Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Paolo Antonio Livorati: MISSION TRANSLATOR!

After interviewing a débutante illustrator, today I would like to move the focus to another fundamental aspect connected to foreign books in general and, consequently, to children’s books: translation.

I thought of introducing this important point of view with an interview to a multifaceted translator, both for his cultural background and his professional experience: Paolo Antonio Livorati, a very well known persona amid Italian comics passionate and not only.

Those who know him well call him a “know-it-all”, because there are really few questions he cannot answer, even if, for that sense of discretion and modesty that only really clever people have, he obstinately denies it. While reading the interview you will discover, at least in part, the reasons for this vast culture. Livorati has lived in several places around Italy and, for a few years, in England. He has had a varied and intense professional life. This last aspect makes our conversation even more interesting as, not being limited to a narrow sphere, his experience allows us to range over several literary areas.

I preferred to divide this virtual conversation into three parts: the first one is devoted to personal information, the second is an in-depth about translation, the third is more focused on children’s books translation. To be honest, dealing exhaustively a topic such as translation would require much more space than this, I though hope this might be an occasion to ponder and clarify about the importance of this part of the mechanism hiding behind books’ production.

So, why hesitating? Let’s start!

Some personal history

- name? Paolo Antonio Livorati

how old are you? Almost forty-three.

you were born in? Cuneo

where do you live? In Rome since 2004.

were you a good reader when you were a child? What did you usually read? 

“Good reader” yes, even too much, meaning that for me any occasion was good to read, I used to voraciously read all I could find, even things I was able to fully understand only many years later. One constant presence though, from the age of four to the age of fifteen, has been Topolino (T.B.S. note: the Italian version of the Mickey Mouse Magazine) by Mondadori, a kids magazine that was almost perfect as it mixed high level comics (nowadays they have become classics) to effective popular articles. I’m sorry to say that its actual version isn’t even the faintest copy of the original magazine.

are there books, authors and/or illustrators that you still love so far? Can you tell us something about them?

Like most people my age, I started by getting passionate with those works that had been considered “for kids” starting a couple of generations before, despite the fact they actually weren’t when their authors wrote them. I’m talking about Salgari, Verne, Stevenson, E. R. Burroughs and, strangely enough, also the mostly seafaring books by Conrad. Amid illustrators and draughtsmen, those I was never tired of when I was a kid were the great disneyans such as Carpi, Scarpa and Cavazzano, Tarzan’s Hogarth, Kirby of the Fantastic Four, but also the unequalled Karel Thole covermaker for Urania. But there would be many more, in both categories.

- how long have you been a translator?

I starter translating professionally in 1993.

- how did your passion for translation start?

I started studying English when I was seven but it was only around the age of eleven, when pop-rock music brain-waved me, that I instinctively started being attracted by translation. With no possible comparison to any classic language class in this regard, the texts of these songs made me discover the extreme conciseness of the language I was dealing with and I soon wished to try and render them, with all the limits of teenage me, in a language like ours that is everything but concise. Maybe it’s not by chance if the first translation I made with awareness, let’s say on purpose, was a text by King Crimson.

- when did you understand that you wanted to do this job?

If I have to be honest, before 1993 becoming a translator was not in my plans, it wasn’t when I took Foreign Literatures and Languages at University. It might sound a bit strange, but it’s not. Unluckily, also thanks to the shockingly inadequate fees Italian publishers pay translators and also to the romantic and false image that is commonly given about us, this job is conceived almost everywhere as something complementary to some other profession, that usually corresponds to teaching or writing. I imagine that few people, before becoming adult, would tell friends and family: «I want to be a translator!»

- how did you start your career?

By chance. Or, better, because of another passion I had: comics. In the fall of 1991, when I was already at my fourth year of University, I went to the International Fair of Comics (this is how the actual Lucca Comics was called): while there, I happened to talk to the editor in chief of a publishing company that was specialised in editing American comics in Italian. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him if it were possible to unite my technical skills and the passion we both shared, and he invited me to send him a translation test. The test arrived and it was evidently appreciated because, after a year and a half, I was already working full-time for that same publishing house of which I then became editor in chief for comics' sector.

- which kind of books do you usually translate?

Fiction of different genres and for various ages, even if the most part of the works I have translated so far is for “giovani adulti” (n.T.B.S. young adults), an awful expression moulded from the English and used to determine readers aged from thirteen to seventeen years of age.

"In-depth" on translation

- what do you think of the said that equals translators to traitors?

