Interview with translator Antony Shugaar

Antony Shugaar, picture by Chad van Herpe

I first came across Antony Shugaar’s work as a translator in the magnificently translated novel, The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati. It has been translated from Italian to English. It was an extraordinary translation. I was reading English but with the rhythm and cadences of Italian without massacring any language in the process. Instead it made the thrill of reading a translated work so much richer as it was so easy to get into. Perhaps having a husband who shifts smoothly between English and Italian made it easier for me to recognise this truth. The utter joy of being able to appreciate translated literature from the very first page is inexplicable. It is the rare translator who is able to achieve this feat of being able to convey the beauty of the original language in the destination language.

Then I came across his essay “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook” ( 19 Feb 2014) I loved. I made extensive scribbles in the margins of the hard copy while reading it and kept saying, “yes, yes, yes!” There are so many points he raised that interested me. 

Translators put in all the hard work and make literature available in other languages. There is so much variety. Without being a translator myself, I find I “judge” the quality of translations. Very peculiar space to inhabit. I judge based predominantly on the basis of “readability” of the destination language. Obviously not being familiar with the source text or language it makes it difficult to ascertain whether the translation is accurate or not. Yet there is something in “uneven” or “poor” translations that sets my teeth on edge. With a poor translation I find that there are texts I seem to be hitting my head against the wall for the clunkiness of text. There is no rhythm and it is tough to read. This is probably what Antony Shugaar refers to in the “dialect problem” — “the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.” 

Another of his recently translated books that I have read is Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and published by Enchanted Lion Books. 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christen Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.

I wrote to Antony Shugaar after reading The Catholic School. He very kindly replied. Subsequently he also agreed to be interviewed for my blog. The following is the result of a lovely, long correspondence we had discussing various aspects of translation.

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Antony Shugaar is a writer and a translator from the Italian and the French. He’s translated dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books and close to forty novels for Europa Editions. He has translated many novels that were awarded Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize (the 2011 winner, Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People, Resistance Is Futile, by Walter Siti [2013], Francesco Piccolo’s Wanna Be Like Everyone [2104], Ferocity, by Nicola Lagioia [2015], and the 2016 winner, The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati). In the realm of Italian noir, aside from some of the work of Gianfranco Carofiglio, he’s also translated books by many of the leading figures in the field: Massimo Carlotto, Sandrone Dazieri, Maurizio de Giovanni, the late Giorgio Faletti, Antonio Manzini, and others. He’s received two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. He translated two books in the W. W. Norton Collected Works of Primo Levi, published in 2015.And his translation of Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado was shortlisted for both the PEN and the ALTA Italian translation awards. He has translated TV series and movies for HBO, Netflix, and Amazon.

  1. What prompted you to become a professional translator?

I forget the name of the professor who said it, but the great translator Richard Howard quoted the line in a lovely essay he wrote many, many decades ago in a book on translation published by University of Texas Press: “No one ever set out to become a professional translator.” That may no longer be true, but it is a wise and wry observation. Languages are such vast and demarcated pools that any attempt to breach the levees separating them almost feels like a rash and ill-advised act. Certainly, comparative literature studies these huge inland seas and “compares” them, but the act of channelling one into another seems to violate some sort of taboo. So there’s a secret thrill to cutting a hole in the wall and letting water out of one reservoir and into another… an act which can be dangerous. The word “rival” comes very much out of the lore of riparian law and the banks of rivers… (in linguistics, “p” and “v” are close neighbours, as the two conjoined words “separate” and “several), in turn connected to “sever”, clearly show). A friend of mine told me a folk etymology that I believe is illustrative. My friend is from a land of canals and rivers, near Venice, a place of flooding and dam-building. He tells me that a “rival” is someone who lives on the opposite river bank. If a river’s level rises dangerously to flood state, he is the first to come over to YOUR side of the river and dig a hole at the top of YOUR levee. Because if YOUR side of the river floods, then HIS doesn’t. That being said, I think it’s clear why there is an age-old suspicion of the act of alchemy and magic that accompanies translation. It seems intrinsically DANGEROUS to unleash the uncontrollable elements of nature that cause floods. Language groups are also known as linguistic reservoirs. I compare translation to time travel. In fact, the classic quote about foreign countries compares them to other times. And rarely do people complete the famous sentence with its second half, separated by a semicolon: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So I became a translator for a couple of reasons, ostensibly to earn money while living in a foreign country, and therefore in order to stay there. But also because it felt like an act of magic, and also a way of sharing with others of my own language the things I was seeing in this amazing new place where I lived. If I travelled to the past, I would certainly want to be able to share my experience with those of the present. The same of course is true for the future. Italy always felt like a mix of past and future to me, blended into a startlingly vivid present. I could say more about the details of how I started, and would be glad to. Suffice it to say that it involved doing translations via Telex, a now-antiquated means of communication that used a huge and clumsy keyboard and a long yellow strip of paper with holes punched into a bizarre and fragile arabesque of meaning. More information on those years in the Italian Alps working as a fledgling translator will happily be provided upon request. 

