Crossing a Divide: In Conversation with Translator Brian Robert Moore

As the editor of Reading in Translation, I am passionate about promoting literature in translation, and especially women writers. When two years ago I read Goliarda Sapienza’s novel Meeting in Positano (Other Press), I was captivated by the story, the language, the setting. Sapienza is a superb narrator and the seaside town of Positano as the backdrop of her novel lends it a mythological, Mediterranean appeal. But this appeal emerges and takes hold thanks to the book’s translator, Brian Robert Moore. Moore’s voice blends beautifully with the double voice of the book’s narrator who is telling her friend’s traumatic life story. So when Brian translated another book by an Italian woman writer, Lalla Romano’s A Silence Shared (Pushkin Press), I approached him about an interview. Before we delve into his detailed responses, an introduction is in order.

Brian Robert Moore (Photo Credit: Daniel Horowitz)

Brian Robert Moore is a contributor to Reading in Translation and a translator from Italian whose published translations include Sapienza’s Meeting in Positano, Romano’s A Silence Shared, and the forthcoming books by Michele Mari, You, Bleeding Childhood (And Other Stories) and Verdigris (And Other Stories). He is the recipient of a PEN grant for the translation of Italian literature, a National Endowment for the Arts award, a Santa Maddalena Foundation fellowship, and a Casa delle Traduzioni (Rome) translator residency award. Brian studied Comparative Literature and Italian at Brown University and holds a master’s degree from Trinity College Dublin.

In our conversation, we discuss his path to literary translation, his approach to translating women writers, and the amount of research that goes into translating. We also touch on some specific aspects of A Silence Shared and Meeting in Positano. Read this interview to find Brian’s useful advice for emerging translators as well!

Stiliana Milkova

Stiliana Milkova: You have now translated books by two prominent Italian women writers, Goliarda Sapienza and Lalla Romano. How did you become interested in them? Was it difficult to obtain the rights to translate their works? 

Brian Robert Moore: I had been a big fan of Lalla Romano’s books for a long time, and had always considered her writing to be some of the most beautiful Italian prose of the 20th century. With the renewed interest in other classic Italian authors over the past few years, the near total absence of Romano’s work in the anglosphere seemed all the more inexplicable, and unacceptable, really. I had started to pitch her books to a couple of editors, but after receiving a PEN grant for A Silence Shared, finding a publisher for the translation became much easier. In terms of Sapienza, Other Press already had the rights to publish Meeting in Positano in English. It was a project that particularly interested me, so I submitted a translation sample, and fortunately they liked it.

SM: Sapienza’s and Romano’s books are both narratives told by a woman. How do you inhabit and translate a woman’s voice? Are there specific challenges? Or is it not really an issue? 

BRM: There’s no easy answer to this question, and partly because Sapienza’s and Romano’s voices could not be more distinct from one another. I was more conscious of the fact that the narrators in Sapienza’s novel were women while I was translating, and I wanted to stay true to those voices as much as possible. In the case of Romano, after the initial stages of working on the translation, I came to a point where I just felt in tune with Romano’s voice and with Giulia’s narration, perhaps due to my own emotional investment, and I stopped feeling any real barrier between myself and the book. As a result, questions like this one—which should be taken seriously, of course—eventually faded away for me. Both authors, in any case, used their writing to create an understanding of others, and certain novels of theirs are fairly obsessive explorations of real people in their lives, such as Meeting in Positano or Romano’s novel about her son, Le parole tra noi leggere. They truly believed in crossing a divide in order to inhabit another person’s worldview, and that’s also what you have to do when translating.

SM: In Sapienza’s Meeting in Positano, the narrator tells the story of her friend Erica, thereby weaving together two female voices, two female narratives. Was that an aspect of the text that you kept in mind while translating? And if so, how did it influence your micro- and macro-decisions as a translator? 

BRM: I loved the way Erica’s narration unexpectedly takes over the novel, and so it was a particularly important element for me. I did hear them as two different voices in my head, and since Erica’s narration is essentially a monologue, I found myself instinctively reading those sections aloud and leaning into the theatricality of her voice. At the same time, the two characters are portrayed as almost mirror images of one another—in the sense that they are literal opposites, but they have a deeper connection that assimilates them, and so the voices eventually bleed into one another.

