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Translator Relay: Alta Price

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For August's installment, Allison Markin Powell passed the baton to Alta Price, who runs a publishing consultancy specialized in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, design, and culture. She translates from Italian and German into English; recent publications include work by Corrado Augias, Germano Celant, Kim Förster, Erich Franz, Joyce Lussu, Riccardo Muti, and Gabriele Pedullà. Her sample translation of Dea Loher’s Bugatti Turns Up received the 2013 Gutekunst Translation Prize, and she will be in residency at Übersetzerhaus Looren this fall. She is currently vice president of the New York Circle of Translators and a member of the PEN Translation Committee.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

Ever since I can remember I had an interest in German, sparked by the non-Disneyfied, much gorier versions of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. While studying printmaking at RISD I realized that book arts could unite my linguistic and artistic pursuits, so I also took German across the street at Brown, with the idea of spending junior year at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. I later learned that the only undergrads who could go to Germany were the jewelry and light metalsmithing students—a bureaucratic snafu that prepared me for Rome, the only place I could go without switching majors. I had absolutely no interest in Italy at the time, but some great professors, friends, and my homestay family helped change that. The experience brought about a personal renaissance, and parts of me have never come back. I later got to Germany thanks to a group of artists I’d met in Italy, and I now organize a biennial typographic/lettering tour and workshop in northern Italy, so it all worked out. And since my language skills are of the use-it-or-lose-it type, local friends and colleagues, as well as books and podcasts, help keep parts of my heart and mind in all three places.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I have mixed feelings about the concept of untranslatability. It’s a bit of a slippery slope, and I ultimately feel that if one word or phrase is untranslatable, they all must be. One of the translator’s tasks is to render concepts unique to one culture and language understandable in another. That can’t always be done with the same number of characters, syllables, or words, but a solution can almost always be found. Overarching cultural dynamics that express themselves in language, however, might be the closest thing I can think of to “untranslatable.” For instance, I have a rather aristocratic 80-something Italian friend who regularly hosts dinner parties, and always requests that everyone use the informal you with everyone else at the table, regardless of age, profession, social status, etc. The younger guests struggle with that, as it goes against tradition and social norms; they forget and use the formal, then remember and switch back to the informal. Such nuances are often deployed in literature as well. I can think of no way to aptly capture that amusing awkwardness in American English. Workarounds could be found, but because of the vastly different way we view social structure, such distinctions aren’t native to our language.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Reading, rereading, and rereading again—silently and aloud. I occasionally meditate on certain sentences while walking, but most of my rituals are much more mundane: brewing large batches of iced tea to keep my brain cool enough to work through the long days of light in the summer; getting proper exercise to keep the circulation and words flowing through the winter. I’m more productive in the mornings, and when working on a literary text I love to reread passages of the original at night before going to bed, so my subconscious can have a head start on the work as I sleep.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Yes, and it goes back to printmaking, which for several centuries supported its own domain of images without borders, if you will. For me, translation is a lot like reproductive printmaking: you have an original, and your task is to reproduce it as best you can in another medium that comes with its own constraints. Hendrik Goltzius interpreted the sculpted volumes of the Farnese Hercules using only black lines on flat white paper, so in one sense both works show the same masterpiece, and in another sense they are completely different, technically unrelated pieces. To add another layer to the process, Goltzius worked his magic using a burin on copper, so the print we see today is just one of many impressions, an echo of his masterful craft, another step removed. Both reproductive printmaking and translation aim to give a broader audience access to works they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience because of geographic, visual, or linguistic barriers.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

It’s hard for me to limit this to just one. My translation of a landmark tome on dust jackets, book cover design, and publishing in Weimar Germany will be released later this week, so although the translation work is done I’m excited to participate in its stateside launch and to see how it’ll be received by the design and literary communities here, where Lion Feuchtwanger, Georg Salter, George Grosz, and so many other writers and designers ultimately ended up after fleeing the Nazi regime.

My translation of contemporary Roman writer Gabriele Pedullà’s story “Miranda” appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review this past spring, and I’m now diving into the next story from that collection. I first encountered his work when serving on the jury of the Zerilli-Marimò/City of Rome prize, and when the award didn't go to him, I knew what I had to do. Short stories are one of my favorite literary forms, and all five of the stories in his first collection deal with language, communication, and—perhaps most importantly—miscommunications of all sorts. He’s also wrapping up a novel, so I’m excited to bring his work to readers outside of Italy.

Last but not least, I’m looking forward to serving as guest editor of WWB’s Italian issue, slated for 2016, focusing on migration. Several fabulous translators have set the bar quite high editing previous issues, so I hope to carry on that tradition. It’s high time English readers be given a more complex look at the intriguing things being written in and about that paradox-riddled peninsula.

Allison Markin Powell's question: You translate nonfiction as well as fiction and from two different languages; are there any particular challenges to switching from one mode or language to another?

On a strictly linguistic level, my source languages have more in common than one might think, so I’d say the challenges they present have more to do with cultural paradigms. In both fiction and nonfiction, German’s use of compound words provides puzzles I never tire of. With Italian, for the first decade or so of my career I translated a lot of history, criticism, and theory. English lends itself to clarity and concision, so although the intentionally obfuscatory language cultivated by some Italian academics was initially really fun to wrestle with, after a half-million or so words the charm of trying to bring that into my mother tongue wore off. To recover, I read a lot of short stories and knew that literature and literary nonfiction were my calling. This past year I did some work with Swiss texts—both Italian and German originals—and realized I have an easier time switching language than I do mode or voice. I tend to think fiction is more flexible, but can’t really back that up, it’s just a hunch. By the same token, superbly written nonfiction can be quite unforgiving, so you just work at it until you find the best (only?) possible solution.

Published Aug 28, 2015   Copyright 2015 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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