#omaggio a Toni Negri 22

Caro Prof,

Ha ha, finalmente sei scappato

I would say, as the poet says: “A valediction forbidding mourning”.

A note on translation

Because anyway, there is work to be done, and the work is ongoing. Specifically, the translation of your Storia di un comunista. All 900 pages of it. A labour of love (especially because, at the start, no publisher would touch it). For the translator, who happens to be me, you are as alive today as you were six months ago. It is a strange sensation. You are not gone. Hour after hour of my working day toying with the resonances of your voice as I translate your thoughts and your history into English.

As a translator I am lucky still to have recordings that you made at various international meetings where I was present. More than the words on the page (which, true to your intellectual formation, often come across more as Latin or German than Italian), what is important to me is to have your vocality in my ear. Negri on the page is sometimes incomprehensible, but viva voce the meanings have a shining translucence. The rotundity of the discourse, the considered searching for just the right word, the rising urgency of your perorations – all this is a pleasure to have close to one’s ear.

What is strange is that since your death people keep phoning me – your humble amanuensis – to offer condolences for your passing. To such an extent that the words of the old song (Florrie Forde, 1908) have come to ring insistently in my ears.

Oh oh, Antonio, he’s gone away
Left me alone-io, all for to moan-io…

And in a certain sense I most certainly am bereft. Dicevo, sei scappato. Why do I say escaped? Because, as you know, for years now I have been e-mailing you with pepperings of inquiry regarding the dozens of unsourced quotations that are scattered throughout your writings. When finally you wrote to say that you had been in hospital for weeks on end, I took the decision that I would no longer chase you. So you obtained release from that obligation which good editing requires. And now, with your departure, that licence has become definitive – unless perchance you are moved to reply to me from beyond the Acheron where I imagine you now roam the Elysian fields.

The text of Pipeline was a case in point. The letters contained in the book were composed in prison, under trying circumstances. The text was very dense – “shorthand” and “baroque” as you yourself admitted. Full of translational difficulties that kept me awake at night, arising from your extreme, prison-induced shorthand. Lo stuzzichino giapponese in Letter 19 is one phrase that stands out for its impenetrability. Where necessary I now paraphrase, and I shall always be grateful to you for the permission that you gave me, to jettison anything that was truly incomprehensible.

Leaving aside the perennial problem of translating potere and potenza (since both words translate into English as “power”, and hence require verbal gymnastics to distinguish them), there was, as I say, the perennial problem of your citations. In the prison writings you gave no page references or bibliographic sources for the quotations that you used. Fine, if you happen to quote the Communist Manifesto – but not so funny when you quote two lines from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and the diligent translator has to hunt through all 516 pages of that volume to find them.

As you explained, many of the citations were unsourced because they were taken from books that arrived in your prison cell more or less by happenstance, and then would pass to other prisoners, or perhaps were trashed by prison guards. Regarding one instance in Pipeline you commented:

“The Hofmannsthal play. Which one was it? Maybe it was Elektra. How do you expect me to remember? This was thirty years ago, and I was in prison, and I don’t have the manuscript. You can tell them that in the Preface.”

And who knows, perhaps some of the translational difficulties are simply mistakes that nobody has noticed. For this we have to take account of the fact that the editorial process of writing this book was somewhat unusual. As you explained in the interview that we did in 2013, in Rebibbia there were four of you in the prison cell – yourself, Franco Tommei, and two other comrades (varying according to the vagaries of prisoners being moved between cells). You would write the text by hand, to provide the basic manuscript; Tommei would then type the text on a manual typewriter, chapter by chapter; and then it would be sent to the outside world. Inevitably there were scribal errors – some we have discovered only today, others perhaps will never be discovered – but the book was eventually completed for publication. And, what is more, it emerged wreathed in tobacco smoke. As you recalled: “In the cells we were all of us smokers. We smoked all the time. That was what destroyed my lungs, with the effects that I feel today.”

A note on bibliography

In September 2013 Toni was set to move out of the apartment in Venice, to make the transfer to Paris. It was an important day for me. I was there to fulfil a specific task that I had set myself. Namely to photograph the entire contents of his library at that point in time.

It had occurred to me that this would be an invaluable assistance for researchers in the future who were trying to understand the development of his thinking and his concerns in that period. This would be the best of bibliographies, because the books, their titles, and their editions, would be right there and ready for exploration.

I was lucky to arrive at all. On my way to 5508 Cannaregio, I became hopelessly lost. I walked in several circles. In the end, in desperation, I stopped at the only shop where I was certain that they would know how to find the address. It was the Pompe Funebri – the undertaker’s shop, whose business is to collect bodies, and who are expert geographers. They explained the route to take, and eventually I arrived. Rang the door bell, Toni let me in, and we shook hands. But when I told him the story of the undertaker, he jumped a full yard away from me and made vigorous Italian hand gestures of the kind that ward off evil spirits. I found this strange in a materialist and a communist.

[It was only later that I discovered that the street numbering in Venice goes in concentric circles… Sigh…]

Luckily, although our appointment had been postponed because Toni had toothache, I arrived before the removal men started putting everything into boxes. (The books were to be transferred to Paris by canal and riverboat… how poetic was that!) I photographed the books on their shelves, and Toni gave me a running account, which I still have as a recorded sound file somewhere.

Looking at the photographs – all 140 of them – confirms the usefulness of this bibliographic adventure, this materialist “inchiesta”.

For anyone interested in pursuing the matter further, I have posted the photos on a dedicated web page that you will find here:



Posted In memoriam, so to speak.

And so the work goes on.


PS: Caro Prof, I am sorry that we didn’t manage to get Storia published into English before you went. I know that this meant a lot to you, but of necessity the wheels of publishing move slowly, and I can only say that we are doing our best.

Ed Emery

London – 26.xii.2023

Immagine in apertura: biblioteca di Toni Negri nella casa di Venezia, 5508 Cannareggio, photo di Ed Emery.

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