Interview: Claudia Milani, translator



I met the translator Claudia Milani a couple of years ago when I was about to tackle the first M/M Romance by Patricia Logan. I was interested in that niche genre and was looking for more information about it when I found translator Claudia Milani. She was willing to answer all my questions and the result was a fun interview. Thinking back, I contacted her and—courteous as always—she didn’t need any persuading. Her only request was to have no photos taken, so I found an image online of a beautiful lady in coat and hat. In short, Claudia Milani enjoys playing hide and seek.

When and how did you start translating?

Ever since university, translation has been my passion. I set out my plan and I graduated with a thesis on the linguistic analysis of the translation of …”The Aristocats”! Poles apart from what I do now. Look, I’ll be honest, in hindsight I could have done things a lot differently. I would have liked to show that I have the right attributes and move where there was a chance to work in publishing, however, after graduation I chose a secure job and translation remained a dream in the drawer, even though I continued to do courses and study. Only in recent years, and thanks to collaboration with Dreamspinner Press, was I finally able to achieve this great aspiration.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What fascinates me most is the constant research, dissecting the meaning of each word, each sentence. Often, whilst reading, we tend to lose the nuances and race towards the conclusion because we are curious to know how the story ends or what happens to the characters. When translating, however, it is different. It’s necessary to linger on every detail, the location of a word in the sentence, the commas, on why one adjective is used instead of another. And you must be able to convey both the stylistic peculiarities and the emotions in another language.

A job that needs the precision of a pharmacist.

I think one of the greatest fears of a translator is to be too present in the text. Then there are cases when the translator is so in tune with the author that the translator truly becomes their voice in another language. Giorgio Amitrano with Banana Yoshimoto is an example. For years he was her voice and, especially in the early books, one can hear when he didn’t translate her work.

This means that the translator “enters” the text and appropriates it, in a certain sense. A translator makes it “his”, without superimposing the author.

Gesualdo Bufalino said “the translator is clearly the only authentic reader of a text. Much more than any critic, perhaps more than the author himself: the critic is the suitor of a text and the author is the father and husband. The translator, however, is the lover.” The translator completely immerses himself in the text, so that often inconsistencies are found that have escaped both the author and the various editing stages. You can never let your guard down, you cannot go far saying “okay, I didn’t understand what he meant, but I’ll carry on anyway”. The translator must understand and be able to express that understanding. The best moments are when you know you’ve succeeded. I am, by nature, a person who is never fully satisfied with the results, but there are moments, phrases that make me feel proud. And that is rewarding.

Translator = traitor. Is that true?

In many cases, yes, it is true, because in any literary text there will always be something elusive, something that your language cannot say the same way as the original. The important thing is to be as diligent as possible. As I said before, it’s a job that gives a lot but also demands a lot. Maybe because I love it madly I couldn’t submit a text without knowing I did my best.

The respect of the original text is critical. What happens when this makes it impossible to achieve a satisfactory translation?

Regardless of the commitment, which is always needed, the responsibility and thus the betrayals of the literary translator are greater than those of a technical translator. If you translate the assembly manual of a machine and it says that piece A must be inserted in piece B, there are not many alternatives, this is the way it must be. But with literary translation it’s different. Recently I had trouble with a passage because I could not understand how the two characters were seated in a taxi. I could see the movements but not the space, until I decided to ask the author for an explanation, and her answer literally gave me the key to understanding the novel. Maybe if I had not had the opportunity to ask, I would have really betrayed her writing.

I’ve noticed for some time now that often readers do not understand—or misunderstand—certain linguistic/grammatical choices of the translator. I refer, for example, to the distorting of standard Italian. I understand that it is needed, based on the dialectal forms in the original language, but other readers speak of ‘mistakes’ in the translation.

Lately, when reading blogs, I see comments from disgruntled readers because of typos (a word that is very fashionable). A typo is the smallest problem of a text (if there isn’t one per line, of course). Maintaining the register, tone, texture is what really matters. You can have a text without so much as a typo, but with a sailor who speaks like a lawyer graduated from Harvard, and it makes no sense. Trying to keep the linguistic-dialectical differences without resorting to our own dialect can often translate into using ungrammatical language or slang. And yet sometimes it seems that this does not transmit to the reader, who complains that there are “serious grammatical errors”. This is not to say that all the translations published by all publishers and others are perfect but when you read, it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of error and another, between one sort of colloquialism and another one. Sometimes a translator takes a risk when, in translating a text, he or she tries to give the text the authenticity of the original; and sometimes it is this risk that annoys the reader, who does not realize that, even if it is not his personal taste, that element is like the spice that gives the text a particular flavour. Without it the dish would be flat, insipid.

How do you work?

Firstly, I read the book at least twice. The first time as a normal reader because, as I said before, there is always the curiosity to know how the story unfolds. The second time with an eye on form, underlining those passages I know could cause me problems. When the real work of translation begins I already have a good grasp on the text. Using all possible means offered by the web and other sources, especially when it comes to finding idiomatic phrases or uncommon objects. A translator must be a semi-expert on everything and do the research just as the author did himself.

After finishing the first draft, I leave the text to decant for a few weeks, then re-read it and ‘clean it’. Of course, you cannot always respect these timelines because often schedules are tight and you need to speed up the process.

I know that schedules are often tight, both for the translation and the final editing. If time is not an issue, what happens then?

After it has been edited, the translation goes to an external editor who reads and highlights any strange phrases, unclear or heavy-handed sections. Finally, it gets a second round of corrections and quality control.

You translate a niche generally regarded with suspicion by professionals who define themselves as ‘serious’. How do you respond?

As I said before, I owe a great deal to Dreamspinner Press (and even more to Claudia Tonin who passed me that famous link. Thank you, Claudia!). Because they gave me a chance to begin and have had the patience to help me grow, or rather, in a sense, we have grown together. M/M Romance is indeed a niche genre—certain categories of reader are already wary of traditional romance, so they will be even more so of a sub-genre—but it is growing slowly, thanks to the commitment and tenacity of those who have decided to launch it in Italy. I admit that I would like to diversify a little and also translate books in which the love story is not the dominant factor. I’m working on it. There is a bit of prejudice in this sense, unfortunately. What is certain is that I have learned a lot from M/M Romance.

A great learning curve, also because M/M Romance has in turn its sub-genres: BDSM, historical, western, and so on.

So far I have translated western, contemporary, humorous, BDSM and I’m trying my hand at historical. What counts is, in my opinion, sensitivity to romance. It’s not as easy a genre as it may seem, because you are constantly walking the line between sugary sweetness and an excess of vulgarity. Especially when you combine that with the erotic. You must learn to be a bit of a tightrope walker and measure out the ingredients well.

(Translation from the Italian by M.E. Walsh)