10 Questions for Sandra Waters
- By Franchesca Viaud
Much of what was happening around the world remained unknown to most people. The vast majority didn't know anything about it or couldn't decode the signs of this revolution. In the big cites, the fuses had been lit, and we could smell the sparks coming from Vietnam, the Prague Spring, Bolivia, Chicago, and Woodstock. I sensed it, but nothing and no one had clearly communicated these things to me. You could feel it in the air, but there was no verbal confirmation.
—from "Coming Out," Volume 64, Issue 4 (Winter 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
About twenty-five years ago I started translating Laura Mancinelli’s I dodici abati di Challant (1981), an Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. I knew nothing about the art of translation but was utterly charmed and inspired by this book, which was published just after Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and was overshadowed by the latter’s commercial success. I thought it deserved a wider audience than it received, so every few nights after translating a chapter, I would send it to a friend as though it were a serialized publication. I don’t think he ever forgave me for not finishing the translation of the entire book. Eventually, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Italian historical novel, focusing on the figure of the intradiegetic narrator—an intriguing characteristic of the genre—from Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, to Anna Banti’s Artemisia, to Maria Rosa Cutrufelli’s The Woman Brigand, to Luther Blissett’s Q.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Sadly, I must admit that years of reading stilted translations and teaching films with incorrect subtitles has inspired me to become a translator who can clock the cultural- and era-specific nuances of a piece. For translators of Italian, Anne Appel, Ann Goldstein, and Jane Tylus always publish stellar work, and of course Michael F. Moore, who just won the ALTA Italian Prose in Translation prize for his The Betrothed. Peter Constantine has been a mentor since I was in his workshop at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference a couple years ago, and the sheer volume, breadth, and beauty of his work always amazes me.
What other professions have you worked in?
I was an academic until almost 8 years ago. I taught Italian language, culture, film, and literature at various universities and colleges in the US and led undergraduate coursework in various study abroad programs in Italy. I enjoyed teaching and researching very much, but was utterly disillusioned with the office politics that appear to go hand in hand with a tenure-track position. Since I’ve always been up front with my opinions and ideas, the institutional powers that be did not smile upon me. Nonetheless, I continue to work very closely with academics as the managing editor of a journal and as an editor of a translation series. I still attend academic conferences and publish, but I don’t have to deal with the day-to-day drama that many of my colleagues do.
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
The poetry of Porpora’s prose as well as her personal and political stories make AntoloGaia a timely antidote for what LGBTQIA+ people are living through today. So much bigotry, hate, and vitriol fills social media, global news outlets, and public places that queer people need access to more queer success stories.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I made the brilliant decision to do a year of study abroad in Bologna, Italy as an undergraduate. I didn’t truly appreciate its medieval roots until I went back after many years. The juxtaposition of the new and the old is an integral part of its hold on me, and every time I go back there I see new things that are actually ancient things. Were they there back in the 1990s? Of course they were, but I needed to go away from them in order to really see them.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Having grown up in the 1980s I consider myself one of the ‘olds’ and I prefer to listen to entire albums rather than single songs or a Spotify playlist. I love to hear the tale that artists create through a series of songs; often when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the same album on repeat. While translating AntoloGaia, I regularly listened to Low’s HEY WHAT (2021), which would be the band’s final album after drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker died of cancer the following year. It’s hard to imagine that what started as a minimalist slow core band in the early 1990s would produce such a ‘noisy,’ distortion-heavy meditation on the inevitability of death, and that that would inspire me while translating a story of rebirth and self-consciousness. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Cool It Down (2022), Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (1985), and Lizzo’s Coconut Oil (2016) have been in heavy rotation in the past couple of years. Coming as a surprise to absolutely no one, listening to women’s voices inspires me to analyze and translate women’s written voices.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I’ve learned from my brilliant writing partners that a change of scenery can work wonders for inspiration and simply getting in a daily quota of words or pages. Thus, I try to work at a coffee shop at least once a week, and sometimes my writing partners and I gather at one of our homes for silent work spurts interspersed with breaks for chatting and walks around the block. When pouring over second and third drafts, I like to light a candle. It’s a simple ritual, really, but it marks the beginning of the end.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I would love to play the cello more competently, but I would not want to do so professionally. Although I prefer to work alone at my desk, I enjoy playing music in small string ensembles—duets, trios, quartets—as well as orchestral pieces. Feeding off other musicians’ tone and mood can make a piece come alive in so many different ways, in so many different translations, if you will, of what seems pat and dry on the page. Every time a piece is played, it will necessarily be different.
What are you working on currently?
I’m currently co-translating Anna Maria Genhyei’s autobiographical Il corpo nero (2023, The Black Body) with Eilis. The author is also a singer, songwriter, and rapper who also goes by the name Karima 2G. She was born to Ghanaian parents in Rome, and in a way her story is similar to Porpora’s: she’s always had to fight against being judged by her appearance alone.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading Maria Messina’s short story collection Ragazze siciliane, Sarah Waters’ Affinity, Sirene by Laura Pugno, Dita di dama by Chiara Ingrao, and Tales From the Gas Station by Jack Townsend. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me how to read many books at once, previously a habit I could not embrace. Now I have a book for every possible mood. Since publishing our first books with OVOI this year, I have a treasure trove of books that other translators propose that we publish, the best slush pile on earth.
SANDRA WATERS is the managing editor of Italian Quarterly. Her recent publications include chapters and articles on Luther Blisset and Wu Ming, Paolo Sorrentino’s films in English, Maria Rosa Cutrufelli’s La briganta, and American horror film. She co-edited The Spaces and Places of Horror with Francesco Pascuzzi and is a co-editor of Other Voices of Italy for Rutgers University Press. She is currently writing a novel about a woman assassin.