To me it makes no sense. A translation that is entirely faithful at the original text is a non-translation, only people who can’t understand the meaning of translating and, most probably, what is Italian language, could appreciate such a thing. Consequently, a good translator must adapt the text he’s working on to make it not just understandable to final readers, he also has to make it enjoyable and free from bizarre impressions. With the exception of some specificities and some geo-cultural references, the text should be read as if it were written originally by an Italian mother tongue. In short, to obtain a good result you have to inevitably betray (if I have to stay within the limits of an idea that, I repeat, to me makes no sense), at the end the only “translator” who really betrays is the one who makes mistakes originating from personal ignorance.

- which is, in your opinion, the most interesting challenge you have to afford when translating a book?

What I have just mentioned, that is to say, being able to never let the original language the book had been written in, to shine through the translated text.

- how important is it to enter the spirit of a text in order to truthfully translate it?

When you spend two or three months on a book of three hundreds pages, it’s not a matter of importance: like it or not, you enter its spirit. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to translate it at all.

- do you usually make some research on the writer you’re about to work “on” before translating a book?

Always, it’s a habit of mine. Often, especially when we’re talking about writers at their debut or almost, checking how they write on their site or on social networks is very useful to better understand what to expect, for good and for bad, every single day for at least a dozen of weeks.

- how much does the author’s linguistic register affect translation?

It’s everything.

- and how about cultural background?

Above I referred to specificities and geo-cultural references as the only elements that should show in a translation. To make it easier, if the author writes about something that is intrinsically British, Irish, Australian or American (translating from English these are the backgrounds I had to deal with in my career), you can almost never transform it into something Italian, because the result would be absurd, if not ridiculous. The translator’s skill is to maintain the reference as it is, though combining it with the narration, without bumps and, most of all, without those Translator's Notes that almost always mean defeat.

From comics to children’s books

- you started by translating comics, how was the approach to children’s books?

The leap from comics to fiction is the same, no matter if it’s for kids/teenagers or not. Comics, especially current ones in which the main authors have almost completely eliminated captions, are mainly working on dialogues and it’s not a chance if it’s dialogues where I still give my best. In the passage to fiction you then have to measure all that comics don’t have, that corresponds to the long descriptive pages. Most of all, you should get the hang of those pages planning narration in the first chapters, when you still have to get used to the author’s style.

- do you believe that comics somehow helped you to afford the translation of children’s books?

Not particularly because, for about twenty years now, Anglophile comics have become much more adult than they used to be. Let’s say that, to this purpose, it has been much more useful being a comic reader when I was a kid.

- going back to the question I asked you before, I would like to know if there is a bigger challenge in translating children’s books than in translating books for grown-ups?

There are forcedly many elements (concepts, references, expressions... the list is much longer than you might think) that adults give for granted but that are almost unknown to kids. Avoiding these is fundamental. While translating you should always try to think as if you were the final reader, but this is mostly true for younger reader’s fiction.

- without really knowing, many people believe that children’s books are easily written. Do people believe they’re easily translated as well?

It’s most probable that this commonplace is widely held, yes. My previous answer though should have already clarified this matter. Those who believe it, most probably have no idea of what translation is all about and, realistically, of what writing is all about.

- the simplification of linguistic register mustn’t become triteness of contents: how does this transpose, if it does, into translation?

Well, if the author is being banal there is not much that we 'ferrymen' can do to remedy this, we therefore end up, despite our will, being banal too. Often we can slightly improve a text that is not so well written, but our margin is very limited. For sure we cannot rewrite the book.

- can you name some of the children’s books you have translated so far?

I shall mention three books that were very well written in the original, and that gave me great satisfactions while translating them. Primi passi nell’arte* by Rosie Dickins (Usborne, 2007) is an excellent popular text that helps younger readers to approach history of painting and sculpture. Se la mente avesse gli occhi** by Lucy Eyre (Salani, 2008) is the surreal adventure of a kid in philosophy-world, while Morte di un supereroe*** by Anthony McCarten (Salani, 2009) is the difficult but moving story – written as if it were a film elaboration - of a fifteen years old using his talents as comic scriptwriter to come to terms with a terrible disease. My most recent translations, together with those that are in the works, are all visible on my blog/showcase,

- any projects for the future?

In a job such as ours, where almost all collaborators are freelance, it’s difficult that the word “future” might get beyond the book you receive in assignment right before the end of the one you’re currently working on. This said, I’m about to start working on an interesting contemporary reinterpretation, in an urban-fantasy key, of the tale Little Red Riding Hood, made by a young, and very good, American writer who at present is already in the process of remaking The Little Mermaid and Hänsel and Gretel as well.
Thank you to Paolo Antonio for being so kind and available and to you for reading us.
P.S. I just hope he won’t read my translations to his interview! Ain’t it funny? The translated translator!?! Yup!

