Translation is a Performance of Language: An Interview with Translator and Poet Will Schutt

Will Schutt is a versatile translator—his translations from Italian include novels by Massimo Carlotto and by Fabio Genovesi; poetry by Edoardo Sanguineti and by Fabio Pusterla; Andrea Marcolongo’s eulogy of ancient Greek, The Ingenious Language, and Tiziana de Rogatis’ book Elena Ferrante’s Key Words. His most recent translation is Renzo and Carlo Piano’s jointly authored Atlantis: A Journey in Search of Beauty (Europa Editions, 2020), in which father and son sail around the world, on a grand tour of Renzo’s light-filled, gravity-defying constructions.

Atlantis is a travelogue-memoir and a sustained dialogue between architect Renzo Piano and his journalist son Carlo, their alternating voices signaled by different fonts. Carlo’s extensive narration contains facts and names that serve as both prompts and context for Renzo’s more succinct reminiscences and pithy observations. As it turns out, I have seen quite a few of Renzo Piano’s architectural works and I was eager to learn more about the book and its translator, Will Schutt. But it was not the first time I had heard his name.

I first heard Will Schutt’s name from the Italian scholar Tiziana de Rogatis in March 2019––he was translating her book in English. It turned out he had graduated from Oberlin College where I teach comparative literature. A year later, he was scheduled to present at Oberlin, at a panel for language and literature majors. But the event was cancelled because of a security threat (interestingly, it was not Covid-19, but a murderer who was after one of the other panelists). So half a year later, spurred by my interest in Atlantis, I wrote to Will and asked him a few questions about Oberlin, his work as a translator, and the poetry festival he runs in Siena.

Stiliana Milkova

Stiliana Milkova: I teach comparative literature and literary translation at your alma mater, Oberlin College. My students are multitalented writers, translators, musicians, thinkers. What was your experience at Oberlin like? Were there particularly memorable courses or professors?

Will Schutt:  I have fond memories of Oberlin now but know I had mixed feelings at the time. All my classmates had, as you say, multiple interests—and I had one. They also had strong political convictions—I had none. Most days I felt equal parts invigorated and intimidated. I spent much of my time in Mudd, dozing off near the poetry stacks or watching whatever movie Dan Goulding happened to be screening in the basement. Goulding was a memorable professor, as were several others, such as T.S. McMillin and Anne Trubek. Their classes weren’t classes: they were grand narratives, full of character, digression, arc. Many professors entertained wild notions and encouraged us to entertain our own.

SM: What was your path to becoming a translator?

WS: Started at Oberlin. My senior year the poet and translator David Young came out of retirement to teach a translation workshop. Till then so much of what I had been taught in writing classes was tech & craft based almost exclusively on postwar American models. Translation went beyond plumbing: We weren’t just talking about voice and image or weighing the effects of line breaks (which I like doing, by the way) but discussing the dynamics between language and culture, and how culture shapes and is shaped by language. I translated a handful of Camillo Sbarbaro’s “shavings” for the class: “In the desert I see myself with dry eyes…” A year later I was in Italy, editing and occasionally translating for a magazine, but I did not consider myself a translator at the time. I had no formal training outside of David’s workshop and lacked a serious education in Italian: a year of study and a half year of lived experience. I did translate poems, on my own, for myself, then and in the years to come. But it was another decade before I translated my first book of prose. A friend recommended me to Europa Editions for the translation of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Chi manda le onde (The Breaking of a Wave). Suddenly other offers came in and translating prose became a happy means of supplementing my income. No matter what I tell myself, I am, with the exception of translating poetry, labor for hire.

SM: You have translated several living authors – Andrea Marcolongo, Tiziana de Rogatis, Massimo Carlotto, and the father-son duo Carlo and Renzo Piano, among others. How do you work with living authors? Do you consult them as you translate? Do they give you feedback?

WS: It depends on the book and the author’s willingness. Occasionally there will be a question about the meaning of a passage or tone or wording that requires consultation. I love that translating living authors affords the chance to collaborate, and I have been lucky to work with authors who respect what the translator can and must do. But I am also aware that working closely with authors can be risky. Some see only that which gets lost and greet anything I hope to gain with suspicion—which is perfectly understandable. But the task is hard enough without someone peering over your shoulder the whole time.

