Interview with Katherine Gregor, literary translator

Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She was a theatre director, press agent, complementary medicine practitioner and an EFL teacher before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. Katherine has translated works by Alberto Angela, Stefania Auci, Marion Brunet, Roberto Tiraboschi, Marco Malvaldi, Donato Carrisi, Luigi Pirandello, Carlo Goldoni e Alexander Pushkin and many others.

She also writes about Italian literature on the European Literature Network website, she blogs at Scribe Doll and is currently working on a non-fiction book.

Do you choose the books to translate? How? Do you have any preference in terms of subject or  language?

I wish I had that luxury! Mostly, publishers contact me and offer me a book. As a freelancer, my decision to choose to accept or decline a translation project is heavily influenced by financial considerations. Having said that, I tend to decline offers of books I deeply dislike. After all, you end up spending several weeks or months in the company of this book, living in its author’s head, so you quickly need to decide whether you can be comfortable enough with it. Also, on a couple of occasions, I have declined books I felt I simply could not do justice to because they either required specific background knowledge I lacked, or when I felt I did not understand the humour or social references.

When I first turned to translation, I assumed I would work principally from French, since my degree is in French, whereas I have never formally studied Italian. Seven years down the line, much to my surprise, of the twenty-one books I have translated or co-translated so far, five have been from French and sixteen from Italian. Consequently, I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I didn’t feel more of an affinity with Italian than with French – but this is simply because I have a more extensive experience of Italian literature; I love both languages equally.  I don’t have a particular preference for a genre of books.  I like good writing.  The kind of writing where you can sense good craftsmanship within the first couple of sentences, where you can sigh with satisfaction and the assurance that the author knows where he or she is going, so you can trust them to lead you.  And good writing can be found in every genre, be it high-brow literary fiction, journalism, travel writing, popular women’s literature, crime novels or essays. Good, precise writing makes my job as a translator not only more pleasurable but also much easier.

You also have Russian roots and some time ago you told me the story of how you used to practice Russian with your babushka. Would you like to tell that charming story here as well? 

My “Russian roots” stem from my Russian-born Armenian grandmother, Yekaterina Gregoryán. My mother was a single parent, so had to work long hours, which means that my grandmother played a very significant role in raising me. When I was a child, she would tell me Russian and Caucasian fairy tales, which I loved and still love. They are so full of wisdom and have female heroines who are much stronger and more inspiring to me than their Western counterparts. Russian heroines practise magic and save men. In Western fairy tales, heroines generally wait to be rescued, and the only women who cast spells are either old or wicked.

My grandmother taught me to read Russian with the help of a heavy volume of Pushkin’s complete works. I have very fond memories of evenings spent at our kitchen table, with my slowly deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet, pausing to ask her to explain a new word. She would often take over and read aloud to me. By the time I was about fifteen, together we had read the whole of Pushkin, except for one – The Queen of Spades. When I finally asked my grandmother why she always avoided that particular story, she replied, “It’s a ghost story, you’re so ridiculously impressionable, I worry you’ll get frightened”. To this day, I still haven’t read The Queen of Spades!

Many literary translators have a special relationship with the authors they translate. I am thinking of Jonathan Franzen’s Italian translator, Teju Cole’s translators or even Philip Roth and his French translator. What kind of relationship do you establish or would you like to establish with the authors whose books you translate? 

Just before I begin a translation, I now ask the publisher to put me in touch with the author. Most are happy to do so. Then I e-mail him or her to introduce myself. I imagine it must be slightly worrying for a writer to hand his or her creation to a stranger about to re-write their book in a different language. At least this way they have some contact with me, some idea of who I am. At the same time I take the opportunity to ask them if they are willing to help with any potential queries about the text at a later stage (these can be social/political references or, especially in the case of Italian writers, use of regional expressions). All the writers I have worked with, so far, have been extremely obliging and generous with their time. On occasion, I have become friendly with writers long after my translation was published, and even meet them for coffee.

You came to literary translation through very different work experiences. To what extent do you think these past experiences have influenced your approach to literature?

Most literary translators I know are all-rounders who have had other jobs or careers before turning to translation. I think it helps to have what we call “life experience” if you are a translator, because if you translate a wide variety of texts, it helps to feel undaunted by the prospect of the unfamiliar. Perhaps my Figaro-like, factotum tendency, helps me.

What kind of training did you follow to become a literary translator? In your experience, what is the most useful or incisive teaching you have received and what do you think you missed based on your subsequent professional career?

I received no formal training in translation.  I belong to the trial-and-error school of translation. Except for two one-day translation masterclasses – one in French and one in Italian – I learnt by doing. Even so, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my husband, translator Howard Curtis, for teaching me tricks of the trade I don’t think I could have been taught anywhere else. When I first embarked on this career, he had been translating for over thirty years, so had – and still has – invaluable advice to impart.

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

I don’t know about “under-appreciated” (do we make a distinction between “appreciated” and “commercially successful” or “famous”?) but I can think of many, many French and Italian books that should be brought to the attention of British and US publishers because I feel it would be a great shame to deprive English language readers of the pleasure of reading them. I could list dozens, so will mention just a few:

In Italian:

Le Streghe di Lenzavacche by Simona Lo Iacono (Europa Editions)

Perdutamente by Flavio Pagano (Giunti)

Tutte le donne di by Caterina Bonvicini (Garzanti)

In French:

La Mémoire de l’air by Caroline Lamarche (Gallimard)

Opus 77 by Alexis Ragougneau (Viviane Hamy)

La Panthère des Neiges by Sylvain Tesson (Gallimard)