My favorite translator, William Weaver, has died at 90:
Deft in handling a variety of writing styles, from Calvino’s delicacy of language to Mr. Eco’s show-offy erudition, Mr. Weaver was prolific. He translated dozens of books, a dozen by Calvino alone, including “Invisible Cities,” which posits descriptive and philosophical conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, and a collection of short stories, “Cosmicomics,” for which Mr. Weaver won a National Book Award for translation in 1969….
Even a partial list of the writers Mr. Weaver translated — which includes Alberto Moravia, Eugenio Montale, Oriana Fallaci, Ugo Moretti, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Svevo — is, as Mr. Botstein wrote, “nothing short of astonishing.”
Mr. Weaver talked about his work in a 2000 interview in The Paris Review. “Some of the hardest things to translate into English from Italian are not great big words, such as you find in Eco, but perfectly simple things, buon giorno for instance,” he said. “How to translate that? We don’t say ‘good day,’ except in Australia. It has to be translated ‘good morning,’ or ‘good evening,’ or ‘good afternoon’ or ‘hello.’
“You have to know not only the time of day the scene is taking place, but also in which part of Italy it’s taking place,” he continued, “because in some places they start saying buona sera — ‘good evening’ — at 1 p.m. The minute they get up from the luncheon table it’s evening for them. So someone could say buona sera, but you can’t translate it as ‘good evening’ because the scene is taking place at 3 p.m. You need to know the language, but, even more, the life of the country.”
What an epic and productive literary career. I think my next fiction read will have to be one of his translations of Eco or Calvino. That being said, having required several days and multiple consultations of dictionaries and native speakers alike to puzzle out a single Italian word coined by Eco, (celodurismo, in this case), I find it very difficult to accept that the simple words are harder.
Then again, I suppose it’s a lot easier when you can actually ask the great man what he was thinking when he coined it.