Friday, 3 September 2010

The Italians

In a couple of weeks I’m due to sit an exam for a position as a translator for the EU. I have mixed feelings about the prospect. I’ve done translation work for years, but almost entirely out of French. The EU requires at least two languages of member states. Now German, alongside French, would probably open more doors, but Italian, the language of my country of birth, just comes more naturally to me. I had to offer it, if only so as to play to my strongest suit.

That leaves me with two problems to overcome.

The first is my approach to translation itself. My philosophy is to ask ‘what would a mother-tongue English speaker have said in the circumstances?’ This has proved an interesting task on occasions, as I’ve tried to express myself as an Anglophone psychiatrist or histopathologist might. This has led to exciting challenges since I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a histopathologist.

Now some people really like this approach (I once had a French computer scientist I’d translated telling me ‘I really like my written English style’). Others think it’s a real cheek on my part. They want their words, expressed their way, as far as English allows. I was turned down for a translator’s job on the grounds that my translations were too literary, which I think means that they weren’t literal enough (amusing distinction since both words have the same root).

The second problem is that it’s been years since I’ve translated out of Italian. Perhaps that doesn’t matter a lot. The crucial language is the target. I have sometimes worked into French, a language I thought I’d mastered, but the results were frankly sad. To adapt my principle of translation, I was expressing myself in French just as a mother-tongue English speaker would.

The source language you just need to understand. So what I have to do is get myself working and thinking in Italian a bit more – not something I’ve ever completely stopped doing, as I regard La Repubblica as one of the best newspapers out there, on a par with The Guardian. Of course, Berlusconi can’t stand La Repubblica which counts for an awful lot in my book.

Still, I think I need to read a lot more Italian over the next two weeks. In a Waterstone’s the other day, I saw a couple of books of Italian short stories with English facing translation. Ideal: good Italian writing with good translations from which I can clear up any vocabulary problems I may have, as well as pick up some clever translation hints (or will they be too literary?)

Anyway, I’ve been reading these stories with fascination. I’ve just been through three that were set in the years leading up to the Second World War or during the War itself. One by Elio Vittorini describes how he became a writer during the Fascist period. When his first novel appeared – the Fascists were less effective censors than the Nazis – he was hauled up in front of the Milan committee and threatened with expulsion from the Party, to which he replied that unfortunately they couldn’t expel him, since he’d already been expelled by the Fascists in Florence. The Florentine lot had made him pay a lot of money, to bring his subscriptions to the party up to date, since he hadn’t paid any since being forced to join while at school. Once he was paid up, they expelled him.

In Milan the Fascist leader ended up apologising to him, and pointing out that since he couldn’t expel him, there was no further action he could take.

Much sadder was the story by Mario Rigoni-Stern about fighting in Russia on 26 January 1943. Ten years to the day before my birth, making the story all the more poignant for me. It was curious to read a first-person narrative from someone who’d been fighting alongside the Germans, but the real impact was the ending: ‘That was January 26th, 1943. I parted with my dearest friends that day.’

I have to say that I would have translated ‘I miei piú cari amici mi hanno lasciato in quel giorno’ as ‘My dearest friends left me that day’, which is odd, because I’m preferring the literal to the literary, or perhaps saying they’re the same in this instance. Just me thinking I know best again, I suppose. Could cost me marks in the test.

Finally, I read a story by Beppe Fenoglio about a partisan group taking on a Fascist detachment. It wonderfully evokes the infinitely frustrating, and frightening, experience of fighting a much bigger and far better armed enemy, where landing any blow is a victory.

That reminded me of one of the finest moments in the Italian partisan war, the liberation of Genoa. The city showed extraordinary courage throughout the war. Towards the end, the Germans laid mines throughout the port so that they could blow it up when they left. The dockworkers would watch them during the day and sneak back at night, at peril of their lives, to remove the mines.

As for the partisans themselves, they were growing in numbers and confidence in the hills nearby. Eventually, they invested the city with such dynamism that on occasions they seized German artillery positions and turned the guns on the fleeing enemy.

The Allies made it to the City a few days after the partisans had liberated it. The American General commanding the troops met a British agent from the Special Operations Executive who had been fighting with the partisans. The American asked him to interpret for him.

They met the Mayor and the General asked the Englishman to say that he was proud to have been able to liberate the city which he was delighted to hand back to the Mayor’s civilian control. When the Englishman hesitated, the American asked him ‘what’s the matter? Can’t you translate that?’

Just at that moment there was a noise from the street outside, and they went over to the window. Winding down the middle of the road, between ranks of jeering Italian civilians, was an apparently endless column of German prisoners guarded by a handful of partisans. The men in the Mayor’s office watched for a few moments and the General turned to the Englishman.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘I understand your problem now. Tell him I congratulate him on having liberated his city and I’m proud to count myself among his allies.’

A happy ending. Not one I expect in two weeks time. I’ll be chasing one of 20 posts from a field of 200 candidates or more, the vast majority of whom will certainly be at least as well qualified as I am.

At least the process will have got me reading some interesting material that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across, and reminding me how much I like Italy and the Italians. Despite all that Berlusconi does to spoil their charm.


Anonymous said...

You must have a very good chance ... you have my best wishes anyway.

David Beeson said...

Very kind in your comments, but I like to think that I'm being realistic in my assessment that I have at best an outside chance. That won't stop me giving it my best shot (in Edinburgh, by the way - on the 16th, and we'll be there for the weekend) - if only because my chances, however poor if try my hardest, are zero if I don't.