2. You make a powerful statement with “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live.” So what does it take to become a professional translator?

I should start by pointing out that an editor added the concluding phrase about bridges from one world to another. To my mind, that add-on was optimistic and pat, and not entirely unwarranted, but it wasn’t part of what I wanted to say. I’m not such a positivist, and I definitely feel that there’s an enormous reservoir of lost meaning in the whole process of translation. But then you can hardly help but look around right now at the shambles of our society and wonder if loss isn’t just a standard part of any human interaction. That said, I would probably want to ally myself with the fantastic theorist of translation, Jorge Luis Borges, and say that there are actually no untranslatable worlds, but a full translation of certain sentences might require a multi-volume encyclopaedia to translate them. I’d hearken back to my early years in Italy, when I went to a café in Perugia, where I was studying, and sat down with an espresso at a small table. So far, perfectly translatable. But then I looked out and realized that there was the high-pitched musical sound of hammers tapping on chisels and chisels biting into stone. I looked closer and realized that there were four or five workmen seated on low wooden benches, laboriously shaping large grey stone slabs that formed part of the road surface. These slabs were perhaps a pietra serena, a Tuscan grey stone very similar to the bluestone used for sidewalks in, say, Brooklyn. The crew were all wearing work clothes, possibly the jumpsuits or overalls typical of Italian manual labourers. Certainly, I remember, they wore ingeniously folded hats made out of that morning’s newspaper. The slabs of stone they were working on must have weighed a hundred pounds. The chorus of hammers on metal sounded like something out of Italian high opera or a Japanese abstract composition. Hard to say which. Now if this scene were described in Italian as a “road repair crew,” without any additional description, how could I claim to have translated it accurately? This is an endless problem in translation. Someone opens a door and walks into a restaurant. Well in America by law that door opens outward, to avoid the danger of a panic in case of a fire, with people crushed against a door that cannot be opened inward. I’ve often wondered why Italian doors in public facilities open inward, and I’ve come up with a bit of a joke about it. Since cars park on the sidewalk in Italy, a door that opened outward might easily be blocked by a too-large car parked too close to the building’s facade. Not as unreasonable as it sounds, especially in my early days in Italy. Sometimes these patterns or customs are established and then left in place. William Weaver, a great translator from the Italian who is, sadly, no longer with us, used to say that the hardest word to translate out of Italian is “buongiorno,” a Swiss-Army-knife of a word that has all kinds of subtle aspects to its use and is decidedly not equivalent to “good day.” The Italian “portone” is often translated as “front door” or “street entrance” but neither of those terms really describe the richness and articulation of the “portone” as a filter, a diaphragm, and a scrim between the inner world of the Italian “condominio,” or community of apartment dwellers, and the outside street and sidewalk. The door itself is a double panel, massive thing, large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to drive through and into the courtyard. Often the building in question actually was built when horse-and-carriage was the prime conveyance. You can often see narrow ruts running across the sidewalk and past the doorman’s booth and on into the courtyard. There is usually a small pedestrian door cut into one of the large panels. When the large doors are closed, of course, this door can be buzzed open by any of the inhabitants of the “palazzo.” When the doors are open, there is the entire rich declension of interactions with the doorman or doorwoman. To translate portone with “front door,” like an apartment house aluminum-and-glass door seems impossibly reductive. I could go on. There are window systems called “miradors” in Spain that reach their high point in the Atlantic coast city of La Coruña. Just google “miradors” and “La Coruña” and start scrolling. They’re amazing structures designed to allow light and wind to be calibrated as elaborately as the suit of sails on a clipper ship at the height of the mariner’s art. The windows can be set at an angle, just so, and sunlight can be modulated with precision. To call that a “bow” or “bay window” is to miss and to overlook a world.

3. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation? How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project? How would you define a “good” translation?

I’m going to take the three questions as a prompt for a somewhat independent “riff.” Please bear with me, and I imagine this feels a little bit like herding cats. I will gladly address some of your questions about more specific matters but I’d like to range a little freer on the “metaphysics” of translation.

I did not know about this latest interaction between Cervantes and Rushdie through the person of Edith Grossman[i]. It is almost ironic (as if there were a ghost hand at play) that I sent you a photo of a mirador in La Coruña with a comment on how it resembled Indian vernacular architecture (with a possible British intermediation) two days ago, when we are now talking about a Spanish author and his gnomic influence on a British-Indian novelist and essayist. But there you are. I cannot comment on this interaction and I confess I haven’t read either of the books in question, Quichotte or Grossman’s rendering of Don Quixote. I can say that Cervantes is the source of one of my favourite quotes (we can discuss the detail on this) on translation, saying that a translation is like looking at the reverse of a Turkish carpet, where you see the knots and the warp and weft, but only indistinctly. He specifies, as I recall, that this is true of vernacular languages, not the great classical languages of Latin and Greek. I’ve never quite understood that distinction. Also, I love that Sciascia references a line from Don Quixote in his understanding of the origins of Mafia culture. “Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”[ii] It is quite a brilliant reference: something about how a gentleman doesn’t pry into other people’s business. And of course the Spanish influence on Southern Italian culture is enormous, a result of long centuries of occupation, a Bourbon dynasty ruling over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with its tradition of “¿si hay algo que se puede hacer porque te preocupes y si no hay nada que se puede hacer porque te preocupes?” But especially the role of Spanish culture in the south is the result of roads vs. ships: it was so much faster to sail from Spain, or from North Africa, than it was to take an ox cart from, say, Switzerland…. In short, those links are buried in the geographic structure and the physical anthropology of history. That is a theme that I return to often, in my thinking and my understanding of translation: physical anthropology. And the sheer experiential nature of translation.

After this long and laborious windup, let me however come to Cervantes and translation. I think it is very significant that Rushdie, who is so much about the magic of words and the spark of imagination in the vast grim fields of life as it is lived, should have failed to grasp Don Quixote in one translation and then instantly see it in another. A strong argument for the constant retranslation of classics, but also a reason to think about exactly where the spark of the new style and insight in Grossman’s version comes from. And the answer, as in all things related to translation, in my opinion, is sort of diffuse. Like life, like writing itself, the source of inspiration and success in translation isn’t codifiable. Translation theorists are always talking about “strategy” in translation[iii], and that’s a very fine thing, but to me the important thing is tactics. Expedients and jury-rigged solutions are the only way that I really make my way forward in translation. People sometimes forget the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is an overarching plan for an undertaking, tactics are the way you solve individual snarls and knots in the work. Isaiah Berlin talked about the hedgehog and the fox: the hedgehog knows ONE thing and the fox knows a great many things. Wisdom versus cleverness? Perhaps, but I think it goes deeper than that.

