Honing your craft with a literary maestro

‘If I began to think about these things, I was stopped, because so much came back to me, so many desires, so many old affronts’ – OK, let’s look at that first sentence. ‘If I began to think’? The original says ‘Se mi mettevo a pensare’: that’s not exactly began to think, is it? It’s more like ‘If I got to thinking’, or something along those lines. Look, the register is clearly informal in the original, so desires and affronts aren’t right. And I was stopped is supposed to be a translation of ‘non la finivo più’, which means the opposite, so God knows what the translator was doing there. Right! Who wants to tell me how can we improve this – Oliver? …”

Rewind an hour and I was walking through the gateway into Palazzo Pucci, Florence, on a draughty January morning, scarf about the gills and mind a-whirr with questions. Would my dozen or so course mates be translation divas or dilettantes? Would the distinguished teacher live up to his reputation as something of a polemicist? And would I actually be able to find where the heck Scuola Fenysia is in the first place in this elegantly aloof courtyard? (Answer: no; it’s upstairs.)

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The group was excellent but not intimidating; the teacher, encouraging and illuminating. Tim Parks spent a week sharing his approach to translation and putting us through our paces in a sometimes scary, sometimes funny, always stimulating excursus through the world of (mostly) modern Italian literature. We read texts out loud, we read between the lines, we played guess-which-is-the-original-and-which-is-the-translation, we critiqued line by line, we listened to exquisite excoriations of clear errors by prizewinning translators, we retranslated passages, we translated the same text and picked our own and each other’s translations apart on the overhead projector. And we repaired to a hostelry to continue the fun afterwards. This was no whistle-stop workshop but a gradual honing through repeated, probing practice over 30 hours.

OK, so make with the learnings, beardie, I hear you cry. My pleasure:

  1. You must experience the text first, deeply, before attempting to analyse it.
  2. Don’t depart from the source text without a good reason: if you start wanting to change something in the translation, ask what you’d gain.
  3. Cultivate a sensitivity to what constitutes marked language in the source text. Make the ordinary ordinary so that the extraordinary can stand out for what it is.
  4. Don’t overinterpret or overexplain: if the source texts hints, resist spelling it out; if the source text implies, resist making it explicit.
  5. Was there a more standard expression or idiom that the author could have used – but didn’t? Why didn’t they? What effect were they trying to create?
  6. Be sensitive to lexical fields – are there any recurrent themes in the imagery? Are the metaphors all of a pastoral nature, all related to the sea, to parts of the body, to anything in particular? Be sure to recreate that effect in the translation.
  7. Examine your translation for logical consistency; think about it: if something seems wrong (e.g. “disturbed by his unawareness of the situation” – how can you be disturbed by something of which you are not even aware?), then you may have misunderstood.

But if this all seems like a week of awfully intense pontificating on matters literary, well it wasn’t. The final afternoon dissolved into giggles as we penetrated the depths of a blushingly innocent text whose translator had somehow concocted an excruciatingly moist series of double entendres, from the character inexplicably described as “a fighting cock” and a “woodsman” (oo-er, missus) to another who was “taking it hard” (snigger).

Amid a sea of CPD on marketing for translators, networking for translators, tools for translators, work-life balance for translators and other worthy topics that talk around the subject of translation, it was refreshing to find a course that goes for our core skill and does so in depth, a course that gives us a chance to get to grips with a variety of rich and challenging texts, to tackle material outside our comfort zone, to linger over nuances, to have our work critiqued and to learn from our peers. It takes an element of courage. But the “pain” is well worth it.

Maybe you could set up a similar event in your language combination? Maybe something specific to a particular field? The ITI Italian network, I’m reliably informed, has risen to the challenge.

By all means go beyond the core, folks, but let’s never neglect it.