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Notes from the Purer Linguistic Sphere of Translation

di Stephen Sartarelli

(prefazione a Does the night smell the same in Italy and in english speaking countries? di Emanuela Gutkowski - IlionBooks, 2009)

I have always believed—at least when translating prose—that a literary translator should be like the arbiter or umpire of a sporting event: the less noticed the better. Whenever readers and critics praise, for example, the stylistic elegance of an author I happen to have translated, I take this as a compliment to my own quiet work, an implicit acknowledgement of the grace of my invisible hand. Translating an author with the immediate appeal of Andrea Camillieri, however, I’m finding it harder to remain anonymous.

But of course it’s not just Camilleri’s charm that helps to foreground my humble role as handmaiden to the fortunes of his Montalbano novels in English. The problem of language in general, and more specifically of its infinite variability in our often unconscious use of it, lies at the heart of Camilleri’s literary enterprise and renders my role as translator more problematic than usual. This is why, I think, I get asked how I go about translating his works far more often than I do with any other author I have worked on.

The Italians always ask the thorniest questions, and this is only natural, since, to them, and especially to those versed only in “official” Italian—an ever growing majority, alas—Camilleri’s language remains unique and often irremediably foreign. (I should say outright, for those who may not know, that Camilleri writes in a language that he has been the first to grace with literary status. An invented language, in the sense that, though made up of existing manners of speech and writing, it has never before been assembled in quite this fashion. The Montalbano novels, for example—since in each of the genres in which he works, Camilleri changes the linguistic recipe—are written in a language that is not “just” Sicilian dialect, but a curious pastiche of the particular Sicilian of his native region (Agrigento province) combined with “normal” Italian, contemporary slang, comic stage dialogue, lofty literary flourishes, and the sort of manglings of proper Italian made by provincials who have never learned it correctly—e.g., Catarella, Adelina, et al.)

The Italians’ questions usually boil down to the same one: How could one ever render a proper equivalent of this linguistic stew in English? The answer is very simple: One can’t. But, on fait ce qu’on peut, as the French say. One does what one can. That is, one cannot hope to reproduce, even remotely, in the translation, the same distancing effects—from proper Italian—that one finds in the original. Dialect is inherently local. Montalbano’s world of cops, hoods, lovely ladies and eccentric petit-bourgeois could hardly be made to speak American ghetto jive or Scots or Faulknerian Mississippian or any other geographically specific idiom without appearing absurd. But they can be nudged in certain directions. I have tinged some of the policemen’s speech with Brooklynese, for example, since many of the cops in New York City, where I used to live, happen to be (or used to be) of either Sicilian or Southern-Italian extraction. This seemed to me at least superficially plausible, however artificial.  But such a choice came to me almost without reflection, as second nature, so to speak. The larger problem of rendering the spirit of Camilleri’s vision intact has always seemed to me of greater importance. For it must also be said that, for all their linguistic patchwork and invention, Camilleri’s texts, in the original, read quite naturally—once one gets used to his idiom(s), that is—and are really quite limpid and clean. To me it has always seemed more important to preserve this naturalness, this clarity of design and purpose than to try to create an inevitably pale and inaccurate imitation of his linguistic mosaic, which would, of necessity, in translation, compromise the rather streamlined quality of his tales.

In any case Camilleri’s playful approach to language need not be aped on a case-by-case basis to come across in the English translation. When I can, of course, I do try, to the best of my ability, to create puns where the author himself puns, to mangle English where Catarella mangles Italian, and so on. But to make up for those many instances where for the sake of fluency I have no choice but to sacrifice some oddity in the original, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to take a few liberties myself. Once such instance is Catarella’s word—in my translation—for the internet: “interneck.” In the original, Catarella miraculously has no trouble pronouncing the proper, indeed English word “internet.” But the idea occurred to me to have him say “interneck” from the very first, because I had already taken to using the distortion myself, in an imagined form of “immigrantspeak” of the sort that I sometimes indulge in at sillier moments (my parents emigrated to the U.S. from Rome). I think the word may have originally been suggested to me unconsciously by the fact that, once I first started using the internet, I would spend more time than before at the computer, resulting in acute pain at the base of my neck. (I have thus far resisted the temptation to take the distortion one step further and elide the “t” in “inter”, American-style, which would yield “inner neck”—an esoteric concept, to be sure, but one probably not, however, entirely foreign to a Catarellian Weltanschauung.)

So much, then, for the impossibile task of properly translating Camilleri, at least for the Italians, who fairly shudder—and rightly so—at the thought of their beloved author having to “rise,” in the famous words of Walter Benjamin, to the “purer linguistic sphere” of translation. Far easier, on the other hand, are the questions of the English-language readers of my versions of Camilleri, questions which, for their part, usually boil down likewise to the essential: What is it like to translate Camilleri? To which there is an equally simple answer: Fun!

Which is, mind you, not usually the case with translation, the physical and intellectual effort of which has left me, as I once put it in a poem of mine, “hunched from a kind of lip-synch scoliosis.” Gratifying, sometimes, stimulating, often, but fun, no. Indeed, so unfun is it that my wife, normally accustomed to hearing me curse aloud at my desk or hurl books against the wall in despair over the sentences of my authors—whose number has included, among others, a post-Heideggerian Neoplatonic ex-Communist philosopher (and past and current mayor of Venice) and a proto-Hegelian-post-Freudian-neo-Gnostic poverista art critic—my wife, I say, nearly fainted when, passing by my open study door as I was working hard on my first Camilleri novel, she actually heard me laughing.

On fait ce qu’on peut.


Last modified Wednesday, July, 13, 2011