6 June 2017
Translating Primo Levi’s biography - Nat Paterson

Nat Paterson, who studied Italian and French at Lancaster from 2010 to 2014 and is now a freelance translator, writes a blog about his experience translating a biography of Primo Levi (Echoes of a Lost Voice, by Gabriella Poli and Giorgio Calcagno, published by Vallentine Mitchell, May 2017) from Italian into English. He talks about how he was awarded the job, the experience and challenges of translation and his plans for the future.

In my final year at Lancaster, I enjoyed and did very well in my translation and commentary dissertation, and decided to pursue this further by studying an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. Soon after I arrived, my tutors proposed I joined a mailing list, the Emerging Translators’ Network, where a very interesting job was advertised a few months later: translating a biography of the famous Italian author Primo Levi. In competition with other translators, I was asked to translate a short extract from the beginning of the book and was chosen on that basis.

Unlike commercial translators who usually start work immediately, most literary translators have to wait at least a few weeks after being chosen before they are given a formal job offer. In my case it was three months before I was told that the publisher of the original book had reached an agreement with the publisher of the translation. I was then able to negotiate a contract with my client, the author Gabriella Poli’s sister and heir. As Elena Poli was very elderly and did not have internet access, she did not get directly involved after signing the contract, but let the publisher deal with my queries.

As well as the challenges of style and suitability normally associated with literary translation, I needed to learn a great deal about Primo Levi in a very short time. A chemist who became an author after surviving Auschwitz and publishing memoirs of his experience, Levi’s work includes complex references to the events of the Second World War, chemistry, and Italian and European culture, which I had to understand and find equivalents for in English. The book was constructed around interviews with Levi, so I needed to recreate his voice directly. I consulted experts both on specific queries and to find out more about Levi generally: both Daniela Amsellam, the French translator of the biography and a lecturer on Levi at Université Savoie Mont Blanc, and the archivists at the Centro Studi Primo Levi in Turin, had a wealth of knowledge and could answer most of my questions. I was also lucky enough to meet Tim Parks, an academic who has studied translations of Levi's work in detail, when he came to East Anglia as a visiting professor. I wrote my MA dissertation on translating the biography, which allowed me to explore the ethical challenge of translating the interviews with my supervisor.

Levi was steeped in Italian culture, and the book includes many references to topics few English language readers are familiar with. I made things clearer for the English reader by adding endnotes, in addition to the bibliographical ones in the original text. This strategy was decided upon by translation ethics, as including an explanation in the main text could have made the reader think it was Levi or the biographers who were explaining. However, there were some cases where I had to translate creatively something expressed very idiomatically in the original text. For example, in Chapter One, a priest praises a Christian civilian worker who gave Levi food in Auschwitz, saying that for the worker, ‘un ebreo era un cristiano come un altro’ (a Jew was a Christian like any other), referring to the somewhat dated meaning of ‘cristiano’ as ‘human being’. I translated this with the similarly dated ‘Christian soul’, an expression found in poems such as Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

What I learned from this experience is that a literary translation job is about much more than just translation. From the initial period negotiating the contract, to research and compiling the footnotes, and the time after submitting my first draft when I talked about stylistic choices with the copyeditor, I did many different jobs, all of them working with other people. I enjoyed these challenges and hope to keep working as a literary translator: I would now like to translate a book with a lighter theme to build up a more varied portfolio.

I would advise anyone interested in literary translation to join the Emerging Translators’ Network, where more experienced colleagues can advise on all stages of the translation process. It is important to know before starting a project what kinds of work will be required, and to ensure this is reflected in the contract.