Einaudi bought the Italian rights to my novel before it had an English language publisher, editor, or even a title. Work on the translation began last summer, around the time the book was published in the UK by Virago as To Algeria, with Love. As luck would have it, my husband and I were in southern Italy last summer for an extended stay, and the translator, Lucia Olivieri, was close enough for us to meet and share thoughts.
Hers were blunt. “They gave your book a terrible title,” she exclaimed the first time we met. “Simply terrible.” I liked her forthrightness, and her credentials. Lucia’s English was fluent; she had degrees from Italian and British universities, had lived ten years in India, and had a slew of translations to her credit. I have translated from German, Spanish, and French, but the little Italian I know I learned only recently, and mostly by ear, hanging out in friends’ kitchens in small southern towns. Lucia laughed at my fascination with colloquial phrases like Mo’ ti spiego (a southern locution meaning I shall now explain), Figurati (you’re welcome, or as they say in Texas, you bet), and Ci mancherebbe (literally, “that’s all we need”; another way of saying you’re welcome, don’t mention it).
But when I quoted Amara Lakhous (the award winning Algerian/Italian novelist living and writing in Rome and Torino since 1995) that translation is a lavoro di squadra, a team effort, she took to the idea at once. She met me more than halfway, sending me long printouts of her work. I replied by e-mail or phone. She came to lunch several times, although it meant catching the morning ferry from Salerno to Positano or renting a car for a drive along the hairpin turns of the Amalfi coast. These meetings cemented the bond. There was sheer good will on both sides. Our troubles began on page one.
The narrator of my novel waits nervously in a downtown Manhattan luncheonette. What is the Italian for luncheonette? Tavola calda was Lucia’s first suggestion. I knew what a tavola calda was, a cheap eatery where everything is prepared in advance and kept warm all day, and you point to it and they dish it out and it’s a disappointment. What I had in mind was a place on one of those cross streets in the west 30s, where by four PM the lunch crowd is long gone and soon it will be closing time and the place is dark and quiet like the side altar in a small neighborhood church. Lucy and I agreed to put luncheonette on hold. In the end, several months later, we took a coward’s way out and translated it as just plain café.
“Tiger butter” was another obstacle. Early in the novel, the heroine’s uncle warns her, “Your heart will melt like tiger butter.” To spell out the Little Black Sambo reference seemed pointless. We settled for just plain burro.
“Go suck an egg” stumped us both. Check out Pavese, I suggested: the great novelist and poet, a founding editor of Einaudi, and an early translator of such daunting works as Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s Hamlet. Pavese, it turned out, was not much help on American swear words. He used quintessentially Italian equivalents like porca miseria (literally, bad luck is a sow). (In fact I later read a critical evaluation of his Il Borgo that accuses him of making Faulkner’s Mississippi hill folk sound like Piemonte peasants.) An editor at Einaudi decided, late in the game, that sending someone to suck an egg was comparable to telling them in Italian to go sweep the sea: Scopare il mare. Still not right, for all sorts of reasons (Scopare also means “to fuck”). We let it be.
We came to a total breakdown over a passage describing the Algerian hero of the novel—which is set in France in the early 1960s—as “cool but not hip.” I finally rewrote the passage eliminating both terms and throwing in a reference to Miles Davis. By then I had concluded that cross-cultural translation is a hopeless undertaking. I find that discovery reassuring. The human mind is stubborn and idiosyncratic, resisting the attempts, visible at every turn, to flatten and homogenize.
While few Italian novels are translated into English, English-language novels of all genres make it into Italian in droves every year. So many books are translated into English, Lucia told me, that standard ways of turning certain phrases have evolved to make the process quicker and, presumably, more profitable. It’s known as traduttese—translationese—and she deplores it. (Traduttese also refers to a wannabe American style adopted by Italian novelists who may have read too many works in translation.)
She had high standards. I did my best to knock them down. We argued over calco, too close modeling of the translation on the original. Where my novel’s hero is said to be “starved for friendship,” fear of calco led Lucy to translate, “he longed with all his heart to find a friend.” I persuaded her, calco notwithstanding, to go with aveva fame d’amici, closer to the dry original.
Scorrevolezza is the quality editors demand in a translation, she told me. Fluidity. But what if the original was staccato and full of elisions, the nervous patter of a New York woman narrator? The sentence “I used to know Algeria by heart” gave us grief. Lucia found it too terse, telegraphic. “I knew Algeria like the palm of my hand”; I knew Algeria like an open book,” she suggested. I held out for a memoria—“from memory” —again closer to the English. She gave in, but submitted the final translation to her editors, with long exculpatory footnotes that quoted me verbatim. I sounded—whose fault was that?—like a crank.
Much in her translation pleased and even delighted me. There’s not room here to list her felicitous finds. A late-night phone call bringing bad news prompts the heroine to think “Pity the messenger.” Her translation, messaggero porta pena, Lucia explained, was a play on the Italian saying messaggero non porta pena, don’t shoot the messenger.
But we clashed again on the last words in the book, spoken by the heroine during a street demonstration in lower Manhattan, May 2003. “I’m here for the duration” is a military term, dating from at least the First World War, when men signed up not for a specific number of years, but for the duration of hostilities. It filtered back into US usage around the time of the Iraq invasion, part of the frightening swagger of those months. How long are we here for? For as long as it takes. For the duration.
Lucia said the term did not exist in Italian, in that form. I pointed to an article in Corriere della Sera, where per la durata was used in a nonmilitary context. She insisted—on this point she remained adamant throughout—that there is an unbridgeable gap between spoken and literary Italian, and that what was acceptable in a daily paper had no place in a novel from Einaudi.
We finally settled on fino all’ultimo.The last word of the book would be the word “last.” I still wasn’t satisfied. Things were getting down to the wire when I remembered a conversation at a friend’s house in the hills behind the Amalfi coast late last summer. We were sitting on the hot patio shelling beans talking about the world’s wrongs, when sturdy, hardworking Natalina, whom life never gave a break, concluded, Non mi arrendo. Never surrender. Those are the last words of the novel, in its Italian version. Not a translation, but a transcription, I like to think, from life itself.
Written with an incalculable amount of assistance from translator Lucia Olivieri
Suzanne Ruta’s To Algeria, with Love was published in the UK by Virago in 2011 and in the US and Canada in June 2012. The Italian version, La Repubblica di Wally, was published earlier this month.