There’s something about Tamara | Simon Bartolo

Novelist and playwright Simon Bartolo speaks to us about translating an Italian young-adult novel by Georgia Manzi, turning the tale of a young girl and her family’s Romanian maid into ‘Kwazi kwazi lil Tamara nzommuha’.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
23 December 2014, 8:30am
Simon Bartolo: “This being my first creative translation, I discovered that it’s massively different from translating business documents”
Simon Bartolo: “This being my first creative translation, I discovered that it’s massively different from translating business documents”
What was it about this particular story that first drew you in... and what element of Manzi’s book helped to sustain your interest as you were translating it?

It was the style and tone that first drew me in, very different from my own style. Manzi’s writing is quiet and controlled and economic. She doesn’t use words she doesn’t need to. Wherever she can use one word instead of two, she does. What kept me going were the characters, which are so realistic and interesting, especially those of Lilli, the teenage protagonist of the novel, and Tamara, the Romanian maid of Lilli’s family. I wouldn’t be surprised if I find that I am influenced by Manzi’s style in my own future writing.

Would you say that there are elements to the story that remain ‘lost in translation’, sadly? Did you have to make certain drastic verbal turnarounds for the piece to be effective in Maltese?

I don’t think there was much lost in translation, no. I certainly didn’t have to make any drastic turnarounds.

The fact that the characters were recognisably Italian, and since us being Maltese can identify so clearly the Italian sound, it felt strange hearing them speak “in Maltese”. But other than that, it was only the names that I was a little hesitant about. I finally decided to keep the original Italian names, like Lilli and Lello.

Being a professional – though non-literary – translator, how did it feel like to re-adapt your skills to a work of fiction?

This being my first creative translation, I discovered that it’s massively different from translating business documents. Far more different than I had expected, in fact. In a way it is much more satisfying and fun but in another way it’s also more difficult because you have to make certain decisions in uncharted territory.

On one hand, there’s a responsibility to the original author of the work, wanting to reproduce her thoughts as faithfully as possible, especially since she can’t read Maltese but still trusted her work in my (and Merlin’s) hands, while on the other hand there’s a responsibility to my own Maltese readers. One liberty I took, for example, is using the word “stessu” (selfie), because it’s a word that everybody uses today and will immediately recognise.

What’s the difference between translation and writing your own fiction? Do you prefer one over the other?

The difference is huge. I get a kick out of creating my own worlds and characters and then trying to get them to work towards a story which is at the same time rewarding and satisfying. Translating somebody else’s work means I never blank out, hit a wall or run out of ideas because the story is already there – it exists. Every day, when I sit down to work, there is a chapter in front of me, the story has already happened and I’m just telling it in my own words.

However it’s also hard when you can’t find the exact word to really pinpoint the idea or thought expressed in the foreign language, Italian in this case. Some sentences take days and even weeks to get right or, as right as possible in Maltese. I find it difficult to be satisfied with my work and find that I’m even more self-critical when I translating someone else’s writing.

Kwazi kwazi lil Tamara nzommuha is published by Merlin Publishers

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...