Interview with Katherine Gregor, translator from Italian to English of “Eva Sleeps,” by Francesca Melandri and published by Europa Editions.
Among of the many reasons of my black-out in posting, there is the new adventure called The Italian Book Club of Philadelphia…yes, I am leading it, I am loving it, and I am willing to share some behind-the-scenes of the books we are reading. Sometimes, when we read a book in translation, we focus on the story or on the author: sacrosanto, and that’s why we like to open a book set in an exotic, unfamiliar place and we love to listen to new voices that will (possibly) widen our perspectives. But as a translator myself, I believe the person who naturalizes that book into something we can handle, deserves a better recognition and an exposure that sometimes is neglected.
For this purpose, I had the pleasure to chat with Katherine Gregor, an amazing linguist and writer, who has translated a great variety of books in terms of genre and of language of origin. And don’t miss her interesting blog at scribedoll.com.
Me: Katherine, when did you become a translator and what is your background?
The first thing I ever translated was Pirandello’s play, “Diana e la Tuda.” At the time, I was running a small theater company in London, wanted to direct this play because it hadn’t been staged in the UK before, but couldn’t afford to pay a translator. So I thought, hey, I can do this! – and did. A representative from a publishing house came to the show and was very complimentary about my translation, which encouraged me to translate more.
I grew up with languages. At home, we spoke Russian, Italian, English and French. My family’s motto is: if you’re not born with money, beauty or connections, then you’d better acquire education and knowledge by the shovelful. My grandmother always said that you could potentially lose all your material possessions in a heartbeat, but what was inside your head was yours. Languages could be acquired more cheaply than, say, music lessons. My grandfather used to say that with every new language you learn, you acquire a new personality.
Me: Translators have different approaches to the process: some start with a first quick draft and then spend months to refine it; some others, like French translator Lydia Davis, start from the first line without having read the full book. Can you describe the process you follow when you embark in a new translation?
I seldom have the time to read the whole book beforehand. Besides, not knowing how it turns out until I translate the final sentence is an incentive to keep going – especially when the book isn’t my cup of tea.
I take a very long time translating the first draft. By the end, I have a version that is pretty much the finished product. If I don’t do a thorough job straight away, I lose my motivation and get bored. I find doing rough drafts frustrating. The fewer revisions I have to do, the better. The same applies to my own writing. What I hand in is generally a second draft, followed by a “polishing off” re-read.
Me: You translate mostly from Italian and French and your translations involve different genres from thrillers to literary fiction. Where is your comfort zone in terms of language and genre in translation, and is it different for you to translate male or female authors?
I connect to French cerebrally and to Italian with my heart. Perhaps because I learned French the proper way, through grammar, at school, while living in France. Italian, I learned more kinesthetically, more organically. When we first moved to France, when I was nine, I was physically bullied at school for not speaking French. So learning it became an imperative for survival. In the evening, I would sit and read Le Petit Larousse Illustré, memorizing words. Turning the enemy language into an ally. Italian, on the other hand, came from being born in Rome (albeit to non-Italian parents). It became part of me effortlessly, the way you pick up a tan from spending time in the sun.
Me: Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote that “’without translation I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” Can you comment on the often overlooked task of translators as cultural ambassadors and advocates for more diversity in the publishing industry?
Aah… if only more authors and readers felt that way! More often than not, when a translation is read on the radio, the writer, the producer, the adaptor and the actors are mentioned… but not the translator. Book reviews sometimes forget to list the translator. The Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors (in the UK) are doing a sterling job gently but firmly working for us to get the right acknowledgment. There’s a Twitter hashtag #NametheTranslator.
I see translators as bridge builders. Their role is vital in bringing readers’ attention to a different way of living and thinking.
Me: Now, speaking of “Eva Sleeps,” the pick of the Italian Book Club of Philadelphia for September, I would like to know some behind the scenes of this lovely family saga set in northern Italy. The author, Francesca Melandri, is a global citizen. Was she involved at all in the translation?
She made some suggestions after I had finished the translation, at copy editing stage.
Me: Finally, the translator’s reading list. Can you provide your 5 must-read books?
Well, I think a list of translated works would be appropriate here.
Teffi’s “Subtly Worded” (translated from Russian by Anne Marie Jackson, Robert & Elizabeth Chandler, Natalia Wase, Clare Kitson and Irina Steinberg)
Gianrico Carofiglio’s “The Silence of the Wave” (translated by Howard Curtis)
Bernardo Atxaga’s “Obabakoak” (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Takashi Hiraide’s “The Guest Cat” (translated by Eric Selland)
Pushkin’s Eugene “Onegin” (translated by Mary Hobson)
Thank you, Katherine for sharing! Hope you can translate more wonderful Italian books!