Thursday, July 30, 2009

On translating Andrea Camilleri

Earlier this year, I linked to an article by Stephen Sartarelli about translating Andrea Camilleri into English.

I singled out Sartarelli's assessment that Camilleri:

"writes in a language that he has been the first to grace with literary status. An invented language, in the sense that, though made up of existing manners of speech and writing, it has never before been assembled in quite this fashion."
The article turns up as a preface to Does the Night Smell the Same in Italy and in English Speaking Countries? An Essay on Translation: Camilleri in English by Emanuela Gutkowski.

The book is marred by a tendency to weigh down obvious statements with citations not just in footnotes but in the body of the text. If you can ignore that academic affectation, Gutkowski, a lecturer in English and translation studies at the University of Catania in Sicily, has interesting things to say to readers of Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano mysteries.

Her numerous quotations from Camilleri's L'odore della notte and its translation as The Smell of the Night (The Scent of the Night for delicate UK readers) highlight the sorts of choices a translator must make when literal renderings would make no sense in the "reception" language. Thus "Ho avuto una botta di culo incredibile, Mimi" becomes "I hit the goddamn jackpot, Mimi."

"The expression cannot be translated," Gutkowski writes, as the literal translation `I had a terrible ass-hit' appears to be nonsense." Sartarelli's choice is anything but nonsense, and he gets the tone just right.

Sartareli made wise choices as well in areas of linguistic untranslatablity, where Montalbano's distinctively Sicilian manipulations of grammar lack precise English equivalents. Such a locution, says, Gutkowski, is Montalbano's introduction of himself by "Montalbano sono" (literally "Montalbano I am") rather than the standard "I am Montalbano" or "It's Montalbano."

His choice of words thus violates normal word order in the interest of a strange, self-conscious formality. Just try getting that across in translation. Sartarelli's choice: "Montalbano the name." That, too, captures the tone, I'd say.

And then there's Catarella, Montalbano's thick, excitable, language-mangling colleague. I'd had ambivalent feelings about Sartarelli's rendering his speech in an English full of malapropisms and misspellings. Seeing his version beside the original, I appreciate the sensitivity he has to the strange, clanky sound of Catarella's speech.

"Vossia di pirsona pirsonalmente è?" becomes "Is that you yourself in person?" which both preserves the sense and offers an elegant substitution (you/yourself) for Catarella's cracked alliteration.

=================
Camilleri makes artful use of clichés, mostly to show how they drive Montalbano nuts. I wrote about those clichés and what Sartarelli does with them here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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20 Comments:

Anonymous marco said...

He does, however, choose to translate Catarella's Sicilian with plain English. I suppose it's inevitable, but it doesn't quite feel the same.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, plain English of a kind. But Sartarelli's preface anticipates your complaint. Italian readers' questions, he says:

"usually boil down to the same one: How could one ever render a proper equivalent of this linguistic stew in English? The answer is very simple: One can't. That is, one cannot hope to reproduce, even remotely, in the translation, the same distancing effects -- from proper Italian -- that one finds in the original. Dialect is inherently local. ... The larger problem of rendering the spirit of Camilleri's vision intact has always seemed to me of greater importance. For it must also be said that, for all their linguistic patchwork and invention, Camilleri's texts, in the original, read quite naturally -- once one gets used to his idioms, that is, -- and are really quite limpid and clean. To me it has always seemed more important to preserve this naturalness ... than to try to create an inevitable pale and inaccurate imitation of his linguistic mosaic, which would, of necessity, in translation, compromise the rather streamlined quality of his tales."

I'd say Sartarelli has great respect for his source and commendable modesty about the limits of his own task. And he reproduces readable versions in which one can detect a definite authorial sensibility at work, so he must be doing something right.

Incidentally, members of the translators' panel at Crimefest in Bristol this year were asked to to name translators they admired. I believe Sartarelli was the only translator of crime fiction whose name came up.

July 30, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

In spite of the drawbacks you mention, such as the academic jargon (I think it was originally a conference presentation...?), I'm looking forward to reading it.
I remember thinking it would be fun to read the as-yet-untranslated Montalbano novels in the original Italian when I finished the ones Sartarelli had translated. Yikes! I had not realized they were largely written in a kind of Sicilian + Camilleri's regional dialect + Camilleri's make-it-up-as-you-go-along vocabulary. But armed with Gianni Bonfiglio's "Siciliano-italiano: piccolo vocabolario ad uso e consumo dei lettori di Camilleri e dei siciliani di mare" + Luigi La Rocca's "Dizionario siciliano-italiano, italiano-siciliano" I got into the swing of them. Sartarelli is a truly gifted translator. He has, as you point out, the wonderful ability to capture the author's intent while making the novels accessible and enjoyable to English readers, to "let go" of the dictionary and get into Camilleri's (Montalbano's) head. I wish Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy could have been translated by Sartarelli. The translator tended to use too often the first word in the dictionary rather than the most suitable word.

