Interviews

In Conversation: Andrea Sirotti on Translating Postcolonial Literature

For me, translating means communicating, interacting.

Translation is a political act and the texts that are selected to be translated—from stacks and stacks of books appearing all over the world every day—ultimately shape the literary market and conversations within a particular culture. With this clearly in mind, English-to-Italian translator Andrea Sirotti has made a career of translating postcolonial writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sujata Bhatt, Lloyd Jones, Margaret Atwood, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Hisham Matar, Alexis Wright, and Arundhathi Subramaniam into Italian, often introducing them to the Italian public for the first time. His translation of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees, translated with Giorgia Sensi, was awarded the best translation of a foreign work into Italian at the sixteenth Concorso nazionale di Poesia e Narrativa “Guido Gozzano” in 2015. In this conversation with Asymptote’s Copy Editor Anna Aresi, Sirotti talks about his passion for postcolonial literature, giving us precious insights into his translation workshop and the challenges he faces when transposing complex English texts into the Italian.

Anna Aresi (AA): How did your interest in postcolonial literature begin? Was there a particular author that first caught your attention? If so, who and why?

Andrea Sirotti (AS): My interest in postcolonial literature, especially poetry, began by chance. In the mid-1990s I started to collaborate, as a critic and translator from the English, with the Italian journal of comparative literature Semicerchio. Its director, Francesco Stella, asked me to review Sixty Women Poets, an anthology of women poets edited by Linda France and published by the UK-based Bloodaxe. Reading that book was illuminating; from the repertoire of rich and diverse female voices France anthologized, I was struck in particular by authors coming from the ex-Commonwealth, as people called it back then (and this brings another brilliant title to mindUncommon Wealth: An Anthology of Poetry in English, an even more specific anthology published by OUP in 1998). The uncommon wealth of these verses, their unprecedented freshness, lead me to deepen [my understanding of] the topic and, thanks to the internet, I read other anthologies and collections, by men and women, migrant or settled, “pioneers” of the English language as well as second- or third-generation speakers in anglophone contexts. I found myself in front of a fantastic poetry world to explore! If I had to name one poet from the group of excellent poets collected by France (among whom were poets of great worth and originality such as Moniza Alvi, Grace Nichols, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Mimi Khalvati, etc.), I would mention Sujata Bhatt. It was with her poetry that I began my career as a literary translator, publishing some of her poems in Italian translation in the journal Testo a fronte in May 1996. It is around her terse and passionate poetry, her ancient and ultramodern English, that I built my anthology of contemporary female Indian poetry, published by Le Lettere in 2000 (with a second edition in 2006). READ MORE…

In Conversation: Hamid Ismailov

I wish that different literatures were mutually translated, bypassing English or other dominant global languages.

Very rarely does contemporary Uzbek prose get translated directly into English. Yet English readers have just been given a rare chance to discover the novel The Devils’ Dance (Tilted Axis Press, trans. by Donald Rayfield), by the prominent Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov. In it, Ismailov introduces the curious reader to perhaps the most famous modern Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy. The novel tells the story of Qodiriy, who, like many intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the late 30s, was imprisoned and eventually shot dead. While in jail, Qodiriy attempts to recreate the unfinished novel the KGB has just confiscated, which portrays Oyhon, a poet-queen who lived in the last, grand days of nineteenth-century Turkestan when London and Saint Petersburg were fighting over Central Asia in the Great Game. I interviewed Ismailov about his diverse identities and the place of Uzbek literature in today’s global writing. 

Filip Noubel (FN): You are a global writer: you were born in what is today Kyrgyzstan, studied and worked in Uzbekistan, and now live in London. You write in both Uzbek and Russian, and appear in translation in a number of languages ranging from English to Chinese. In your books and interviews, you often refer to the plurality of cultures but also to their clashes. How is this multiple identity shaping your writing?

Hamid Ismailov (HI): Recently I did a DNA test, and aside from the obvious, I discovered that 4% of my genes are of South Asian origin and 2% are Irish, not to mention 1% Native American. So if my genes are telling me that I’m related to people like Rabindranath Tagore and James Joyce even on a genetic level, so be it! But, generally, the people of Central Asia, which is an area historically placed in the middle of the Silk Road, should be blessed to be born into multiculturalism, multi-lingualism and multi-identity. If you read my book The Railway you can see how many nationalities, traditions, and ways of life I have been exposed to in my childhood, so no wonder that I love to write in different languages, and to put myself into different shoes. In fact, exploring “otherness” both as a subject and an object is the most interesting part of literature.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole

What drew me to Berlin was curiosity about the people and their lives in the East.

