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From the Translator: Elizabeth Harris on Translating Chess in “The Revenge of Capablanca”

By Elizabeth Harris

In a special piece for Dispatches, Elizabeth Harris, translator of Fabio Stassi's piece The Revenge of Capablanca in this month's issue, talks about the ins and outs of translating Stassi.

I’m delighted that the editor of Words Without Borders asked me to talk a bit about the challenges of translating chess in Fabbio Stassi’s  “La rivincita di Capablanca.” First, though, some other challenges: translating a fragment of a novel itself is something I find difficult. Just reading a piece and studying it doesn’t mean I know it or what it will sound like in English. I need to figure that out as I translate, as I write the piece in English. So with a story, I discover the voice as I go, and then I can return to the beginning and revise. With a novel fragment, this is different, of course, as I don’t have the luxury of working my way through the entire book to discover what the fragment should sound like, so the voice can be a struggle for me. In Stassi’s work, the prose is spare and clear and very appealing to me, but if I worked on the entire novel, the piece for WWB would have to change.

The point of view in the piece I translated was also challenging, an interesting part of the work. It’s a distant third that slips very briefly into Stassi’s characters, then out: we even get chess pieces’ points of view here. We’re barely with Capablanca; mostly we see him from the outside, from little Xavier’s point of view and from the view of a group of men, including “the stranger,” watching him play as a boy; but the view of Capablanca as a boy, being watched by others, is actually the point of view of the older Capablanca, as he recalls past games and (as we learn later) tells his seductive tales to a Russian journalist, so this does interesting things with the voice; the story is mythic, distant, which is further emphasized by the lack of punctuation for dialogue: it’s in scene and summary at the same time, a slippery place in storyland where things seem real and not real, spoken and not spoken. So I found myself being aware of multiple things going on with voice as I translated.

The complicated point of view and voice of the piece also made for some interesting decisions with dialogue, which brings me back to chess. In the first section (actually these two sections are two chapters, with a number of chapters in between), the older Capablanca recalls his learning chess as a boy by watching his father play (and cheat). The boy, not even five, has a highly sophisticated way of talking, telling his father that he knows “how to launch an attack” and “bring out a bishop” and put his father “in check.” I trusted the author in these fairly adult phrases; but with one phrase, “I know how to castle a king on the board,” I debated a little: did we really need “on the board”? Wasn’t that obvious? Sometimes I do a bit of cutting in Italian as this romance language can, at times, express ideas that are just too wordy for American English tastes. Simply put: we use fewer words. But this time, I kept the phrase, “castle a king on the board,” as is: we’ve got a prodigy here, but he’s still just a little kid, and his phrasing’s off—why wouldn’t it be? With that in mind, I wondered, too, about “launch an attack,” but decided to stay with that, even if it sounded so adult: the boy’s mythic, not real, the older Capablanca’s remembered vision of himself. The father’s response, calling his son a “son of a bitch” was something else I debated: the Italian is “figlio di puttana” or “whoreson” or (my favorite) “whore’s whelp,” but it commonly translates as “son of a bitch.” But isn’t that a bit old for a boy of four and a half? Who calls his kid that? “You little son of a bitch,” maybe, and I tried that, but I felt like I was in a Raymond Carver story. I thought of “little bastard,” too, but finally opted for sticking with just plain “son of a bitch” because it’s funnier, stranger, and perhaps contributes a little to that mythic voice of the piece: the father curses his future-chess-champion son like he would an adult. 

The chess itself, the large paragraph toward the end, was a real challenge, especially considering I don’t know how to play. My dad tried to teach me when I was little (probably right after he failed to teach me and my siblings bridge), and I have a vague memory of spreading my white pieces all over the living room and playing war with my brother. To translate this paragraph, then, I did some research on chess language and various moves of the pieces involved. I also researched these chess moves in Italian, to understand if what I was reading was just to be translated as typical moves in English; I needed to understand how much the author was playing with language here. In the original, for instance, the queen is referred to as a “lady” at times, which I thought was interesting, theatrical word play, until I read that the queen can be called this in Italian; I thought it best not to draw too much attention by referring to the queen as "lady" in my translation, since it probably wouldn't draw the same attention in Italian. I also think, however, that a translator often wants to smooth over, make rough spots work in English, but the result can water down the original. The king, personified in this piece, doesn’t just move; he “steps” in the original and I needed to stay true to that language. Then of course there’s the opposite problem: translating with too much energy and vigor because we have such wonderfully active verbs in English; the results can be silly and too dramatic. I hope I managed to avoid that. I generally have my readers, including a native-Italian speaker, take a look at my translations, and this time I had a chess-playing friend read the piece as well; I didn’t fully understand if the moves as I’d translated them were complicated or not, impressive or not, so Evan’s feedback was invaluable.  In the end, I spent far more time on this one paragraph of chess play than on anything else in the translation, hours of reading, tweaking, going back to the language and rhythm of the Italian, going back to the English to see if I still had the shadow of the language and rhythm of the Italian, fretting, more tweaking; so I hope it reads well now and that it’s true to the author’s intention.

Published Jul 12, 2010   Copyright 2010 Elizabeth Harris

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