In any case, the reference to Don Quixote is this. There was a great philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who died recently. His name was Hilary Putnam. I haven’t read his work, I honestly have only read his obituary and then done some further online research into his background. He had a philosophical theory called the “Twin Earth thought experiment”. The basic idea was that in this scenario there are two planets identical in every way except for one detail. The word for water describes two very slightly different versions of water. Every other aspect of water is the same. I’m guessing that whatever taste water has is described with the same adjectives, even if the reference is to something slightly different. When I read about that thought experiment — Twin Earths — in Putnam’s obituary, my scalp tingled. Perhaps it was mentioned in the obituary, or perhaps I learned it as soon as I read the Wikipedia article about him, but his father was Samuel Putnam, a prominent translator whose Don Quixote is still considered one of the best ever done (and perhaps was the version that Rushdie found wanting in college… I’d love to know[iv]). Hilary Putnam grew up in France, I read, and must have talked frequently with his father about his work.

Where does the instinct to translate come from? Is it inherited? The late great Anthea Bell[v], translator of many things but to my mind, especially, the Asterix comics[vi], to such great effect in English if not American culture, was the daughter of a man who regularly constructed the Times of London’s crossword puzzles. Ann Goldstein[vii], the translator of Elena Ferrante, was for many years the head of copy at The New Yorker, a magazine that has been America’s window into cosmopolitan culture in so many ways. William Weaver was a gay conscientious objector from Virginia who drove ambulances in the war and was injured, only to recover in the palazzo of a noted Italian writer. Life experience is certainly part of it, experience of the mind, also.

But in particular it must be the experience of the mismatch between the life experiences of cultures and the mental experiences therein. What do I mean by that? Well the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits that a language SHAPES your experience of the world. Maybe so, maybe not, but I think when you go into a different culture and you start to see the books they know and the books we know and how those two libraries fail to map equivalently, then you are just tempted to pitch in and say: my fellow anglophones NEED to understand this one formative work. There’s a chunk missing in their mental lives. This is certainly true of Dante. Ann Goldstein came to translation by reading Dante. So did I, in some ways. In fact, I studied Dante early and it had a huge influence on my understanding of the basic nature of Italian, the way in which it performs its mimesis. I’ve written something about that early experience and I can dig it up and send it to you if you like. But my point here is that there’s a kind of theatrical, dramatic tradition in Dante that traces its roots back (to Virgil, obviously, and to Apuleius perhaps?) but then, not as far back, to the Song of Roland and the Arthurian saga, and forward to Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and then, of course, to Cervantes. My point, here, however, is the richness of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which was a beloved work, I know, to Ezra Pound (and that’s a can of worms I’m not going to touch), but also an amazingly prescient piece of writing for the present day. 

In the great epic poem “Orlando Furioso,” Ariosto plays freely with minds, imaginations, and language. One knight, Astolfo, manages to fly to the moon on a hippogriff, where he finds the great knight Orlando’s wits (yes, he lost his wits) in a bottle and returns them to him. Even better, the sorcerer Atlante (I think called Atlantes in English transliteration) builds a castle of dreams in which he hopes to imprison Ruggero to keep him from meeting his fate as predicted by a soothsayer. Ruggero and all the other great knights and ladies are lured into this castle of dreams where each of them constantly sees, fleeing from them, their heart’s desire (in Ruggero’s case, the lady Angelica). Is this not an amazing model of what would become the internet. Even better: as these heroes and heroines stumble around in utter futility pursuing will-o’-the-wisp phantasms, they crash into each other, becoming increasingly angry and accusing each other of having STOLEN the objects of their desire. Did Mark Zuckerberg read this poem in his time at Harvard? I’ll tell you who DID read it and loved it during his time at Yale. James Jesus Angleton, the great and paranoid counterintelligence operative at the CIA who was the inspiration for many of John Le Carré’s novels. Angleton in fact founded a student literary magazine called “Furioso” during his time at Yale, and apparently reached out to Ezra Pound to ask him to become an adviser to the magazine. Angleton, by the way, is perhaps best known for his quote about espionage, calling it “a wilderness of mirrors.” To quote from an essay by John Kimsey, “It was Angleton who first used the phrase ‘a wilderness of mirrors[viii]‘ to describe the looking-glass logic of counterintelligence work.” Well, I think that Italians have this amazing artefact in their culture to understand the Internet, while we do not. Perhaps we have the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace instead. 

