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?
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
[Editor’s note: the book was Boffa’s
You're an Animal, Viskovitz. Boffa is an
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
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?
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?
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,
I suppose it like being,
say, a bassoon player asked to play a piece written
for a flute.
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
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 &
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...
What are you
working on now?
Almost finished the sequel to Spartina.
You won't have to read them in order. The second
one stands on its own.
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?
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...