Wolfgang Hilbig was once “one of German literature’s best kept secrets”, but that needn’t be the case any longer. Thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations, every bit as “enchantingly brilliant” as the original texts, Hilbig’s work is now available to English readers—including Asymptote Book Club subscribers.

In our monthly Book Club interview, Isabel Fargo Cole talks to Asymptote’s Josefina Massot about the challenges of preserving Hilbig’s “music” in English, and discusses her own journey across borders and languages.

Josefina Massot (JM): Wolfgang Hilbig’s prose has been described as lyrical, and your translation of The Tidings of the Trees certainly is. Part of what makes it so is its cadence—I often stopped to re-read passages out loud. How did you go about translating these? Did you allow yourself to play with sentence structure, for example, in order to preserve the “music” of the original? How do you feel about occasionally straying from the letter of a text in order to preserve its spirit?

Isabel Fargo Cole (IFC): There’s an element of cold analysis—is he using short or long words, terse or convoluted syntax, alliteration, assonance, similarities or contrasts in sound and structure? But often it comes down to an intuitive sense of where the key emphasis in a sentence or passage lies, and how to produce an equivalent in English. I try to preserve Hilbig’s sentence structure as far as possible in English, because that’s what creates much of the music and rhythm. His sentences can be fragmented or elliptical, or unfold into a whole cascade of clauses; the shifting syntax produces shifting rhythms, but also crucially reflects the narrator’s mental state. So the “music” isn’t a distinct element that can be separated out. In general, I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast distinction between the letter and the spirit of a text. It’s a matter of making judgement calls in each particular instance and deciding where the emphasis lies or what motivates the use of a certain word. If I sense that he’s using a word mainly for its sound value and less for its literal meaning, I might feel free to change it. But sometimes the sound value resonates with the meaning, so ideally the English word has to convey the same synthesis.

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

These writers' views of the world, it's like they see something none of us do, but as soon as they tell us, we understand it.

­­­Emma Ramadan has earned acclaim for her translations from the French of such diverse works as Morrocan Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Oulipian Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and more. Her second Anne Garréta translation, Not One Day, recently won the 2018 Albertine Prize. Her forthcoming novel, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, is due for publication by the Feminist Press on August 15th. Together with her partner, Tom Roberge, Ramadan opened the bookshop-bar Riffraff in December, where she promotes her favorite texts and discovers what a sustainable life for a young female translator might look like. Here, Ramadan speaks with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal, Lindsay Semel, about French slang, gender in life and art, and what makes her love a text enough to translate it.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I’d like to start by talking about Riffraff. What inspired you to open the place?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Well, I always had this idea in my head that I wanted to do a bookstore-bar. There’s a couple of bookstore bars spread around the country and it just seemed like a really vibrant gathering spot and something that was working both financially and for customers. It felt like this distant, far-off project until I met my co-owner and partner Tom, who was also involved in the translation world. Providence came up almost immediately. There is a welcoming literary community because of the universities, but there is also a really great local business community. The west side of Providence, which is where we are, is basically all independent businesses. There aren’t any chains, there aren’t any giant stores, it’s kind of just this really lovely haven of local people fulfilling their passions and trying to make it work and it seemed like we would fit right in here.

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In Conversation: Kalyan Raman

I have always been troubled by the hegemonic position of English.

N Kalyan Raman, a bilingual translator, is best known for his English translations of the works of eminent Tamil modernist writer Ashokamitran. Suchitra Ramachandran, a young translator who won the Asymptote Close Approximations translation fiction prize in 2017 for her translation of the Tamil short story “Periyamma’s Words” by B. Jeyamohan, works in the same languages. 

The two translators met in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and home of the Tamil language, to discuss the practice and politics of translation, posing questions as wide ranging as: What is the role of translation in an astoundingly multi-lingual country? Does English as a language, a post-colonial residue, oppress or enable? What is the literary legacy of translation and how can it shape the understanding of a diverse society? What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

For other emerging translators, enter the fourth edition of our translation contest and stand to win up to $3,000 in prizes. This year’s competition is judged by Edward Gauvin and Eugene Ostashevsky. Details here.

