In this installment of “From the translator,” Elizabeth Harris weighs in on dialogue, scene, exposition, and the fascinating process behind rendering Marco Di Marco's Moving Like Geckos for Words without Borders. You can read the piece in our June 2011 issue over here.
I'm very pleased to have translated Marco Di Marco's story for this particular issue of Words without Borders, and I'm grateful that the editors have asked me to comment again on my translation process.
The translator is of course a close reader and analyzer of the original text—perhaps the translator is the author's closest reader. But what I find consistently is that in rendering a character, I need to move beyond close reading: I need to create that character on the page—with the author's words, of course, but for that character to come alive, I need to reinvent the character in English; I need to know who that character is. As I've done in the past with my own fiction-writing, when I translate, I tend to become that character (only in my head of course!) so I can figure out how this character will sound in his or her new language. In the case of Marco Di Marco's story, that character is the first-person narrator, Alberto, a man probably in his fifties, a professor of psychology who wants to see himself as compassionate, articulate, middle class, and past his own painful memories of being gay, poor, and a prostitute in the ‘80s in Italy.
I love Alberto. He's such an honest character. And by “honest,” I don't mean that what he says is true—because it might not be, even though Alberto seems to be telling the truth because he's fairly articulate. What makes Alberto honest—honestly rendered—is that he's contradictory and that he wants to articulate what his story means, and he can't quite do it. The changes in his voice as he tells his story reinforce the ambiguities in his character: he seems to lapse into distancing lyrical commentary as a defense: intermixed with this lyricism (“moles chasing one another along the dunes of his arms,” and so on), Alberto speaks in fairly simple, somewhat terse sentences and fragments; there's a tension between these two types of prose that reinforces Alberto's conflicting emotions. Later, after Alberto leaves money for the boy he's picked up but also cooked for, he slips into psychologese (again, a defense, a desire to distance himself), as he wonders if the boy has interpreted this payment as a “subliminal invitation to keep quiet. Unconsciously, that must be exactly why I did it.”
The nuances to voice here are great fun to translate and contribute much to developing this rich character. As a first-person story, obviously all details, all observations come from the narrator. We tend to take these details as true, but of course that's a trick; some narrators are more reliable than others. Alberto seems reliable enough, but those changes in tone push us back to seeing that the story is indeed colored by who's doing the telling. What seems real in the story is only real in terms of what Alberto is saying.
Except when it comes to dialogue. With dialogue, we wind up someplace else. In some fiction, we might find that even dialogue is colored by that first-person narrator: characters might be speaking, but their lines wind up stylized by an insistent, voice-heavy, lyrical, or unreliable narrator (who might be lying about what others say). Dialogue can be a wonderful place in a story, an opportunity to change the rhythm to the prose, move the plot forward, characterize. With Di Marco's story, while we might find some contradictions to the voice of the narrator, there doesn't seem to be any real reason to believe that what is said in dialogue isn't actually said: our narrator might not fully understand himself, but that doesn't make him a liar, either.
When I teach creative writing and I'm trying to explain the nuances of exposition and scene, I like to explain a story as having dimensions, with the surface of the story being the closest to actual scene, and exposition falling back from scene at various levels from that “surface” story. Straightforward dialogue, in scene, is perhaps closest to that surface “reality” of the story, the closest thing we have to being there, in the story, seeing and hearing what's happening—that is, if dialogue isn't stylized, isn't colored by the narrator or interwoven into exposition, as a mix of direct and indirect discourse.
I bring all of this up to get at some of the challenges of translating dialogue. If, as we find in Di Marco's story, the dialogue has that typical function of realistic fiction, of breaking the story into scene, then the translation has to feel real, very much like spoken English. But this can get tricky, because if the lines are too much like spoken (American) English, then the story loses its sense of being translated from another language; Italians shouldn't sound like Americans. But they really shouldn't sound like Italians, either, because if they do, if they sound translated, then they don't sound real.
The result, with a realistic story like this one, is a lot of tugging back and forth between making the dialogue sound natural and spoken but not too American. An example: as Leo stands in front of the window early on, we have: “Tempo di merda,” dice, “posso restare ancora un po’?” A more literal translation of this might be “Shitty weather,” he says. “Can I stay a bit longer?” But I couldn't get past “shitty weather,” which just didn't sound quite right to me: “tempo di merda” is pretty common in Italian; “shitty weather” didn't sound as typical to me. What might we say instead? Lousy weather? Awful weather? Crappy weather is close to the original, but I hated losing “merda”: that's a word we can understand, that can add a patina of the original language to the dialogue. “Crappy” and “lousy,” well, they sounded crappy to me—too American. So I went with “awful weather,” which loses the “shit” detail and so is less characterizing for Leo but still doesn't turn him into some American kid bitching about the rain. But I just had to keep “merda,” too; I couldn't let go of this wonderful word. So here's what I finally came up with: “‘Merda,’” he says. ‘Awful weather. Can I stay a little longer?'” If this were in exposition, I doubt I'd manipulate the sentences so much, but in dialogue, that natural, spoken sound is crucial, even while I don't want to turn the dialogue into American English; by keeping the Italian word, “merda,” I hope I've managed to maintain this tenuous balance.
The natural, spoken quality of the dialogue doesn't just come from the word choice; it also comes from sentence rhythm. Without the right pacing, a translated line of dialogue will sound terribly stiff and forced. Part of this pacing has to do with the dialogue itself, but also with the dialogue tags: our dialogue in American literature has perhaps never been the same following Hemingway's influence; again, I didn't want to turn Di Marco's dialogue into American, Hemingway-esque lines, but an overly long dialogue tag full of physical description can kill the spoken line. Right after the line I mentioned above, as the boy asks if he can stay because it's raining, there's an example of an extended dialogue tag: in Italian, we have the narrator answering, “'Sì, certo,' gli dico mentre mi rigiro nel letto, coprendomi fino al mento con le coperte. 'Puoi restare fino a che non smette.'” A literal translation: “‘Yes, certainly,’” I tell him while I turn over in bed, covering myself to my chin with the blankets. ‘You can stay until it stops.’” I could just leave the action tied to the tag, but it's slightly stiff in English, a lot of action crammed into one small comment. I solved this by dropping the tag altogether: “'Yeah, sure.' I roll over and pull the covers up to my chin. 'Stay until it stops.'”
Dialogue in a realistic first-person story might be as close as we get to a shift in point of view; if we're to believe the dialogue, then it's our opportunity to hear another character, someone beyond the narrator. And of course it's also an opportunity to hear the narrator speak out loud, often with a very different voice than what we find in exposition. That is somewhat the case in this story and something I had to be aware of in my translation. Leo, too, has a real voice here, which I hope I've captured in translation; his voice sounds younger than Alberto's; he swears more, is more casual. But he also seems sweet; his gestures toward Alberto seem genuine; yes, we see him through Alberto's eyes, but when he speaks, when he assures Alberto that he doesn't want anything more from him (“It's fine by me . . . It's fine what happened”), we tend to believe him. He's a rich character as well, yes, secondary to the narrator, but his voice in dialogue took quite a bit of manipulating as I worked through his character, decided who he was, as I saw him through Alberto, learned about him through Alberto, and heard him speaking in a more confident voice than Alberto's, perhaps with the voice of a different generation of gay men in Italy.