Postcard fiction and style in translation

For my blog on what’s being published about Italy and what Italians are writing, go to its new home at www.literarylifeinitaly.co.

Read on if you want to know more about the mechanics of translation, or if you just fancy a laugh out loud at some funny postcard fiction translated from Italian into English.

Asymptote and First Steps in Literary Translation

I was looking through some translation notes I’d made during a webinar on translating a writer’s voice with Lisa Carter last year, then some examples we worked on later at Lisa’s First Steps in Literary Translation course. Lisa had asked us to find something in our source language in the Asymptote literary translation journal archives, and to think about literary style in translation.

Postcard Fiction

I chose Cartoline Dai Morti by Franco Arminio, translated into the English by Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan as Postcards from the Dead. It appealed to me immediately because Arminio writes short snippets that he imagines would be on the postcards of people writing from beyond the grave: the kind of short, snappy pearls of wisdom that I love to read.

Source: www.asymptotejournal.com

Source: www.asymptotejournal.com

Anyone who can say so much, so well, and in so few words is my hero.

Anyone who knows me will probably understand why! (brevity is not one of my talents!)

Sliding doors… get the coffee before it’s too late

IT: Sono caduto dall’impalcatura. Avevo sonno la mattina. Mi era finito il caffè. Faranno processi, assolveranno o incolperanno, io sono convinto che se il barattolo del caffè fosse stato pieno, oggi sarei ancora vivo.

EN: I fell from the scaffolding. I was sleepy that morning. At home, I had run out of coffee. There will be a trial, somebody will be found guilty or found innocent, but I am convinced that I’d still be alive today if there had been some coffee left in that jar. 

This was one of my favourite postcards. As in all the others, I think the translators really captured that “sliding door” feeling that our lives could so easily go one way or the other. They get the black humour across and certainly managed to get a LOL from me. My only issue was with the “convinced“,  one of my pet hates in Italian to English. Could it be a bit of a loan translation. Or is that just me?

The style’s in the sentence

In this kind of super-short fiction, it’s important to keep the exact same sentence length and syntax as the source in order to recreate the rhythm and flow. In this case, the translators have reproduced the author’s short and punchy sentences which are cropped for effect to add weight to the contrast of serious to trivial, and to create the overall comic effect. This is one of the main features that appealed to me on reading the postcards, and is also one of the key points of style to be considered when crafting a translation.

Here’s another good example:

Io ero un tipo allegro. Poi ho perso un figlio e mi sono caduti i denti. Vi risparmio il resto della storia.

I was a cheerful kind of guy. Then I lost a son and all my teeth fell out. I’ll spare you the rest of the story.

Short, sharp and to the point. And hilariously funny.

But don’t forget the register

In order to pack so much into such a short space, the mechanics of the writing become even more important. We saw this in the syntax and sentence length discussed above, and further examples can be found in the conventions of grammar and usage.

Take the vocabulary choices for example.

The use of the word “guy” maintains the register of the Italian, where the author uses “un tipo” (a type – colloquial) and not “ragazzo” (young boy) or “uomo” (man).  This might seem a bit banal as vocabularly choices go, but it was a lesson I learned in one of those awful red pen moments (aahh!) during a “Diploma in Translation” preparatory course I took many, many moons ago (too many!)

Word games

In some of the other postcards, I found a few cases I might have translated differently. But then again, that’s just the way translation is. Give any two translators the same text, and they’ll always come up with a different way of translating it.


Io stavo a Zurigo. Sul manifesto hanno scritto che sono salita alla casa del padre. La verità è che mi sono buttata dal quinto piano.

I lived in Zurich. On the memorial poster they wrote, “She ascended to the House of the Father.” The truth is, I dove from the fifth floor.

For me, “dove” might not be the best choice for the context. “Buttato” in Italian creates the mental image of someone “throwing/chucking themselves” off a high building. Yes, just like someone who thinks life isn’t worth living anymore.  “Diving” to their death, on the other hand, adds a new dimension of elegance and ambiguity to the action, which may not have been the author’s intention.  That said, context is everything,  I translate into UK English and have my own experience with the word dive. (I wouldn’t say I was elegant on the diving board, but I certainly wouldn’t be trying to land feet first and cause myself permanent damage!)

diving 2

In the same postcard, the humour in the going “up” to heaven followed by the jumping “down” from the fifth floor may not have jumped out as quickly in the translated ascended / dive. But then again, that’s just my opinion.

Cultural references

Cultural flavour.

When to, where to and how to translate it.

Death notices

With my translator’s hat on, lots of things jumped out at me as needing a cultural equivalent in the translation of the postcards. With so few words in such super-short fiction, each one must bring something vital to the sentence. In the jumping from the 5th floor example above, I wasn’t sure if “memorial posters” would be understood outside of Italy where, when someone dies, a poster immediately goes up announcing the death and funeral details. This didn’t happen where I grew up in Scotland, we only had the newspaper obituaries, so to fully comprehend “memorial posters” I had to draw on my knowledge of the source context. In an attempt to bridge this cultural divide, the translator has tried to add a cultural pointer by tagging the describer “memorial” to the noun “posters” (manifesto) but my doubt remains.

When is a stocking not a stocking?

The last point I discussed with Lisa and my fellow translators on the First Steps course forum was the reference to the stocking in this postcard:

A un certo punto ho pensato che potevo diventare un uomo importante. Sentivo che la morte mi dava tempo. E allora infilai la testa nel mondo come un bambino che infila le mani nella calza della befana. Poi è arrivato il mio giorno. Svegliati, disse mia moglie. Svegliati, continuava a ripetere.

At some point I thought I could become an important man. I felt like death was granting me a reprieve. And then I stuck my head in the world the way a child sticks his hand in a Christmas stocking. Then my day came. Wake up, said my wife. Wake up, she said, over and over.

Italian speakers will probably have noticed the difference in the stockings from source to target.  In the Italian, the author was referring to a character from Italian folklore – the Befana – who fills up children’s stockings on Epiphany eve (5th January). If children have been good, they get gifts and sweets in their stockings, while the naughty ones get a piece of coal. In the English, the stocking is the same, the presents may also be, but the celebration is different. We now have a Christmas stocking, hung up on 24th December, and filled by a jolly bearded man in a red suit, as opposed to an ugly old lady on a broom.


This may be a necessary loss (or gain, depending on your point of view).  Readers not familiar with Italian might have been confused (shocked?) had the translator tried something like: “the way a child sticks his hand in the ugly old lady’s stocking“!!!

And on that jolly note, I shall say farewell until my next installment on translation style … or whatever other translatory type things that spring to mind.

For my blog on what’s being published about Italy and what Italians are writing, go to its new home at www.literarylifeinitaly.co.

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