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.
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.
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.
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!»
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?
- 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
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.
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.
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, http://paololivorati.blogspot.com/
- 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)