Joan of Arc heard voices. So did the mystics, like Saint Catherine of Siena. Translators hear voices too. Or at least this translator does. Unlike Joan, whose voices were those of angels and saints, or so she claimed, and who always spoke in French, my voices are those of the writers I translate, and they always speak to me in Italian, sometimes with a sprinkling of this or that dialect.
I started thinking about hearing voices when I read a recent blog entry by writer Olivia Boler. In “Reading your stories aloud is a good thing” (http://oliviaboler.wordpress.com/), Ms. Boler points out the helpfulness of reading your work aloud, whether you are an author or a translator. While I myself do not routinely do this, I was suddenly reminded of how many times I’ve thought a translation of mine was “final”, only to then find different words coming out of my mouth when I went to read it out loud! This has happened to me even after a work has been edited and published: I take the book with me to a reading, and instead of the words on the page, other words spontaneously pop out! This seems to happen especially with dialogue, which leads me to think that spoken rhythm is different than the voice we “hear” in our heads.
Translators talk a lot about finding the right “voice” to render the soul of the original text. I like to think of it as “channeling” the author’s spirit, whether he be living or long departed. To some extent, all translators are mediums. It’s more challenging when the author is no longer alive and you cannot get to know him, sit down with him over coffee at a café in Italy or communicate directly through e-mail. As novelist Gianrico Carofiglio put it when I mentioned this to him at a recent book event in San Francisco, it’s difficult to ask questions of the deceased! Still, the translator as medium must be able to convey the message, even from the spirits of the dead.
Another challenge is the use of dialect, something which has grown more common in contemporary Italian literature since the postwar period (possibly as a reaction against the levelling of the Italian language, though that’s an entirely different subject). Where the original text is peppered with dialect, especially Sicilian, I hear a different voice: that of my nonna. Sounding out the words in my head – or even reading them aloud – I can “hear” my grandmother saying things like buonanima, God rest his soul; scemuzza, little silly, or scimunite, those silly idiots; picciridda, figghia mia, carusa bedda, various terms of endearment for little girl; ceuse, the delicious, juicy fruit from our mulberry tree; or even entire proverbs, such as “Chi lassa la strata vecchia pi la nova, sapi chiddu ca lassa, ma non sapi chiddu ca trova”, roughly equivalent to “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”. But along with my nonna’s voice there is always the insistent whisper of the little figure who sits on every translator’s shoulder, persistently murmuring (muttering?) in her ear: the author’s voice, of course. Where would the translator be without him?
–Anne Milano Appel