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The Wag Chats with
John Casey,
translator of Linda Ferri's Enchantments

John Casey discusses the difficulties and joys of translation and tells us why he thinks books have gotten neither better nor worse in the last one hundred years.

WAG: Linda Ferri’s Enchantments is your second translation. (Alessandro Boffa’s You’re an Animal, Viskovitz! appeared in 2002.) What is the toughest task you face as a translator? And how did you come by Enchantments?

John Casey: I was in the office of Carol Janeway, my editor at Knopf, and she clapped her hand to her forehead and said, "I bought this Italian book at the fair, who can I get to translate it?" She herself translates from German and French. "It's supposed to be funny. Don't you know some Italian? Read a bit and see."

[Editor’s note: the book was Boffa’s You're an Animal, Viskovitz. Boffa is an Italian biologist.]

I read a bit. I laughed.

"Oh good. Well, that solves that. You could use a diversion."

My friend Maria Sanminiatelli, an AP reporter (her excellent English is her third language), would come up from Richmond on weekends. I'd read aloud some of what I'd done, we'd laugh; she'd read aloud in Italian, we'd laugh and fumble around with the English. Or moan and pull our hair out. One of the jokes is that the animals can discuss themselves in scientific terms. Twenty-one different incarnations of Viskovitz and the almost always unattainable Ljuba—penguin, chameleon, praying mantis, elk, sponge, snail... Many words not in my ten-pound Italian dictionary. I got a ten-pound textbook of invertebrate biology. The hard part was making the words float.

Carol liked it, Boffa liked it, it did well in the U.S.

Meanwhile, my old friend Linda Ferri had sent me her book. I liked it.

Sent it to Knopf. It got shuffled around, got misplaced, confused with another manuscript in Italian which they couldn't find anyone to read. Finally it got sent out and got a favorable report.

Carol: John?

By this time, Maria had been transferred to New York so I was more on my own, though we still got together up there. I took a trip to Rome, spent most of a month with Linda Ferri, partly to get my Italian going again (she'd been one of my informal tutors twelve years before) and partly to go over some passages. She'd overseen the French translation (her French is superb; mine okay for reading) and that was a help – it gave some triangulation on tone. It's a funny book, but in a completely different way from Boffa's. Boffa's is a cross between Ovid's Metamorphoses and Mad Magazine. And Boffa is a guy. Crocodile Dundee with a classical education.

Linda's book is a funny, sweet and finally sad story of girlhood, partly in Paris, partly in Umbria.

Here's an odd thing that can happen to a translator:

Linda and I had gone over the next-to-last chapter. I said we had time to go on to the last.

Linda: Oh... it will make me cry. (Pause). Did it make you cry?

Me: When I read it in English.

She laughed and laughed. At the more-or-less innocent appropriation? At a gray-bearded American galoot trying to write the mind of an eleven-year-old Italian girl?

WAG: You’ve written several novels, including Spartina, which won the 1989 National Book Award for fiction. What do writing your own novels and translating other writers’ novels have in common? How do they differ?

Casey: In a way, all writing is translating. Say you're looking at a salt marsh, one you know well as a place. If you want to have an incident in your novel take place there, the salt marsh is also a text, a text that will need different words, depending on which character is there. One of them will know the difference between spartina alterniflora and spartina patens and it will matter to her. Another will be affected by the view in winter. Each in her own voice.

That much is alike.

What's different in translating from a text in another language is that the author has chosen the fragments that will stand for the whole, whether it's a salt marsh or a piazza in a town in Umbria. The job is no longer to pick the details but to maintain the rhythm between them, the tone.

I suppose it like being, say, a bassoon player asked to play a piece written for a flute.

WAG: Many writers and critics lament the state of literary fiction today, and they worry about its future, suggesting (for example) that short stories may become as quaintly irrelevant as poetry is for most potential readers. Where do you think fiction stands today, and where is it heading?

Casey: I don't know how to answer that. I know lots of people who couldn't live without reading stories, some long, some short. I happen to live in a small city that has two new-book stores and four used-book stores whose managers and workers have read a lot of the books on their shelves and are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

There is also a Barnes & Noble.

Kurt Vonnegut has said that it's asking a lot of someone to get him to sit in front of a white page filled with little black marks and decode them into color and action. Yeah. But for those people who do, there's nothing like it. Most TV and a lot of movies are like over-sucrosed, over-fructosed, reconstituted fruit juice. Once you've eaten a really good peach...

WAG: What are you working on now?

Casey: Almost finished the sequel to Spartina. You won't have to read them in order. The second one stands on its own.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Casey: As with the earlier question, I don't know how to answer. Who is neglected? Someone who sells 20,000 copies ? But what if the 20,000 buyers really really love it? Or if a book only sells a few thousand but it's so loved by an editor at a small press it gets reprinted? Once in a great while, some publisher will ask me to name something good that's out of print. I told someone Tarka, the Otter. She reprinted it. The author was long dead, so I guess that helped with costs. She loved to read. Another time (to someone else) I suggested Patrick White's Voss. Not everyone's a fan, but Patrick White did win the Nobel Prize. This editor hadn't ever heard of him. Some you win, some you lose, and some get rained out. But someone else will find it again.

For the last four years, I've been keeping a journal of what I read. Sometimes a word, sometimes a paragraph or two. I like most of the books; about a quarter of them get a star. A star means I urge someone else to read it. But I'd have to ask someone completely different to tell me what the sales figures are.

Some writers I know go nuts when they see the junk that's getting published. Different writers, different junk. Some of it really is junk. But there's always been junk. Look at the bestseller list over the last century (I think it started pretty near 1900 – it was published in book form and I read it with fascination). Ninety-nine percent of it gone. Not even an "Oh, I think I've heard of that one." "Oh Fame! thou glittering bauble!" as Captain Hook exclaims in one or another movie version of Peter Pan. I don't think readers' tastes are getting worse. I don't think they're getting better either. I'm hopeful – well, cautiously hopeful – that there'll be enough good readers to catch on to the good books. If the readers are talking to each other...

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted May 1, 2005


John Casey is the author of Spartina, winner of the 1989 National Book Award for fiction, The Half-Life of Happiness, Supper at the Black Pearl, An American Romance and Testimony and Demeanor. He is a professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia. In addition to Linda Ferri's Enchantments, he has translated You're an Animal, Viskovitz! by Alessandro Boffa.



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