Advanced search in the New Italian Books catalog

Skip to content Skip to footer
8 February 2023

Interview with Raffaella Scardi, translator from Hebrew

Maria Sica, Director of the Italian Cultural Institutes in Tel Aviv and Haifa

The translation of books by Israeli authors in Italy has been growing for several years: Raffaella Scardi, translator from Hebrew and publishing consultant, tells us about it from Haifa.

The translator is the one who has to mend, as it were, the post-Babel split, the one who tries to reconnect what was shattered by the collapse of the Tower. A silent and painstaking work that invariably prompts the ‘loneliness of the translator’, and the ‘invisibility of the translator’ motifs. Are these just clichés? What are your thoughts on these issues?

Translating contemporary literature certainly requires concentration and silence, it is indeed a solitary profession. I believe, however, that a good translation also involves a constant relationship with that which is other: a relationship between the cultures we translate, and which we must become familiar with by living in both worlds; a relationship with the person who wrote the text in the original language, with whom it is very useful to engage in dialogue if we can; a relationship with colleagues, translators from target and source languages, with whom we can consult and reflect, discuss and study, and with whom we can participate in seminars and workshops. There are also residencies for translators, places where one can work in peace and quiet but in constant contact with fellow specialists and professionals. All this is what translation feeds on to become vivid, precise, alive. As to invisibility: the focus on the quality of translation, and consequently on the working conditions of those who produce it, varies from country to country. Italy has a tradition and a current reality of translators of the highest level, which publishers do not always appreciate and reward. In this sense, I would like to hope that the new, most recent copyright law, which transposes the European Parliament’s EU directive on copyright and directly involves publishing translators, will be applied in a way that protects us. Personally, I notice that in recent years in Italy there has been an increase in the number of opportunities we have been able to  about translation and involve the ‘invisible authors’, those who have toiled long hours over the text to take it from one language to another. 


The poet Mariangela Gualtieri said ‘There are never enough words, never enough words. Can several translations of the same text coexist? 

I have no doubt that there can be different translations of the same text. Each translator injects their inner world, their history, their culture, into each translation. Equally relevant are the specific conditions in which we work, and the emotional connection to a text. No two translations will ever be the same. Precisely because of this connection to reality, translations become obsolete: in Italy, new translations of classics are being produced.


How is a book’s translation process organised? What are the stages,  and how are they organised in your work flow?

Publishers approach me to read books they have heard about and to give them my opinion on whether they may be of interest to the Italian public. I also work as a scout, so sometimes I am myself put forward titles that I believe to be interesting. Then, when the publishing house has decided to buy the title and has made arrangements with the writer (through their agent), the contract for translation is signed and I get to work. I always read the entire novel first, start translating from the beginning (a beginning I will go back to many times) and slowly make my way into the language, the music, the world of the novel. When the time comes for the final rereading, I need a period of complete concentration on the text, during which I fully immerse myself in my novel (at which point it has also become ‘my’ novel). I always try to meet the authors I translate, either before I start the translation or along the process. I then keep in touch during the work, to clear up doubts and uncertainties. Once I finish, I send the novel to the publisher for editing. The dialogue then continues with the editor and proof-reader. Hebrew is a little-known language, so I am usually called to provide clarification very often, because – unlike what happens with  vehicular languages – the editor cannot refer to the original. This is followed (or preceded) by consultations on the title, which is often changed to be appealing to the Italian reader, and on its cover.


Have you always worked only with the Hebrew language? 

For literary translations, yes. I also translate from English, but not literature: I prefer to make full use of my individual and cultural peculiarities. 


Specifically, in a reality such as Israel, are translators who remain physically and artistically distant from the culture of the source-language country conceivable in your opinion? What is the importance of  “the unspoken” of the two semiotic realities translation delves into?

I don’t believe it is possible to translate a book well, from any language, if one isn’t perfectly familiar with the context from which it is born. In the case of Israel – a complex country in turmoil, undergoing constant change – to know its history, culture and current affairs seems to me more indispensable than ever. As a translator, I convey the product of thousands of years of Jewish history, with which every single work written in Hebrew is steeped, to an audience that has grown up and studied under different conditions. Not only do I have to know well the context from which I start, but also the differences, limitations and difficulties of the context in which the novel lands.  


Still on this subject, it has been argued that the translator can also be a cultural or even political mediator, who must convey to the reader the full atmosphere of the translated text’s culture of origin. Is this a correct definition in your opinion?

I think and hope to be a bridge between two cultures; I certainly try to transfer a whole world to readers, without ever forgetting that I am translating a novel, which lives by its own music, universality, and register.


The Israeli fiction of the last decade seems to be stirring with quite a lot of interest. Is it possible, in your opinion, to highlight a specific quality, something capable of making it recognisable in the eyes of a European reader? 

Israeli literature has a level of intensity and urgency that is linked to the context in which it was born.


In  your opinion, what place does Israeli literature occupy in Italy? 

It is extensively translated, much loved, and widely read. In the 1980s Yehoshua was rather popular, and since the 1990s he has been joined by Grossman and Oz. Since the late 1990s and into the new millennium there has been a new generation of writers that has come to the fore, who have broadened styles and themes, and who have brought personal and therefore universal experiences which also speak to a wide audience.


You are the Italian voice of Eshkol Nevo. How did you meet him? 

I met Nevo when I started translating Symmetry of Desires, in 2009. I met him before I started working on the novel, and then asked for his opinion on things I was uncertain about and decisions I needed to make. As the collaboration progressed (I translated all his subsequent novels for Neri Pozza) we became friends, also thanks to the fact that I travel with him as his interpreter on his frequent Italian tours. We are the same age, we have children of the same age, we share common and generational points of view, which allow us to understand each other well. Three or four years ago, Eshkol began writing a weekly column for Vanity Fair (which also became a book, Vocabolario dei desideri, which only exists in Italian), and we started to have ever more frequent conversations. This on-going connection, this deep mutual knowledge, a certain affinity of spirit and interests, and the passage of time involving us both, allow me to immerse myself in the inner context from which his books are born, which is without a doubt the key to successful translations.


What makes his writing so special, and what can explain his great success in Italy?

His recurring motifs are close to the heart of Italians: friendship, love, family. His novels flow, catch people by surprise, make people think, underpinned by a solid, skilful structure.


Which Israeli book would you like to propose for translation into Italian?

I often submit books to the same publishers I work with; sometimes they buy them, sometimes not. I’ll take use this opportunity to confess a life-long dream of mine, one I abandoned for many years due also to the fact that the author, whom I longed to meet in person, left us in 2006. S. Yizhar achieved notoriety in Israel in the 1940s and early 1950s (in Italy, Einaudi published his most famous short story, written in 1949, under the title La rabbia del vento (The Anger of the Wind) in 2005, and after forty years of silence, he started writing again in 1992. My first literary translation was, in 1999, a short story from the collection published in 1992, titled  U. I had met S. Yizhar while I was writing my dissertation. I was fascinated by the inventive courage of his style and his ethical integrity. I would also like to translate Our Holocaust, a novel by Amir Gutfreund, author of the magnificent Heroes Fly to Her (Per lei volano gli eroi, published in Italy by Neri Pozza in 2021).