Answering the Call: Jamie Richards interviews Anne Milano Appel

Anne Milano Appel is the award-winning translator of over three dozen books and 2021 marks her twenty-fifth year translating Italian literature. Her translations include works by Antonio Scurati, Paolo Maurensig, Claudio Magris, Primo Levi, Luce D’Eramo, Goliarda Sapienza, Paolo Giordano, Andrea Canobbio, Roberto Saviano, and numerous others in periodicals such as Chicago Review, Asymptote, Guernica, and The Massachusetts Review. Formerly a library administrator, she earned a PhD in Romance Languages from Rutgers in 1970.

Anne was one of the first translators I ever met, at the American Literary Translators Association conference in Boston in 2003. From the perspective of a young aspirant, she appeared august and secure in her accomplishments, which were merely a fraction of what she has achieved since. Her work has progressed in parallel with developments in the Italian literary world and the Anglophone translation scene, spanning many genres and periods, focusing on many of the highlights of contemporary Italian prose. Recently, rereading one of Tim Parks’ infamous essays on translation, I paused at his question, “why […] is a fine translator like Milano Appel not better known?” His answer was that “no book she has translated has captured the public imagination”; I would suggest, on the contrary, that she is only as unknown as the legions of fine translators who daily work to make our reading lives better, however more prolific or masterly she may be. I have always found her a generous colleague, and it is my hope to shed more light on her work with this interview, which was conducted by email in December 2020.

Jamie Richards

JR: Do you agree with Tim Parks’s comment that “no book [you’ve] translated has captured the public imagination”? Which of your books do you wish were better known?

AMA: An author I’ve translated whose work deserves to be better known is Claudio Magris. His stature as a writer is indisputable, as attested to by his numerous awards and honors. Yet other than Danube, translated by our late colleague Patrick Creagh, his work has never received the attention it deserves in the US.

As for books I wish were better known, they fall into two categories: the ones I translated and the ones that got away, so to speak—in the sense that no publisher has chosen to publish them. One author whose work stands out in the latter category is Daniele del Giudice. Much admired by Magris, Del Giudice has been called “l’ultimo classico in un’epoca di scrittori sgarrupati” (the last classicist in an era of slapdash writers). I have been interested in his work for some time; besides a translation in progress of Nel museo di Reims, my translations of his works to date include the short story “Shipwreck with Painting” (“Naufragio con quadro”), which appeared in the Massachusetts Review in March 2017, and an excerpt from Movable Horizon (Orizzonte mobile) commissioned at the time he was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature in 2009.

JR: I often have the sense that the spotlight isn’t always on the right writers in Italy, and that crosses over into the treatment they receive in translation. Magris’s Blindly is certainly a masterpiece and an enormous achievement of yours. Say a little more about Magris and why we should read him—and where to start.

AMA: I think Magris is perceived as challenging and for that reason readers may be reluctant to try him. His narratives can be complex, defying facile summation, with multiple cultural references and interwoven threads that range back and forth in history.

Most people think of the serious Magris – the Magris who in works like Blindly and Blameless is concerned with exposing the injustices of the world through his narrative. Though we prefer to close our eyes to the disquieting things around us, to look through the spyglass untroubled, blindfold securely in place, Magris is determined to rip off the blindfold and clear our vision. In the final image of Blameless, men are dumped into the sea like garbage: “throwing garbage into the sea is a crime and so is throwing men in, but the judge declares there is no cause to prosecute.” Unlike the judge, Magris is committed to attesting to the truth.

There is another Magris, however – the one we see in Snapshots or in Journeying. This is the engaging Magris, with a wry sense of humor, at times pungent, at times self-deprecating, always keen, and refreshingly affable. A very human Magris who is able to present cameos of professorial life with a certain irony, for example, when describing an eminent colleague who discreetly falls asleep at a ponderous conference session after a heavy lunch; or who is capable of portraying the ambivalence of life as a couple, as in a scene where a man’s wife scolds him for swimming in the sea when it’s so cold.

All of which is to say that there is something for everyone in these works, no matter where you start.

JR: Was translating Magris your initiative, or did a publisher come to you? How often do you work on commission, and how often do you pitch your own projects?

AMA: Years ago Magris appeared at the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco. I missed the presentation—I think I was in Rome at the time—but his photo in the postcard announcement told me that this was a man who had something to say. I remember going to the Feltrinelli on Largo Argentina (the bookstore I used as my “library”) to read him. Then I went after him, even mistakenly writing to a university colleague of his with the same name, who very kindly put me in contact with him. While his agent worked to find a publisher for Blindly, I applied for a NEA grant, but was turned down. Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada ultimately published the book, and later Yale University Press; and from that point on Yale turned to me.

Typically, I only work when commissioned by a publisher. While I will sometimes translate an excerpt of a work on my own initiative when I find a text that appeals to me in some way, I then prefer to leave it to the author’s agent to shop it around.

JR: What kind of writing or styles appeal to you as a translator?

