"Poissonally in poisson": Detectives Beyond Borders interviews Andrea Camilleri's translator, Stephen Sartarelli — Part I
[Read Part II of the Stephen Sartarelli interrview. Read more Detectives Beyond Borders interviews (click link, then scroll down).]
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014