I don’t think that the reference to halls of mirrors is entirely amiss when it comes to translation. Think of The Third Man, and the ending in the Hall of Mirrors. That’s about espionage in a meeting spot between two warring empires, speaking profoundly different languages. The translator’s work is very much like that, trying to glean meaning from an often ambiguous text. And the question of the “dialect problem” comes into it very adroitly: I believe that dialect is a like a sheet of transparent glass inside a hall of mirrors. Do you remember that specific trick in the halls of mirrors of your childhood? You learn to navigate your way through the mirrors, warned by the sight of your own approaching reflection, but the blank sheets of glass trick you. No reflection and so you walk into them. Well, dialect is like that. It is part of the text, and so invisible in translation into English (or whatever target language you are working in). How do you render it? Do you simply use ungrammatical speech? Then how do you deal with the fact that the sonnet is a verse form invented in Sicilian dialect by the Holy Roman Empire Frederick I? If not he, poets at his court. But I have heard that it was the emperor himself who took part in the invention. Or that Benedetto Croce, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, loved to speak in his native Neapolitan dialect? The late William Weaver, who translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, asked the question, as you’ve read in my VQR piece, “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” He declared the problem to be unsolvable[ix].

Like one of the heart’s desires vanishing around a corner in Atlante’s castle, in other words. 

It really makes me wonder if Italian culture somehow understands the ultimate futility of certain ideological pursuits because of its rich literature of love, yearning, and folly. Is that why they were able to see the madness of doing anything in a time of pandemic other than hunkering down and wearing masks? Is that why they were successful and we Americans, allegedly hard-headed and pragmatic about the Real World, have failed so abjectly, so terrifyingly? 

Do you know the hilarious anecdote about J.M. Austen and Sydney Morgenbesser at Columbia University, my alma mater (well for journalism school, I took my masters at the Graduate School of Journalism)? From a NY Times article about Morgenbesser.

Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humour and preternaturally agile mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale — in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story that it is — was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the 50’s, Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”

4. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator? 

I really don’t know. I very much taught myself the art of translation, to the extent that I know it. But then I would have had my doubts about the teaching of creative writing. I remember learning from Professor Pietro Scarpellini at the Università per Stranieri that when Perugino and other great artists of the Renaissance were small boys and apprentices in the bottegas where they learned their craft, they were all set to grind minerals and roots and all the other sources of pigments of their day. They would work grinding pigments as long as there was daylight. Working in natural light, they developed a great sense of what the natural spectrum of colours were and how pigments could emulate or reproduce those colours. Having done that work for countless hours from the age of 5 to the age of 12, they worked in colours with an intuitive sense of balance and composition. Perhaps that’s a way of teaching. I know that a great deal of my experience as a translator was translating anything: technical documents, advertising, legal agreements, you name it. And I learned from making mistakes. One of the most wonderful cheat sheets for me is always seeing badly translated material. An experienced translator can look at a badly translated piece of English and almost conjure up the original source language, for me, Italian. It’s like I can see the writer’s original intention from the missteps and false friends in the bad translation.

5. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project? 

It depends. If it’s a well written text by an interesting writer, the pro is a sense of elation and the con is the exhaustion of channelling such intensely gripping text. If it’s a badly written text by a dull writer, it’s like the experience of being trapped in a compartment with an unwelcome motor mouthed travelling companion. It’s excruciating. Luckily I haven’t had anything like that experience for a long, long time. There is the wonderful liberation of completing the translation, though. That’s always memorable.

6. How do you tackle the “dialect problem“? 

Well, the first thing is that it’s a very difficult thing to do. Is dialect best rendered as some variant English accent? That seems very specific. It’s a question of WHAT dialect is. Some translators treat it as if it’s just people speaking ungrammatically. They render it with comically broken English, which dialect most decidedly is not. What’s the old joke? A language is a dialect with an army and a navy? If that’s so, then how is a dialect really any different than someone unexpectedly speaking, say, German inside a book written in Italian? You can use subtitles or else you can use other literary tricks and conventions. In movies about World War II POW camps, the enlisted German soldiers always speak English with a heavy “Choyman” accent, while the officers speak English with an Oxford accent with just the finest razor’s edge of German inflection. Very class-based.