By the way, did you know the Inspector Montalbano novels have been filmed for Italian television, 1999-2008, and are available on DVD with English subtitles from an Australian vendor, Family Boxoffice, www.fbo.com.au You do have to tinker with your DVD player to make it "region free" but that's easy with instructions one can find online. I highly recommend them, the acting is great. Although about 10 years younger than Salvo, Luca Zingaretti is a super Montalbano, and the other casting is also fine. The production values are extremely high and they are all filmed on location in southern Sicily so each episode is like a mini-tour. I was reminded of them because I believe the most recently televised episodes from Nov. 2008 are being repeated on RAI this week.

The translation problem is, of course, a two-way street. I thought it would be fun to read translations of Hammett's short stories in Italian, published by Camilleri's Italian publisher, Sellerio Editore Palermo. So I get to the end of "The Girl with the Silver Eyes / La ragazza dagli occhi d'argento" and the wonderful final paragraph in which the girl leans towards the Op and calls him "the most vile epithet in the English language" remained untranslated! The story ended with the short story's previous paragraph. I think there might have been some Italian-language way to resolve this (I'll bet Sartarelli could think of one!).

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The academic nonsense is the book's only drawback. The author spends more time than is necessary establishing that much of Camilleri is rooted in its setting, for example. Well, yes.



In any case, the book helps me understand why other translators respect Sartarelli, so I recommend it, especially if you'd be able to appreciate that Camilleri's language has many facets.

I remember your previous comment (at least I think it was yours) about the translations of the De Luca novels. I don't remember having any such complaints. Perhaps I could read them again some time. I enjoyed the books, and a rereading would not take long.

I knew about a Montalbano series. I'm not sure if the one you mention is it.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, I'm out of my depth here, but it's a fascinating discussion all the same. I don't have the best ear for clunky translation, frankly, but I do have a pretty good sense of wooden sounding writing in English. On that level, Sartarelli's translations look promising.

July 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Depth, schmepth. Read some Camilleri, have a good time, then read this book (ignoring the academic stuff). You'll gain an appreciation for what translators in general and Sartarelli in particular have to think about.

If you decide to read Camilleri, I have liked the more recent books better, from Excursion to Tindari (2005) on. I've written about him often, if you'd like to use this site as a start.

July 31, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Sounds like a plan. I think starting with the later ones may be the way in, as for some reason I've never been able to start with the first one. Same thing happened with Donna Leon. Just couldn't do it chronologically.

July 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like the later books because of the increasing tenderness of the protagonist's attitude toward life even as he remains as quick-tempered as ever. Parts of the more recent books are touching in ways that little if anything else in crime fiction is.

July 31, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

A great translations, like, say, great ballet dancing, is something that appears effortless yet great care and preparation have gone into its making. As far as not "having an ear for clunky translation" I'm inclined to think you would notice elements of a so-so translation that would go unremarked in a fine translation; you'll know it when you read it.

Peter, I agree with you that the older, increasingly introspective Montalbano makes the more recent novels especially pleasurable. Yet some of the Italian readers at the camilleri_fans Yahoo group have complained. "Enough with the talking about growing old stuff" they say. It seems they want Salvo and his commissariato "family" to stay the same from book to book, to just have different crimes to solve. This seems to be one of the perpetual problems of crime fiction's attempts to be accepted as "literature." Is character development frowned upon in any other genre, I wonder?

July 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't remember if I've mentioned this already -- and perhaps you've read it in the article by Sartarelli that became the preface to this book. Sartarelli suggests that his role as a translator is like an umpire or referee's in a sports match: if he does his job well, he's invisible.

I can understand a complaint like that of the Italian readers, but I don't think the "growing old stuff" ever becomes obtrusive. Montalbano's increasing tenderness for Livia, for example, is all the funnier set against their old, familiar squabbling. I also don't think turning fifty has changed Montalbano's approach to investigation.

As for character development's being frowned on in other genres, I invite my science fiction and fantasy-reading friends to comment.

July 31, 2009  
Blogger Simona said...

Great post and great discussion. I brought back the Montalbano movies on DVD from Italy last October and have been watching them on my computer. Zingaretti is a wonderful Montalbano. And translation is an interesting topic. I admire Sartarelli's job with Camilleri' language.

July 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. Anyone reading this should now that you were my source for the original versions of the clichés that drive Montalbano nuts in The Smell of the Night.

That's two rave reviews here for Luca Zingaretti. I shall have to investigate.

July 31, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

It's funny, but something I don't really have an ear for is how a translator isn't quite conveying the nationality or regionality of the character. I enjoyed a mystery set in the Southwest of France, but my sister had trouble with the fact that these rural French people sounded so British. I think she was probably right, but I was enjoying revisiting a region I had visited in person and probably let all of that slide right on past me.

v word=unzin, which means a wine that fully discloses that it might be just about anything other than zinfindel.

