Mark Vella | The immense potentialities of a language

Maltese translator Mark Vella, and winner of best translation ‘Mur Ġibek… Eżerċizzji ta’ Tortura u Seduzzjoni’ at the National Book Prize 2023 spoke to LAURA CALLEJA about the potentialities of the language and the possible pitfalls in meaning when translating works

Mark Vella
Mark Vella

Could you tell us about your trajectory as a writer or researcher?

I’ve been in and out of the game for some time now, but the last years have been quite busy with diverse projects ranging from translation to reviewing, literary criticism and book editing. Although I published a novel in 2014, my career in all things books started years before as a publisher, with the old chestnut I used to repeat being that I wanted to publish the books I’d like to read or, alternatively, create a publishing environment that would be suitable for my eventual book. I’m happy that through the Minima Publishers adventure, I discovered a cutting-edge author like Ġużè Stagno and was Immanuel Mifsud’s first-ever publisher, and that in some way, this legacy still lives on. After a brief hiatus, I then got back into literary research, and translation was a job for 18 years with the European Commission, becoming also an activity whereby I worked on many different types of work in different languages.

What was the process of crafting your award-winning book like?

I translated my wife’s book from Italian, which was already good as it was, but I hope the Maltese rendering enabled its discovery by a new audience, while also showing the potentialities of the language, especially for such a particular text. Translating your wife does have its advantages: I was in continuous contact with the author and could discuss everything from translation niceties to potential pitfalls in meaning or problematic passages.

How did it feel to win the National Book Prize in 2023?

I must admit I did not turn up for the prize-giving ceremony. Besides not really expecting to win, I always thought the ceremony was quite staid and uneventful, but it seems I missed a good one this time. It’s still a great feeling and I proudly look at the trophy in my study every now and then. Nevertheless, without being a damper, my greatest ambition would to win the prize for the novel category, which I deem the most prestigious.

Who are some of your favourite Maltese authors working today?

I have had the privilege of reviewing books on behalf of the National Book Council for two years on Illum and that gave me the opportunity to sift through a whole panoply of different Maltese writers, even those off many radars. Nevertheless, as far as recent publications go, one cannot avoid mentioning Loranne Vella and Ryan Falzon.

What were some of the main challenges of translating this work into Maltese?

As I said above, I love translating to Maltese even to show the immense potentialities of a language that unfortunately is much maligned by its same speakers and not given the recognition it deserves even on a political level, despite the irony of being a fully-fledged official language of the European Union. As per challenges with Mur Ġibek…, a particular one was the rendering of many ‘gynecological’ episodes in the book: on the one hand, avoiding technical and artificial Maltese, but at the same time, seeing how to insert ‘archaic’ terms were used until relatively a few decades ago but have fallen out of fashion despite their efficacy.

What’s next for you?

In theory, my full-time job leaves little time for anything else, but I have received offers for theatrical works, which is definitely a new challenge, and for which I shall try and carve outsome time.

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In collaboration with the National Book Council, MaltaToday will be interviewing the winners of the 2023 National Book Prize and Terramaxka Prize for children and young adults. More information regarding the awards can be found at