I’ve done both things, the outright Brooklyn dese-and-dose and the incorporation of the actual words in dialect with the literary equivalent of subtitles, that is, a rendering of the dialect in English, in quotes inside parentheses. Two different critics had diametrically opposing views of what I’d done. One, missing the point, complained about the annoying presence of “the original Italian” in the text. I had explained my process in a translator’s note, but the critic must have missed that. Another critic hailed the authenticity of bits of dialect embedded in the English.

I’m going to quote from the review, by Gabino Iglesias. As an author of “barrio noir,” Iglesias may have had a more perceptive eye for the different levels of linguistic depth I was trying to encompass:

“Lastly, there is one more element that separates this novel from most contemporary crime fiction: language. It seems like Saviano worked hard to achieve a balance between Italian and dialect, and translator Antony Shugaar surely added a bit of explanation to the narrative in his translation. The result of this is a story that carries with it the rhythm and linguistic identity of its source, the unique turns of phrase, sayings, terms of endearment, and even insults of lower Naples. Most of it is offered also in translation (sometimes unnecessarily), but there are passages in which there is no direct translation, although the words used are understandable in context. This use of language adds a layer of authenticity to the text and keeps readers deep in the culture of the place.”

One other rule that I try to follow is that if the author uses X amount of dialect, then I reduce that one-quarter X or perhaps even less. No text in translation will bear as much dialect as the original. I’m not sure why, but having cooked the recipes many, many times, I’ve learned to reduce the quantity of that particular ingredient.

  1. When is it best to involve a “living author” in the translation process? For instance, how often did you need to work with Albinati regarding this translation? What are the challenges (if any) of translating a “living vs dead” author? 

I was both impressed and chastened by the very sharp and intuitive eye that Albinati showed. Even though his English is not fluent, he very perceptively came up with critiques of many areas where I had misread his intent, the underlying bones of message. The subtlety of a novelist’s instinct for meaning and nuance is an interesting early warning radar system. We spent days dealing with fine subtleties of meaning that I had misconstrued. Later Albinati wrote a widely read and discussed article in Italian, published in “Corriere della Sera,” which he opened with the statement: “I wrote ‘The Catholic School,’ but I had never read it. Until I read it in English. And it leads me to your next question…

8. You refer to the great paradox of “faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language” in your 2014 essay. How does a translator grapple with this paradox or is it subjective? 

I am NOT a novelist, but I am a writer. I think that above and beyond the sort of hands-on training I alluded to when I talked about apprentice artists in the Renaissance grinding pigments as children, there is a native interest in the working of language—words and connotation and the linguistic equivalent of “body English” in the manipulation of units meaning, from particles to words to sentences and paragraphs—that is a fundamental prerequisite for language.

There are little oddities of language, little ghosts in the machine, that I see as hints at how the larger structure works. Take the expression, “You have another think coming,” as in, “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another think coming.” Roughly half the people in the United States, from the articles on the subject that I have seen, actually believe that it’s: “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another thing coming.” That makes no sense to me, but the “think coming” makes no sense to the other half of the population. And if you look at the history of the term (using the nGram Viewer, a very useful historical tracker of any term you care to put into it, and one I highly recommend), you find that “think” and “thing” are almost exactly the same age. People have been using BOTH versions for as long as the phrase has been around. And, of course, because “thing” backs up to the hard C in “coming,” there is no real difference in the pronunciation. When speaking, Person A can say “thing” and Person B can hear “think,” and no one is the wiser.

That’s a perfect metaphor for what happens in translation. However, I choose to treat dialect, it’s accepted by the reader. I mentioned the past being a different country above. Well, dialect is a piece of the fabric of a given country. Another such element, which I’ve been encountering more and more in the translations I do out of the Italian, is a listing of “Do You Remember? moments from Italian pop cultural history. Things from the 1970s and 1980s: Large “beach marbles” about the size of a billiard ball, that Italians would large along tracks scooped out of the sand in races not unlike a bocce game. Banana seat, high-handle-bar bicycles. Portable record players that you inserted a 45 rpm record into for teenage dance parties. Italian versions of Silly Putty, Play-Doh, and numerous other games. Again, units of meaning and sentiment that cannot just be substituted with their approximate American or British equivalents.