* Original title: The Usborne Introduction to Art (Scholastic, 2005);

** Original title: If Mind had Toes: a novel (Bloomsbury USA; Advance Reading Copy (ARC) edition (March 6, 2007)
*** Original title: Death of a Superhero (Alma Books (July 1, 2007)

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Vorrei Avere - Topipittori

It’s very likely that the most imperfect creature God has ever created is man. Animals are, exactly, how they should be.

This picture book is a 'canticle' to animal world. 'Playing tag' in thirteen wonderfully drawn plates, words and images allow us to appreciate what surrounds us with new eyes.

It's children's eyes observing animals, admiring them: kids would like to possess their qualities, they identify themselves in animals' agility, in their feline spring, in their sharp sight dominating the world.

It's children's voices acknowledging themselves into animals, in an identity exchange that brings man back to its instinctual and remote origin. Because the tie children have with nature is deeply rooted and immediate. There is no need of particularly complex explanations: nature, with its mechanisms and cruelties, is perfectly understood and accepted.

And so someone would like to have:

"Le orecchie immense dell'elefante per intendere quel che dice il cielo" *


"La voce della balena che canta e si sente a un oceano di distanza" **

As the publisher explains very well, in the presentation of this text, it's:

"Un libro in cui la bellezza non è mai nominata, ma in cui tutto lascia intendere che è ad essa che tende la voce che lo percorre.
Un libro-preghiera, per dire che se il pensiero è laico, la natura no.
Lei è sacra." ***

Giovanna Zoboli's writing is supple, dry. It’s an essential language, where there is no space for useless embellishments, where every word stands out in all its possible meanings. Short sentences that re-echo in our minds while eyes get lost in the drawings. Writing is made richer in details and colours by illustrations, that emphasise word’s evocative power.

Simona Mulazzani is always able to give her characters particularly intense countenances, these are always central and centred, often characterised by strong pictorial references. I'm thinking for instance at the tiger's image, that reminds me so much of paintings from Le Douanier, Henri Rousseau, with its denser and richer strokes, alternated with lighter touches appeasing an otherwise more dramatic effect.

Finding these two artists together, in a new book, is a real pleasure. We're talking here of an artistic couple that is very well consolidated: in the past they received important recognitions such as the Andersen Prize, in 2008, for the Best book in 0-6 category with "Al supermercato degli animali". Other famous books by Giovanna Zoboli and Simona Mulazzani are: "Filastrocca ventosa per bambini col fiato corto" and "Anselmo va a scuola", always published by Topipittori.

To my opinion, there is another nice new: in fact "Vorrei Avere" will be published contemporarily in several countries. This kind of demonstrates what I was already affirming here regarding the importance of collaboration amid publishing houses.

In particoular "Vorrei avere" will be published, with different covers, by:

Éditions Sarbacane, in France
Peter Hammer Verlag, in Germany
Los cuatro azules, in Spain
Moon Won, in Chorea
to end with Mexico, for Tecolote Publishing House, even if the book will be available with a few days delay with regard to other countries.

Before leaving you I would like to ask: "And you, what would you like to have?"

If you ask me, I would like to have:

"Il colore della pantera di notte per confondersi nel buio."

"Vorrei avere", texts by Giovanna Zoboli, illustrations by Simona Mulazzani, Ed. Topipittori, February 2010.

A special thank you to Paolo Canton and Giovanna Zoboli for allowing me to publish the images in this post and for the gracious collaboration.

Copyright© text and images Topipittori 2010. Images have been reproduced by the permission of the Publishing house.

* "Elephant's immense ears to hear what the sky has to say"

** "The whale's voice that sings and can be heard at an ocean's distance"

*** "A book in which beauty is never mentioned, but where everything lets understand that it's toward beauty that the voice crossing this work tends to.
A prayer book, to say that if thought is secular, nature isn't.
Nature is sacred."

**** "Panther's colour at night to blur in the dark."

Monday, 15 February 2010

L'Albero di Anna - Orecchio Acerbo

"Nelle città di polvere e rumore,
io, per primo, annuncio l'arrivo della primavera.
In aprile si schiudono le mie gemme
e con identico slancio spuntano foglie e fiori.

Io sono un ippocastano." *

Already in the first lines of this picture book, we are projected in another dimension. The world appears different when seen from the branches of a horse-chestnut tree: seasons rotate with the change of its foliage, life runs in an almost suspended rhythm as who tells our story has lived a centenarian life, and days' frantic passage doesn't really matter to it.

