In conversation with... Lucy Rand

Hi Lucy! Thank you for joining me today. I have recently read The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, which you have translated from Italian into English, and I’d like to ask you a few questions both on this specific book and more generally on translation. So let’s begin…

How did you get started in literary translation?

A: I studied Italian and Spanish at university, and there was always a translation element, and I always found it really fun, but we had a career talk from a translator who said (to my memory, at least!) that you can either translate manuals for washing machines and make a living, or you can translate books or subtitles or comics and not make a living. And that either option involved having no company, lots of time on the computer, and maybe some cats.

I already knew that I wanted to make a living, I quite liked having some company, and I wasn’t a huge fan of computers or cats… so I wrote it off immediately. Fast forward four years and I’d moved to a small town in rural Japan, was spending a lot of time without company, even more time with the computer, still no cats but that didn’t turn out to be an issue, and had fallen into proofreading translations of pharmaceutical trial paperwork. This gradually turned into translating those texts, and I made, as promised, a living from that for a while. But then I got bored and thought I’d try translating books. The translator at the career talk was 100% right that there’s no money in it… at least not for some time… but I was lucky because I had time, extremely cheap rent (cockroaches included), and not a huge amount to do with my mornings.

I started by reading a few Italian books and translating bits I liked here and there, and decided to enter the Asymptote emerging translator contest, to give myself a goal. I emailed the rights manager at a big Italian publishing house to ask for permission to submit an extract from one of their books. She (LeeAnn Bortolussi) was amazing as my first contact in the publishing world - she read my translation and gave me so much confidence and support, and even commissioned me to do some sample work. One thing really led to another from there, but getting enough work to translate full time is still a long way off...

Without giving too much away, can you please describe a scene from this book that you loved translating or that was particularly difficult to render in English?

A: To answer the second part of your question, the most difficult part might have been the bit where Yui is sleeping in the primary school gymnasium after the tsunami. Not because the prose or grammar was especially difficult, but I found myself feeling really anxious about accuracy, getting the details right. As with any language, there are often multiple possible translations for a word, and you make that decision based on context, sound, common sense, instinct... But when it came to the facts of what it was like in that gymnasium, I was second-guessing myself a lot about what English word would best describe the facts. Like the mats Yui and the other evacuees were sleeping on… in Italian it was ‘telo’, which can mean cloth, or towel, or canvas, or sheet… but what actually is it people sleep on in Japan when they’re evacuated into school gymnasiums? Is there a standard that the government supplies? If so, is it a blue tarpaulin sheet, or a canvas, or something more like a yoga mat? That’s where it was really useful to be living in Japan, because it was much easier to find these things out. The principal of the school where my husband worked gave me an amazing pamphlet of photos of the aftermath of the tsunami, which had the answers to questions like that. And I’d ask the students in my English class for the Japanese word for certain architectural features that were described in the book, and then see how they were usually translated into English direct from the Japanese. So all very fun and interesting challenges!

Stylistically, this book is very poetic and moves away from the heavy and convoluted sentences that the Italian language is best known for. How do you think that your translation is perceived by English readers?

A: Part of translating from Italian, sometimes, is cutting some of the long sentences, and this is something we spend a lot of time thinking about as translators! 

But you’re right, Laura Imai Messina’s writing is much lighter and simpler than some other Italian authors, and I’d heard a few people say that it read a bit like a translation from Japanese. I wonder if that’s because she’s so immersed in Japanese culture and writing and I know she’s spent some time studying Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko (who is becoming quite well known here now, as it happens).

I guess there was some part of my brain that wanted to try to mimic that feeling… I did read a lot of Japanese books while I was translating it… but I don’t know how it’s perceived by English readers. The reviewers have generally been really positive about the poeticism of the prose and how easy it is to read, which I hope means I’ve maintained some of the lightness!

Did you have any contact with the author? In general, do you find that having access to the author impacts on the translating process?

A: Yes! She was very available to answer my questions and very keen to hear about my solutions. Having access to the author, in general, is really useful because you can ask them what exactly they meant by something, what they were imagining when they described something, whether they’re happy with some of your more creative translations. But it can also be a really tricky balancing act, as authors tend to be quite protective of their original work, and it isn’t always easy to explain why something just doesn’t work in English! Laura was great to work with and really enthusiastic and supportive (she’s being translated into 15 or so languages, though, so I wonder if she’ll be as engaged with all the translators!), and it was fun having someone on the same time zone as me, so not ALL my emails were answered in the middle of the night!

What are you working on at the moment?

A: I’m currently working on pitches for two co-translations. One is an amazing collection of quite literary short stories by the Swiss author Anna Ruchat, which I’m translating with Eleanor Chapman, and the other is Francesca Melandri’s ‘Più alto del mare’, which is set on an otherwise uninhabited island off Sardinia that housed a maximum security prison in the 1970s. It’s a love story between two visitors, with lots of bottled up emotions and trauma… and there’s an amazing emotional climax involving a wild boar! I’m translating that with Clarissa Botsford.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: ‘The Ballad of Syd & Morgan’ by Haydn Middleton, published by a small press called Propolis, based in my new local bookshop, the Book Hive in Norwich! And (two books at once, I’m afraid), Fate by Jorge Consiglio, translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch.

Is there one genre that you prefer translating? Does this reflect your preference as a reader?

A: I’m definitely still tasting, and don’t have enough experience to make that call. Although I have almost exclusively translated women so far… which is interesting…

Many thanks for your time!


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