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Simon Knight on Translating

Posted by Sarah, 16th May 2012

Simon Knight
Simon Knight

We have just received boxes of our latest title, Days Full of Caves & Tigers, by Fabio Pusterla, translated by Simon Knight.

It is a selection drawn from six collections which span Pusterla's poetic career from 1985 to 2011. As such it's diverse and wide ranging... To send it off into the world, I spoke to translator Simon Knight on his part in its creation.

SH: From your preface it sounds like you and Fabio Pusterla worked together on the English translations, how did this process work?

SK: Yes, I met Fabio several times over the years the anthology was in preparation and he was always willing to answer my questions by e-mail. He is a translator himself (French to Italian) and so was well aware of the problems involved. He gave me detailed explanations of what he had in mind when writing a particular poem and this was very useful in the case of his more hermetic compositions. Though modest about his own grasp of English, he was also able to spot errors of understanding in the drafts I asked him to read. At the same time, he did not try to impose his views. It has been a close and very satisfying relationship.

SH: You also say you're almost addicted to the task of translating. What is it about it that is so compelling?

SK: Translation is an exercise I first enjoyed as a schoolboy, though it did not occur to me until much later that it might be a way of earning a living! It involves understanding and extracting as much meaning as possible from the original text and conveying as much of that meaning as possible in the best available form of words in English. In so doing, I am enabling communication between people who would not otherwise be able to understand each other. Achieving this is a great challenge, involving intelligence and sensitivity, whether I am translating poetry or a corporate powerpoint presentation.

SH: I'm interested in your differentiation in Fabio's work as being 'Alpine' rather than 'Swiss'. Can you expand on this?

SK: I'm not sure I should have made this comment! Fabio hates being labelled. Ticino, Italian-speaking Switzerland, south of the Alps, does not have a strong cultural identity of its own. It is, of course, a Swiss canton, but the ticinesi do not feel much affinity with their German-speaking compatriots and tend to look towards Lombardy. Fabio is, in this sense, not particularly 'Swiss'. However, going back a couple of generations, the people of this region wrested their living from the Alpine valleys, often living in poverty, often having to emigrate. I think this is true of many Alpine populations and, in Fabio's work, I detect something of this struggle with a harsh environment, a certain austerity and even stoicism. However, I would not wish to exaggerate this. As a poet, Fabio is very much a citizen of the world.

SH: Alan Brownjohn, in his foreword to the book, talks of the added value of the bi-lingual texts for the adventuresome reader. As translator, how do you think they serve the reader?

SK: I think I have already answered this question about the role of the translator, in the case of readers who are unable to read the foreign language. For those who do know the foreign language, at least to some extent, comparing the 'same' text in two different languages is a fascinating exercise. For instance, I am able to read the Bible in English, French, Italian, German and Malagasy. This adds an extra dimension and often makes you aware of things you had not spotted or given due weight to in your own language.

SH: What, do you consider, is the trickiest element of translating poetry in comparison to non-literary translation?

SK: Conveying meaning, layers of meaning in the case of poetry, is only part of the challenge. Conveying the poet's 'voice' is more difficult. Translating poetry is also a creative act into which you put something of yourself. All in all, it is a complex form of alchemy which does not bear too close analysis! Maybe that is why it has taken me ten years to read, mark and inwardly digest Fabio's poems and 'cook up' my English version of Days Full of Caves and Tigers.