The title of this post is the same of the workshop that I attended recently. It was organized by the same foundation that arranges the literary festival, which I talked about here. This annual workshop is conceived by Laura Pagliara, a professional translator who collaborates with the foundation. It mainly targets aspiring translators and people who already are professional translators, but it is also open to anybody who has a good knowledge of the English language. Beside Stephen King, the title refers to the “American imagination,” too. When it comes to literary translation, in fact, it is inevitable to dig into the culture and the social context underlying the book and the author’s background. In the case at hand, this context is the American society, a subject that I find fascinating and that I already discussed here.

When I found out about the workshop—I had been notified via the festival’s newsletter—I said to my myself, “why not?” Although my job has nothing to do with literary translation, I thought that this workshop would be a good occasion to learn new things anyway, not only about the English language.

The workshop was run by Luca Briasco, the current official Italian translator of the worldwide famous writer Stephen King. Attendees were given two snippets upon enrolment—one from Elevation, the other from The Green Mile—, so we had some weeks to translate them. The Italian version of Elevation had been translated by Briasco himself, while The Green Mile had been translated by Tullio Dobner, a good friend of Briasco who had passed away last year and who had been King’s official Italian translator for about 30 years.

During the workshop, we attendees read alternately a translated paragraph. Following the reading, a thorough debate took place, supervised by Briasco. He discussed the choices made by the attendees, focusing on the trickiest words and expressions. The other attendees had the chance to propose their choices in a sort of collective translation effort, aiming to achieve the supposedly perfect result in terms of adherence to the original meaning, preservation of style, and compactness. Throughout the discussion, we could raise questions about King’s writing style and specific words he had chosen to convey a concept, to pique reader’s curiosity, or to create a determined effect on him/her—in essence, the magic of literature. Also, we had the chance to ask questions about a translator’s world. I found out, for instance, that a translator is not given the opportunity to get in touch with the writers. Apparently, popular authors think they live in a different, inaccessible galaxy, where common people are just not allowed.

Regarding the translation techniques and the world of literary translation in general, I grasped several interesting things.

  • As underlined by Briasco himself, translating should be always a collaborative work. I think that this workshop showed blatantly how there is strength in numbers. Twenty brains working together on the same task are by far more powerful than twenty individuals working separately. On several occasions, for example, during the debate following the reading of a section, somebody came up with a fresh, brilliant translation that nobody—not even Briasco, as he modestly admitted—had thought about before. And this happened thanks to the cross contamination that took place in that very moment. We were confronted with different point of views, ideas, and opinions, which, in turn, were the fruit of the unique combination of experiences that everyone had lived throughout their existence.
  • In spite of what I just wrote, reality is quite different. Translators always work alone. Of course they have their tools—paper dictionaries in the old days, the Internet today—but, is essence, they have the original text on one side and the blank page in front of them. That’s it. There is no chance to consult with other people before submitting the work to the editor of the publishing house that commissioned the job. For this reason, we can talk about the loneliness of the translator in the same way we talk about the more famous loneliness of the writer.
  • Briasco had chosen the two snippets to translate accurately. He had selected texts that had been translated by different professionals to allow us to compare distinct translation styles. Also, the two books had been written and translated in different times—more than twenty years apart. During the workshop, Briasco stressed some choices made by Obner that would sound weird if not even anachronistic today because of the evolution of the Italian language. Moreover, he pointed out that Obner, like the other translators of his era, had a significant disadvantage compared to the following generations: he couldn’t rely on the Internet to find the meaning of slang words and idioms he didn’t know. That’s why the books translated before the Internet age contain a certain amount of errors that would not be tolerated nowadays.
  • One of the most appreciated characteristics of the English language is its efficiency. Italian is not that efficient, unfortunately. As a consequence, the translated text is generally around 20% longer than the original. To compensate for this inevitable increase of the text length, Briasco recommended the use of shorter forms whenever possible. Occasionally, it is even possible to find Italian words or sentences that yield the same information as the English text with fewer characters.
  • From a technical perspective, I think that the most important thing to take into account when translating is the context. This is true regarding both single paragraphs and the whole book, and even regarding the entire bibliography. King is famous for putting here and there references to other books written by himself. The knowledge of the full story prior to starting the translation process is mandatory to decipher the single choices made by the author at the word, clause, section, and chapter level. The book has to be dismantled to penetrate its deep, underlying structure and to preserve its intrinsic balance, laboriously achieved by the author. And to reach this goal, the translator has to dig into the writer’s mind, too. That’s why, besides technical issues, translating is also a subtle and challenging psychological game. The complexity of this task combined with the (limited) freedom that the translators have when choosing the words allows us to consider themselves as authors.
  • It is no coincidence that I made use of the limited adjective in regard to the translators’ decision-making autonomy. Briasco explained how each publishing company has a set of rules that the translators must follow. For instance, footnotes have to be avoided as much as possible—there is also an unwritten rule stating that they are totally forbidden in the first twenty pages!
  • With regard to the translation approach, there are different schools of thought. For example, Briasco belongs to the one that is in favour of translating as much as possible, including the title. I disagree with this opinion. I assume that if readers resort to a translated book, this is due to the fact that they can’t read the original version, which would be always preferable. As a consequence, I think it is right that the reader takes a step toward the culture underlying the language in which the book was originally written, and not the reverse. When debating our translations, we attendees faced a couple of situations in which this issue was raised. In both cases, the snippets had been retrieved from early chapters of the respective books. To introduce the characters, King gives us a detailed physical description of them. Does it sound right to convert imperial units of measurement used to indicate their weight and height? I don’t think so. Similarly, I don’t think that replacing the acronym LSU—which stands for Louisiana State University—with an expanded Italianized name (i.e. Università della Louisiana) is a fair choice. The massive use of acronyms is a characteristic feature of the English language, especially in AE, and for sure the average Italian reader does not know the name of every American university. But don’t you think that the reader who wants to read an American book should make a little effort to taste the original flavour of the book to the maximum possible extent? Shouldn’t they spend twenty seconds googling LSU, if they don’t know what it means? Of course, this approach has a relevant economic downside: it makes the book much less accessible and thus “lazy” readers stay away from it, affecting the numbers of sold copies negatively. That’s why this approach is generally not adopted.

In conclusion, this experience was definitely captivating and I recommend it to anybody who has to deal with a foreign language. I surely learned new things about the English language and the translation process, but I also learned unexpected things about other subjects like my native language itself!