Monday, April 21, 2014

"Poissonally in poisson": Detectives Beyond Borders interviews Andrea Camilleri's translator, Stephen Sartarelli — Part I

Stephen Sartarelli has translated Pasolini's poetry and Casanova's memoirs, and he's also a poet. But readers of crime fiction know him best as the English-language translator of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano novels, the seventeenth of which, Angelica's Smile, is to be published later this year. Camilleri is as Sicilian as the rocks and the sea and the waves of peoples who have vanquished and become part of that island over the millennia.  His blend of Sicilian dialect, standard Italian, and "an invented language ... never before ... assembled in quite this fashion" would test any translator, and Sartarelli meets the challenge well; his historical and linguistic footnotes are concise, informative lessons in Sicilian language and society.  Sartarelli and Camilleri received the CWA International Dagger Award for best translated crime fiction in 2013 for The Potter's Field. In the first part of an interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Stephen Sartarelli talks about poetry, translation, the place where they meet, and the lack of respect crime fiction gets in the prestige U.S. press. 

[Read Part II of the Stephen Sartarelli interrview. Read more Detectives Beyond Borders interviews (click link, then scroll down).]
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Detectives Beyond Borders: How did you first come to work with Andrea Camilleri?

Stephen Sartarelli:   I was contacted around the year 2000 by William Weaver, who was a good friend and my sort of mentor in the field of Italian literary translation. Bill, at the time, was the “dean” of American literary translators of Italian and often gave me first dibs on the work he was offered, but didn’t have time to do. So I decided to have a look at the first two Montalbano novels. I’d heard about Camilleri but hadn’t read him yet. And I confess that I had a sort of literary prejudice against detective fiction as not sufficiently “serious” to merit my attention—with the exception, of course, of classics like Poe, Conan Doyle, Simenon, Hammett and a few others. Well, I read those first two novels in the Montalbano series and liked them very much. Also, having worked with Sicilian before—predominantly in translating the mammoth modern classic Horcynus Orca, by Stefano D’Arrigo, which runs about 1,300 pages and which I haven’t finished yet—I was perhaps less daunted by Camilleri’s dialect than other translators might be. And so I got the job, a contract for the first two novels, and that got the ball rolling. I should add that before setting about translating the first Montalbano novel I boned up on the hard-boiled and detective genres to acquaint myself a little better with the tone and the sort of language those authors use, and this proved very helpful, at least at first, in finding the right sort of stylistic approach to take.

DBB:   You are also a poet. What does this contribute to your practice of, and attitude toward, translation? I can't recall the interview or article that gave me this impression, but I seem to remember that you take a humble attitude before the words that you must translate from one language to another. Is that a poet's attitude?

SS:   I don’t know if that attitude has to do with being a poet, really, but where the poet’s craft intersects with the translator’s is, I think, in viewing language as something plastic that can be molded to fit the circumstances, the desired effect, and so on. This is even truer, of course, when one is translating poetry. But there is a stage in the translation process that is rather similar to poetry composition, and that’s in what I would call the intermediate revision process, when I don’t even look at the original anymore and just deal with the words on the page and how they sound and look as an English text. This is similar to poetry revision, I think. That is, I revise my poetry compositions much more than my prose writings. And while I’ve refined my translation approach to the point that I revise less now than when I was first starting out, there’s still that crucial phase when the original text is no longer in view, and I work the text as if I’d written it myself.

DBB:   Talk about the challenges of translating an author who writes "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."

SS:   It was a little daunting at first, I must say, though, as I said above, my experience with D’Arrigo, who also writes in an original blend of Sicilian dialect (though it’s from the Messina area, and thus different from Camilleri’s) and Italian, was very helpful. But with a writer as original as Camilleri there’s always that slight feeling of regret that I’m not reproducing all the multifacetedness of the original, and so I try to focus on the most important things: the humor, the tone, the different speech patterns of the different characters. If I can get those things right, then I’ve already covered the most important things. There’s also the problem of the standards of American publishing. When I first started translating Camilleri, I was a little more timid about carrying over too much of his linguistic hodgepodge, for the simple reason that the editors would start questioning everything, as they always do when they come across something different from the norm. The very existence of a writer like Camilleri, or say, Cormac McCarthy for Americans, renders the Chicago Manual of Style useless, at least for fiction writers. But once my translations of Camilleri started to do well, and I became more familiar and comfortable with his approach, I had a little more freedom to experiment and I began to see the unusualness of his language as an opportunity to be creative.

DBB:   You are probably one of the few crime-fiction translators whose work has been the subject of an academic study. Discuss Does the Night Smell the Same in Italy and in English Speaking Countries? An Essay on Translation: Camilleri in English by Emanuela Gutkowski.

SS:   I think this has more to do with Camilleri’s popularity and mastery than with the fact that I’m his translator. He’s such a cultural phenomenon in Italy that he’s become the object of intense study. There’s also the fact that in Europe the field of literary translation has become a proper area of university study, and you can now get a degree in literary translation, which I don’t think is the case yet in the US. I do find it strange, however, that the Italians are devoting so much attention to my translations. I periodically receive university theses based on studies of my translations (usually of Camilleri). And I’ve even told some Italian academics that they might do better to devote more time to studying Italian translations of foreign authors, where they would have a better grasp of what the translators are doing than in studying translations into a tongue that for them is at best a second language. That’s because, while a full understanding of the language of the original text is of course essential for any translator, the crucial part of translation comes in the rendering in the target language. A foreigner for whom English is a second language will never, except perhaps in rare cases, fully grasp the process whereby I arrive at the final version of the translation.

