proposition.

The Bad Births to Covid Conspiracy Pipeline (title, p. 175).
NdT version: Depressione post partum: cadere nella tana del Bianconiglio a causa del Covid
[Postpartum depression: falling down the White Rabbit’s hole because of Covid.]

Sentences that were lengthened, encumbered, unduly emphasized

■ «I always know when she has been busy–because my online mentions fill up instantly» (p.26).
NdT version: «Purtroppo, ero sempre aggiornata sulla Sua attività: a causa della confusione che si era generata tra noi due, le menzioni online che (ahimè) mi citavano arrivavano sul mio computer in tempo zero»
[Unfortunately, I was always up to date on Her activity: because of the confusion that had arisen between the two of us, online mentions that (alas) cited me arrived on my computer in zero time]
No comment.

■ «as all those clever jokes suggest» (p.90)
NdT version: «come suggeriscono paradossalmente le battute intelligenti»
[as intelligent jokes paradoxically suggest]

■ «I (…) am uncomfortable playing doctor» (p. 104)
NdT version: «non mi sento a mio agio nella parte del dottore che deve guarire qualcuno»
[I don’t feel comfortable in the part of the doctor who has to heal someone]

■ «with no concern for the irony that its intelligence operatives have meddled in elections and helped overthrow democratically elected governments the world over since the Fifties» (p.117)
NdT version: «quando è fin dagli anni cinquanta che la sua intelligence – guarda un po’ – condiziona le elezioni di altri paesi e contribuisce a rovesciare governi democraticamente eletti ovunque nel mondo»
[when it has been since the 1950s that its intelligence—look at that—has been conditioning elections in other countries and helping to overthrow democratically elected governments everywhere in the world]
The reference to an ironical twist was measured and understated, as is Klein’s style, whereas the parenthetic “look at that” is emphatic and puerile.

■ «their “question everything” led to many of us not questioning enough» (p.118)
A concise and elegant formula based on repetition and inverse proportionality.
NdT version: «il loro “mettere in discussione tutto” sempre e comunque ha portato molti di noi a dare sempre per scontate troppe cose»
[their “questioning everything” all the time has led many of us to always take too many things for granted].
Goodbye conciseness and elegance, hello adverbial expressions that weren’t in the original text.

■ «We defined ourselves against each other and yet were somehow becoming ever more alike, willing to declare each other non-people» (p.121)
NdT version: «Ci siamo dichiarati diversi da loro, ma in qualche modo, stavamo diventando sempre più simili, disposti a dichiarare gli altri soggetti inqualificabili»
[We declared ourselves different from them, but somehow, we were becoming more and more similar, willing to declare the others unqualifiable subjects.]
Gone is the concept of two camps defining themselves in mutual opposition, replaced by a generic being different, and the punchy formula “non-people” is replaced by a sluggish paraphrase.

Emphatic tones that are absent in the original text

The translators frequently changed Klein’s style of expression by inserting italics or exclamation points.

■ From the beginning to the end of the book, every pronoun referring to Naomi Wolf is written in italics and capitalized: «Lei,» «Suo,» «Sua.» (She, Her) This is entirely an invention of the translators; in the original it is simply she, her, without any emphasis.

■ Similarly, “conspiracists” are always referred to by the pronoun «Loro» (They, Them), in italics and with the capitalized initial, as if to assert their complete otherness from us, which Klein questions instead.

■ «Other Naomi» is always translated as «l’Altra Naomi», the Other Naomi, with the addition of the article and italics. The subtle strangeness of using Other without an article is lost.

«So, no,» (p.38) becomes: «Quindi no!» [Therefore, no!]

«this is not true» (p.79) becomes: «non è vero!» [It’s not true!]

«But that is very far from the truth» (p.110) becomes: «Ma non è vero!» [But that’s not true!]

«supposedly suppressed CDC reports» (p.119) becomes «i rapporti del CDC (verosimilmente secretati!)» [CDC reports (likely secreted!)]

It is important to point out that Klein never uses exclamation points in her writings, unless she is quoting someone else’s sentences. This is not really her style.

Clumsy Adaptations

The translators keep putting the phrase «green pass» into Klein’s mouth, despite Klein describing the North American context. In Canada and the U.S., certificates of vaccination or immunity have never had that name, and compared to our green pass their uses and terms of validity have been partly different.


Most of the errors I have pointed out seem to go in the direction of accentuating the otherness of “conspiracists,” keeping them at a greater distance, painting them simpy as idiots. The passages I examined miss all the caveats and nuances that Klein inserted in the original text and modulated to prevent any easy distancing. Klein writes respectfully even of Naomi Wolf herself. The absurdity of all those “Lei” and “Suo” completely betrays this latter aspect, and helps blunt Klein’s critique and self-criticism of the Left’s behaviours and discourses during the pandemic.

The work I just did for free should theoretically have been done by the publisher.

This situation cannot be overcome by merely solving the problems listed here, because the comparison was done on a sample basis, only on the passages I had underlined, and is limited to the first 200 pages. There are still 147 to go, and most importantly, there has not yet been a comparison of all the parts I had not underlined. It is highly probable that there are a great many other errors, cuts and problematic renditions.

I consider this translation unamendable. It should be withdrawn from the market as soon as possible.

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