Though this is not a horse-chestnut tree like others, it is not just the narrative voice of our story it is, first of all, a memory bearer. We might quite fairly ask ourselves: which kind of memories could a tree have? What could have touched a horse-chestnut tree, in the slow flowing of its life, at the point it decided to tell us about its remembrances?

Well, this horse-chestnut tree has lived all its life in a garden, at 263 Prinsengracht Street, in Amsterdam.

If this address still means nothing to you, then listen to its voice again:

"Io, l'ippocastano del giardino al numero 263 di Prinsengracht,
ho regalato ad una ragazza di tredici anni,
prigioniera come un uccello in gabbia,
un po' di speranza e di bellezza." **

Now the picture starts to be clearer but it's not well outlined yet, still we cannot understand what could be so important, in the memories it has so carefully kept for all this time.

With its undefined rhythm, the tree tells us we are in 1942: the world is shaken by a "terrible ill", ruled by unfair laws, people who once were normal now act like crazy. Those who are submitted to the new, tough, laws find no escape, they hopelessly try to find a way out: some through escape, others hiding away from the rest of the world.

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"E' un lunedì, il 6 luglio del 1942,
quando arrivano nella soffitta della casa di Prinsengracht.
Nella sua cartella lei [che ancora non ha un nome] ha fatto scivolare
un piccolo quaderno di cartone molto prezioso: il suo diario,
ricevuto in dono per il suo tredicesimo compleanno..." ***

Before we will get to know her name, we will know about her feelings, her sensations, her ever changing and contrasting moods, we will know about her struggling. For the very first time, we will see our horse-chestnut tree through her dreamy eyes, glancing through her 'cage bars', longing for freedom, blue skies and seagulls flying in boundless space. We will first read about her perturbation while, looking through the tiny window of the attic, she perceives the world getting even more so miserable and naked, in feeling death looming over her. We will first see her participating, from her hidden corner, to the pains of the world: as there is no shut door that can stop these from invading everything.

It is once again Anne's voice, Anne Frank, that comes to us through different paths: filtered, this time, by the sensibility of two exceptional artists such as Irène Cohen-Janca and Maurizio Quarello. By twisting perspectives of such a well-known story, they succeeded in returning it to us even richer, more touching.

The stillness that holds the horse-chestnut tree is the same that imprisons Anne: obliged to look at each other, narrating subject and protagonist reveal themselves, their true nature, under our helpless eyes. There is no possible action they can do to change their condition, the only possible action lays in the power of view, last bulwark of freedom.

The tree is sick, it will certainly die, this is the reason that pushes it to tell us about what it witnessed. Anne is prisoner, she will be caught and transported in a much worse prison. Anne will die as well, we already know this.

So, why telling this story again? Does it tell us anything different? Nothing and everything I shall say: nothing because we already know Anne Frank's story, everything because the reason of life itself lies in experience, memory and witnessing.

The small sprout that will be saved from the horse-chestnut tree of 263 Prinsengracht Street will become a new tree, but not a tree like others: it will become the memory horse-chestnut tree.

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"L'albero di Anna", texts by Irène Cohen-Janca, illustrations by Maurizio A.C. Quarello, translation from French to Italian by Paolo Cesari, Orecchio Acerbo Pub., 2010. Original text published by Éditions du Rouergue in 2009.

I wish every kid had this book in their bookshelves: it is a real masterpiece of poetry and images that will be very hardly paired. Irène Cohen-Janca's texts gently transport us through the story, with endless tenderness and no subsidence. The art of Maurizio Quarello reveals the story with vibrant sensibility, confirming the incredible talents and versatility of this artist.

I wanted to send a special thank you to the guys at Orecchio Acerbo for allowing me to use the images of this post and, once again, for bringing to Italy a masterpiece from beyond the Alps.

Copyright© text and images Orecchio Acerbo Publishing House 2010. Images have been reproduced with the permission of the Publishing House. Original text published by Éditions du Rouergue, 2009.

(image temporarily unavailable)

*"In the cities of dust and noise,
I, the first, announce Spring.
In April my gems open
and with identical impulse flowers and leaves sprout.

I am a horse-chestnut tree."

** "I, the horse-chestnut tree at 263 Prinsengracht Street,
have given a thirteen years old girl,
imprisoned like a bird in its cage,
a little hope and beauty."

*** "It's July 6th 1942, Monday,
when they arrive in the attic of Prinsengracht Street's house.
In her school-bag she [who still has no name] has slipped
a little hardcover note-book, it's very precious: it's her dairy,
she received it for her thirteenth birthday..."