Suchitra Ramachandran (SR): Translation—a weighty literary activity, a difficult craft—seems to have no prestige associated with it in India. And that’s a reason, I think, why a lot of people don’t pursue it seriously.

N Kalyan Raman (KN): The translator is marginalized as a matter of course and for no good reason. A senior editor in Delhi told me that there is simply no space available in the media to talk about translators. What we must do first is accept the translator as part of the literary community, as producers of literary texts. Editors and other institutional intermediaries are given far more space in the translation discourse than translators themselves.

Also, I don’t think of translation as one separate trick. It’s as much a part of the literary culture as anything else. And translators do other things (in the literary ecosystem) as well, which hardly receive any notice—reflecting, engaging, reviewing, it is all a part of the culture. And understanding it, developing a reflective awareness of the trajectory of the literary culture of your community. Languages imply community above all else. What good is language if there is no community around it? In India, the English language seems to facilitate, in any field, only interest groups. It’s not amenable to a truly open space.

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In Conversation: Naoki Sakai

We have to learn to address ourselves to multiple audiences, to speak as foreigners to other foreigners.

Naoki Sakai, professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Cornell University, does the brilliant work of bringing translation theory into dialogue with other disciplines. In his writings on Japanese studies, cultural studies, comparative literature and philosophy, the gritty questions of translation, national language, nationhood, and subjectivity emerge at the heart. His book Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism undermines the mainstream understanding that writers and readers are defined—or confined—by national language and culture.

In this interview, there is much talk of a specific “representation of translation.” Translation is most commonly represented in today’s world as a practice that happens between two wholly different national languages. Tell anyone you’re a translator and they will ask: “between what languages?” However, this is actually only one version of events. While translation can be explored in much broader terms, Sakai suggests that this particular story about translation serves to reinforce the often-menacing architecture of the nation state.

In TRACES, a one-of-a-kind multilingual, cross-disciplinary journal led by Sakai, a new sort of community is created beyond the nation’s walls in which contributors speak with a “forked tongue.” As Sakai’s words suggest and as we know full well at Asymptote, this is the exciting potential of translation; it opens up new shared spaces and spaces for sharing.

Mattea Cussel, Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor, spoke with Sakai about some of the questions raised in his work to invite our readers to ponder the constructedness of national language and culture, as well as to add new working definitions to our entry on that slippery word “translation.”

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In Conversation: Eduardo Halfon

All of my books are intimately related, like brothers who live far away.

The last time Eduardo and I talked, in July of 2015, days before he presented his latest book, Signor Hoffman, we were both weeks away from coming to New York City, though each for different reasons. “You got a Fulbright to do your MFA? That’s impressive,” he said, smiling. “You’ll be the writer-in-residence at Baruch College?” I said. “I’m not sure what that means, but it also sounds impressive.”

Eduardo and I had met in Guatemala, near his house, at a brand new mall that, according to him, was now between local residents and a lush view of tall trees, misty mountains, and coppery sunrises. Or sunsets? Within five minutes he dismantled most of the questions I had prepared for the interview.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Nicky Harman

The novel is savagely realistic in its description of relationships between squabbling siblings and its forensic teasing-out of a family’s secrets.

Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.

Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…

Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author? 

Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.

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In Conversation: Ketty Valêncio, Founder of Livraria Africanidades

Teaching someone that she can be anything she wants to be is revolutionary, and that’s why what I do is activism.

Selling books can be a form of political activism. That’s according to Ketty Valêncio, who founded the initiative Livraria Africanidades, a unique bookstore in São Paulo that only sells books that focus on and valorize black women.

Africanidades Bookstore began online in 2014 and opened its physical location in December 2017. The walls of its new home have murals created by black women artists and its bookshelves are lined with fiction, poetry, feminist theory, nonfiction, and even cookbooks, the vast majority of which are written by black authors from Brazil’s peripheries. The space carries the fruitful results and future promise of selling books by authors who reside on the margins of the Brazilian publishing scene—or who are excluded entirely from the traditional literary market.

