In Conversation with Oonagh Stransky: Part One

Read an interview with the translator of Pope Francis: also available in Asymptote's Fortnightly Airmail

Oonagh Stransky is a writer, translator, and editor based in Italy. She is known, most recently, as the English translator of The Name of God is Mercy, a book-length dialogue between Pope Francis and Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Here’s the first part of a conversation Stransky had via e-mail with Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly about translating the Pope.​


My first question is simple. What was it like to translate the Pope? I grew up Catholic, considered myself Agnostic when I was in college, and now, like many, consider myself on a spiritual journey but am unsure what to call myself. The Pope’s words are incredibly moving, especially as he reflects on his experiences as a young confessor, and can no doubt effect, I think, nonbelievers. What was it like to translate these words, and what were your goals as the translator?

Translating the Pope’s words and ideas was a challenging and moving experience for me, as most literary translations are. I would say it was even a transformative one, too. Because I had a limited amount of time to work on the translation, as I will explain, the experience was especially intense and personal, even more than if I had had a lot of time to work on it. I had to immerse myself entirely in the text. In so doing, I not only discovered a gentle, deeply human side to this Pope, I felt something change or soften inside me.

As I mentioned, everything about the experience was intense. One day, out of the blue, I was contacted by Will Murphy, a Random House editor based in New York. I worked with Random House many years ago but have not collaborated with them since then. Murphy told me about the project, asked if I was available and interested, and suggested I do a sample. I agreed and sent it back to him that same day. Three days later I walked in to the Random House offices in Manhattan and left with a handshake and deal. I have been living in Tuscany now since 2009 and moved here from New York—I missed this kind of efficiency and directness! My negotiations led to a contract—which did not include everything I hoped for—but it was a job that I cared about and, of course, as a freelancer I have to be ready to bite the bullet.

I only had three weeks to complete the translation. I worked on it in New York City from early morning until late (and sometimes through the night). When I look back at my first draft now, I see how carefully I proceeded. I remember every question I asked myself, every worried decision. Stay as close to the text as possible, my editor said. No room for creativity. His words kept me in line, perhaps at times too much so. I checked biblical references over and over, re-familiarized myself with Bible stories and interpretations, and questioned myself every step of the way. I was a doubting Thomas if there ever was one.

Because of the short timeline, I asked the editor at Random House to bring in a second reader of Italian to verify my work. I made sure that this person understood both the complexities of translation and was well versed in Catholic matters, even if the Pope is anything but dogmatic in this conversational piece of writing. Gregory Conti offered the perfect balance: he worked swiftly and offered sound suggestions to the translation.

Will Murphy and I went over the manuscript several times together. I learned a lot from working with him. And work we did: first in person, then by telephone, and in writing. I have always felt that although translating is a solitary craft, actually bringing out a book is—and has to be—a collaborative experience. Translators need to communicate well with the editor in charge; there needs to be that intellectual exchange, the back-and-forth of questions, comments, suggestions, edits, and revisions. Single moments shape the entire experience: from our firm handshake to shared laughter to wracking our brains to nervous comments, working with Will Murphy on the text was as real as it gets.

After the weeks of translating and editing came silence. The manuscript morphed into a book. The book was sent to warehouses all over the world. We were forbidden to talk about it and only a handful of people saw the final text before it was released.

The launch, which took place in Rome on January 12, 2016, was held in a private auditorium of the Vatican for about 400 guests. In my opinion, Roberto Benigni’s talk/performance celebrated the joyful, warm spirit that is at the heart of the book. But there were other guests, too. In recognition of the Pope’s interest in outcasts, a prisoner from an Italian prison spoke about his conversion to Christianity. A cardinal added an element of the Church hierarchy. I sat in the crowd, pleased to see so many people take interest in a text which, if read with an open heart, can speak to each one of us in a helpful way.

In some ways I think I was the right translator for the project precisely because I have a mixed religious background. Briefly, I was baptized Episcopalian, entertained myself as a child by reading (and re-reading) Arthur Gross’s The Children’s Garden of Bible Stories, have a connection to Judaism, appreciate the Quaker church, watched my father convert to Catholicism for his second marriage, and I currently live in a Catholic country, with all the problems that come with that. I am a spiritual person but do not practice one faith. I like to say, in a play of words on my name, that I am an Oonagh-tarian.

My goals as a translator were to stay as close to the text while allowing the conversational tone of the Pope’s comments to shine through. I had to “hear” his voice; I imagined him sitting with Andrea Tornielli, telling him about the people he has met, the experiences he has had, his deep concerns, sorrows, and his desire to welcome people into a Church that is above all capable of bestowing mercy on those who have suffered.

