Balancing Being Herself and Being True to the Author: Q&A with Silvia Pareschi

Silvia Pareschi's translation of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"
Silvia Pareschi’s translation of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”

In his novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen has one of his characters make a pun that would make anyone groan. “Nor-fock-a-Virginia!” a character says in a fake Italian accent. When his German translator asked for clarification, Franzen explained: “Punchline of a pun about an Italian who won’t fuck virgins. The pun refers to the city of Norfolk, Virginia. Anything that works in German and is both dirty and refers to Italy or Italians would be fine with me.”

If it was hard to come up with a solution in German, it was almost impossible in Italian: “It had to be something which was not really Italian but would sound Italian to American ears,” says Silvia Pareschi, “and it had to be dirty and silly, because that was the spirit of the character who pronounced it.” After thinking about it for months, it suddenly struck her: “Fuck-accia! was my word.”

It was just another challenge for a top-tier literary translator. Besides working with Franzen, Pareschi has also translated works by Don DeLillo, Junot Díaz, Amy Hempel, Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Nathan Englander, Julie Otsuka, Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, and many more into Italian. She and her husband, author and artist Jonathon Keats (whose book of fables, The Book of the Unknown, she translated in 2010) live six months a year in her native Lake Maggiore, and the other six months in San Francisco.

I interviewed Pareschi about her work as a translator in her San Francisco apartment over a bowl of home-cooked risotto.

ZYZZYVA: There are so many definitions of translation that I’d like to start with a provocative one. Boris Pasternak said that translation is very much like copying paintings. How would you respond?

Silvia Pareschi: Pasternak’s quote comes from an interview with Olga Carlisle published in The Paris Review in 1960. While ostensibly defending the translators of Doctor Zhivago from the accusation that their work had not done justice to his book, Pasternak rather condescendingly says, “It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said—and of course it is the tone that matters. Actually, the only interesting sort of translation is that of classics. There is challenging work. As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy.”

Though translation studies didn’t get started as an academic discipline until the 1970s, it seems to me pretty self-evident that the translator must render “intention by intention” (to use the technical jargon), and therefore that translators must pay close attention to the tone as well as the literal sense of language. The first English translators of Doctor Zhivago, Max Hayward and Manya Harari, were working at great speed when they translated the book in 1958, reading each page in Russian and then writing it down in English without looking back. This is not exactly how a translation—a good translation—is usually done, and this might be the reason for the allegedly poor quality of Hayward and Harari’s work.

I also disagree with the second part of Pasternak’s statement, that “the only interesting sort of translation is that of classics.” Since I usually translate contemporary fiction, I haven’t yet translated any “classics” (and here it would be interesting to know what he meant by “classic”), but the sheer delight that I felt in translating E. L. Doctorow’s classically fluid and pure prose was as rewarding to me as the challenge of translating, say, the colorful and complex (not easy at all!) Spanglish of Junot Díaz.

And of course I disagree with Pasternak’s definition of translation as something akin to copying. If I had to choose one of the various analogies that have been used to describe what a translator does, I would choose the rather pervasive one that compares the translator with the musical performer. Harold Bloom, for example, praised Edith Grossman for her translation of Don Quixote by saying that she “might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note.”

Pareschi's translation of Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"
Pareschi’s translation of Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

Z: Being a translator is considered an intellectual job. I have always thought that the translator has a visceral response to the language, so translating is firstly a physical experience. What do you think about that?

SP: I’ll give you another quote, this time by the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, who was also a great translator from French, Latin and Spanish. “The translator is the only true reader of a text. Forget about the critics, who don’t have the desire nor the time to engage in such a carnal clinch, but even the author doesn’t know, about his work, more than what a translator in love can divine.”

Love doesn’t happen all the time, that’s for sure, but when it happens, yes, it’s a carnal clinch. The translator is a performer who enters the text and lives with it, side by side, and often starts writing like the author, sometimes even thinking like the author. And just as the translator can fall in love with a text, she can also hate it. I once refused to translate a book by a very famous author because I didn’t think I could live with it for the months required to translate it.

Z: The relationship between author and translator is charged. Most translators believe that they should have no relationship with their authors. So what was it like to translate your husband’s book?

SP: Here’s something else I disagree with. I’m absolutely convinced that the translation can only benefit from a collaboration between the author and the translator. I correspond with most of the writers I translate. The resulting dialogue can be very interesting and productive not only for me, but also for the writers, who are often able, by becoming aware of the translating process, to discover new aspects of their work that become apparent only through the lens of another language. Or, more trivially, to find mistakes that have escaped numerous re-readings and editing.

Translating my husband’s book was in many respects a translator’s dream. I had “my” author sitting next to me during the translation process. I could ask him any question I wanted, all the questions that I would resist asking any other author for fear of sounding stupid. I was free to tell him things like, “Look, this really doesn’t work in Italian, what if we changed it?” or “Can you explain to me why this character behaves the way she does?” I was allowed to express my frustration when, to the question, “What do you mean exactly with this term? Do you mean this or that?” he would answer, “I mean this, and that, and also that, and…” In those moments I really understood what we mean by saying that a translator is really a co-author of the book.

Z: Tell me more about your working relationship with Jonathan Franzen.

SP: I started corresponding with Jonathan Franzen while I was translating The Corrections, the first of his books that I worked on, and I was immediately struck by the length and the precision of his answers to my questions. He was clearly very interested in the translation process, and in having his book translated as perfectly as possible. (In one of his first replies, he wrote: “It’s never a good sign when a translator has no questions”.) The result was an intense email exchange in which my editor and I—elated by the realization that every question we asked our author made him happier—kept digging deeper and deeper into the minutia of the novel. I do the same for every book of his that I translate (and I’ve now translated almost all of them), even though I’ve become deeply familiar with his style and I don’t need to ask so many questions. Above all, I know he trusts me: a crucial element in any author-translator relationship.