As mentioned above, Isaiah Berlin spoke of the fox and the hedgehog. The strategy with respect to dialect and to pop culture and to all manner of cultural artefacts and touchstones has to be this: try to be true to the original. Try to respect your reader’s intelligence and mental agility. Try to make your text read as if it was written by the imaginary person your author would be if they had been born and brought up speaking and writing English, not Italian or French or Spanish (even if they then would NOT have written the book in question).

Then, the tactics become very fox like: Anything you can use, any contrivance or subtle explanation or mode of speech. Be inventive!

I do my best to take that approach. Am I always or even sometimes successful? Well, I hope I am. But I’m keenly aware that the outcome is always, inevitably, a partial failure.

But I comfort myself with Wallace Shawn’s great, philosophical line from “My Dinner with Andre.”

I’m just trying to survive, you know. […] I mean, uh…ahhh… I live my life. […] I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list! I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning!

 I’m a translator, dealing on a regular basis with these knotty, tricky, almost metaphysical questions of meaning and style and questionable equivalency. I’m paid to do it. And it keeps my mind constantly occupied with what I find to be intensely interesting issues of language. I feel like a translation is like Schrödinger’s Cat, possibly alive and possibly dead as long as it sits unopened in that box. If you take the translation and you read it carefully against the original (either the day after it’s published or 200 years later), then you may discover that the cat is either dead or alive. But if you leave the black box carefully untouched, and you enjoy that cup of cold coffee in the morning, and you enjoy what good has been with the text, then translation is a pretty wonderful thing. After all, Wallace Shawn, who spoke the lines above, is also a translator. As it happens, from the Italian.

Let me close this very long interview with another quote, from an article that Michael Cunningham wrote for the New York Times. It was about translation, and the translators of his books into other languages, from the English.

I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation. A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published.

I think this is one of the wisest and most rueful comments I have ever read about the enterprise of translation and, taking a step back, the enterprise of writing, thinking, and feeling about human life. I think that this quote is, perhaps, a very small but dazzlingly brilliant cathedral made of fire.


[i] I heard this in an interview Rushdie did with Razia Iqbal in London for Intelligence Squared. ( https://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/an-evening-with-salman-rushdie/ , Aug 2019) This happened because a few years ago to commemorate the 400 years of Shakespeare and Cervantes, the UK indie publisher And Other Stories published a fantastic volume of commissioned short stories. These stories were to pay homage to these two great writers and renowned names had been asked to contribute. Rushdie wrote the preface and it remains one of my favourite introductions.

Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes I read slowly. I have not finished it but editors and writers whose work I truly admire swear by its magnificence. Here is one of her more recent interviews, published in Asymptote, Sept 2019.   

[ii] “I would venture to swear,” said Don Quixote, “that your worship is not known in the world, which always begrudges their reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labours. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected! Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristóbal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jáuregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original. But tell me, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?”

[iii] Our 10 yo daughter, Sarah, is being taught French in school. So Jacob is teaching her French at home. Jacob is a polyglot and fluent in English, Hindi, Italian, French and smattering of German. But it is about the “tactics” you speak of that he is employing. His pronunciation and vocabulary in every language is accurate. So he wants Sarah to learn accurately too. She is obviously stumbling in some French pronunciations. So he makes her write the French word, then to get the right pronunciation, he makes her write the spelling in Hindi as it is a phonetic language and then the meaning in English. It is incredible how fast the little girl is picking up French!

For a couple of years now Sarah asks translations of words in different languages without realising how significant this fact is. She takes it for granted that this is how it is in every household.

Jacob often tells her that if you learn a language correctly, you learn about a new culture.

