The art of translation by Matilda Colarossi


“Translation, too, is – like making music or poetry, like painting a picture or sculpting a statue – the effort and yearning to conquer and possess one’s own reality.” Manara Valgimigli

 The art of translation is, as Valgimigli states, exactly like making music or poetry, like painting or sculpting. It is virtuosity and skill and a fine ear. But it is also, to use a trite television term, profiling: it is studying a voice, the author’s, and understanding the hues, decoding them, and then reinterpreting them in another language.  And to the translator who finds the solution to a difficult word or sentence or paragraph, it is certainly art in motion. So, I guess we are movers, haulers, as Valerio Magrelli rightly says in his poem The Hauler: “ The stooped hauler/ that empties my room/ does my same job/ I too move house/ for words, words/ that are not mine…”

We are movers, therefore, profilers, artists who take reading a text to the next level: “The translator,” says Primo Levi in Other people’s trades, “ is the only person who really reads a text, who reads it in depth, its every fold, weighing and appreciating each and every word and image…” I spent almost three quarters of my life reading everything I could get my hands on, and I was convinced I was a careful reader… until I learned to translate (Florence, 2001: Protr@d Translation Course organized by SETL – Scuola Europea di Traduzione Letteraria). Then every minute I spent on a sentence became another thing, a greater thing.  It was like being in English class again, and every word of every poem had a life moving inside it, a life you could only see if you watched closely enough. That’s what I love about translation: Taking words apart and putting them back together again.  Different and yet the same. Restoring the feelings in another form, another alphabet.

The other alphabet came early, and it didn’t. Source and target language are mixed, confused in me: I was born in Italy, grew up in Canada, and then adopted by the city of Florence, as an adult, after a degree in Drama and Italian Literature. I move between Italian and English easily, but it didn’t come easily. The Italian language is beautiful, and difficult. Impossible at times.  But the sounds are the sounds of my earliest childhood. When I translate, I use the memory of those sounds to understand the words.  When I translate, I use the ability to produce those sounds, which I learned in school – the only schools I know: Canadian schools – to reproduce them. And there they are again, mixed: Italian and English. Source language and target language. Which is more important? They both are, equally important. Because translation is a responsibility and a promise. A promise to carry a word, as Magrelli says, carefully. And although promises can be broken, as translators, we hope this will never be the case.

So we try our best, knowing full well, as Primo Levi so eloquently said, that: “The author that finds a page of his work translated into a language he understands feels, at one time or another, or all at one time, flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, levelled, raped, adorned, and killed. It is rare for him to remain indifferent towards the translator, whether he knows him or not, who has stuck his nose and fingers into his guts: he would willingly send him, at one time or another, or all at one time, his heart duly packaged, a cheque, a laurel wreath or the godfather.”  – Matilda Colarossi

Posted on 08/12/2017

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