Author Minna Proctor finds her voice as a translator
Thu Mar 9 2006
Good translators do much more than kindly usher books into another language. They wrangle with countless decisions, knowing that a careless move can drastically alter the tone of the text. Minna Proctor has translated numerous Italian books into English, including the award-winning Love in Vain, an amazing collection of stories by Federigo Tozzi (1883--1920), and, most recently, Tullio Kezich’s biography of filmmaker Federico Fellini (see Reviews). She’s also an author, and her book, Do You Hear What I Hear? (Penguin), which chronicles her father’s attempts to become an Anglican priest, just came out in paperback. TONY recently had coffee with the Brooklyn-based Proctor, 35, to ask about writing, translating and how those two crafts intersect.
Time Out New York: Were there any challenges specific to translating the Fellini biography?
Minna Proctor: Early reviews complained about my use of the present tense, because it gives the book a buoyant and frivolous quality. But it’s not something I inserted—Kezich used the present tense, so I was just translating and being faithful to the text.
TONY: How did you feel about his use of the present tense?
MP: Well, Kezich was very close to Fellini, and he has this incredible wealth of information. And his interpretations of the movies, they’re so beautiful. But the biography and expository stuff is not his forte, and that presented some challenges. There are continuity problems, and he calls people by their nicknames without introducing them. And I didn’t think he wrote it in the present tense to make it feel more alive; I think he just didn’t know. It’s much harder to translate bad writing than it is to translate good writing.
TONY: Why is that?
MP: It has to do with trusting the intentions of the writer. With a good writer, if there’s a lot of repetition, for example, it has an effect—it creates this sort of drumroll up to a climax, so you’re very aware of what the point of the repetition is. With a less skillful writer, it’s probably just accidental, so you think, The author didn’t mean this, so I’m going to fix it. And then you get into the different schools of how faithful you are.
TONY: Where do you fall on that spectrum?
MP: I’m less faithful. There’s word-for-word translation, sentence by sentence. Usually I’m a paragraph-by-paragraph person. Basically, the manual labor is to get all the words into English—it’s almost like you’re putting it through one of the Internet translators, and you wind up with this blubber on the page. Then I go in and move it into English syntax. And then I begin building a voice, and take the information and filter it through whatever I think is the English equivalent of that voice.
TONY: How long did Fellini take?
MP: It took three months, with an assistant.
TONY: Sometimes Kezich seems like a misogynist jerk.
MP: I found the book quite sexist. In any critical bio, to not get into the emotional repercussions of Fellini’s very complicated romantic life, it seems wrong. At the end of one chapter he describes how Fellini pulled himself out of his first depression by cheating on his wife, and then he totally brushes off the complexity of that issue. Their relationship is fascinating, and Kezich just didn’t go there.
TONY: You’ve translated some authors that you really admire. What was your favorite project?
MP: The Tozzi. That project was blessed. It was a treat to work with New Directions; it was an author that continues to amaze me. And I really enjoyed working on the Italian Fiction issue of The Literary Review, which I edited. It was really fun to choose these writers after ten years of trying and failing to convince publishers to buy them.
TONY: You probably don’t translate because it pays well.
MP: No, that’s not the reason to do it. One reason is that you fall in love with an author. Another really good reason to translate is that it’s a tremendous apprenticeship for writing.
TONY: You’re also a writer. How has translating helped?
MP: Some of it is like exercises—especially as a young writer, when you’re trying to figure out how writing works, and it’s just as important to figure out how to make a sentence and to structure dialogue as it is to come up with a good story. If you’re 23, the story part is going to be a challenge—you know, what are your stories when you’re 23? The amazing thing about translating is that it’s a way to start working on this whole architecture—all the nuts and bolts of the house—but instead of being the architect, you’re the engineer, and someone gives you the plan.
TONY: You’ve obviously learned a lot from English-speaking authors too.
MP: Translation is almost mathematical—it’s all about finding equivalents. But it doesn’t teach you license, how to push or even explode the medium. That’s the sort of thing you can only learn from the innovators and champions of your own language. Writers like Angela Carter, Mary McCarthy and Mailer taught me so much about personal essays, about how much you can say that’s honest but doesn’t become emotional exhibitionism.
TONY: Maybe this is a stretch, but your book, Do You Hear What I Hear?, could be read as a translation of your father’s religious experiences.
MP: My book is also about something that’s a foreign language to me. It’s not the foreign language of my father, it’s the foreign language of religion. I had a situation in front of me that was kind of mysterious and kind of fascinating, and there was language involved—there was this word, calling, and what the heck does it mean?
TONY: The book does take your dad’s religious calling as raw material and then builds on it.
MP: There’s an intellectual elbow grease to my method, and this is totally related to translation. Instead of writing about my feelings about my father doing this thing, I was like, “I’m going to take notes and figure it out step by step, and at the end, I will somehow understand the mystery of my father.”
TONY: And do you feel like you succeeded?
MP: Yes [Laughs], but it was a very plodding route. Sometimes those are good routes. But I do recognize it as a labor-intensive way to do it. That’s all specific to this book. I’ve started writing fiction again, so now what I take from translation is stuff I learned about dialogue and structure. But in Do You Hear What I Hear?, it’s more about my method of understanding things, and that method has a lot to do with why I translate.
Federico Fellini ($35) is out now from Faber and Faber.