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2 July 2024

Interview with Antonio Werli. Between poetic instinct and archaeological character: for a polyphonic translation of Horcynus Orca

Letizia Imola, University of Liège-University of Mons

Antonio Werli translated Stefano D’Arrigo‘s Horcynus Orca into French for the first time with Monique Baccelli. Their joint effort was published in October 2023 by Le Nouvel Attila.


Apart from a small dose of madness… why did you choose to translate this book and this author?


I discovered D’Arrigo at a time when I was doing literary criticism and had just started translating. I had come across someone’s commentary that compared him to two writers I admire, Landolfi and Gadda, which aroused my interest. Unfortunately, Horcynus Orca was out of print. I made various searches until I found a PDF of the first edition. I fell madly in love with the text. One day I told Benoît Virot of Nouvel Attila about it, telling him it was a book he should publish. He is a publisher who does not shy away from slightly crazy projects. (In the end, yes, it was madness). He told me that a translator had already told him about it and advised me to contact her. Monique Baccelli replied that she would love to translate it, but that she would like a partner. We decided to do a first draft and send it to the publisher. Then we got together to discuss it and recognised that all three of us were in love with the project, the text, everything it could mean, and that we had to throw ourselves into it. It was 2013, more than ten years ago.


What was your opinion on collaborative translations? And what method did you adopt?


I had some experience in collaborative translation, because my partner is also a translator and we have often worked together. For Monique, I think it was quite a new experience. She is a very experienced translator, so it was a surprise to me that she wanted to undertake the work on the condition that we would do it together; she was well aware of the challenges involved. Our method has evolved over time, because it is a book that has been written over the years. It is worth mentioning that it took D’Arrigo 20 years to write it and that it has several layers of work. It was the same for the translation. We started with the idea that each would translate short passages and send them to the other, rereading each of them. However, we soon realised that we did not have the same rhythm: Monique was more agile in the first drafts, while I spent more time on revisions, trying to solve as many problems as possible that popped up again and again. In the end, she did most of the first draft, while I devoted myself to detailed rereading, research, harmonising the style and tracking down all our mistakes. We exchanged the various episodes over and over again to discuss the different steps of the translation. It was long, laborious, but interesting and enjoyable. We proceeded a little at a time, in increments of 30 or 50 pages. When we finished the first part – which is about 600 pages – we took all the extracts in hand. We assembled them into a file that everyone reread several times, taking notes again, to continue harmonising and finding the best solutions. The same happened for the second and third parts. During the final revision – Monique being very old – a new ‘collaborator’ came into the picture, our editor, who was very present last year when I reread the entire text line by line with him.


Can we therefore say that your translation is polyphonic and reflects the soul of the work itself?


Working in pairs already implies the hybridisation of two sensitivities, two points of view and two ways of translating. Moreover, in the end, some of Benoît’s comments and suggestions turned out to be fundamental. Suddenly, a new voice intervened. And then, for both Monique and me, there were personal aspects that influenced it. Among other things, the fact that I moved to Argentina influenced some of the choices I made in the text. In particular, Argentinean Spanish was strongly permeated by Italian in the late 19th and early 20th century, so much so that the Spanish spoken at the time by Italian immigrants had a name: ‘Cocoliche’, which later became ‘Lunfardo’. I was immersed in a language that had inherited the same process that D’Arrigo had undertaken with Sicilian and Italian. It helped me a lot in taking liberties with the text, in inventing and hijacking certain expressions, in creating neologisms. In addition, Monique’s knowledge of the Burgundian dialect, of the Marseillais dialect and of Provençal helped us to get closer to Mediterranean languages, to work on etymologies and puns, to invent some things. These voices that feed us on a personal level also end up somewhere in the translation. And then there is the more general invention: it is clear that you draw inspiration from what you hear on the street, from reading other books, from the insights of other translators.


What peculiarities have you identified? And which ones caused you the most difficulty?


On the one hand, there is the question of language itself, since Horcynus Orca is not written in standard Italian. On the other, there is D’Arrigo’s voice in terms of syntax, the way he constructs speech. These are often very long sentences, characterised by a particular use of punctuation and a poetic breath of repetition, assonance and alliteration. It should not be forgotten that D’Arrigo is first and foremost a poet: his first book was a collection of poems. Even in the simplest, most factual and objective descriptions in Horcynus Orca, there is a poetic construction of the sentence. And this is precisely one of the challenges of his writing. It is important to try to restore this poetic intent of the prose. The first thing that jumps out at you are the neologisms and rare words, but actually the rhythm and breathing are essential aspects of this translation, because this is an epic, mythical novel: D’Arrigo takes the reader through a true epic of language. The novel is set in the Strait of Messina and is rocked by its currents. The language itself is constructed in this way, with waves of sentences overlapping one another. This is why D’Arrigo has been compared to Proust and Joyce. There are sentences of great power that are even built according to the rhythms of the Strait of Messina: we find repetitions or alliterations at the levels of words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and the whole, with certain episodes that are recurring or recalled. It is a spiral process whereby one continually returns and plunges back into a vortex where elements recur, but always with slight modifications. It is necessary to understand this construction of the discourse in order to translate the book correctly.

I now come to the language itself. D’Arrigo uses his knowledge of Sicilian to feed into Italian. This is quite surprising, because most of the writers who made use of dialect in Italian literature in the mid-20th century, or shortly after, generally dialectalised or introduced Italian into the dialect. D’Arrigo does the opposite. He brings dialect into Italian, but by Italianising it. There are words of Sicilian origin that he transforms. He gives them an Italian spelling, so that one does not get the impression of a Sicilian or Calabrese word – or even French or English, since he also borrows from other European languages. Suddenly, the lexicon of Italian increases out of all proportion. D’Arrigo does the same with ancient Italian, but he does not take the words as they are, but rather transforms them in such a way as to give the impression that they are completely natural. This serves to give a different nuance and sometimes even a different meaning. It is not only the creation of language, but also of images and a reality that cannot be expressed in any other way. This requires a great deal of research. Sometimes one does not know where a word comes from or what exactly it means. You have to look up its origin and etymology in dictionaries and vocabularies, some of them very old ones, to understand D’Arrigo’s thought process. Then, in order to return it, one has to do the same thing, i.e. find words from Old French, Provençal, or even other French dialects and patois, and give them a modern form that allows one to understand the word thanks to its etymology and general context. This work was extremely difficult, because there are things in the book that are really obscure, hermetic, for which the translator has to make a choice and put his poetic instinct into play rather than his rational archaeological nature.


It is a work that requires an in-depth knowledge of the author’s theoretical background. What disciplines did you have to immerse yourself in?


Again, I think there are two important aspects. The first is literary references, the second is technical knowledge. D’Arrigo uses very technical words relating to the fauna and flora of the Strait of Messina, volcanoes, maritime vocabulary, navigation, fishing. There are several areas that feed into the reality of the text. Fortunately, it never becomes a treatise on dolphins and orcas, or whales, as Moby Dick does, for example. You obviously have to know the name of a certain fish, of a particular current in the Strait of Messina, so we had to learn by ourselves, but it is rather a poetic itinerary within these worlds. Monique, having lived in Marseilles, knew very well the names of the boats and nets used by the fishermen! Then there is the literary aspect. The book is full of references to Dante, Homer and Ariosto, but either they are so transparent that there is no need to decipher them, or they are a reworking of episodes that echo the Odyssey or Orlando Furioso, but without ever being a replica. On the other hand, he often uses characters, scenes and metaphors from the Opera dei Pupi – the popular puppet theatre in Sicily and Calabria – to construct certain expressions of his language.