Anglo-Italian crime fiction and the attractions of the foreign: Writers, translators and pseudotranslators
In the Anglophone literary climate publishers are often reluctant to ‘advertise’ the foreignness of translated literature. Concerns over the commercial viability of the foreign are often cited, and a fluent, transparent translation style tends to be favoured, a phenomenon Lawrence Venuti has dubbed the ‘translator’s invisibility’ (1995). In the case of contemporary Italian fiction, the publication and sales of translations are far outstripped by the commercial success of crime fiction set in Italy but written in English by British or North American authors including Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin, Magdalen Nabb and, most recently, Tobias Jones. Such works proudly display their Italian setting and characters, while at the same time exploiting the comforting familiarity of an English name on the front cover and, in many cases, a known and trusted detective protagonist who serves as a kind of tourist guide for the Anglophone reader.
In an era of transnational mobility (mass tourism, migration, exile, study abroad programs, etc.), books such as these arguably fulfil readers’ desire for a taste of the foreign (including both its charms and its dangers) from the comfort of home. While obviously belonging to the crime fiction genre, they also have affinities with travel writing; in reviews, the authors’ expertise on Italian culture is often acclaimed and the world of their fiction ‘accorded the status of objective truth’ (Chu 2000, 76-77). And as with travel writing, these representations of a foreign culture tell us not only about stereotypes, interpretations and perceptions of the Other, but also about the interests, preoccupations and self-perception of the ‘home’ culture, that is, the Anglophone culture for which the texts are produced. This is, at least in part, an ‘Italy made in England [or in the US]’ (Pfister 1996, 3).
In my research I examine the way Leon, Dibdin, Nabb and Jones use language and translation to present Anglophone readers with an Italian setting that is at once accessible and exotic. Drawing on Carol O’Sullivan’s (2004/05) analysis of such novels as examples of pseudotranslation, I investigate the way many of them are characterized by a ‘foreignizing’, even exoticizing, style, incorporating numerous linguistic traces of the foreign (Italian) language. Self-referentiality, language games, culture-specific content and explicit and implicit references to linguistic difference enable readers to ‘travel’ to Italy in a reading journey mediated by a cultural guide who is at once writer and ‘translator’. Even the most mundane items, such as a scontrino, an armadio or a scolapasta, are imbued with special significance, becoming shorthand ways of representing ‘the texture of life’ (Cooper 2006, 323) in another culture, and also of signalling a larger world of foreignness lying beneath the English narration (cf. Agorni 2002, 95).
I have found myself approaching this topic from two different angles. One is from the perspective of a translator and reader of translations. Given that these texts behave rather like (pseudo-)translations, it is worth asking whether some of the stylistic and linguistic freedoms afforded these Anglophone ‘ambassadors’ of Italian-set crime can (or should) be extended to translators. Translators might wish to imbue their work with a strong sense of place and of linguistic otherness, allowing their readers to ‘travel’ abroad through reading. Is there space in literary translation for any of the techniques and approaches appearing in the work of novelists like Leon, Dibdin, Nabb, and Jones? Or is it the case that these author-pseudotranslators are allowed to ‘get away with’ things that regular translators cannot?
Another question I would like to raise is whether the notion of self-translation has a place in the analysis of this corpus of novels. Are their linguistic peculiarities and quirks traces of the bicultural life experience of the authors, or are they rather (more cynically) efforts to create a kind of inauthentic ‘tourist’ Italy for Anglophone consumption? Some bilingual migrant authors have limited linguistic resources in both their languages, due to lack of formal schooling in the mother tongue and restricted (e.g. work- and bureaucracy-related) experience of the second language; consequently, in their literary production the mix of languages and registers can at times be a question of necessity rather than stylistic choice (Vanvolsem 1995, 568). This obviously does not apply to the four authors examined here, who write in their native language and have a flawless command of it; clearly their linguistic games serve a different purpose. So should one talk then of self-translation rather than of pseudo-translation? These authors might not fit one’s typical image of ‘migrant writers’, yet all have lived in Italy, whether temporarily or permanently, and the country’s imprint on their literary output is significant. Is there perhaps some kind of double-standard operating whereby these authors are somehow perceived to be not quite bicultural or exotic or international or literary enough for their work to be examined in the same space as that of other transnational writers?
Agorni, Mirella. 2002. Translating Italy for the Eighteenth Century: Women, Translation and Travel Writing 1739-1797. Manchester: St Jerome.
Chu, Mark. 2000. ‘Someone else’s southerner: Opposed essences in the ‘Italian’ novels of Michael Dibdin, Magdalen Nabb, and Tim Parks’. In Crime Scenes: Detective Narratives in European Culture since 1945, edited by A. Mullen and E. O’Beirne. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 75-87.
Cooper, Brenda. 2006. Multiple worlds, migration and translation in Leila Aboulela’s The Translator. The Translator 12 (2):323-344.
O’Sullivan, Carol. 2004/05. Translation, pseudotranslation and paratext: The presentation of contemporary crime fiction set in Italy. EnterText Supplement 4 (3):62-76.
Pfister, Manfred. 1996. Introduction. In The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italies of British Travellers: An Annotated Anthology, edited by M. Pfister. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2-21.
Vanvolsem, Serge. 1995. Il codice linguistico della letteratura dell’emigrazione. In Gli spazi della diversità, edited by S. Vanvolsem, F. Musarra and B. Van De Bossche. Rome: Bulzoni, 557-572.
Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London: Routledge.