AMA: I can’t say that I limit my taste, though I draw the line at bad writing. To me, the work has to say something that’s fathomable, though admittedly every reader brings his own understanding to a text. The style can be experimental or innovative, pushing more conventional boundaries, but on some level it has to make sense to the reader. As a reader-translator, I have to be able to visualize it, see what the author is getting at, in order to create it in my own mind and translate it for other readers to experience. I had a professor in grad school once who would always say that if something you read doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because the writer isn’t making any sense. He was referring to literary critics, but I think it can be applied to authors as well.

JR: To what extent do translators have styles, too? How would you describe your translation style?

AMA: I’m guessing that when you say translators’ styles you’re referring to the way a translator works: his technique, approach, or modus operandi. As opposed to the author’s writing style as seen in the original text or reflected in the translation. When I translate, it’s the author’s style I’m after, though I don’t really think about it, in the sense of analyzing it before I start translating. For me, it’s more of a spontaneous process, more intuitive or instinctive. It sounds trite, I know, and it’s been said many times, but I think you have to “hear” the author’s voice and then… translate it. Tutto lì!

JR: I wonder if the idea of “quality” is another way to think about it. What makes a translation better or worse, more or less successful? Is it different from the perspective of the translator or the reader, or, for instance, of editors at publishing houses trying to choose a translator for a project?

AMA: I don’t actually think there can be one monolithic definition of the quality of a translation. It depends on so many factors, such as how close the translation comes to meeting the desired objectives, which would embrace both the author’s intentions and the translator’s strategy on how best to render them. To say that the quality of a translation “falls short” begs the question not only of how or what it may be lacking, but of what constitutes “quality” in the first place.

As a translator, one of the ways I feel a translation is successful is when the author is happy with it. Of course, it’s great if the editor, publisher, and eventual readers are also satisfied, but the highest praise I can receive is the appreciation of the author. 

As a reader, I consider a translation successful if it reads well in the target language and doesn’t keep reminding me that it’s a translation. Having said that, I confess that, for me, reading a work that’s been translated from the Italian is a different matter entirely: No matter how well executed the translation, I find I can’t read it without constantly trying to figure out what the Italian phrase was. Not necessarily to judge it, but because I start thinking about how I would have translated it.

As for publishers, let’s just say that the “quality” of the sample is not the only determining factor in who the editor selects. As with everything else, politics comes into play. Maybe even geography: not long ago a UK editor told me he needed someone closer to home (i.e. not in remote California). And let’s not forget the economic factor: if an editor can’t afford you, he will have no qualms about moving on to someone willing to accept a lower rate.

JR: When you’re translating, do you ever seek out literary models or certain kinds of reading? Do any translations or translators inspire your work in general? 

AMA: Models, no, at least not consciously or intentionally. If I’m translating a book set in a particular historical place or time (Scurati’s M comes to mind, or Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation), I will of course do the research to get the facts straight or gain a better understanding of the period, but usually I do this as I go along, not in a preliminary or preparatory way.

Many descriptions and metaphors for translation have been inspirational, Umberto Eco’s “dire quasi la stessa cosa,” saying almost the same thing, to name one. And Sciascia’s thoughts on words taking on a different meaning with the passage of time: he was referring to his L’affaire Moro, and explicitly mentioned Borges’ “Pierre Menard.” In a more current context, I particularly liked the way a colleague Dick Cluster put it in an online interview: “My interest in demystification also led me to literary translation, which has been described as the process of saying, ‘I have met a beautiful stranger whom I want to introduce to you’.”

In the end my model is the author and my inspiration is the work—that “stranger” I want to introduce readers to. I see the process as a spontaneous, asynchronous dialogue that involves the three of us. The text, as we read in the preface to Barbara Lanati’s Pareti di cristallo, “È sempre un appello che chiede di essere ascoltato…,” a call asking to be heard.

JR: Which “beautiful strangers” are you going to introduce us to next? 

AMA: At present my “strangers” are Paolo Maurensig’s Game of the Gods (World Editions, January 2021), and Antonio Scurati’s M Son of the Century (HarperCollins, April 2021). The latter, a fictionalized account of Benito Mussolini’s rise to power, was awarded the Premio Strega in 2019. Another “beautiful stranger” currently in progress and commissioned by World Editions, is Claudia Petrucci’s impressive debut narrative, L’esercizio (La Nave di Teseo, 2020), an unsettling novel about identity, projected desires, and manipulation. But I am already looking ahead to many more such strangers waiting to be introduced, that “appello” waiting to be heard.

Jamie Richards is an American translator and editor based in Milan. Her work has appeared in various periodicals online and in print, and she has translated books by contemporary Italian authors such as Ermanno Cavazzoni, Igiaba Scego, Giovanni Orelli, Gipi, and Manuele Fior. The recipient of an NEA fellowship for her translation of Dolores Prato’s Down the Square No One’s There, she holds an MFA in translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Oregon.

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