10 Questions for Oonagh Stranksy
- By Aviva Palencia
Evelina looked for peace and quiet.
To find it, she woke up before everybody else: before her father who had to get to the fields an at early hour, before her mother and grandmother who had chores to do, before her older siblings who went to school, and before the younger ones who slept late.
Sometimes she even woke up before the rooster; she’d sit by the window in her room and look out at Candelara.
—from "Evelina and the Fairies," Volume 63, Issue 2 (Summer 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
My first published translation was Carlo Lucarelli’s noir, Almost Blue, for City Lights, in 2001. The story behind how this project came about is quite charming. A total beginner, I naively decided to translate a novella by Antonio Tabucchi. I didn’t bother inquiring if the English language rights had been bought, but did it purely because I loved the book and wanted to try my hand at translation. By the time I discovered that the rights had been bought—by City Lights—and that they had already assigned the job to a translator, my translation was complete. I decided to send them the manuscript anyway. What was I going to do with it? I like to think they appreciated my dedication (and maybe my skill) and that’s why they asked me to translate the Lucarelli.
It was a joy to see the book come out: William Weaver wrote a super blurb for it, my name was on the cover, it was reviewed by Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times, and I even traveled to San Francisco and was taken to lunch by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. You couldn’t ask for a better initiation into the world of translation. I’m not sure that a young translator today would be so lucky. With all the information out there, they certainly wouldn’t be as naïve as I was!
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Some of the writers whose work I love are Edith Wharton, Melville, Kundera, Auster, Lucia Berlin, Rebecca Solnit, Houellebecq, Munro, and Toni Morrison. But there are so many more…
What other professions have you worked in?
Early on in my professional career, I worked as an administrative assistant at Columbia University’s Italian Academy and later at the Italian Consulate General in New York City. I taught high school English for the New York City Department of Education for five years and was a teacher of English language in Italy for another five years. I worked in marketing and management at two wineries in Montepulciano, and have translated commercial material for agencies, on and off for at least seven years. While it may seem disconnected to some people, there is a pattern behind it all: I love to read and write, and I feel at home in the Italian language. Over the years, whenever possible, I have made every effort to work for American or British publishers on translations of Italian literature.
What did you want to be when you were young?
An actress. I grew up in London and my school had a strong drama program. I think I was in 7th grade when I discovered that I adored being on stage, becoming someone else, forgetting who I was. Back then, in the 80s, we could get last minute tickets to all sorts of plays with our student IDs for only three or four pounds.
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
Some time ago, I read a review of the book by Enrica Maria Ferrara on Stiliana Milikova’s website, Reading in Translation.
I loved Ferrara’s description of the book and her style of writing. I reached out to her and suggested we work on the translation together. She knew the author and was thrilled with the idea. It was a delightful experience.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
London was where I became self-aware and where I felt my first pangs to be a writer; it was my home for five years as a teenager (which was longer than I had lived anywhere else). New York City, meanwhile, was home for 15 years, and it was where I raised my two daughters, worked, and went to graduate school. New York City represents my growth as a writer and individual. But to be entirely honest, the landscape of my desk, the support of my desk chair, the words that unfold before me on the computer screen, and the music of my fingers on the keyboard is the world I love best.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
No, but when music is part of a novel that I am translating, I always spend time listening to it, for context, the way you would want to observe a painting if an artist’s work was being described. I like the background noise outside my window, the sounds of life in an Italian town, with its market day hubbub and hawkers, the way silence falls around lunch time, how people come out again in the afternoon, swallows circling and crying at sunset, diners in the piazza below, the church bells tolling in various ways and times during the day, people chatting on the benches below, their words indistinguishable, a presence, markers of passing time, nothing more.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I edit my work over and over until I feel it is ready to be sent to the editor. I am pretty self-reliant.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Once, when I was having difficulty describing a piece of writing, someone suggested I try and write about it through the lens of a different art: as if it was a movie or a piece of visual art or a sculpture. That doesn’t quite answer your question, but it helps explain the way the mind needs/appreciates different kinds of art to understand the world around us. I feel bound to words. My mother was a painter, my paternal grandmother was a textile designer and weaver, one of my daughters is an art teacher and musician, and the other is a photographer. I like to use colored pencils.
What are you working on currently?
Domenico Starnone’s novel Via Gemito, for Europa Editions, a novel about how we remember unpleasant memories, about being the son of an uncompromising and difficult artist, and about domestic abuse.
OONAGH STRANSKY has been a translator of Italian prose for the past 20 years. Her most recent publication is Montale’s collection of short stories, Butterfly of Dinard, team translated with Marla Moffa and due out in 2023 with NYRB. Oonagh has also translated noirs by Lucarelli and Vichi, non-fiction by Pope Francis and Saviano, and literary autobiographies by Pontiggia and Starnone (excerpt). The decision to team up with Enrica Maria Ferrara to translate Simona Baldelli’s novel was the natural result of reading Ferrara’s review of the work and has been a rewarding experience for both women.
Born in Paris, Oonagh grew up in the Middle East, London, and the United States, and has studied at Mills College, UC Berkeley, Middlebury College, the University of Florence, and Columbia University. A member of PEN American Center and the American Literary Translators Association, she currently lives in Tuscany.