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A conversation with translator Annalisa Maurantonio (2010)

By Pål H. Christiansen

Annalisa Maurantonio is a freelance translator – doing it for her own sake and not on commitment. She chooses books she would like to translate or would like to see translated into Italian. That’s how she started translating my novel “Drømmer om storhet” (Sogni di Grandezza, Hic Sunt Leones Press 2010). She claims she knew some of my works before I sent her a request to be friends on Myspace some years ago, because of her university studies in Norwegian literature and her personal curiosity to go deeper into her interests in literature and music. She has studied Scandinavian literature, has been a teacher for Norwegian and also worked with an Italian publisher where she published the translation of “Poetenes Evangelium”, the anthology by Håvard Rem.

P: Annalisa, I have just got some copies of your Italian translation of my novel Drømmer om storhet in my mail. It looks great! Although I must admit that my Italian isn’t good enough to read it. When did your interest for the Norwegian language begin?

A: Well, it all began when I was 4, maybe 5 years old, with a comic strip by Marvel editions: “Thor against Hercules” which was not philologically correct, but I didn’t know at that time. I was just impressed by that blond, statuary figure fighting against a more Mediterranean mythological hero. I was completely caught by something so different from my own origins and was fascinated by the colours. Then another cartoon came into my imaginary world: “Take on me” video of A-ha and it was just love…and you know, children’s passions usually are destined to last longer. It was a natural consequence, just natural for me to develop an increasing interest for anything comprised between Germany and Great Britain, G.B. and Scandinavia.

P: How did you develop your skills?

A: If I look back, after all, I do realize that all my studies – from primary school on – were addressed to the study of foreign languages. I started to speak English when I was 6 and when I was 12 I could speak basic French and German by studying by my own, until I could begin studying regularly foreign languages at the gymnasium. There are people who have a talent for music, and people – like me – who have a talent for languages. At university, it was absolutely natural for me to choose a Fac that deepened the knowledge of Nordic languages and Norwegian, in particular, because of Thor and a-ha, an uninterrupted interest and motivation.

P: Learning languages is one thing, the art of translating another. What made you interested in translating from Norwegian in the first place?

A: Since there is little Norwegian literature translated into Italian, at the University we – students – used to translate by ourselves everything: from grammar texts to Snorri’s Edda. I still remember the first time I read the Italian translation of Hamsun’s novel “Sult”: I was so critical and I had so much….”hybris”, arrogance you know, towards the Italian translator, because I was totally and genuinely disappointed and disagreed the Italian version, because I read and knew how the original Norwegian text was. I found that the Italian one had completely missed the point, the magic, the intensity of Hamsun. Well, I promised myself that If I ever should translate a novel I would never try to change or “violate” the mood, the technique and the feelings of the author. If I was a writer, myself, I wouldn’t like to see my work misinterpreted… translated yes, but not misread…. But then I learned, also, that there are rules and techniques of translation, but again… these rules doesn’t comprehend “misreading”.

P: Speaking of Hamsun: I’m a great fan of Hamsun’s early novels like Sult and Mysteries, but first long after writing Drømmer om storhet I realized that it was a sort of modern version of Sult. Do you agree about that?

A: I should re-read “Sult”… ahah, just kidding… I probably didn’t quote “Sult” by chance. Well, somehow yes and I refer to the hysterical, visionary aspects of both characters, the creativity and the imaginary world, but there is something in Hobo, for example, that impedes the reader to take him “seriously”: the more Hobo considers himself seriously, the more the reader just laughs bitterly of his neurosis while Sult’s character is dramatically serious and the reader can’t but observe his mental journey. They wake up two different kinds of empathy.
But I can say one thing: when someone begins to talk or write about a fictional character as if it was a real being to put under the lens of analysis and be considered as a phenomenon to study then, let me say, that the writer is a successful one. With authors like Hamsun, Ibsen, Bjørnson, Hoel, Jacobsen on your back it’s almost inevitably to be positively influenced.