SM: Can you tell me more about translating the first monograph on Italian writer Elena Ferrante––namely, Tiziana de Rogatis’ Elena Ferrante’s Key Words? I’ve read it in Italian––it’s a complex text to translate. What was the process like? What were the challenges and the successes?

WS: I still think I was the wrong person for the job. I hadn’t read much Ferrante and I was unfamiliar with a lot of the scholarship behind the book. But another boon of translating is that you are always learning, ever the amateur, and I was glad for the excuse to read all of Ferrante. In the case of Key Words I did lean heavily on the author and on my editor, Sophia Franchi. Sophia’s name deserves to be on the book next to mine—though any errors are my own. There were several passages I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Sophia and I went back and forth. And Tiziana weighed in on my third or fourth draft. I can’t remember which now; I go through many. I find American English generally less fussy than Italian and the intricate prose of Key Words sometimes flagged in English. So I was inclined, where possible and without spoiling the content, to simplify constructions and use short words. Maybe that’s a hangover from Orwell, who advises never to use a long word where a short will do.  

SM: Your most recent translation is Carlo and Renzo Piano’s jointly authored Atlantis: A Journey in Search of Beauty. What were the most challenging (or rewarding) aspects of translating a text written by two authors whose voices alternate throughout the book?

WS:  The structure did make it tricky. It’s more dialogue than travelogue. So I took a risk by keeping the book in present tense, which is harder to sustain in an extended narrative in English. In Italian the dramatic present is common now. But the present tense seemed fitting for a book about, in part, creative restlessness. Carlo is always asking Renzo if he is satisfied with this or that building and as he revisits each Renzo is always finding fault, a missed opportunity, a nagging regret. I hope I captured that sense of a conversation, but I did not go out of my way to throw my voice twice. Despite being jointly authored, the voice of the book sounds, to my ear, pretty consistent.   

SM: When I was reading Atlantis, I was struck by how rooted it is in traditional Western notions of male and patrilineal authorship, genius, creative power, and even exploration, discovery, and conquest. How do you as a (male) translator approach a text inflected by the symbols and practices of male domination? Were there moments when you considered the translator’s subversive potential?

WS:  Good question. No, I don’t think it is my place to subvert the original content but deliver it in a manner I think complements the original. Nor would I know how to get around such ideas in a book about a renowned European architect discussing the creative life with his son while sailing around the world on a naval ship crewed by a team of men. Were it an American book Atlantis would likely be consumed by these notions or at least more wary of how they come off. Yet while symbols of male domination and conquest are present in Atlantis, the book endorses values that run counter to them: it champions architecture as a collaborative and inclusive art form, one at the service of people, not starchitects, and attempts to reimagine spaces for marginalized communities that have been neglected by governments, industries, urban planners. The book is also humbler than your question suggests. It is, in large part, a book about navigating failure by someone who has gracefully navigated success.

SM:  You co-organize the Policromia poetry festival in Siena, Italy, and you are a published, award-winning poet. What is next for you as a creative writer? And as a translator?

WS: I am eager to get back to poetry and still write it in my perpetually shrinking pockets of free time. The drafts accrue and the poems never get done. If I ever complete another collection I think I’ll call it Unfinishedness. I’ve always liked fragments, poems that fade out, stories that fall off a cliff, journeys at sea that never reach their destination.But translation occupies most of my hard drive. I have three translation projects under way: Maria Eisenstein’s Internee Number 6, a memoir about life in a women’s camp in Italy during the Second World War, which I am translating for the Centro Primo Levi in New York. A new book by the exuberant Andrea Marcolongo, The Lesson of Aeneas, my second of hers. And a selection of poems by the contemporary poet Fabio Pusterla.

SM: What advice would you give to emerging translators such as my students at Oberlin?

WS: Translation is, like all writing, a performance of language. Keep an ear out for what can be brought over from the source language but don’t forget to look after your own. There are many books I wish I had read earlier in my career about English style, sense, and syntax, such as Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences. Translation is also a performance of close reading. You should take comfort in the knowledge that, just as every reader has their version of a book or story or poem, every translator has their version of a text.

SM: Thank you!

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