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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!

Published Dec 6, 2010   Copyright 2010 Susan Harris

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