Translation: 2012

It is traditional to sit down, at the junction of years, and look back at memorable events that have occurred in the previous twelve months. So, for what it’s worth, here are my top translation-related events for 2012.

Books read:


Marcello Fois, translated by Patrick Creagh, MacLehose Press, 2012, £16.99, hb, 221pp, 9781906694005

Returning home, late one night, Felice Stocchino and his young son, Samuele, are refused a glass of water at a neighbour’s house. It is an act that the neighbour and his entire family will pay for in blood. This is Sardinia, in the early 1900s, where honour is everything. Fois was born in Sardinia and is one of a gifted group of Italian writers known as “Group 13”, who explore the cultural roots of their various regions.  His descriptions are intensely evocative and nature is at the heart of the violent legends of his homeland, deeply imbued in memory and folklore.  Samuel’s mother knows, even before he is born, that her son has a heart shaped like a wolf’s head, a murderer’s heart. While still a boy, he is saved from death by a juniper bush huddled against the steep rock walls of a ravine. He is found by Mariangela, who later becomes the only woman he ever loves. Fois follows Stocchino through the North African campaigns of 1911–12 and later to the Carso Front of the Great War where the Italian army becomes entrenched for years against the Austro-Hungarian troops. Stocchino has a peculiar affinity with the bayonet, indeed any knife blade: his skill as the agent of death, almost inviting his victims to impale themselves, becomes legendary, as does his seeming immortality.  These wars are just the prelude to the bloodbath that follows, back in Arzana. Fois recounts these violent events in a style that rivals the parched ground of the Sardinian hills.  The memory of the abyss is both a story of the darkest side of human nature, “the snarl of vengeance”, and an evocation of the immortal figure of the outlaw in Sardinian history and the price of honour.


Jean-Pierre Ohl, translated by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2012, £9.99, pbk, 286pp, 9781907650741

Some books are real surprise and this is one of them. What is at heart a detective story becomes in turn a love story, a tribute to friendship and courage, an ode to books and booksellers and to nineteenth-century literature. Perhaps strangest of all, Ohl clearly has an intimate knowledge of Islay and Jura, including the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, as well as of Edinburgh. The story is mainly set in the 1950s when Mary Guthrie, a brilliant English postgraduate from Islay, decides to write a doctoral thesis on Sir Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish author, mathematician and translator of Rabelais, who supported the Royalist cause in Scotland and then died in exile in 1660. The Urquharts – both present and past – play a leading role in the story, as does a renegade catholic priest, Ebenezer Krook, with whom Mary, rather improbably, has an affair. But against Krook’s unfolding family story, the most improbable events start to feel quite normal – even down to Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, who visited Jura regularly in the 1940s, being cast in a life-saver’s role. While researching her doctorate, Mary visits the Urquhart family’s crumbling home in Cromarty where the events of the Spanish Civil War, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s treasure, a Renaissance desk with a coded mechanism for opening its thirty-two drawers, not to mention servants whose nicknames are inspired by golf jargon and a voyeur maiden aunt are just some of the bizarre details invented by Ohl. For all its Gothic twists, this is a book filled with humour, acute observations of character and place, and literary citations worthy of a professional bookseller – Ohl’s other career. It has been flawlessly translated by Mike Mitchell in what deserves to become another of the latter’s award-winning works.

Events attended:

A London Review of Books translation workshop* with Howard Curtis in September was a definitely a highlight of 2012.  It was a hot Saturday afternoon, probably the sort of day best spent idling in Regent’s Park rather than in a rather stuffy office on the top floor of the LRB offices in Bury Place, just round the corner from the British Museum.  There were eight of us, I think: a mixed crowd, some professional translators and some just there for interest (but with a brilliant ear for a good solution).  We had submitted our translations of a short piece – taken, as I later learned, from the closing pages of Beppe Fenoglio’s posthumously published novel, Una questione privata (1963). Howard’s translation, A Private Affair, was published by Hesperus in 2006.  It is an extraordinary passage, with an urgency and pace to it that once read, you don’t easily forget.  It took us nearly three hours to make our way through the first three or four pages of our translations, comparing, discussing, agreeing to disagree, and marvelling at the different solutions produced.  In the end, there was just time for Howard to read through his own published translation which successfully captured the urgency and the thundering pace of the concluding paragraphs, but even he admitted that a translation was never finished: there is always room for improvement!

* The new programme of LRB translation workshops for 2013 is now available here.

Translation was one of the key strands of the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival.  Sadly, I was away for several events that I would have enjoyed, but I’m so glad I managed to hear David Bellos talk about his book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (Penguin, 2011).

BellosAs Professor of French and Italian and comparative Literature at Princeton, Bellos also directs the Translation and Intercultural Communication program there. Intercultural communication is at the heart of the book: nothing is untranslatable, or if it is it is a fraud or fantasy. Ranging from the expectations of translation (you are not translating words, but the force and context of their expression) to the need to dispel the myths of translation (apparently this book was inspired by Bellos’s infuriation when a parent told me that translation was no substitute for the original – clearly it is, why else would you do it!), Bellos provides a witty and brilliant summary of a task that can be either supremely demanding or mundane, but remains absolutely essential. With a nod to technology, Bellos even concedes that Google Translate is “spectacular”, but reminds us that it relies 100% on the work of professional and/or reasonably competent human translators!

Bellos recently found himself in the position of having his own work translated, always a strange experience for a translator, when this book appeared in French (Le Poisson et la bananier. L’histoire fabuleuse de la traduction, Paris: Flammarion, 2012, translated by Daniel Loayza). Bellos and his translator spoke about their collaboration at the Salon du Livre in Paris last spring (see Nataly Kelly’s article here).

So as another year of translation closes, I look forward to many more stimulating events and work to come: my translation of Antonio Foscari’s history of the frescos in the villa of La Malcontenta will appear this summer (Lars Muller), and I am continuing to work on Marzio Barbagli’s history of suicide (Congedarsi dal mondo. Il suicidio in occidente e in oriente. Il Mulino 2009) for Polity (due out in 2014).

Foscari Frescos

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