Antony Shugaar replied:

Very nice, and congratulations. Sounds like Sarah is heading in an interesting direction. I have a nice, similar teaching trick. It is very difficult for English speakers to hear the crucial distinction between single- and double-consonanted proununciations in Italian. Anno versus ano. But it is possible to hear it in English and then apply it in Italian. “Anice” has a single “n”. Un-nice has a double n, if pronounced carefully in English. For “l” – Alice versus pill-like. “Hammett” is a single “m” but the ridiculous and improbably construction, “ham meat,” that’s a double m. It makes it easy for English speakers to hear the double. Then they know not to say “Ho 21 ani,” instead of “Ho 21 aNNi.”

[iv] Quite likely since the Putnam translation seems to have been published in 1949 and was considered the best in those days. Having said that it, it seems there were two more translations published in quick succession. These were by Cohen (1950) and Starkie (1957). Ref:  https://franklycurious.com/wp/don-quixote-english/

Antony Shugaar replied: “Nice. In the Italian Asterix, there’s a very nice translator-invented joke (works only in Italian). Tapping his head, Asterix (and others) frequently like to say. “SPQR: sono pazzi questi romani!” – These Romans are crazy.”

[v] When Anthea Bell turned 80, many celebrations were planned across UK. The following was posted on FB (2016). I found it fascinating that an obituary for her former husband also gave the origins of her career as a translator of Asterix. Take a look.

Her father, Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword creator for The Times.

Anthea Bell married Robert Kamm, a fellow student at Oxford. Kamm’s father, George Kamm, was a founder-director of Pan Books. Kamm’s mother, Josephine, was a biographer and YA lit writer too. “Robert Kamm’s first job was with the National Book League, now known as the Book Trust, and in 1957 he married fellow Oxford student Anthea Bell. He moved to Brockhampton Press in Leicester in 1960 where he was editorial director and played a key role in the publication of the Asterix books, whose humour and original French jokes had previously been deemed impossible to translate. That task fell to his wife and a fellow translator and the first three titled were published in 1969.He spent 12 years at Brockhampton before a two-year spell as a senior education officer with the Commonwealth Secretariat, touring Commonwealth countries, discussing books and exploring the possibilities there for publishing for children. During the time he was at Brockhampton he chaired both the Children’s Book Group of the Publishers Association and the Children’s Book Circle. From 1963 to 1976 he was also a consultant to various international organisations including Unesco.” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-antony-kamm-publisher-author-historian-and-cricketer-1-1503632#ixzz49pIyI1rf  )

Robert Kamm divorced Anthea. He remained in publishing including being the director of children’s literature at OUP. Where he met his second wife who outlived him. She was Eileen Dunlop, a biographer and children’s writer and one of his authors.

Anthea Bell’s brother is the well-known BBC correspondent, Martin Bell.

One of Anthea’s sons is Oliver Kamm, a left-wing politician and banker.

[vi] Speaking of translations of Asterix comics, you may like to see this article on my blog of the comics being translated into Hindi: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/asterix-speaks-hindi-now/

[vii] Seen this brilliant article on Ann Goldstein published in the New York Times?

[viii] A word/phrase that now seems to be embedded in everyone’s psyche while talking about counterintelligence work etc.

Antony: Yes, but coined by Angleton. Whose father was from Idaho, rode down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the same expedition on which Ambrose Bierce lost his life, and brought home a beautiful señorita, James Jesus Angleton’s mother. Then, working for the National Cash Register company (the same company that made defective voting machines used in the 2000 election), he took wife and son to live in Rome, under Fascism. There is a short history of the corruption and decline of the American republic. It all, inevitably, ends with the OSS being replaced by the CIA. All that makes perfect sense to me.

[ix] This is a big problematic area in Indian literature. Translations from various regional languages are being made available in English and it is a minefield. There are texts in English that are a nightmare to read as the translators insist on making the dialects visible to the English reader. And there are others who completely scrub the dialect out but also do not provide a translator’s note to say that the author relies on dialects to provide a texture to the novel + give the social context of their characters. It is all so complicated and an extremely sensitive topic in Indian literature. Broaching it with translators, authors, and editors is an extremely sensitive topic.

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