Wu Ming on King: On Translating Stephen King into Italian

By Susan Harris

We were intrigued to learn that Stephen King's new Italian translator is a member of the collective known as Wu Ming.  Wu Ming 1 graciously agreed to answer our questions.

WWB: How did you decide to translate this book [Full Dark, No Stars]?

WM1: I've been reading King's books since I was eleven, which was exactly thirty years ago. I've been writing about his work for several years. I've reviewed nearly all his recent novels, from The Colorado Kid onward, and written essays and articles on him. And I've been a professional translator for about fifteen years. I translated several Elmore Leonard novels, plus other novels by Walter Mosley, Denis Johnson, and a lot of nonfiction. Moreover, I'm part of an established and successful combo of writers, and the fact that they can print “Translated by Wu Ming 1” on a book cover is something that publishers can't play down. For these three reasons, when King's Italian publisher, Sperling & Kupfer, decided to look for a new translator, they thought I could be the right guy for the job. 

WWB: What is the most challenging part of translating King?

WM1: King's style looks simple, but it is actually very difficult to translate. As an author, he's very fond of puns, neologisms, idioms, local slang and so on. He plays with all the singularities of the English language, precisely the stuff that can't be translated in any way! This is typical of, er, “monoglot” writers, by which I mean those writers who don't care about what happens to their works when they're translated into other languages.

There are basically two kinds of novelists: those who care about translations, like Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, because they're used to exploring foreign languages, and those who don't care, like Elmore Leonard or Uncle Stevie, because they're perfectly happy with inhabiting their native language, with no forays in other cultures and koines.

If you're a careful, attentive reader, you can tell one kind of writer from the other simply by reading. There's a prose that's translation-conscious, and a prose that is not. It can be a very subtle difference, but you can detect it. At least, I believe I can detect it. I hope I'm making myself understood here... King's English is very much self-contained, very much grounded in Americana. King's stories are usually set in places and milieux that are both quintessentially American and very particular, very singular, like some island off the coast of Maine, the New England countryside, etc. There are idioms, details, objects, and customs that can't be found anywhere else: kinds of food (e.g., nobody eats fiddleheads in Italy, they don't even have a specific name), pop culture references, etc.

WWB: Are you, and Wu Ming, translation-conscious?

WM1: Yes, we Wu Ming are extremely translation-conscious, while writing we always think: how will this be translated into English, or French, or Spanish? Sometimes we place landmines into the text, bombs that will explode only during translation. For example, in my novel New Thing, there are hidden rhymes that will appear only when those pages are translated into English.

WWB: How does translating other writers affect your own work?

WM1: Translating makes you experience your native language from the outside, it forces you to interrogate your mother tongue as if you were a foreigner. You have to reflect on the complexity of things you've always taken for granted, and you learn new, uncanny ways of using familiar words. For a writer, this is manna from heaven.

WWB: How does King's work compare to Italian horror novels?

WM1: Well, he's had a great influence on Italian literature, not only on horror novels, not only in genre fiction, but also in literary fiction. For example, there's a author called Simona Vinci whose books have been greatly inspired by the way King depicts kids and childhood in general in his books. And the same can be said of a more mainstream writer, Niccolò Ammaniti. King's influence has merged with many other influences, and results are quite intriguing, because Italy is a crazy laboratory.

WWB: Do you see any similarity between King's work and your own?

WM1: If you mean Wu Ming's group novels, well, they're historical novels, a genre which King usually doesn't practice, but yes, there are similarities: while writing, the thing we regard as most important is “world-building.” We aim at organizing a whole world, with its traditions, its social relationships, its contradictions, and plenty of characters interacting with each other in subplots that are seemingly unrelated to the core of the novel. It is something King does extremely well, nay, it's what makes his novels so enjoyable. He slowly, methodically builds a whole world, he makes you love it... then he suddenly destroys it. What we do is quite similar, even if we build our worlds by studying history.

As far as my solo output is concerned, New Thing and my novella, Arzèstula (which is Ferrara dialect for Great Tit, the bird), were both influenced by King in one way or another. How could it have been otherwise? I've been reading his books for thirty years!



Maybe my answer on “translation-conscious” prose needs further explanations.

On another blog, someone made the example of Joyce and wrote: Joyce played with the singularities of the English language, but he certainly wasn’t a monoglot.

Of course Joyce played with the singularities and intricacies of the English language, but it would be very misleading to say that his English was “self-contained” and grounded in the peculiarities of one koine. In fact his works contain references to many koines, cultures, languages, ways of life, ages of human history.

There are many great writers whose works are strictly focused on their own culture. This is what I imply by using the word “monoglot”. It doesn’t mean to be ignorant: it means focusing only on your native language. Even while exploring the singularities of his own language, Joyce always remained a “polyglot” author.

As far as style is concerned, the difficulties that the “monoglot” approach creates to translators has little to do with conscious experimentation (even if such experimentation is present), and much more to do with the excessive peculiarity and “localism” of the references in the text. I’m talking only about the style here, and this is the “problem” with King’s style. Luckily, King’s stories are intentionally based on universal allegorisms, which makes them readable and enjoyable all over the world despite the stress on singularities. At the level of the narrative, the plot, the metaphors and symbols, King is a very ecumenical writer. This more than counter-balances the “problem” described above.

Being “translation-conscious” as a novelist doesn’t mean to confine your style to what is easily translatable. We WM are “translation-consciuous” but our books are not at all easy to translate. Umberto Eco is extremely “translation-conscious”, he sends his translators lists of possible problems and even suggests solutions (he explains this process in his book Mouse or Rat?: Translation as negotiation), but this doesn’t mean that he tries to “write easy”.

Being “translation-conscious” means being aware that there are many languages and linguistic resources on earth, that your books will be translated and will be read also by people who aren’t part of your koine, your heritage, your everyday world, thus your style will create problems and will be altered during translation.

Above all, being “translation-conscious” means being *curious* about what will happen to your style during translation. Eco and Calvino are/were very curious about this process, while King is not. As far as I can recall, King never wrote about translation issues.

My experience tells me that translating an author who’s interested in translation (ie the kind of author I describe as “polyglot”) is very often more easy than translating one who is not (ie a “monoglot” author).

I think that Giulia Guarnieri’s conversation with William Weaver about Calvino’s language can provide a better grasp of what I tried to say about “translation-conscious” prose:

“When I asked Mr. Weaver if he thought Calvino wrote his novels thinking in other languages he said that he did not think so. He did agree, however, it would be fair to say, that Calvino thought of himself not only as an Italian writer but simply as a writer adding that although Calvino was very difficult to translate, his works were more translatable than those of Gadda or Pasolini who instead remained even in translation Italian writers; whereas Calvino already in Italian was an international writer.”


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