The text you find in the Preview page is the beginning of the second attempt at translating Wingwatch. The first, undertaken by an agency, got no further than the second chapter. Luckily, I know enough of the language to be able to distinguish between English and Englian, the latter being a piece of writing where the traces left by the original Italian are so obvious that the reader can be left in no doubt: the translator’s mother tongue is not the language he or she is translating into. This, as anyone who knows anything about translating can tell you, amounts to a deadly sin. A crime of similar magnitude is the use of the famous (or infamous) CAT tools – translation software that is infallible in terms of vocabulary, but irredeemably limited when it comes to putting across the spirit of a piece of literary text. This was why, when I set out to find a new translator, my advertisement specified that I was looking for someone whose output would be fully ‘human’. This restricted the field of candidates, but the test translations they sent back to me left the quality of their work in no doubt. I opted for the youngest of them, and it turned out to be the right choice. Ross showed himself to be an attentive, responsive, competent and creative working partner. What follows are his own impressions on the project.
As an avid devourer of historical novels and having studied the Second World War in some depth back in my university days, I took an immediate interest in translating Marco’s book into English.
For someone in my profession it is easy to begin to feel like a ghost, something akin to a political speechwriter, in that the more your work goes unnoticed – the more people forget that they are reading a translation – the more successful you have been. The request from the author of Wingwatch that I should write a few words of my own regarding the translation process is therefore highly unusual, but hopefully it will offer readers a small glimpse into this world, which generally takes place behind the scenes and goes totally uncommented.
Fortunately, and as anyone with more than a basic knowledge of a foreign language will already know, translating a message from one language into another is rarely a simple matter of looking words up in a dictionary (or, much more likely today, on the internet). ‘Fortunately’, I say, because otherwise people like me would be out of a job, replaced by machines, and learning any foreign language would not only be incredibly dull but also somewhat pointless.
The truth is that every language is an incredibly complex treasure trove of meanings and word- associations, of metaphors, manners of speech and slang. The job of the translator is to do the best he or she can to pick out these less obvious pieces of information ‘encoded’ in the original, and to draw on everything they know of the target language to ‘re-encode’ it – not the words themselves but the way they are expressed, in an attempt to reproduce the ‘feel’ of the original.
Turning more specifically to Wingwatch, one of the challenges was the variety of characters, as well as the different times and places in which their actions unfold. These are all considerations that feed into my choices as a translator, especially where it comes to dialogue, because we all have a good idea (even if we are unaware of it) of what a young boy living in 2014 or a British Army officer living in 1944 might say, and even more importantly what they would never say.
Another important aspect of translating Wingwatch was its use of some fairly technical language and terminology. Even when someone reads a novel in their own language, they will often plough through sections they do not fully understand without actually realising they have not understood it – the human mind is very good at filling in these ‘gaps’, and it is not until you have to explain to someone what a carburettor is that you find out you do not have the foggiest idea. This is a personal example – I know next to nothing about cars, and I know about carburettors what I need to know about them: that they are one of the parts that go into a car. As a translator, on the other hand, I cannot afford such vagueness. What are the differences between a bunker, a pillbox and a casemate? Are there any? Can I not just use the first one that comes to mind, since in my mind’s eye they are all pretty much the same thing? Well, no – because you can be sure that at least some of the people reading your translation will know the difference, and if you have chosen the wrong one, they will notice. The same principle applied even more to the technical terms used to describe watches in the novel, a subject about which I knew next to nothing before beginning the project. Luckily, Marco was always on hand to offer his expert advice in this area.
At the end of the day, translation is always a fine balancing act – the translator wants his or her to sound as natural as possible, to render the transition from one language to another all but seamless, such that casual readers might not realise they do not have the original in front of them. But there is always the risk of committing the translator’s cardinal sin: that of going ‘off text’, writing what you think is there, or ought to be there, rather than what is actually in the original. Go too far, and the author’s voice can become totally lost. There is a very fine line between these two extremes, especially when the author’s writing style is fairly unique – an adjective I would certainly ascribe to Marco. I hope I have managed to follow that line without falling off either side, and perhaps the best judge of that will be the readers of the English version.