“I’m a Best-Selling Italian Author in America, But it’s Giles They Read in English,” Says Beppe Severgnini

To conclude my round of reviews on literary sessions held at the ATA Conference, here's a delightful take on the dynamics between author and translator

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During the 53rd Annual Conference organized October 24-27, 2012 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Diego, I attended a session entitled Author and Translator: A Success Story. It was coordinated by the Italian Language Division and divided into two one-hour presentations by Italian to English translator Giles Watson and Italian author Beppe Severgnini.

The first part of the presentation was intended to introduce two characters who really need no introduction. Severgnini is the best-selling contemporary Italian author in the United States. Watson is nothing more, nothing less than his voice in English.

They have been working together for over twenty years, when the translator first contacted the author to offer help with his writing. “He wrote me and asked if he could point out a few mistakes I had made,” Severgnini recalls, mentioning his 1990 book Inglesi. “Then he sends me this 5-page letter explaining all the factual errors in my book.”

From this constructive criticism, a dynamic relationship was born. “We are much the same age,” Watson begins to highlight what brought them together. “We both come from middle-class, professional backgrounds and, perhaps most importantly, we both had a classics-oriented secondary education, which gives us a shared love of language.”

They also complement each other due to their differences in personality and behavior, not only because of their culture and heritage―one is Scottish, the other one is Italian―but because of the roles they play as well. 

The translator is quieter, methodical, and chronological. The author is passionate, entertaining, and anecdotal. They said it was the first time they ever got together for such a presentation, but as one of the audience members pointed out, they could easily quit their day jobs and become a stand-up duo, for their timing and interaction were pitch perfect.

Like a couple, they are jokingly bickering one minute, then finishing each other’s sentences moments later. Like brothers, they seem to always have each other’s back. Like best friends, they highlight each other’s qualities. And, as ideal business partners, one picks up where the other one left off.

An Italian in America ― Their first collaboration came in 1992 with L'inglese. Lezioni semiserie―a parody of phrasebooks with actually useful English sentences and expressions for a tourist’s everyday practical use.

Then, after spending a year in the United States as a correspondent for Italian newspaper La Voce, Severgnini decided to turn his American experience into what came to be his 1995 hitUn italiano in America. When the time came to have it translated into English, he decided to contact his new best friend. "Mr. Watson, why don’t we just work together, so you can help me before the first edition comes out?” he proposed.

Severgnini wanted to make the book available in English following a small-scale publishing strategy targeted at expatriates. “We were foolish enough to do something nobody wanted to do,” the author says. But their efforts paid off: An Italian in America, in English, was published in Italy in 2001 and the following year it debuted in the USA under the title Ciao, America! An Italian Discovers the U.S..

"You read the Italian, you read the English, it's all there. You don't miss anything and there are only a few twists," Severgnini complimented his friend Watson. "I was being very indulgent with some of the more florid phrases,” the translator quickly replied. “When an author thinks about his writing, translating it becomes easy. When he doesn’t, it's like cleaning up after a party," Watson returned the compliment.

Success ― Severgnini said that nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the book months after the English version came out in the United States. Since he had been working as the London correspondent for Corriere della Sera for quite some time, he knew several journalists in the United States and invited them all to attend one of his talks in Chicago. 

"I thought they could act as a bridge for the book," he admits. "But the miracle happened in Washington. It was literally a Miracle on 34th Street," he adds. That was when the book got on CNN’s radar, and the rest was history.

Readers liked what they read so much, they started to flock to the author’s former house in the U.S., similarly to what happened in Italy after the release of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Fans wanted to take pictures in front of the property and, sometimes, tried to visit the garden described at length in the book.

"The new owners ended up selling it because of the lack of privacy,” the author pointed out. “I went to see them one time and they said, 'Sorry, we can't readmit you.' I told them, ‘You bought it, but the house will always be mine.’" 

When a younger couple moved in and fell in love with the history behind the location, they promptly welcomed him in. They even posted a sign that read something like ‘Home to An Italian in America: Pictures are free. To visit the garden, bring a bottle of wine.’

Negotiations ― The follow-up work for English-speaking audiences came with La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind (originally La testa degli italiani). The book was released in 2006 in the United States and, the following year, in hit the shelves in the UK. 

This time around, as the writer wrote it, the translator translated it. “The process generated problems of its own,” Watson recalls. “When the publishers received the first draft, they decided a few changes needed to be made.” Luckily he was using a Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) tool, which came in handy to capture exactly what had been altered during multiple edits, thus streamlining the process.

With the first translated book, the contract followed a "take it or leave it" approach, with the scale slightly tilted to the side of the publishers. Watson then joined the Translators Association with The Society of Authors in London to be in a better position to negotiate future contracts. It was only with their third collaboration that the situation improved for the translator.

“I gave them [the publishers] two options: a higher fee per word, or a more reasonable fee plus royalties. They went for the higher fee,” Watson explains. When asked what he thinks about royalty payments, the translator said that speculating about sales is for publishers. “It's not something with which a translator really ought to be involved. You do your job, they pay you, and you walk away. I earn my living by translating and like to be able to plan my income as much as possible."

The translator noted that publishers are resistant to paying royalties on translations. A book can also take months to be translated, so currency fluctuations can have a serious impact on payments. “If possible, make sure the contract is denominated in your currency,” Watson advises. “If not, arrange for payment in installments. Otherwise you may find yourself losing or gaining significant amounts of money. I have already done both.”

Watson had yet another suggestion for his colleagues attending the presentation: "Pay your contributions, pay your taxes, charge more." He went on to explain that in Italy, his country of residence, literary translations are treated as creative writing. Nevertheless, he chooses to invoice all his translations―technical or otherwise―as work for hire with value-added taxes, so as not to have part of his income challenged by tax authorities for being non-VAT and, consequently, contribution-exempt.

Controversy ― On their third and most recent collaboration,Mamma Mia! (originally La pancia degli italiani), there was more potential for controversy. The author says that, predictably, the book didn't sell well in Italy because of the main character: Italian Prime Minister and Media Mogul Silvio Berlusconi. 

“But I wanted to have it translated everywhere. If La Bella Figurawas basic Italian, La pancia was a PhD in Italian life," he compared.

Severgnini confesses that it was hard to write about such a controversial character, who is the embodiment of the best (optimism) and the worst (unreliability) in Italians. “He is Chavez, Putin and Sinatra all together. A stereotype trigger.” 

Nevertheless, his goal was to shed some light on cultural differences between Italy and different parts of the world. “If I make someone laugh, it means I won.”

Translation Dynamics ― The second part of the session was reserved for a more hands-on explanation of how the dynamics work between author and translator. According to them, the perks of collaborating together for several years include understanding how the author uses his native language. 

A few slides showed side-by-side paragraphs from the books Watson and Severgnini worked on together, highlighting the word count and keystrokes of each version. Whenever the English translation ended up being longer than the original, Watson confessed to being self-indulgent.

Watson also explained that literary translators have to find a balance between the knowledge of grammar structures and how to take a more conversational approach. This is especially true when translating the work of authors such as Severgnini, whose use of language gets close to screenwriting and chronicles of daily life events.

“If you're on the same wavelength as the writer, your first draft is already good,” Watson explained. “The second and third drafts are for you to shorten it and hear the language in your head. The words have to come easily. You can't just sit there and wait.”

“That’s British understatement. You're in America, you can boast!” Severgnini jokes. “He is really fast and we're used to each other. It is like two cars that leave together from the same starting point, take different paths, but arrive at the same place,” the author said, complimenting the translator once again.