Here, Ketty Valêncio tells Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, some of the challenges for women of color in Brazilian publishing and the power of increasing visibility for writers of color, both in Portuguese and in translation. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you come up with the idea for the Africanidades Bookstore?

Ketty Valêncio (KV): The bookstore came about because of my struggle to understand myself as a black woman. I never felt that I fit in anywhere. And then I came across Afro-Brazilian literature, texts that have black characters as protagonists. I understood my blackness through literature, through these books written by black authors and also by a few white authors who place value on black characters. I came across these narratives and thought, wow, there are people writing about me, about who came before me, about my ancestors and my memories.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Mara Faye Lethem

Alicia Kopf is what some people call a writer’s writer, which is to say a reader.

What do artistic creation and polar explorations have in common? Is translating from Catalan more daunting than translating from Spanish? If a joke isn’t funny in the original text, should it remain unfunny in the translation? In the fifth instalment of our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Mara Faye Lethem gives Georgia Nasseh her answers to those questions, and many more…

Georgia Nasseh (GN): You translate from both Catalan and Spanish. What are some of the differences you encounter when you translate from Catalan rather than Spanish, or vice versa?

Mara Faye Lethem (MFL): I could answer that in a lot of different ways. But let’s see: Spanish has a vastly wider range of regional variations, and much better Internet forums. Catalan writers feel a special closeness to their language and are very grateful when foreigners learn it well. They are very generous about answering questions, so translating Catalan novels has changed the way I work with all novels—made the process more interactive, more collaborative.

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In Conversation: Rita Stirn

My book seeks to understand how women manage to become musicians in Morocco.

Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?

Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.

I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.

Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.

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In Conversation: Len Rix on Translating Hungarian

"Translation is itself an artistic enterprise, an act of co-creation, relying on empathy, intuition and imaginative insight."

Len Rix is best known for translating Antal Szerb’s works into English: Journey by Moonlight has been a long-time favourite, reissued many times. In recent years, Len translated Magda Szabó’s The Door and Katalin Street, both poignant novels about memory, integrity and the way history intrudes into the private realm. In February this year, he was awarded the PEN America Translation Award for Katalin Street. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large Diána Vonnák asked him about his remarkable journey to the Hungarian language, his thoughts on Szerb and Szabó, and the translator’s craft.

Diána Vonnák (DV): Not that many people take it upon themselves to translate from Hungarian without family roots or some other connection. One of them is Ottilie Mulzet, who says Hungarian is “like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.” What was it about the language that made you choose it? Do you agree with Mulzet and her emphasis on elasticity?

Len Rix (LR): It was initially the sheer sound that drew me to it, so strange and beautiful, with its soft and alluring vowels and diphthongs that simply do not exist in English, and its musical spoken rhythms. Then it became the elaborate and rigorously logical grammar, with its agglutinative case endings and “reversed” word order that drew me on. And all those wonderful new words!

This “elasticity” is partly to do with the age and historic isolation of the language, which have both acted to keep the case-endings and other suffixes intact. Old English and Anglo-Saxon were similarly agglutinative until the Nordic invaders arrived. They shared the same (Germanic) root words but had evolved different endings, which were soon set aside. Cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins, Hungarian missed out on that. The one language to which it was exposed down the centuries, Latin, would have done nothing to diminish its tendency to ramify endlessly. Cicero’s “periodic” sentences can equal the best of Krasznahorkai. There is one in his Pro Milone, as I recall, that runs to fifty-seven lines of close print without a full stop.

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In Conversation: Stephanie Smee

As her translator, I have had the opportunity to sit quietly with her as she pondered the inhumanity of the Nazi regime when she was forced to flee

The Spring 2018 issue launch is just around the corner (stay tuned…) and it is full of amazing writing from around the world. This season we approach the question of family. Texts explore exiles, adulterers, and a levitating aspirin in our Korean Fiction Feature, headlined by acclaimed filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Amid exciting new writing and art from twenty-nine countries, gathering together such literary stars as Mario Vargas Llosa and Robert Walser, discover “tiny shards” of childhood on the verge of experience as remembered by Jon Fosse—a giant of Norwegian letters in his own right—or not remembered by Brazilian author Jacques Fux à la Joe Brainard.

