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10 Questions for Gregory Conti

“As she opens her front door, dressed perfectly with just a hint of retro, you see the blue flame of the samovar grumbling behind her down at the end of the hall. The tea, the smoked herring, the small talk meted out with the stately pace of a fairytale, create just the right atmosphere for talking about any theme you like.” –from Like Horses Asleep on Their Feet" by Paolo Rumiz, translated by Gregory Conti, Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
My first two published translations were both histories concerned with Italy’s role in the holocaust. Enrico Deaglio’s The Banality of Goodness tells the story of the rescue of several thousand Hungarian Jews by the Italian fascist Giorgio Perlasca. For a period of a month or so between December 1944 and January 1945, Perlasca passed himself off as the Spanish ambassador to Budapest and directed Spain’s safe houses after the real ambassador had fled to escape the advancing Red Army.

That was followed in 2000 by Rosetta Loy’s memoir, First Words, whose Italian title The Word Jew might have helped the English version sell better. Loy recounts her childhood friendships and acquaintances with Italian Jews in Rome and her family’s (and Pius XII’s) failure to intervene on behalf of their fellow Romans who were deported to Auschwitz in 1943.  

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
That’s hard for me to say. I like to think I’ve been influenced in my own writing by good essayists like Clifford Geertz, Edmund Morgan, Paul Krugman, and many others who engage their readers with what David Foster Wallace defined as a “democratic spirit.”

What other professions have you worked in?
I worked in legal aid as a law student for three years and a lawyer for five from 1977 to 1985. Since 1994 I’ve been teaching English, first to Italian military police and army officers and then, for the last twenty-one years to (mostly) Italian university students in Perugia. In between, I ran a small business with an Italian partner, organizing publicly funded educational and art exhibits in central Italy. Finally, for the last couple of years I’ve been working part-time coordinating international programs for an Academy of Fine Arts in Siracusa, Sicily.

What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was young I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to be as an adult. Back then, what I wanted to be was a kid who enjoyed life in a big family, played sports, mostly informally with friends in the park, listened to and sang along with the great music that was the sound track to my 60s adolescence, was liked and respected by fellow students and teachers. On the whole, I did pretty well at being what I wanted to be but it took me too long to grow up.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
A few things. The immediate motivation was the request of Jim Hicks that I translate something from the Rumiz book because he had enjoyed hearing Rumiz do a reading of the original. But I also had my own interest in the book because I had already published a translation of another Rumiz book – The Fault Line and, my favorite of my translations, A Soldier on the Southern Front by Emilio Lussu, one of the most outstanding WWI memoirs.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
The music of American English. The Italian singer/songwriter Paolo Conte was once asked what he liked best about American culture. His answer: the musicality of the language. Coming from an Italian I found that very impressive and I also find that I agree with him.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I talk to myself a lot before and during the writing process. I haven’t thought much about that but I think that writing (and reading) for me are mostly a kind of composed speaking, the attempt to create or recreate a voice that is engaging, authentic, and persuasive.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
A few good friends who I can count on to be sympathetic readers and gentle critics with good judgment.

What are you working on currently?
Two translations: an essay on Machiavelli and a book on obsessive-compulsive disorder by a group of Italian cognitive-constructivist psychotherapists.

What are you reading right now?
Most recently re-reading The American Adam by R.W.B. Lewis and Billy Budd. And some nice essays on the history of English and usage by John McWhorter, David Foster Wallace, Steven Pinker and Robert MacNeil.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, GREGORY CONTI has lived in Perugia since 1985, where he teaches English at the city’s public university. In addition to Paolo Rumiz, he has translated work by Rosetta Loy, Emilio Lussu, Sebastiano Vassalli, and Giuseppe Berto.


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