July 31, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

As for character development's being frowned on in other genres, I invite my science fiction and fantasy-reading friends to comment

I think more than character development, what's dreaded is the descent into soap-opera mode long series seem especially prone to. In long sf/f series there's a chance the only "character" who carries over from novel to novel is the world itself- otherwise, with much more freedom in exploring different places and time periods, the point of view tends to shift. I suppose among series which have a definite hero you could count the Miles Vorkoskigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, where there's definitely a lot of character development.

I wasn't picking on Sartarelli, merely commenting on the fact that in cases like that even the best translations have limits.

Sellerio publishes some of your favorite authors, Peter - Sciascia,Bill James and Friedrich Glauser. Translations are generally considered good, so what Elizabeth says is a bit worrying.

Zingaretti is indeed superb. Camilleri has said that nowadays he sees his face when he writes Montalbano.

Elisabeth have you studied Italian and/or lived in Italy?

V-word: coately

August 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, that supports a vague idea I had about science fiction and fantasy. Readers who know little about crime fiction may have heard of characters: Sam Spade or Salvo Montalbano. Readers who know little about science fiction or fantasy are likelier to have heard of a fictional world or universe: Middle Earth, the world of the Foundation series.

I suspect Sartatelli would agree at least with general direction of your complaints. A good part of his preface is devoted to acknowledging the limits one faces translating Camilleri.

Finally, it's good to hear that Bill James has been translated. It would be interesting to see how his sharp prose comes through in translation.

Elisabeth, I like the evocative phrase "siciliani di mare" in the title of one of our reference books. It sets me to thoughts of vacation-planning.

August 01, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Marco, I did not mean to say that the Sellerio translations of English-language books are substandard; on the contrary, I enjoyed the Hammett translation more than I thought I would. It was just the last paragraph that stumped the Italian translator, so it was omitted. I think there might have been some way to communicate the almost O. Henry-ish ending in Italian, even if it meant straying from Hammett's words.

I studied Italian for 3 years in college and the longest I've been in Italy is 6 months (Milan and area). But I get back there as often as I can! I believe with Nikolai Gogol that "Who has been to heaven does not desire earth. He who has been to Italy does not desire other places." (Although I have been known to go other places...).

Re the Andrea Camilleri/Salvo Montalbano/Luca Zingaretti thread... Without giving any plot element away, there is a funny scene at the beginning of one of the as-yet-untranslated Montalbano novels where Camilleri plays a bit with the fame of his "beniamino." The dialogue goes something like this: "Look! There he is! Inspector Montalbano!" -- "Which one? The one on TV or the real one?" Salvo increasingly has to deal with his unsought celebrity (and readers know how much he hates even being interviewed by his friend Nicolò Zito!).

Peter, in addition to "like" (already mentioned, wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard its pointless use) my "favorite just plain useless use of words" is perhaps "you know what I mean?".

And, yes, "siciliani di mare" is evocative; it neatly captures some of the emigrant's sense of distance from and longing for the homeland, doesn't it?

August 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have posted occasionally on self-reference in crime novels, and that instance sounds like a delightful example. As you note, Montalbano's reticence ought to make the scene even more delicious for readers.

Perhaps Hammett's Italian translator was too modest or too reverent in this case, you know what I mean?

August 03, 2009  
Anonymous Emanuela said...

Hi Peter,
it's Emanuela Gutkowski here!
Thanks for talking of my book and... yes, I agree with your comment on the academic boring material. The problem is I have to use this book at university, where I teach, and so I have to keep a certain style which, as a reader, I do not like very much either!
Anyway, I just wanted to explain to English speakers reading Camilleri what is culturally rooted and what is quite "pancultural" in his books.
Best wishes
Emanuela

September 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I have occasionally had complaints similar to your sister's, but then I've reflected that the translator was probably British and simply rendering the original language into his or version of transparent, everyday speech. If a British translator is doing the translation, French peasants may go to the loo, Chinese deliverymen will drive lorries, and Spanish kidnappers will stuff their victims in the boot of a car. The reader simply must make the adjustment. What was the Southwest France mystery in question?

I can well imagine a British reader finding an English translation of a French, Spanish or Chinese novel too American if the translator happens to be American. It may simply be impossible to render into a translation all the subtle social gradations and dialects of an original language. That's one of Sartarelli's main points.

Much of the crime fiction I read is translated by British translators, so I notice this often. In fact, I think that of all the translators I've mentioned here, Sartarelli and Steven T. Murray are the only Americans. Sian Reynolds (translator of Fred Vargas), Mike Mitchell (Friedrich Glauser), Ros Schwartz (Dominique Manotti), Don Bartlett (Jo Nesbo); all are British.

Unzin? No thanks; I'm driving. I'll have an uncola.

September 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Emanuela, welcome, and thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment.

I already had respect for Stephen Sartarelli's difficult job in translating Camilleri. After reading your book, I have even more. And, of course, it's nice to see so much serious attention devoted to the wonderful Camilleri.

September 09, 2009  

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