DBB:   I have long enjoyed your historical, linguistic, and gastronomical footnotes to the Camilleri novels. Why did you decide to include them, rather than letting the text speak for itself in all respects?

SS:   I’m not really sure. I think I simply thought that it would be a shame for readers to miss the full meaning of certain details and references in those books. And I suppose it was a way to confer a “scholarly” veneer on a writer in a genre that still isn’t treated as seriously by critics as straight fiction. I’m amazed sometimes how, say, the New York Times Book Review, will devote a half-page or a full page to the first book of a budding but mediocre young novelist but only a short paragraph in a group review to an accomplished master like Camilleri, simply because it’s detective fiction. So in this sense the notes give a sense of what lies just beneath the surface of what are relatively simple stories. And I think these underlying meanings and messages are necessary to a full appreciation of the work.

DBB:   Have you ever had to leave out a word, phrase, or concept from a Camilleri novel simply because you could find no suitable equivalent in English?

SS:   No, I don’t think so. I tend to think that everything, with enough good will and effort, is translatable. There may be an instance or two where I left out a reference to the fact that, say, Montalbano, switches from the formal address to the familiar in talking with another character (since this doesn’t exist in English), but normally I try to work this in too. More likely there may a phrase here or there that I’ve dropped because, in the circumstances, it was redundant or superfluous.
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[Read Part II of the Stephen Sartarelli interrviewRead more Detectives Beyond Borders interviews (click link, then scroll down).]

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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15 Comments:

Blogger RT said...

A superb interview of a superb translator of a superb mystery/crime writer. Did I mention that it is all superb? Well done!

April 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, and there's more to come, at least one more part of the interview.

April 21, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

The nice thing about the translations is the nuanced way the Sicilian contexts are represented in the diction and syntax. No, I do not speak Sicilian or Italian, but I've seen enough Sicilian/Italian movies, and the translations seem faithful to the tone and style of people in those movies. But, hey, I'm just offering an uneducated POV. Only a bilingual reader could either validate or repudiate my impression. The bottom line: I really like the Camilleri novels. But really did not like the TV/movie version(s).

April 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll know from Sartarelli's second answer that he believes a translation must stand on its own as a piece of writing. Seems from your comment that he succeeds, that his translations seem to right to the heart of the matter.

I enjoyed the episodes of the Italian Inspector Montalbano series that I have watched, despite the occasional departures from the books. Salvo is younger on television, for example, but this does not bother me, because Luca Zingaretti gets the character's essentials.

April 21, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

For me the age disparity is the problem. Perhaps I should give the TV version another chance via Netflix.

April 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The more recent novels have made much of Salvo's sense of his own mortality. I'm unsure how television episodes based on the those books deals with the this matter. For episodes based on the earlier books, age is not that important. Zinagetti was approaching his 40s playing a character who, in the books, is approaching his 50s. I think the producers and actors handles the gap by ignoring it--not like Emma Thomson aging Elinor Dashwood 10 years for the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, and even then looking too old for her purported age.

April 21, 2014  
OpenID melhealy said...

I loved his bit about "that crucial phase when the original text is no longer in view, and I work the text as if I’d written it myself".

Looking forward to Part #2.

April 22, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

I haven't read Camilieri yet, enjoyed the interview just the same. The comment on time would be better spent studying books translated into the student's native language rather than out of seems particularly astute. (Almost self-evident, but, since it needed to be pointed out, counts double for me. Truly brilliant ideas are most those that have been sitting in front of us waiting to be picked up.)

April 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mel Healy: Thanks for the comment. Sartarelli things very seriously and carefully about what he does, I think.

Part #2 should be up in the next day or so.

Irish foodie crime fiction, you say? Sounds worth a look.

April 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: You've read the translator, now read the books he translates.

The comment you singled out hit hime with me, as I can read nonfiction in French fairly well, but I have trouble with fiction. Or maybe it's that in non-fiction I can miss a word here and there without missing the point, but not so in fiction. Perhaps that's Sartarelli's point.

April 22, 2014  
Blogger Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

In The Dance of the Seagull, Montalbano complains, not that Zingaretti too young, which of course is flattering, but that he is bald.

Great start to the series!

April 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment and the kind word. I wrote about that scene in one of my posts about Dance of the Seagull and also when I reviewed the book. The good humor with which Camilleri takes notice of the television series is delightful/

April 22, 2014  
OpenID melhealy said...

Hi Peter

Yep, Irish foodie crime fiction. Also known as chip lit.

April 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I tried to formulate a wiseass reply involving champ, Guinness, and Ulster fry, but came up with nothing. I'll go take a bite out of the Salmon of Knowledge, then try again.

April 23, 2014  
Blogger Beryl Meghnagi said...

Just finished revelling in Sartarelli's translation of The Age of Doubt. In a helpful spirit, I'd like him to know that there's no such word as wailaway. The full expression, which he obviously knows is archaic, is 'alas, alack and welladay'.
Looking forward to continuing my Camilleri fest.
Beryl Meghnagi

March 04, 2016  

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