Pareschi's translation of Claire Messud's "The Woman Upstairs"
Pareschi’s translation of Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”

Z: And what about your relationship with Franzen’s writing? Reading his novels fills me with grief, especially when he deals with one of his main topics, the relationship between parents and sons. Is translating an emotionally demanding activity? Do you feel pain or pleasure when translating?

SP: I usually don’t get involved at that level. I can re-create the emotions that the author is evoking without feeling them myself. There are exceptions, of course, intense moments when I feel moved (as happened when I was translating The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka) or disgusted (as in the scene of Joey digging through his own feces in Freedom). But in general I only feel pain when the book I’m translating is bad, and pleasure when it’s good.

Z: According to Marguerite Yourcenar, translating is writing. How much writing is there in translation? Do you have a daily creative routine as most professional writers have?

SP: There is a lot of writing in translation, and there is also a lot about translation that differs from writing. A translator is not a failed writer. Translation is something else altogether. We don’t create stories, and we don’t create characters, but we bear the responsibility of making those stories and those characters come alive in another language, for another culture. In order to do that, we must be able to descend deeply into someone else’s creation, and reemerge carrying to the surface something that is the same thing even though it’s not, something that means the same thing but with other words, transformed and yet identical. A translator must have a style and an identity of her own in order to be able to faithfully reproduce the author’s style and identity, and must be a writer in order to identify completely with someone else’s writing. For one person, this is an “art,” for another, it’s a “craft.” I don’t care what term is used. For me what matters is the fine equilibrium between being myself and being true to the author beside whom I put myself when I’m re-creating his or her voice.

All of this is achieved through a daily routine, of course. When I start translating a new book, I usually make my first draft as accurate as possible, emerging with the feeling that the translation is almost perfect. The second phase involves meticulous re-reading, in which I compare the translated text with the original, word for word, and I invariably realize that my initial confidence was completely unjustified. I have translated more than thirty books by now, but every time I’m surprised by how many changes I make in the second draft. This is because in the first draft the focus is entirely on the single word, phrase, and sentence: it’s an exacting analytical dissection of meaning that produces a perfectly readable but stylistically neutral text. Only in the second draft do I begin to look at the text from a distance, and to unify the various blocks of meaning in order to recreate the author’s style. This is a very important stage, where the book begins to take on its own personality, and this stage can be repeated many times. The third stage is a faster reading, in which I try to read the text as if it were written directly in Italian, fine-tuning the tone and resolving any lingering doubts.

Z: Which translation has been the most challenging for you?

SP: There are many, each for different reasons. For instance, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was challenging because of Junot Díaz’s Spanglish, the countless references to sci-fi, the imaginative cursing, and the totally new flavor of the language. With a lot of work, I think I managed to render all of this well in Italian (“well” meaning that readers can’t tell how much work was required). I was also deeply challenged by Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, filled with Apocalypse Now imagery and dialogues written in the language of American soldiers in Vietnam. While translating that book I was at Yaddo, an artists’ residency in upstate New York, and almost every night I had an informal session with writers and artists who helped me make sense of the most obscure sentences. And to give you one final example, I was challenged by the collected stories of Amy Hempel. Her language appears simple, but she packs so much meaning in every single word.

Z: What is your biggest fear when translating?

SP: Not meeting the deadline. It’s a common anxiety in this line of work. Everybody suffers from it. A good translator is an obsessive perfectionist, and the time she is given is never enough to re-read and re-work the text as many times as she would like to.

Z: In the United States, creative writing schools are very popular, while in Italy there are a lot of translation programs. That is a consequence of very different publishing industries. You live both in Italy and United States. What can you tell me about the different approaches to translation in these two countries?

SP: I’ve actually written a whole article on the subject for an Italian online magazine, interviewing some important figures in the world of American translation. The article concerned the famous “three percent problem”: Only about 3 percent of the books published in the U.S. are translated from other languages. (That percentage drops to 0.7 percent if we count only fiction and poetry.) In Italy, even with a worrying decrease in the number of translated books due to the fact that books by Italian authors are less expensive to publish, the percentage of translated books is still around 20 percent.

The people I interviewed have different opinions about the situation here in the U.S., with the more optimistic ones saying the situation is slowly but steadily improving, thanks especially to the work of small independent publishers that focus mainly on translated books, such as Archipelago Books, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Melville House. Other translators are more pessimistic, noting that translation is often still perceived as an academic, elitist activity (at least by the mainstream media and the big publishing houses), and translated books are deemed “too difficult” for readers.

Nevertheless, American translators do receive some institutional support in the form of grants and translation prizes, which are much more rare in Italy. In both countries, making a living as a literary translator is practically impossible. Nobody can survive without a rich spouse or a second job. I teach Italian, for example.

Z: Which question have you always wanted to answer about translation, but interviewers were too afraid to ask?

SP: Ha! How about: “How much money does a translator make?” Nobody likes to ask it because, particularly in Italy, if you are an “intellectual” it means that you don’t have to worry about something as un-poetic as money. And of course nobody likes to hear people whine about how little money they make. “Hey, come on, you have such an interesting job, do you also want to be paid?” Once Jonathan Franzen asked me how I could survive as a translator, and my answer at the time was, “I like a very simple life.” Well, maybe I don’t like it anymore. Frankly speaking, bohemian life sucks.

Ilaria Varriale is an Italian editor, translator, and video-maker in San Francisco.

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