10 Questions for Frederika Randall

Amal Zaman

“He’s a sage, a musical holy man, the friend who consoles us when love falters or when we take the wrong path. He’s got a movement behind him, but he’s miles from any phony ideology. He’s simple, transparent, honest, a rebel…”

--from Caetano Veloso, Walking into the Wind, nonfiction by Igiaba Scego, translated by Frederika Randall which appears in the Winter 2016 issue (Volume 57, Issue 4).

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated

Well, during my first 15 or so years in Italy I worked as a journalist reporting on books, films, the arts, music, archaeology and popular culture. My first translations were no more than quotations from Italian texts and interviews, titles, concepts and so forth that went into the English language articles I was writing. I felt it was important to do justice to the Italian experience I was recording, to reproduce not only what was said but how people reasoned and thought, what was unsaid, in a sense. A knowledge of the society and the history, of the Italians in all their regional variety, is just as important for a translator as a knowledge of the language and literature, in my view. Otherwise you are just translating words, or style, without necessarily being able to convey what those words or that style mean to a native.

So really, I began translating by just trying to get those little bits right, and then, when my reporter’s life was interrupted by a partially disabling accident in 2002, I began translating in earnest.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?

A translator tries to recreate the style of whatever original text she’s working with, and sometimes other writers can be helpful in devising a style in English. When I translated the 19th century novel Confessions of an Italian by Ippolito Nievo, for example, I looked at other 19th century novels from War and Peace to A Tale of Two Cities and The Charterhouse of Parma, but in the end what most helped me find an approach was the 21st century historical novel Wolf Hall, for which Hilary Mantel devised a language and a style both contemporary and convincingly Tudor.

What other professions have you worked in?

Waitress, urban planner (briefly) and journalist, as I said.

What did you want to be when you were young?

A dancer, if I remember right, although I utterly lacked the physique du role.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?

Igiaba Scego is one of Italy’s most spirited and interesting young writers and she has drawn on her Somali-Italian experience to raise awareness of Italian colonialism and to open perspectives on racism that were badly lacking in Italian life and literature. Pair her with the sublime Caetano Veloso, and the combination was irresistible. I liked the way she found points of contact between her family from the Horn of Africa and his, from the ethnic brew of Bahia. I liked the heat, the love, she puts into her appreciation of his music.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?

Two cities, quite un-alike: the smoky, vital industrial Pittsburgh of my childhood and the decayed, cynical and anarchic Rome of my present.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?

My resident historian and native Italian speaker, also my life companion, Vittorio.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?

Painting. That is, if I had any talent for the visual arts--which I don’t. However, I’d want to be a painter of the past, up to the early 20th century, when there was still much to be invented.

What are you working on currently?

A translation of Guido Morselli’s The Communist, to be published in 2017, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution.  Communism—including the Italian variety--was hugely important in the 20th century, when as many as a third of Italian voters put their X on the symbol of the PCI, the Communist Party. It’s not something that we American Italophiles know much about, and perhaps we ought to. This visionary and moving novel, which tells the story of an earnest Italian believer in the Soviet dream who is losing his faith, takes place in the late 1950s, after Stalin’s crimes had been acknowledged at the XX Party Congress. What makes The Communist so special is the uncanny way Morselli combines a painstakingly realist depiction of the Italian political environment with the subtly apocalyptic mindset of the main character, a lonely autodidact organizer who has risen to parliament in Rome.

            Guido Morselli (1912-1973) wrote eight novels, none of them published in his lifetime. In an era of realism and neorealism, his brilliant, surreal counterfactual novels went unrecognized. The year after his death, a suicide, the novels began to come out to great acclaim from the respected literary publisher Adelphi.

What are you reading right now?

Among Italian novels published this year, I just finished Melania Mazzucco’s fine Io sono con te: Storia di Brigitte, and I loved Giacomo Sartori’s Sono Dio. As for the classics, I recently reread Federico De Roberto’s novel I Viceré (The Viceroys), an unforgettable portrait of the worst of the Sicilian aristocracy before Italian unity.

In English, I’ve just read (not for the first time) the incomparable Moby Dick. Ed Yong’s nicely written I Contain Multitudes about the multiple DNA chains that make up every living thing is the most thought-provoking piece of non-fiction I’ve read this year. Species, Yong explains, are not individuals; every organism exists only in a thick net of relationships and genetic interplay with other species. I just finished Paul Beatty's wonderful The Sellout and I’m about to begin Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Next up: Svetlana Alexievich, Second-hand Time.

Frederika Randall worked as a cultural journalist for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Nation and the Italian weekly Internazionale, among others. Her translations include novels by Luigi Meneghello, Ottavio Cappellani, Helena Janeczek, and Sergio Luzzatto’s The Body of Il Duce and Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, for which she and the author shared the Cundill Prize for History. Her awards include a PEN (Heim) Translation Fund award and a Bogliasco Fellowship.