Although “unhappiness is other people,” according to Dubravka Ugrešić, we’re just as likely to be imprisoned in our own family, a predicament brought to light in Dylan Suher’s review of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions. In a generously personal essay, Ottilie Mulzet reveals how she turned to Gábor Schein’s “father-novel” to unlock the secret of her intransigent birth mother, whose refusal to speak to her had “stood in [Mulzet’s] life like a monumental cliff.” Schein’s poetry also graces this issue, and in a timely echo of Spring and past horrors, he takes up the refrain of Dayeinu of the Passover Haggadah—it would have been enough for us: “Enough, if you or I still / hoped for something. Enough, if we forgot to remember…”

For some, family remains a hall of mirrors, leaving the outlook bleak for human brother- and sisterhood: “My path doesn’t lead to you. Your path doesn’t lead to me,” writes the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi. At times, language cuts as deep as our common mortality, that kinship beyond all social roles, as in the poignant drama, The Last Scene. Echoing the resignation of Alain Foix’s death-row prisoner, poet Esther Tellermann laments, “breathe me / sister in death.” Others, like Cairo-based artist Amira Hanafi, strive to knit together connections between strangers. Her recently concluded installation, A Dictionary of the Revolution, deployed a vocabulary box of 160 words to generate conversations with more than two hundred people across Egypt.

As a special treat for our blog readers, we bring you a special interview conducted with this new issue in mind. As she prepared her enlightening criticism, Brigette Manion sat down with translator Stephanie Smee to talk about her translation of No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel. As Brigette explains in her review, “No Place to Lay One’s Head looks back over Frenkel’s life, from her youth as a bibliophile and her establishment of a bookstore in Berlin, to her journey across France and final passage into Switzerland. Frenkel presents a story of survival and resilience dedicated in her foreword to the memory of the ‘MEN AND WOMEN OF GOOD WILL’ who, with great courage and often at considerable risk to their own lives, helped and inspired her along the journey.” Happy reading!

Brigette Manion (BM): How did you first come across Françoise Frenkel’s memoir, and do you remember your initial response to it? 

Stephanie Smee (SS): I first came across Frenkel’s memoir after reading a review in Lire magazine. I had the good fortune to be in Paris when I read it for the first time, and many of the images she described, particularly of her early years in Paris, felt incredibly poignant. Perhaps my response to her very moving story was tempered by that. I also found her descriptions of different places so detailed and lyrical that they evoked a visceral response in me. I remember, too, being terribly affected by the immediacy of her writing, a characteristic of her memoir which truly sets it apart, in my view, from many other memoirs that are often written several years after the events that are the subject of the work.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri

"I’m old enough to look back on my life and to think and to marvel, and also be terrified by the randomness of it all."

In our fourth Asymptote Book Club interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri spoke with Asymptote Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone about her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick.

In this discussion about her work and the forging of her own artistic identity, Lahiri reveals why translating Starnone seemed like “a sort of destiny.” Lahiri draws us into Starnone’s fictional world, but also reflects on her own mutable relationship with language and writing, and on the marvelous yet precarious ways in which our lives unfold.

Victoria Livingstone (VL): I wanted to begin by asking you what brought you to translation. I just finished reading In Other Words in which you reflect on your decision to switch from writing in English to writing in Italian. Did you see translation as a natural progression after working between multiple languages and living in Italy? And what drew you to Domenico Starnone in particular? 

Jhumpa Lahiri (JL): During the initial part of my stay in Italy, I wanted to translate something, but I didn’t know what it would be. I was reading only in Italian for many years. As my reading progressed, I would think that I would like to translate this person, or that person. Once my Italian was stronger and my reading in Italian seemed to have a larger ongoing purpose and focus, translation was something that really intrigued me.

I was considering it in this vague way and then I read Lacci by Domenico [Starnone] and immediately felt that if I were to translate something, that this would be the book I wanted to translate. I felt very close to it. It spoke to me very deeply. It felt like the natural first step. That’s how it started. When he asked me to translate the book, we were already friends and I felt—I feel now—that it was a sort of destiny. Everything was properly aligned in the moment that I was drawn to the idea of translating and was ready to translate with the appropriate amount of distance. That was when Lacci, which became Ties, won a prize which enabled the translation to be funded. It was a series of fortuitous circumstances that led to the translation of that book a couple of years ago.

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