Friday, January 20, 2017

Lost in Translation

She said she doesn't want anything from you. That's what he told the older woman. That's how he translated my message.

However, my actual words, having been carefully chosen and sculpted, were meant to spare her ego. What I'd actually said was: Tell her, I appreciate her effort very much and would love to have something to eat later but I've just eaten and would not fully appreciate how delicious her food is. Tell her also that she's such a wonderful cook! (big smile from me to the woman awaiting translation.)

Most people would agree that, although both statements declare the same basic truth, each gives the listener, in this case, my mother-in-law, a different perception of the speaker. What other reason is there for language than if not to communicate what is in one's mind. And if a person takes the time and effort to mold the message into just the right words, one would hope that it would be that precise message that the listener receives, no?

Such mistranslation, for that is what I'd call the above encounter, has been without a doubt a strong motivator for my learning Greek. But this is not about me and my incompetence with the Greek language or my feeble attempts to communicate with my Greek relatives. Rather it is a revelation that speaks to something I'd never thought of despite the fact my life has been surrounded by people with whom communication is a monumental effort . . . and yes, an art.

This is about reading translated editions of books.

But how does the encounter above relate to reading? Can different translators have different renditions of translated material? I'd never thought about it much until I read the article, The Subtle Art of Translating Foreign Fiction, after which I thought about my new favorite author, Donatella Di Pietrantonio. But she writes only in Italian and I do not read Italian. So, does that mean my love for the author is actually meant for the translator?

Without Franca Scurti Simpson,  Di Pietrantionio's words would have been inaccessible to me and without such a gifted translator the author's poetic talent in My Mother is a River  and Bella Mia might have been lost in the telling of the tale. In an effort to understand this craft, Franca Scurti Simpson has agreed to a short interview and I thank her for that. Below is that interview:

Good afternoon Ms. Scurti Simpson. Welcome and thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me. Translating text seems like it would be quite different, depending on whether done commercially or with literary text. How did you decide to become a translator of literature?

You are quite right, Linda. The skills involved in translating commercial and technical texts are very different from those required to translate literary texts. Both jobs need the translator to replicate accurately not only the meaning and the tone of the text, but with literary translation you really need to try and get into the head of the writers and understand their motivation in using the words they have chosen and their intention, what emotions they are trying to elicit from the reader.

When I was much younger I liked to think that one day I might be a writer. Over time I had to accept that, while I loved writing and was reasonably good at it, I just didn't have any stories to tell. Becoming a literary translator was the perfect solution: I get to (re)write brilliant stories that someone else has already written in another language. I still get to "play" with the language and the words but I start with stories that have already been brilliantly told.

Actually, Ms. Scurti Simpson, wanting to "play" with language and words and loving to write seem like the perfect combination for creating your own literature. And I suspect there are stories of yours waiting to be born. But that's just my perspective based on you superb translations of Donatella Di Pietrantionio's work  How much time does it take you to translate a book like My Mother is a River and Mia Bella?

That is a difficult question to answer because translating a book is not a linear process. I started translating My Mother Is a River in February 2015, and I had finished the first draft in about a month but then I edited it again and again for another two months. It is a process that, for me, is like whittling: you start roughly shaping your block of wood and then, over time and with a lot of patience, you carve the image you want to achieve. And even when you are not actually working on it, the text is at the back of your mind, and you mull over alternative translations of difficult passages while you do your shopping at the supermarket or while waiting for the traffic lights to change. After that, the text went for editing and when it came back I went through it again several more times, smoothing edges. The text then went to another editor for another round, and then back to me for a little longer. The book was finally ready to go to print in October of that year. My Mother Is a River is quite a short book. A longer text would require more time, of course.

I am guessing you do not translate word for word because such translation rarely carries the meaning of the original text. How do you make decisions about word choice and style? How do you tackle such literary devices as alliteration, humor, or imagery?