SM: Lalla Romano studied painting and was a painter as well. A Silence Shared, like many of her other works, is a profoundly visual novel brimming with descriptions of paintings, objects, and scenes that look like paintings. (And she herself recognizes the intense visuality of her texts, their reliance on images, on descriptions, rather than on action.) What was the reading experience like for you and how did it inform your translator’s choices? Did you look at Romano’s paintings or use other visuals?

BRM: Yes, it’s a very visual novel, but I don’t think of it as descriptive in the traditional sense. The way Romano describes the landscape, for instance, is particularly evocative, and the passages in which she focuses on the natural surroundings really felt like prose poetry to me, so rhythm and sound were just as important as the descriptions those passages offer. Some of her paintings do feel very much of a piece with the novel, though, and it’s tempting to draw a connection between Romano as a painter, with her largely post-impressionist style, and Romano the writer, who in A Silence Shared uses the countryside and the snowy landscape to highlight the inner life of the characters. In terms of the dynamics between the characters, Romano is also great at freezing a scene, so to speak, right when it reaches its dramatic apex, and I consider that a fairly painterly technique or talent of hers. Romano even seems to consciously reflect on this, when she refers to one scene at the dinner table at Tetto Murato as a “tableau vivant that had truly come to life.”

SM: Giulia, the narrator of A Silence Shared, is a translator. Do you think that affects her narration? And did it in some way affect your task as a translator? 

BRM: Personally, I couldn’t help but see this as an important detail, and I do think it influences Giulia’s narration. There’s so much “reading between the lines” in the novel, and Romano, via Giulia, is continually taking silent moments and gestures and translating them, so to speak, into something more. Translation offers us the illusion of understanding languages that we don’t actually speak, and Romano creates a similar sensation in the novel, cuing us in on the deeper meaning conveyed by silences and images. I don’t mean she spells things out for us—it’s the opposite, actually—but she allows us to feel the meaning on an emotional, instinctive level, as if we really did speak this language consisting of silences and images. I wanted to honor this as much as I could in my translation; even the brief lines of dialogue, which might at first come across as throwaway lines, should be impactful, especially when it comes to Giulia and Paolo, who have this unspoken but very intense love for each other. I think Giulia’s description of Paolo’s speech could even describe Romano’s style and methodology in the novel: “Paolo usually didn’t talk much, and his speech was never flashy; but he had many ways of smiling, many subtle shades to his shifting smile.” The words are always spare, never flashy, but there are these strong emotional undertones and subtle messages, these winks and smiles between her and the reader.

SM: The original title of A Silence Shared is “Tetto Murato” which refers to the isolated compound of inter-connected houses where much of the novel’s action unfolds (and which also works as a metaphor as well). How did you decide on A Silence Shared as a title? How do you think it illuminates the dynamics in the novel (including its intense visuality)? And I am curious, what feedback have you received about the title? I personally like it a lot! 

BRM: The title is taken from a line of Cesare Pavese, which Romano used as an epigraph for the novel. But I chose it in part because Romano herself liked the novel’s French title, Le silence partagé, which was taken from the French translation of that same line. So, considering the fact that the original Italian title would not mean much to anglophone readers, it seemed like a good idea to follow this precedent. And I do feel it cuts to the heart of the book, and to the silent affinities it explores. I also see the “silence” shared as the period of time in which the novel is set, namely, the last years of World War II and the Italian Resistance, which Romano depicts as a suspension of everyday life, a period of continual anticipation. The hushed calm that the characters sink into, while they live in hiding at Tetto Murato, seems like it could be interrupted at any moment by this looming “storm,” to use a cliché. I’ve received positive feedback about the English title; I’ll admit that part of me felt very attached to the Italian title (since I felt attached to Romano’s book in general), so it’s been good to receive this kind of feedback, and just about everyone has agreed that the original title wouldn’t have made sense for anglophone readers.

SM: How much research do you do before and during a translation? How did you approach translating Romano and Sapienza? They are both 20th-century writers so their literary and biographical paths could be recovered and retraced. 

