When the translation sings…

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My translator’s  note


Once, as a kid, I replied to my drama teacher’s proposal to perform The Doll’s House at school with: Ibsen? How can we perform Ibsen if he didn’t write in English. Someone made Ibsen possible for me to understand then; I am eternally grateful.

Translation opens doors, opens minds, makes communication possible: it unbabels the babel, so to speak. Translators embrace two or more languages, enjoying books, ideas, and friendships in each. They work to make this possible for others. This is what I thought when I first read “Six Minutes:” I just wanted to share it.

I met Paolo Zardi’s work through a friend, fell in love with his characters immediately, and when I expressed my desire to share them in English, he was kind enough to let me. It was not an easy task.

“Six Minutes” is brutally realistic. The events echo the seconds on the clock, deafening. The story unravels with every heartbeat, and that made translating it trying, both emotionally and professionally. A wonderful short story can envelop the reader in its folds; translating a wonderful story can lose the translator to friends and family for days, weeks, months.

So many things have been written about translation. So many studies have been done. Each translator has his own personal method. Every method is a valid one, I think. For me, the actual words come first, I suppose. Individual words, nouns, verbs that mean the same thing (Paolo Zardi is an engineer, and has his own world of words, which is not necessarily my world). I take the text apart, translate the words and set them on the table to pick from, like a puzzle. I lay them in front of me and then start putting the sentences back together.

Sound is next, because it’s a crazy kind of puzzle I’m putting together: it’s both visual and musical.

Because “one Saturday in September” slips off your tongue just like “un sabato di settembre”, easy, but what if the author had opted for “un lunedì di luglio” in the original? What then? “Monday in July?” Fine. But where’s the alliteration? Is it really important to the author? It depends on the text. “Six Minutes” is very rhythmic. So I move the pieces of the puzzle around again. Find synonyms when I can, add new pieces to the puzzle. I mix and match as best I can again.

So finally the sound of the words is good and the translation seems right too. I let it sit. I forget about it for a day or two. When I go back to the text, I find all kinds of mistakes, funny sounding things. Not-so-English sounding things, because being inside another language changes yours sometimes. Therefore distance is important. You must pretend the original does not exist.

It is true that you really can’t see the forest for the trees sometimes—where the trees, in this case, are the words, the syntax, the punctuation. So I step back and read the translation again. I read it out loud. I clap the beats of every line. Often. Like in music class as a kid.

When it finally sings the emotions it originally provoked in me, then I’m finished.