P: Several writers are mentioned in Drømmer om storhet. One is the poet Håvard Rem, You have been interested in Rem and his work for quite a while, haven’t you?

A: It’s always university’s fault and, by the side, a-ha. It was the last year and we were studying the contemporary literature. I was already thinking to the discussion of my final exam – which was about Jostein Gaarder’s “Sofies verden”. The last year of university I – so as other students who were finishing their studies – helped the professor in preparing some lessons. It was a period in which we all were really interested in learning more about the contemporary and living writers also because – after the University – most of us were oriented to work as translators. Ibsen and Hamsun were already translated, somehow, so we were eager to learn more. I remember that Erik Fosnes Hansen was host during a seminar. Anyway, we were looking also for poets, not only novelists, and one of us students came with the proposal to study Håvard Rem (and later she discussed her final exam on his works). The first diktsamling we read was “Bak dør på gløtt” and for me it was love at first reading. I was totally impressed by the ability of writing meaningful poetry and sonnets with technique and, at the same time, keeping the focus on contemporary life. At that time, the academic world was still skeptic towards young authors that was popular or that blurred their writing with the song-writing. Songs were simply not poems. So it was with a certain pride that the girl who proposed Håvard Rem confessed to us, her colleagues, that Rem was the author of some songs by Morten Harket, the singer of a-ha.

P: What did you know about Morten Harket and his connection with Rem and other poets at this time?

A: I didn’t know Morten had gone through a solo career. I believed a-ha was in a pause of reflection – as it was indeed. At that point, it was like a dream coming true: I was literally taken by Håvard’s poetry and to know that his poetry fused with music, and not with any musician, but with Morten Harket, simply was an electric kick. It was natural, again, to learn more both about Håvard Rem and Morten Harket. The amusing thing is that – while doing my research about Sofies verden – I happened to learn that beside the movie, there was also a musical inspired to the novel of Gaarder and in that musical Morten Harket played Socrates, one of my favorite philosophers.

P: As far as I know, Håvard Rem was the first Norwegian writer/poet you translated to Italian. How did this happen?

A: After the university I tried to come in touch firstly with Jostein Gaarder, with the hope to become his official Italian translator, but that “place” was already taken, so I said to myself that I could try with an author who wasn’t translated at all in Italy and to begin with someone I also liked a lot and had pleasure to translate. Among Rem’s works “Poetenes Evangelium” fitted all my purposes: it was an anthology of many different Norwegian writers and poets about Jesus life (Italy = Catholicism), it was an idea of Håvard Rem, and the anthology was correlated with the record of Morten Harket. With one work, I believed, I could have introduced into the Italian literary market a chariots of new stuff. Then things went a little different, but the basic idea was good. There was a period in which the Italian publisher was interested in the CD and an Italian version of the CD, too. I recall that period as a really exciting one, I was an enthusiastic young lady, maybe a bit unconscious, unaware of Håvard and Morten status and it was a luck for me: their fame meant nothing to me, because I was totally dedicated to my mission: bring into Italy a new generation of authors. But I had to consider fame, because it took me a lot of time to pass through all the barricades of managers, assistants, editors, secretaries and so on, and you know, when things go slow it’s always difficult to keep the attention of the publisher or of anyone on your project. Just consider this: I began in 1999 – and the most of the translation was already done – and Poetenes Evangelium was published in Italy 2002. Almost 3 years. Three infinite years which positive side was my friendship with Håvard: in order to keep also his attention high I constantly wrote to him and had long “conversations” at distance. It was great, because it gave us really the chance to know each other better and trust each other. We are still friends and think… in his last successful work “Innfødte skrik”, I’m quoted – well, it’s more than a quotation – in one of the chapters.

P: You have recently self-published your translation of Gert Nygårdshaugs “Afrodites basseng” from 2003 (Il bacino di Afrodite) with your Hic Sunt Leones Press. Why Nygårdshaug?

