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From the Translator: Elizabeth Harris on Translating Marco Candida

By Elizabeth Harris

I’d like to thank the editors at Words Without Borders once again for asking me to discuss my translation, this time of Marco Candida’s fiction. That WWB is interested in the translator’s perspective is wonderful and truly significant.

Any comment I make on translating Marco’s work must begin by recognizing that I know Marco very well. This has certainly added to my understanding of his voice in his prose: Marco is brimming with energy. I think of him as a cat, always moving, inspecting, focusing. His movements are jerky, and he disappears suddenly; we can be talking, and then he’s gone. When we walk together, especially in Genoa where he lives, Marco will disappear into himself and walk ahead of me at a pace I can’t possibly follow. I enjoy watching him walk away, disappearing into his own thoughts. Then there comes a point when he realizes he’s left me behind, a couple of blocks away, and he’ll stop and wait impatiently for me—I’m far too slow—I won’t quite catch up before he’s off again, bouncing on his toes, deep in thought.

And I’m not just a slow walker: I’m extremely slow at translating as well, much to Marco’s dismay. This piece for WWB we actually worked on together, with Marco reading his work out loud while I translated. It was a process I’d never tried before, and may never do again—I hadn’t realized how dependent I was on visualizing the Italian when it came to turning Italian phrases into English. It was interesting to realize how much I depended on how phrases and sentences looked from one language to the other, that how the writing appeared on the page was crucial, an element I felt was essential that I capture in my translation. I can’t count the number of times Marco would read to me, I’d understand (and type) every word and every punctuation mark, but then I’d have to take a look for myself (i.e., yank the book away) before I was willing to go on.               

After I’d finished the first draft with Marco’s “help,” I discovered something else about having the author lend too close a hand: as I refined the English version, going back to the Italian, I realized that Marco had cut whole sections from the story, sometimes entire pages. Why? Because I was taking too long, because the story was filled with details, because some of these details just weren’t necessary.  A bit about the novel: this section from Marco’s novel is a dream in a series of dreams that help develop the main character/narrator, Verino (which means “small truth” or “little truth,” or “barely true”). Verino tells his dreams, comments on them, and as the novel progresses, Verino’s own story comes across through his dreams, and we are increasingly unsure how to distinguish Verino’s “real” present narrative from those dreams. This particular excerpt for Words Without Borders is one of the longer dreams in the novel, with a more traditional story structure. It’s a kind of horror story, but the excerpt is also somewhat of a meta-horror story that pokes fun and toys with the horror tradition. It does this by undercutting our expectations of the horror story; we follow a couple into the woods, a traditional horror storyline, but rather than their having sex and then in the middle of said sex, being torn apart by some Italian Jasone (or a monster German shepherd), the two of them leave the woods unscathed, only to be buried alive in the end, a twist that’s almost off-hand, that undercuts any sort of horror build-up (yet, at the same time, I found this ending quite chilling as well), with the murderers arguing beforehand about who’s better at tying Japanese-style, sadomasochistic karada knots. The details Marco left out when he read the piece to me had little to do with the story’s plot. But I railed against this editing, even though it was done by the author himself. One of the passages Marco didn’t read to me, for instance, was a somewhat long sentence describing the food in a display case in the tavern where Marcello and Monica are eventually held at gunpoint and then disposed of by the owners. Here’s the sentence:

Marcello and Monica went inside the deserted inn and ordered two cappuccinos sprinkled with cocoa, and on the counter was a glass display case with three croissants on the top shelf and on the bottom shelf, toast with cooked prosciutto and cheese and focaccia with lettuce, tomato, and a tiny mayonnaise mustache, and they opened the case and chose two cream-filled croissants, just baked, still warm and crispy, that they wrapped in paper napkins from the napkin case, also on the counter.

And the Italian original:

Marcello e Monica entrarono nella locanda deserta e ordinarono due cappucci con una spolverata di cacao sopra e due croissant alla crema, ancora caldi, croccanti, appena sfornati, che servendosi dei tovagliolini di carta sul bancone, presero dal piccolo espositore, pure sul bancone, dopo aver sollevato la vetrina che proteggeva tre croissant sul ripiano più in alto e un toast prosciutto cotto e formaggio e una focaccia con fette di lattuga, di pomodoro e piccoli baffi di maionese su quello più in basso.

I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about what it meant that Marco was so willing to cut his sentences and what it meant that I was so flabbergasted when he did so. After all, it was his work; he could do what he wanted. Yet, for me as a translator, the idea of simply cutting details because the piece had to be finished and I was too slow—well, it seemed like a translator might wind up in the translator dungeon for something like that. It simply went against my sense of what is proper in translation. And yet . . . as I translate, I cut words all the time that seem unnecessary, that seem to burden the English. So what was the difference here? Was it that Marco was the editor and not me? Was there ownership involved? Was I feeling that the translation—though of Marco’s work—was actually mine to do with what I felt was necessary?

