‘The translated sentence that fails to relay some nuance or music of the original, is tinged with loss’

Some years ago a friend phoned and said, “You’d better sit down.” She and her Italian boyfriend had been arguing about who died at the end of one of my novels. He had asked her to read the final page of the novel aloud – “OK,” he said. “In the English version, you’re right; in the Italian translation, I’m right.”

Attempts at clarification ran into confusion – my Italian publishers insisited the “right” person had died; the Italian boyfriend was adamant that wasn’t the case; an Italian-speaking friend said he could see how someone might read it either way. But as I found myself considering the possibility of a “new” Italian ending, I discovered that I wasn’t upset by it – if anything I was strangely pleased. I found myself re-thinking the oddness of that reaction last week during the three-day long Festival of Writers in Florence, which was structured around the Premio Gregor von Rezzori – a translation prize set up five years ago in memory of the great writer of that name by his widow, Beatrice Monti, who orchestrated the prize and the festival with the same energy and imagination she brings to bear on her writer’s retreat, Santa Maddalena, where I’ve been a fellow this last month.

Over the three days, in lectures, interviews and private conversations, writers considered their relationship to the individual sentence. “What else does a writer have but sentences?” Zadie Smith asked in the opening lecture of the festival, entitled Why Write? In the days that followed, David Mitchell spoke of sentences as “artistic units”; Wells Tower pointed out that at the start of a piece of fiction, before characters have been brought to life in the writer’s mind, “the initial unit of regard is the sentence”; Aleksandar Hemon, the winner of the Best Work of Translated Foreign Fiction prize, said that the work of the writer was to create an architecture out of sentences. If we writers are all so intimately tied to our sentences – as of course, we are – then can we view the translated versions of our novels as “ours” in any meaningful way? Was my strange reaction to the Italian death of a character I loved simply a sign of detachment from my translated sentences?

As I watched the shortlisted writers – Mitchell, Tower, Hemon, Miguel Syjuco and Marie NDiaye – I wondered if their amity and apparent lack of anxiety over who would win could be traced to their sense of remoteness from the shortlisted, translated texts. Though perhaps, also, it had something to do with the good feeling – and sense of good fortune – created by being in Florence on days of sunshine, delighting in an evening of Isabella Rossellini and Colm Tóibín reading famous love letters to a crowded theatre, attending events in the most extraordinary rooms – in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Palazzo Vecchio – where the expressions of the frescoes and statues seemed to respond to the speeches, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in disdain. Read more.

See: The Guardian.co.uk

Also see the discussion on the Translation – art & business » Literature / Poetry forum