You said the contract didn’t include everything you hoped for, and that it came out of the blue. The book is major—it was published into 8 languages simultaneously. What was unsatisfactory about the contract? And why did Random House reach out to you in the first place?

When I was first contacted by email by Random House editor Will Murphy at the end of October 2015, I was eager but skeptical. I figured that they were considering many people for the job. I had worked for Random House before (on Giuseppe Pontiggia’s autobiographical novel Born Twice) and imagined that either they got my name that way, from PEN, or from any number of friends who have worked with them. Usually, the larger publishing companies reach out to several translators, ask for a sample, and then make their decision based on the sample… and the CV of the translator. It’s not a practice that I enjoy—Esther Allen once called it “a sort of beauty contest”—and I don’t like competing with my colleagues in an already tight market, but given the nature of the project I was keen to give it a shot.

One element that the editor stressed was the short turnaround time. Basically, they needed the translation in two weeks’ time, by mid-November. Why so fast? I can only assume they had decided on the deal at Frankfurt and had spent a fair amount of time negotiating the details with the Libreria Editrice Vaticana and Piemme, the two Italian publishers responsible for the work. The book was slated for worldwide release on January 12, 2016 with a major event planned in Rome on that day. What with editing, proofing, winter holidays, and shipping, that left little time for translation.

Not everyone can give up two weeks at the drop of a hat; I had planned to spend those very weeks visiting family and friends in NYC, my home until 2009. Seeing the glimmer of a possibility, I submitted the sample on a Saturday, traveled from Milan to New York that Monday, and met the editor on Tuesday at 10am. When I walked into the Random House offices, I had no idea how things would pan out. It could have gone either way. It turned out to be favorable, they appreciated my work, and they offered me the translation.

Now, about the contract… but in a roundabout way. For multiple personal reasons—experience, ideals, ego—the professional aspects of translation and the creative task are closely connected. I cannot speak of one without mentioning the other. So, to get up close and discuss the contract, allow me to step back and reflect for a minute on the role of the translator. And for inspiration/support, I turn to friend and fellow translator Gregory Conti’s light-footed article “Sisyphus or Ella Fitzgerald: A Patron Saint for Translators” (Raritan Review, Fall 2015). Conti defines the role of the translator by deconstructing a range of perspectives. He chooses not to see her merely as a Sisyphean figure destined to suppress her own voice and deliver something that can never be held up to the original, as Hervey and Wechsler would have it. He acknowledges Eco’s take that the work is an act of negotiation, but still that’s not enough. Conti makes the case, by drawing on Douglas Hofstadter’s line of thinking, that the translator is a full-on party in the negotiations and even a performer of sorts. “Hofstadter’s conception…allows translators to aim for creating or co-creating a target language literary text that is based on and associated with the source text while at the same time being open to evaluation as an autonomous work.” Mi ritrovo in quest’idea. I find myself in this idea. So much that I have to underline it! This concept gives structure and credence to many of the inexpressible thoughts I have had about translation and writing all along.

In fact, before I take on a translation job, I try very hard to let editors know that I lean in this direction. I inform them that I have long been a part of ALTA and PEN, that I owe much of my self-awareness to those associations, and that I stand for translators’ rights. I ask them questions and listen carefully to their answers. I try and glean their goals for the book, understand who their intended audience is, and how they want me to move. At the same time, I know that the text will be the best guide, that it will color my days, and that its ideas and images will find their way into my unconscious. I know I will create something new with this translation. I hope that the work will make me a better writer, deepen my thinking, and allow me to contribute to the realm of Books, a world I have loved since a child.

And so, because of this approach or belief, it is important that—in addition to being paid a fair fee, having my name on the title page and in the press, and being given a certain number of copies—I also receive copyright and royalties. The lack of this element is a painful hook to swallow. This translation was one of those cases where I asked for royalties and copyright but was turned down. At first the excitement of working on the text erased my doubts: it was a once in a lifetime offer. But then reality set in. Royalties on this book (as opposed to many others I have done) could be substantial. I asked to revaluate the situation. I was firmly and flatly refused. I was “put into my place.” And there I remain.

So, while I am grateful for the opportunity to work on such an important text, I regret not receiving royalties. Some of my translator friends have lawyers who negotiate the contractual details for them. Maybe things would have been different if I had had one, too. On the other hand, maybe the editor would have asked another translator to do the job. I simply will never know.


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