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A translator's story

If you look at the etymology of the verb 'translate' it means to 'carry over, to bring over'. For me that’s what translation is about, bringing over a world and emotions from another language to readers from another place.

I didn’t study to become a translator; I became one almost by chance, as a result of my travelling and my love for foreign languages. But there has always been one language and one country that has called me more than any other: Italy.

As a French teenager my biggest dream was to speak Italian and to live in Italy. As soon as I got a chance, I went to study in Torino and found a job that allowed me to stay there. I finally learnt Italian, and it quickly became the best language for me to express fully myself. That’s why I decided to write only in Italian. But it was tricky - somehow all my stories were running away from me, as if in abandoning my native language I had lost something in my writing.

A year and a half ago, I met Frank Iodice, an Italian writer. We both worked in the same language school in Nice, in the South of France. I was curious and I started to read his books. One in particular caught my attention, I disinamorati. It’s a difficult word to translate in English - 'falling out of love' is maybe the closest title in English. Upon opening his book, I found a world and a style that seemed very familiar, as if I had written them myself - I had found the pieces of the puzzle that I had been looking for. The words that I was chasing.

This is how I came to translation. In Frank’s books, I finally found my voice. Magically, translating reconciled me with French. I had developed a weird relationship with my native language. In French, I was rather shy while in Italian, I was a lot more confident and spontaneous. Italian had freed me and I wasn’t too keen on speaking French any more. I only spoke it for my job, when teaching to foreign adults – in this way, the French language didn’t feel restrictive but was a gateway between my culture and my students. Translating felt the same. It unlocked something in me. The story I wanted to write finally found me. And it was in French.

It may seem contradictory to find your voice in another writer’s words. Dangerous even. You might copy his style in your own book. Or you might want to express your voice in his book. But the result of a translation is actually the union of two voices. Translating is writing a new book together. You become the author’s voice in another language and culture. It’s an act of humbleness for the translator: you devote your creativity to the original author. It is not about how and what you write, but how you can be closer to his or her style. And it is an act of ultimate trust from the author, like in a relationship when you trust your lover with a total freedom.

And sometimes you will have to be a bit disloyal. To be faithful to the author’s voice doesn’t mean translating exactly word for word. Not all the words can be translated. How to translate the untranslatable? You will have to take some poetic licence sometimes and trust your guts to change the words so that you can convey the emotion intended. At the end of the day, that is what a translator is: a conveyor of emotions. A guide who leads the readers into the author’s world.

Being very close to your author is fundamental in that regard. You can understand someone’s writing instinctively but knowing his story, his personality, his beliefs is the key to his universe and what makes you pick a specific word or an expression. Frank and I work very closely. I usually translate a whole chapter and send it to him with my questions. And then when the book is finished, I read it to him. When I write I always need to read it out loud. I have to hear the music of the words to know if it flows beautifully or not. We check the possible mistakes and even, on occasion, rewrite the original text together.

The first time I showed my translation to Frank I was anxious. I knew I loved his books but would he like how I translated his words? I wasn’t a professional, only a native speaker and a passionate reader. When he said that I made his book more beautiful and that everything had finally found the right spot, well…what could be a more beautiful compliment for a translator?

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