I’m still not entirely sure why I felt it my duty to return to the story and put back those details that Marco had removed. Perhaps it was simply a matter of liking the details. As I said, the story plays with our expectations of horror, partly by derailing any sort of narrative tension created in the first half of the story, and then also partly by distracting us: the story is so filled with details, it becomes absurd. Marco is playing with notions of realism: he takes vividness of scene, imagery through details, so far as to render his story no longer imagistic; the details become a distraction to reading the story as a realistic piece, to making us disappear into the story and watch it unfold almost like a movie. We’re in detail-overload much of the time, so the plot—which is almost everything in horror—becomes secondary. I loved that aspect of the story; I loved the details, and by God, I was going to put them back.

Marco was right, though, that his cuts would have sped up the translation process. The details he left out weren’t just superfluous to the plot; they were some of the more difficult sentences in the piece. Take the sentence I quoted above. This line alone, so stacked with descriptive phrases, took hours to put together. For an impatient writer, that can be frustrating, but for his translator, tackling a sentence like this, even if it makes my head explode, is one of the reasons I chose to translate at all. For me, the challenge is to try and maintain the original sentence as much as possible, if I can. I won’t break up the sentence; I know we English readers are less accustomed to long, convoluted sentences, but I also know a long sentences can certainly work—it’s just a matter of chiseling away until you get it right. With this sentence in particular, I wound up ironing out the details somewhat: in the original, Marcello and Monica choose their two croissants and then we get the long description of what was originally in the case, with the sentence ending on the wonderfully odd little mustache of mayonnaise. I tried, but I just couldn’t make the original structure of the sentence work, not to my liking, anyway, not if I included every descriptive phrase that Marco included. Because this sentence didn’t include absolutely essential, dramatic information that forwarded the plot, I suppose I felt that my manipulation of the various parts was okay (although as I sit here writing, I want to have another crack at it). But along with this sort of long sentence, Marco also writes wonderful rolling long sentences that lead to a dramatic or comic finish; here’s an example that starts out sweet and ends with a hint of danger, as the characters (and readers) begin to realize that the tent might be on top of something dead:

Then Marcello slid over closer, closer, closer still, kissed her, tasting the cocoa butter on her lips, then pulling down the zipper that was up to his chin, he slipped out of his sleeping bag and pulling down Monica's zipper, he helped her slip out of her sleeping bag, and he laid the bags over top of them, and feeling around blindly, he found the right side-pocket of the backpack and a small box that he took out and opened and at just that moment, Monica opened her eyes and asked him if he smelled what she smelled.

And the Italian original:

Poi Marcello si era fatto vicino a lei, più vicino, ancora più vicino, l’aveva baciata, percependo il sapore di burro cacao sulle labbra, poi aveva fatto in modo di uscire dal sacco a pelo, slacciando la cerniera che aveva tirata fino al mento, e aveva fatto in modo che Monica uscisse dal suo sacco a pelo, slacciandole la sua cerniera, aveva radunato i sacchi a pelo sopra di loro, e tastando un poco alla cieca, nella tasca laterale di destra dello zaino, aveva prelevato una piccola scatola, l’aveva portata vicino, l’aveva aperta e     proprio in quel momento Monica, aprendo gl’occhi, gli aveva chiesto se sentisse anche lui l’odore che sentiva lei.

This was one of my favorite moments in the story, and it reflects much about Marco’s writing: his original sentence is wonderfully musical with a steady, rolling progression and a variation in tone from start to finish that’s a great challenge for a translator but also a lot of fun. It’s not one of the sentences that Marco cut; how could he? But while the sentence is fairly long, and I’m sure I spent quite a bit of time on it, this one has a narrative thread I can follow from start to finish, which makes my job a lot easier than the sort of long sentence that Marco cut, to make my job easier; the first sentence I brought up, in the tavern, while of course it has an order, has much less of that rhythmical, rolling, narrative quality, with the result that making it work in English, making it good and still tied closely to the Italian is quite tough.  I suppose, in the end, I was determined to keep this sentence precisely for this reason: because it was tough, and so I wanted to tackle it, to chip away at the Italian and see what might emerge in English.

Marco has told me he doesn’t envy me my work as a translator. He finds the job tedious, nit-picky. I suppose it is. But for whatever reason, it suits me. And I’m happy to walk along slowly behind this writer, not hurrying, not at all, not trying to catch up, but even so, trying to catch what he sees, to match his steps, not succeeding, not always even knowing what steps he’s taking, but, in the process, taking my own steps shaped on what I imagine his to be, and catching his shining details out of the corner of my eye.

Read Elizabeth Harris's translation from Marco Candida's Dream Diary in the "Horrors" issue of WWB over here.

Published Dec 17, 2010   Copyright 2010 Elizabeth Harris

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