Interview with Katherine Gregor, British translator and writer
Stefania Ricciardi (University of Leuven)
Katherine Gregor has translated Italian classics, such as Luigi Pirandello and Carlo Goldoni, and Francesca Melandri, Stefania Auci and Alberto Angela among contemporary authors. She was born in Rome, where she lived on and off for twelve years, spending six years also in France before moving to England in 1988. She is currently based in Norwich. She translates from Italian and French, writes plays and fiction of her own and the blog Scribe Doll (https://scribedoll.com). She also created and wrote for two years the monthly column The Italianist (http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/tag/katherine-gregor/), which focuses on Italian books not yet translated into English.
Different languages and cultures have been very much part of your life since childhood (I’m also thinking of your Armenian grandmother). Where does Italian fit in this rich and varied context?
Italian was the first language I spoke in the outside world, I mean outside the family environment (where we spoke mainly Russian), since we were living in Rome at the time. Unfortunately, it is also the only language I learnt informally, which means that whatever I know I picked up through living in Italy, reading and having many Italian “relatives of choice” (friends I consider as family). I recently bought an Italian grammar book – it’s high time I learnt the basics of this language I love.
I would add that every language is linked to a different emotion or state of mind. For me, Italian is the language that makes me feel accepted and part of a supportive network.
When did your passion for Italian literature and for translation start?
It started with a limping she-wolf and the writer Dacia Maraini…
I’m embarrassed to admit it: after studying Italian literature for my final school exams, I hadn’t opened a single Italian book. Then, about ten years ago, during a trip to Abruzzo, I went to visit a sanctuary for wild animals that for some reason or other could no longer be released back into the wild. I immediately fell in love with a lame wolf cub. She had those golden-yellow eyes that suggested a kind of arcane knowledge, as though she was aware of things I couldn’t even imagine. One of the keepers said they’d called her Dacia, after Dacia Maraini, who’d found her and rescued her. That same afternoon, I went to the village bookshop and bought three books by Dacia Maraini. I wanted to read the woman who’d saved the beautiful she-wolf, who perhaps like me had been bewtiched by those magical eyes. That evening, in my hotel, I read late into the night. I loved the author’s writing style, rich in layers, textures and colour, but also the thoughts she expressed. That started me reading other contemporary Italian authors.
My passion for translating is connected with a desire to share the books I love with Anglophone readers and – like so many of my fellow translators – I do what I can, in my very small way, to encourage the growth of the shamefully small proportion of Italian books translated into English.
This passion is also evident from your blog and from your column, The Italianist. How to you nurture it and what are your favourite sources of information to discover new authors?
Thank you. I’m glad this passion of mine is evident. I keep abreast of new publications by reading book supplements like Robinson, La Lettura, keeping track of literary award long- and shortlists, but I owe most of what I know to Italian agents and Rights Managers (some of whom have become dear friends) who keep me informed by asking me to translate samples and catalogue entries, but also books they think I’ll enjoy. Moreover, since I discovered newitalianbooks, I also read the newsletters and keep an eye on the website.
A translator is a reader who pays special attention to the rhythm and structure of a sentence, and to the storyline. Which characteristics strike you in particular and trigger a desire to translate the book you’re reading?
For me it’s actually an instinctive response which either goes through my brain so fast I don’t realise it or else bypasses it altogether. It’s a book I can feel in my body and my heart and which, as I’m reading it, immediately triggers an echo in English in my ears. On a let’s call it more rational plane, I am instantly drawn to economical, stark prose, written by an author who trusts the reader’s intelligence and above all imagination, an author who doesn’t feel they constantly have to dot every i and cross every t, but allows the reader a degree of freedom and actually requires them to use their brain cells.
As far as I am concerned, translation is like a dance, and to want to translate a book I need to feel I am in good hands, to feel I can trust my dance partner to lead me with confidence and skill.
The English-speaking world is well-known for its relatively small number of translations of foreign authors. How do Italian books fit into this context? Is there a specific genre that has more of a chance of breaking through?
Sadly, Italian books represent a small proportion of an already minimal proportion of books translated into English. Part of the problem is that very few publishers can read Italian, so have to resort to book reports by other people instead of having a first-hand experience of a book. In addition, there is a feeling that it’s harder to obtain financial support and grants from Italy than perhaps from some other countries. Also, grant applications can be phrased in complicated language. At present, I would say that a large number of Italian books translated into English tend to be crime novels and those that make it onto a major award shortlist, like the Strega, for example, even though that per se is no guarantee that it will get translated. Still, I’ve noticed recently that some very interesting books outside the usual genres have caught the attention of Anglophone publishers, and that’s very encouraging.
You’ve translated both classical and contemporary authors. Which have you found most difficult?
Undoubtedly books with dialect. Even dictionaries from dialects to Italian often don’t provide a suitable translation and when you do find it it’s often hard to convey it into an English equivalent. That’s when I ask all my Italian friends from that region and also the author, though very often I have to trust my instinct. I must say, though, that managing to translate expressions from a dialect is very satisfying.
To conclude, is there a book – or more than one book – that you would like to translate and are considering pitching to a publisher?
All right, I’ll list the first three that pop into my head, otherwise my list will go on and on.
- Il gioco di Santa Oca by Laura Pariani. A book that’s one of a kind, a real jewel, a novel written in the style of a Chanson de geste set in 17th-century Lombardy, with many truths still relevant to the present day.
- Tutte le donne di by Caterina Bonvicini. A very subtle polyphonic novel, a sharp social commentary, written with great perceptiveness but also much compassion.
- Fiore di roccia by Ilaria Tuti. A wonderful historical novel about the women who carried food and ammunition up steep mountains to Italian soldiers on the frontline during the First World War.
Naturally, it would make me very happy to translate a novel by Dacia Maraini. Moreover, I love the theatre, so would welcome the opportunity to translate plays.