A word from the translator – Howard Curtis

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Howard Curtis, whose translation of Fabio Geda’s In The Sea There Are Crocodiles received an award in 2010

In The Sea There Are Crocodiles https://i0.wp.com/www.englishpen.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/in-the-sea.jpg?resize=300%2C300

Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis

“To force him to go, they said to my father, If you don’t go to Iran to get that merchandise for us, we’ll kill your family, if you run away with the merchandise we’ll kill your fmaily, if when you get back any of the merchandise is missing or spoiled, we’ll kill your family, if someone cheats you, we’ll kill your family. In other words, if anything at all goes wrong – we’ll kill your family. Which isn’t a nice way to do business in my opinion.”

Interview by Polly Roberts

In your translation you choose to keep some words in their original language; why did you choose to do this and was there a reason why you presented these words in italics?

The main reason is that Geda keeps those words in their original language in the Italian text, and I wanted to create the same effect on the English reader as he did on the Italian reader. In general, I think it’s important to keep culture-specific (and therefore usually untranslatable) words in their original language, hoping they will be understandable from the context, or perhaps sometimes adding something to the English text to explain them. I put them in italics simply to indicate to the reader that they are indeed foreign words.

In The Sea There Are Crocodiles is the true story of Enaiatollah Akbari’s gruelling journey from Afghanistan to Italy.  Geda, who is primarily a novelist, recorded Enaiatollah’s story and in this book has re-told it, trying to retain the voice of Enaiatollah. How much do you believe Geda added his style of prose to the book?

Not having been privy to the conversations between Enaiatollah and Geda, I really can’t say how much of the book is Enaiatollah’s and how much is Geda’s. As a translator, that is, as someone who is professionally concerned with capturing other people’s voices, I admired the way Geda captured Enaiatollah’s voice. It came across as authentic, and it was that voice I myself tried to convey in my translation. 

Geda is an Italian novelist, Enaiatollah is a refugee in Italy. In The Sea There Are Crocodiles was written in Italian, transcribing Enaiatollah’s account from his spoken Italian; however Enaiatollah’s mother tongue is, we believe, Dari.  Did you find it strange to be translating a book from one language knowing that it had once already been translated from its original language?

As far as I know, by the time Enaiatollah spoke to Geda, he spoke quite good Italian, and (again as far as I know) their conversations for the book were conducted in Italian.  Therefore, I don’t think it’s true to say that the Italian text had been translated from another language, and I didn’t find any strangeness.

Do you think the story would have translated particularly differently had someone been translating from an account in Dari?

As I don’t speak any Dari, I really can’t say how different the book would have been if it had been written in that language. I assume it would have been quite different, as it would not have had the contribution of Geda, and so the translation would also have been quite different.  

Geda obviously worked very closely with Enaiatollah, did you find it hard not having this same relationship to the storyteller, and not being able to ask the same questions? Did you ever meet Enaiatollah?

Sadly, I’ve never met him. I believe he was due to come to Britain last year and was unable to obtain a visa. But in this case, I didn’t find the lack of personal contact created any problems in the translation.

Geda was purposefully trying to publicise the subject of refugees. Did you have a personal interest in this also?  How much do you feel the translator should share the passion for the cause of the novel as the novelist themselves?

I have no specific personal involvement in the subject. As a professional translator, I take on all kinds of texts, not all of which necessarily reflect my own views on the world, though I would probably find it hard to translate a writer whose views were diametrically opposed to mine. In this case, I was pleased to be working on something that highlighted the plight of refugees and migrants.


Howard Curtis has translated Francisco Coloane’s Tierra del Fuego and five novels by Jean-Claude Izzo for Europa Editions, including all three books in Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. His translation of the final book in this trilogy, Solea, was shortlisted for the French-American and Florence Gould Translation Prize in 2008.

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One Comment on “A word from the translator – Howard Curtis”

  1. In your translations of Michele Giutarri’s Ferrara series you use “woken up” instead of the correct “awakened”. However, I find your translations to be quite good.

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