A: Dan Brown, Ken Follett, Mankell, Rowling, Tolkien… for a period in Italy, there was almost an “obsession” towards two literary genres: thriller – psychological or not – and fantasy. In truth, there was no real demand, but it was simply an editorial strategy to create a demand and then respond with an offer, of course. I’m not particularly fond in that kind of literary genres, masters of the genre for me are Sir Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. But I tried again to find my way and put myself in search for the Norwegian Mankell. Although I can many different languages, my mission is still and always addressed towards the Norwegian literature. In that same period, in Norway, Gert Nygårdshaug was a best-seller, and one of his novels was said to become a movie, Mengele Zoo (and unfortunately it’s still just an idea), and one of the most enthusiastic promoters of Nygårdshaug’s novel was – guess who? – Morten Harket. As I then said to Gert, the Norwegian cultural environment is maybe little, but prestigious. But the first novel I bought was Afrodites Basseng. Afterwards I completed the collection and now on my desk there is “Mengele Zoo”. I have also the collection of the detective Fredric Drum. I believe Gert has the ability to mix in a proper way different ingredients: thrilling, history, religion, love affairs all at once. Stratified novels or Chinese-box-novels, as I call them.

P: Why did you choose to start publishing translations yourself?

A: I’ve been in touch with an Italian publisher – a big one – for more than two years about Afrodites Basseng. They were positive, but never found the moment to publish it, there were always other priorities or the portfolio was full. They knew about the possibility to receive a monetary help by the Norwegian foundation Norla, but it was probably not enough… Although their promise, I looked for other publishers specialized in Scandinavian literature that already had published through Norla. I’m still waiting. This company – the only one in Italy – is very little, a niche, and requests from Scandinavian translators – free-lance like me and/or within the publishing company – are many, too many. I understand it’s not easy to dwell with everything. Other editors simply are skeptics. The Norwegian moment that followed Gaarder and Fosnes Hansen’s success also in Italy has declined in a season. On the wave of Nobel prize winner Llosa, bookstores are now full of south-American writers, some of doubtful quality. And yet there are South-American novelists who deserve more attention. With this question you touched a very sensitive point of the matter. I can’t simply stand – no more – this way to treat literature as any other market product. Literature, music, figurative art are also “products”, but not only, not simply that. You have to apply a different marketing strategy. If you don’t promote the quality, especially, in the cultural world, but you just go on promoting a “format”, a standard, then you are consciously driving people towards the poorness and emptiness of values. I call it “agony of the intellect”. No surprise then if TV is full of vain talent-shows without talents, and – as you let Hobo say – bookstores are full of cooking books with recipes of the last hour. Well, it’s a more complicated issue that can’t be said in few words and implies many matters. I just try to simplify this way: There is no worst slavery than the “non-choice”.
While waiting for a change, I decided to do it myself. At the moment, Hic sunt Leones Press is simply a logo, there is no business behind. But it aspires to become something bigger and not only for Norwegian literature, at this point.

P: I’m a little curious about the name, Hic Sunt Leones Press. Can you please explain?

A: Hic Sunt Leones is a geographical identification that from Roman period until the middle ages was used on maps to identify dangerous places, a way to advice: beware! In that land there are lions and other wild beasts. Take care. Later it became synonymous of “respectful, honorable”, a place you have to approach to with discretion, care, but first of all genuine interest and honesty, otherwise …you’d better run away. For me, now, it means a place of protection and a protected place, under all the points of view, metaphorical and not.

P: So what kind of translations are you working on at the moment? Can we expect more Norwegian books with that logo in the year to come?

A: Absolutely yes. I mean to complete Nygårdshaug’s trilogy with Mengele Zoo and Prest Gotvins geometri and then surely some poetry – Håvard Rem, on the front row. I would like to translate your own romantic novel Humle & Honning, too. And at the same time, I need to know other writers and poets. Any suggestion?

Oslo/Rome – December 2010

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