Translating Immigrant Literature: Katy Sparks Talks to Giovanna Bellesia

Giovanna Bellesia has been translating for 43 years, first from English or French into Italian and now Italian into English after spending so many years in the United States. After attending Scuola Superiore per Interpreti e Traduttori in Milan, Italy, she earned her PhD in Italian and Linguistics from UNC Chapel Hill and now teaches in the Italian Studies Department at Smith College.


What is your favorite genre?

I like short stories that have a message. It’s not so much my favorite genre as what I want to do with my translations and since I’ve been working a lot with migrant writers, I feel that at least that is a little contribution to the problem of people accepting and understanding each other.

I feel like I’m doing something useful that is not just research for the sake of research but is really helping improve the way people see each other across cultures.

I don’t have a favorite genre but I do like short stories because it’s more of an immediate satisfaction. Novels are nice when you’re done but it’s really stressful when you have three or four hundred pages and you have other details you have to watch for, going back to what word or expression you used before, being consistent.

Could you talk more about your work with migrant literature?

I was interested, because of the challenge that many of the authors tend to be native or bilingual writers. If they speak a second language, it might not be their stronger language but if they’re talking about the plight of people from their country, they tend to look at things through the other language and then they render it in Italian. It’s more challenging because you have to try and understand what in their Italian is a little bit different.

I like that tension in novels, especially with Cristina Ali Farah in Little Mother. She is bilingual with Somali and Italian but she did grow up the first sixteen years in Mogadishu [the capital city of Somalia] and she has a real deep knowledge of both languages. But when she writes about Somalia, even in Italian, and Gabriella Ghermandi for Ethiopia as well, they have these images that are part of the oral African tradition. Sometimes I find these images are very creative and it turns out that it is just a common expression in Amharic or Somali. I always think, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful what they’re doing.”

You mentioned how you had met a lot of the authors while you were in Rome. Is that usually how you pick who you are going to translate?

My co-translator, Victoria Poletto, and I have been working with this little group, especially of women, who are concentrating on women. We pick something that we like; if we don’t like it, we don’t translate it, no matter what. And so, if I find a short story I really like, then I send it to Victoria and ask “What do you think”?

We’re happy that these books are going around because, in the case of Gabriella, it’s a real rewriting of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. And in the case of Little Mother, it’s the story of the Somali diaspora across the world so these are the types of themes  that are important.

You mentioned how you worked with a partner in translation. How does that go?

Collaboration is  a lot more fun to do but it’s also a  compromise and it needs people who are compatible. I can’t believe we’re still friends after three novels and a lot of short stories. I think it works because I’m kind of the authority about the original Italian text and Victoria’s pretty much the authority on the final product. I’ll do 20 pages, she’ll do the next 20.Then we’ll read them together and one of us looks at the Italian, the other looks at the English.

The other thing that is very interesting is how much it has changed in the last thirty years with computers. Before, we didn’t have easy access to the information. Now, it’s at your fingertips. At one point, [an author] talks about this median in the middle of a road and we couldn’t figure out how wide it was. And I just zoomed in with Google Maps and I saw the street… Then she said “le autobus erano gialli e neri.” So we didn’t know whether some of the buses were yellow and some were black or if each bus was yellow and black because it wasn’t clear. And all I needed to do was [search] and there they were, striped.

When it comes to your translations, if you come across a phrase that doesn’t translate well or something that you don’t think you can translate, what do you do with it?

We never start thinking that we cannot, we always think there is a solution somehow. We have, in a couple of instances, used a lot of compensation. We find it an interesting challenge. There are sometimes parts or expressions that are really not translatable but we just figure out how to try and convey the same meaning. It’s only in case of desperation that you put a translator’s note. Translators used to put a lot of those. We don’t do that anymore.

You find a general solution, for example  if you look at Queen of Pearls and Flowers and Little Mother, we added glossaries. The original Italian texts do not have them. When we started translating, we realized that we needed a list of characters.The problem was there were a ton of Somali words and we did not want to put them in the text itself. So what we decided was to put a glossary at the end so we wouldn’t be interrupting continuously. But it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise to translate… there are one or two notes at most. We really tried to get around the awkwardness of notes. And sometimes you just have to decide it’s a translation loss and you try to compensate later.

But most of the problems are with tricky things. For example, the author says that she had an epiphany but in Italian she uses the word “illuminazione” which means enlightening and she talks about light after so if I used the word “epiphany”, I’d lose the connection to light. So then… you use “a lightbulb went off in my mind”.

But it’s not always possible, sometimes it really doesn’t make sense and sometimes it doesn’t make sense in the original either. So if you have access to the author, you ask them and they say “oh really, did I write  that?” Yeah, you did. What did you really mean? And then you try to do it their way.

When do you know youve finished a translation?

A translation is never done. If I look back, I want to change everything. I keep wanting to change it. But at some point you have to say it’s done, closed, put away. Otherwise, you will go on translating forever.

What’s your favorite thing in general about translation, whether the process or the end product?

It’s the puzzles… It’s when there is something that cannot be translated. In one story I worked on, there’s a black bean from Brazil and at one point the narrator says “non sono bucato.” “Bucato” means “with a hole” but, in Italian, “bucato” also means that you shoot drugs…I started looking at all the options and of course you cannot use shoot because shoot has nothing to do with this and so I decided to use something that had to do with crack, “my head is not cracked” and talk about crackheads…Those are the things I like, trying to find a way to really render something that seems impossible to render… That’s what I like the best.

I also like the fact that these books are finished and I can read them. When people read stories that take place far away, people learn more; it makes me feel like I did something useful.


Katy Rose Sparks20 is a senior studying Italian Studies, archaeology, and Translation Studies. She has a handle on Italian, Latin, and Ancient Greek while currently learning Hungarian and Portuguese.




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