The secret is in trying to "get" the author's intention, because you want to achieve the book they would  have written if they had been able to write in English: you want to recreate the same feelings, the same emotions, keeping in mind that language structures and cultural references are different, and that some images or idiomatic expressions do not automatically make sense when transported into another language.

This means making critical choices at times. For example, there is a two line nonsensical rhyme early in My Mother Is a River, something that children use to taunt each other. In the original text, it is written in a dialect with mention of chickens and eggs, a reflection of the environment the children lived in. There were several choices I had to make here. First of all, how to tackle the dialect. There are several dialect words in the book but Donatella had very conveniently provided the Italian translation in the text, for those Italians who were not familiar with the Abruzzo dialect, so it had been simple for me to retain the original word and provide an English translation, and so remain very faithful to the original text.

The chicken-egg rhyme, however, was different. The text was simple and easy to understand even without knowledge of the dialect, so no translation had been needed in the Italian text. I also had to ascertain if this was a made up childish rhyme and or something that would be recognisable as having specific cultural connotation to Italian readers. Having decided that it was indeed a made up rhyme, I had to translate it maintaining the rhyme with the name Esperine. I needed words that could easily be used by unsophisticated children in a rustic environment sometime in the 40s. In the end I decided to go for "green" to rhyme with Esperine and made up a rhyme based on colours, which would not jar the context. I decided in the process that the use of the dialect did not carry any specific artistic connotation and so I disregarded its use in this case. Translation is not an exact art and a different translator might have made different choices, which might not have been necessarily better or worse than mine.

That's very interesting. It reminds me of my Italian grandmother who used to tell us, children, some saying from her village. Of course we didn't understand Italian so she'd translate it and it made absolutely no sense. We'd just be left scratching our heads. But your translations are really wonderful. I am also wondering what kind of books you yourself like to read.

I read quite widely - literary books but also lighter novels, fantasy and travel books. Han Suyin, Margaret Attwood, Anita Diamant, Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Bill Bryson are just a few of the authors I have enjoyed over the years. I also read in Italian, of course. In addition to Donatella Di Pietrantonio, some of my favourite Italian writers are Dacia Maraini, Oriana Fallaci, Elsa Morante, Cristina Comencini, among others. I do read a lot of books by women, but it is not necessarily a conscious choice, just the way things have turned out.

When you are not reading or translating, what do you like to do?

As a small indie publisher and freelance translator, I can't really say that I have time for a lot else.  : )  I like reading and I also try to find time for family and friends because I am very aware how easily we slip into taking people for granted. I like going for long walks but only when the weather is good. I am a bit of a wimp! And I play duplicate bridge, once a week without fail :)

I have to be honest with you, I had to Google "duplicate bridge." I knew it was a playing-card game but I'm not a card player and was curious to know  more. However, when I got photos of double waterway bridges with my Google search, I laughed and thought: "Yes! Translation definitely is a fine art." 

But you also mentioned a publishing career. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I started Calisi Press because I wanted to become a literary translator but found the process of trying to obtain that essential first commission quite frustrating. Starting a publishing company to publish a book I loved was perhaps a little drastic but I am really glad I did it! Calisi focuses on Italian women writers in translation: in the last few years there has been more attention paid to women writers, with the awareness that women writers across the board have historically found it harder to have their work recognised, and I thought that it would be good, both from a professional and commercial point of view, to focus on this niche. So far Calisi has published only one author, Donatella Di Pietrantonio, but it tries to promote all Italian women writers, not just Donatella. Calisi's website, for example, has a reference section which lists a number of prominent Italian writers, with a list of their titles, indicating which of these are available in English translation. Calisi Press is tiny, but  I like to think that it has played a small role in improving awareness of Italian women writers in the English speaking community.

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us and I look forward to your next translated book!

Books available from the blogger: 

Independent authors often have quite a challenge in getting exposure for their work. I hope, dear reader, you will consider writing a review on Amazon or 

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