Interview with Howard Curtis, literary translator

Howard Curtis is a British translator of French, Italian and Spanish fiction. Among his translations from the Italian are books by Gianrico Carofiglio, Marco Malvaldi, Pietro Grossi, Filippo Bologna, Matteo Righetto and Fabio Geda (as well as Italian classics like Pirandello, Fenoglio and Sciascia). From French he has translated, among others, Georges Simenon and from Spanish the late Luis Sepúlveda. His translations have won and have been shortlisted for many literary translation awards.

In addition to having translated two very popular writers such as Gianrico Carofiglio and Marco Malvaldi, you also translated “classic” authors such as Beppe Fenoglio and Leonardo Sciascia. In your opinion, to what extent has the way of narrating a story changed in the fifty years that separate Milton and Bellodi from Guerrieri and Viviani?

It’s very hard to generalise about such things. Do contemporary writers tell stories differently from those of fifty years ago? I think one can only go by individual cases. In the case of Carofiglio and Malvaldi, there is perhaps a greater ironic distance shown towards the characters, a greater willingness to show their flaws. 

What elements (if any) of the work of a “classic crime writer” like Simenon can we find in the stories of both Carofiglio and Malvaldi (and maybe other modern crime writers)? 

Simenon may now be considered a “classic crime writer”, but at the time he wrote his first Maigret books, they were revolutionary in the crime genre, for the first time presenting the detective not as a super-sleuth with incredible powers of deduction, like a Holmes or a Poirot, but as an ordinary middle-class functionary, whose very ordinariness – his Everyman quality – gives him an insight into human nature and allows him to understand both criminals and victims.  As the series goes on, Simenon focuses less and less on the mechanics of a police investigation, and more and more on character – and on the self-questioning of the protagonist.  Carofiglio and Malvaldi could be said to follow that model, in the sense that their heroes are, as I said above, flawed and imperfect characters, who constantly question their own actions – and also in the sense that they are less interested in plot than in other things: Malvaldi in humorous observations on everyday life and Carofiglio in complex questions of morality and ethics.  

How do you set out to translate a book? Do you read the book from beginning to end before starting your translation? Do you create an outline of the characters to keep track of the plot?

When I first started out, more than thirty years ago, I always religiously read the book before translating it, thinking that was the only way to really appreciate what the author was trying to say. I was quite shocked, some twenty years ago, when I met a translator who said she never read a book beforehand, but started on Page 1, made sure she had that right before going on to Page 2, and so on. At the time, I found that hard to fathom, but later I met several translators who told me they never read a book before starting to translate it. Since then, my own practice has tended to vary, depending on the amount of time I have. If I’ve been given a lot of time by a publisher, and I don’t have too much other work, I do like to read the book beforehand; at other times I plunge straight in. I don’t think it makes much difference to the final product: after you’ve done several drafts of a translation you know the book pretty well, whether or not you read it before starting! And to answer your other question, I don’t think I’ve ever created an outline of the characters to help me keep track of the plot.

As a translator, what strategies do you apply to become invisible? Or do you think the translator should be visible, like Lawrence Venuti advocated?

Being a practical translator rather than a translation theorist, I tend to find what Lawrence Venuti says quite contrary to my own practice. His idea of the translator making it clear to readers that they are reading a translation by leaving elements of foreignness in the text strikes me as wrong-headed. My principle is that the translation should have the same effect on the reader as the original work had on readers in the original language. If the original reader didn’t find anything strange, alien, foreign in the style of the book, why should the reader of the translation? I genuinely believe that if we want to respect the author, then the less the reader is aware of reading a translation, the better.

In your teaching experience at Warwick Summer School, what do you want (or hope) your students will learn?

I have done several translation summer schools, not only at Warwick, and I always tell students that I am neither an academic nor an expert on languages, but a working translator who has acquired certain skills in the course of practising his profession, and I try to impart some of those skills. I concentrate on raising the students’ awareness of style, tone, register, rhythm. I emphasise that there is no such thing as a definitive translation, that one should constantly be questioning one’s work, considering different approaches, and revising, revising, revising.  

Will you recommend an underappreciated book or author that you think we should read?

In Italian, I’d like to recommend a book by an author who is by no means underappreciated, Dino Buzzati: his 1939 novel “Il Deserto dei Tartari” is very well known and is regarded – rightly, in my opinion – as one of the great works of 20th-century Italian literature. But recently, by chance, I came across a much later novel of his: “Un Amore” (1963), which I don’t think is well known at all. I believe at the time it came out it was dismissed by critics for being relentlessly realistic, unlike the works he was famous for, which are surreal and Kafkaesque. I found it riveting. Its story of a fifty-year-old man infatuated with a young prostitute is an extraordinary depiction of male obsession and self-deception.

In French, I’ve long been fascinated by the Belgian writer Franz Hellens (he was Flemish, but wrote exclusively in French). He lived to the age of 90, was very prolific and was much admired in his day, but since his death in 1972 has been almost completely forgotten, even in Belgium. He’s an exceptional writer, who developed a kind of magic realism long before the Latin Americans. Twenty years ago, I translated one of his best novels, “Mémoires d’Elseneur” (“Memoirs from Elsinore” in English), for an academic publisher, and since then have been trying to interest other publishers in his work, but without success. I’d love for him to be rediscovered.