BRM: I find it helpful to read as much as I can of an author’s work—it’s useful for developing a complete understanding of an author’s style, but it’s particularly important for a writer like Romano, whose books come together to form a tapestry of her whole life, essentially. I then was able to do more formal research in Milan, looking at the original manuscripts of the book and reading Romano’s written correspondences, including with the real-life Paolo and Ada (who were named Adolfo and Eugenia Ruata) and with contemporaries such as Calvino and Ginzburg; I used much of this research for my introduction to the novel. I also had the chance to visit her house in Milan, thanks to Antonio Ria, who was her partner during the last decade and a half of her life, and who still lives there. Many of her paintings are still hanging on the walls—but it was particularly special to be there, since I’ve read countless scenes set within those very walls.

SM: You have assembled an impressive portfolio of translations, translation awards, grants, and residences. What was your path to literary translation? 

BRM: That is very kind of you to say. I began translating professionally while I was working in the Italian publishing industry. I started by translating book excerpts, which publishers and agencies use to sell translation rights. That kind of work is a good school, in that it can expose you to a lot of different material, different genres and styles. Pitching books and authors and trying to find the right home for them is still a very big part of what I do, so it was also a helpful experience in that regard. For me, actually finding authors I care about enough to translate is just as important as translating itself.

SM: I can’t help asking. You graduated from my alma mater, Brown University. How did your undergraduate education at Brown shape your next steps career-wise and your work as a translator? 

BRM: I decided to start studying Italian right before beginning my first semester at Brown, essentially on a whim, because I was interested in Italian culture and in Italian cinema, especially. I was really lucky that they had such a great Italian department; I then had the chance to study in Bologna for a semester, which was an extremely formative experience. I graduated in Comparative Literature and Italian Studies, but I also learned a great deal from a seminar in translation taught by Forrest Gander and Robyn Creswell, and I still often think about things I learned in that class.

SM: You have reviewed translated literature for Reading in Translation. What is an effective review of a translated work for you? What would you like to see the reviewer say or do in such a review? 

BRM: I think Reading in Translation is really special for the fact that its reviewers have a strong sense of what translation entails. Certainly, a more widespread interest in the actual work of translating is always welcome when we’re talking about reviews. In general, knowing the original text can be really beneficial, but reviewers can use that knowledge in a helpful or totally unhelpful way: for instance, a translation that might appear to be more “accurate” when you analyze it line by line might not always be the most accurate or successful translation over all; a translation of a novel is a translation of the whole novel, which is to say that you are also trying to recreate overall pacing, structure, tone, voice, and so on—in other words, it should read like the original. I suppose I’d like to see more reviews that focus particularly on those questions. If we’re speaking of Reading in Translation specifically, I find the reviewers already tend to share this outlook.

SM: What are you currently working on? What’s next for you as a translator? 

BRM: I’ve just finished working on the edits of Michele Mari’s novel Verdigris, which probably gripped me more than any other contemporary novel when I read it for the first time (and I continued to find it completely entrancing while rereading and translating it). That will be published by And Other Stories in January 2024, while Mari’s short story collection You, Bleeding Childhood will come out first, in July 2023; I’m really looking forward to his books finally becoming available to anglophone readers, and translating him has meant a lot to me. Now I’ll be focusing on Walter Siti’s Paradise Overload (Troppi paradisi in Italian), thanks to an NEA Fellowship. There’s no publisher for that project yet, but the novel is truly a masterpiece, in my opinion. It’s one of those books for which there’s a before and after, in the sense that it really changed the literary landscape in Italy, especially in terms of autofiction, but also for contemporary queer writing and fiction dealing with mass media.

SM: One last question. What advice do you have for emerging translators? 

BRM: I’d definitely suggest applying for translation grants; it’s an obvious suggestion, but I should say that they’ve been incredibly helpful for me and that I always thought my chances were very slim when applying. My biggest piece of advice, though, is to focus on the authors you truly enjoy reading. Even if they’re difficult writers, that enjoyment generally makes the process worth it as a translator. Critical and commercial success does not always “translate”—at the end of the day, when evaluating authors and books, nothing is as objective as your own subjective appreciation of the work.

SM: What great advice! Grazie! 

One comment

  1. Mary Jean Bujdos · · Reply

    This was encouraging for me as a Italian to English literary translator. Our paths are parallel in other ways too. I have always focused on the authors I enjoy reading, and that is good advice! Congratualtions on all of your success!

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