PLUME INTERVIEWS
Eleanor Chapman & Lucy Rand

Eleanor Chapman and Lucy Rand are co-translators of our most recent fiction spotlight: the short story “August’s Saints”by Anna Ruchat, from her award-winning collection Neptune’s Years on EarthThe emerging translators talked to us about the challenge of collaborating across borders between the UK and Japan, the nuanced relationships between language and storytelling, and why English-language audiences need to discover Ruchat’s prose.
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How did you two meet and decide to collaborate on this translation of Anna Ruchat’s collection Neptune’s Years on Earth

LR: We met at the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School in Norwich in 2019. We were both applying for the BCLT emerging translator mentorship programme later that year. We only met briefly over a post-lecture orange juice, but quickly realised we were on quite a similar path. For the mentorship, each applicant had to [translate a sample of] a Swiss Italian book and write a pitch. When the successful translators were announced in September – and it wasn’t either of us – we got back in touch and decided to join forces and work together on one of the Swiss Italian books we had found through the process. I had proposed a beautiful rural family saga called Magnifica by Maria Rosaria Valentini, but when I read Eleanor’s pitch for Neptune’s Years on Earth, I was immediately gripped, so that was the start.

EC: Before the BCLT summer school I’d only ever worked as a lone wolf translator. I was really grateful for the opportunity that BCLT provided for discussing words, language, and translation down to the most minute detail with other equally passionate translators and writers. When I got back to flying solo after the summer school I found myself craving the processes of collaborative translation, so I was excited that Lucy was up for co-translating Neptune as it’s such a rich, thoughtful collection.

It’s quite lonely to translate on your own, and you rarely get any feedback, but I felt we worked well together in terms of talking through disagreements over certain translation choices [and] congratulating each other when we’d nailed a phrase!

— Eleanor Chapman

Why do you believe that these stories are important to translate and publish at this point in time?

EC: For me, the collection’s delicate balancing of the micro- and the macro- is key to its pertinence and poignancy at this point in time. Each story is prefaced with an epigraph that details an event in world history that took place in the same month as which the story is set – from the launching of Operation Storm, bombings in the Gaza Strip and the first federal elections after the reunification of Germany. And yet the stories are very much ‘zoomed in’, focusing on characters’ ordinary lives, ordinary hopes, ordinary fears that just carry on happening in the context of these world-changing events.

This feels very relevant in a time when I think a lot of us are watching what’s happening around us in the world, often feeling overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. One of the key things I took from Neptune’s Years on Earth was the reminder that it does matter how we choose to trundle along with our little lives in the wider context: it does matter how we relate to our friends, or family, or strange men who steal flowers and tell us the saint of the day!

LR: Yes, the structure of the collection challenges you to hold the historical events of the epigraphs in your mind while reading the story that follows. I think [that is] is the power of this collection. I think that this attempt to hold two events, which are concurrent but wildly different, in your mind at once, is the power of this collection. Reading it I experienced something of a ‘letting go’, it is almost like a lesson in processing Big History [which] as Eleanor suggested, is perhaps more important a skill now than ever before.

What does the collaborative translation process look like for you both? For example, in what ways is the process similar or different from a solo project?

LR: To put it simply, it looks like a Google doc with hundreds of comments down the side, which get satisfyingly cleared up as we reach our solutions. I have been living in Japan for the last 3 years, so most of our getting to know each other has been through the translation. But we’re looking forward to meeting up, and hopefully doing some translation, in person once I’m back in the UK this year, lockdown permitting!

EC:  I’d fully agree with that… because of the time difference between Japan and Scotland, I’d often wake up to 20 or so comments from Lucy and excitedly open my laptop for a few hours when we could translate together at the same time before Lucy’s bedtime! It takes a lot longer to translate together than on a solo project. Another important difference was the mutual support and validation — it’s quite lonely to translate on your own, and you rarely get any feedback, but I felt we worked well together in terms of talking through disagreements over certain translation choices [and] congratulating each other when we’d nailed a phrase!

We felt a great duty not to add or take anything away … It would’ve been easy to accidentally insert our own suspicions; one word could’ve made a signpost clearer or less clear than it was intended in the Italian. The subtleties are not necessarily the same in both languages,  so we spent a lot of time defining, contrasting, and second-guessing subtleties to make sure we didn’t imply anything that wasn’t there.

— Lucy Rand

What are your primary goals when you set out to start on a translation project? 

LR: I’d say, usually, to find a publisher for it! That’s the only way to make translation work as an occupation. Unfortunately, getting to that stage with a book can take years, if it happens at all, so the shorter-term goals are to produce something you’re proud of as a sample to send to publishers, and get the word out there about the author and book you’re championing.

EC: [I] agree with this, but sometimes I start out on a translation project also to better understand a text that I love – there are always things you miss when reading monolingually, and it can be only when trying to grapple with the incommensurability and equivalences across the different languages that you pick up on them. 

What is an aspect of Ruchat’s prosaic style or voice that you particularly enjoyed translating, or that drew you to the collection in the first place?

LR: Her prose is so clean. She strikes the rare balance of being very easy to read and making you think about what it meant for months afterward. It’s descriptive but simple and a lot of the meaning and philosophical moments are in what’s not said. She strikes the rare balance of being very easy to read and making you think about what it meant for months afterward.

EC: Absolutely, there’s not a single phrase which is convoluted, a single word which seems unnecessarily flowery or verbose. It’s really quite the opposite: Ruchat [has] a remarkable ability to evoke decades of story and layers of emotion with just a few very well-placed, thoughtful and simple words. 

LR: I wonder if some of this thoughtfulness and cleanliness is thanks to Ruchat herself being a translator. Translators spend a lot of time distilling the meaning of a word or phrase and considering the most effective way to re-write it in the target language. It seems to me like Anna Ruchat the Translator’s distillation function is in excellent working order when she writes too!

Ruchat [has] a remarkable ability to evoke decades of story and layers of emotion with just a few very well-placed, thoughtful and simple words. 

— Eleanor Chapman

In your description of Neptune’s Years On Earths, you described the stories as reflecting the currents of time. In “August’s Saints” – the shorty story recently featured on Project Plume – there seems to be a particular emphasis on “lost” time. Did the themes that you identified in the stories influence or inform any of your translation choices, and if so, how?

EC: Because, as Lucy mentioned, the collection strikes such a balance between the said and the unsaid, the ‘what happened’ versus the ‘what could have happened’, we obviously did have to think very carefully about how we translated certain passages. An exampleis the passage at the end of August’s Saints, which describes the calendar of the saints and the cycle of familiar faces as the ‘crutches’ of the protagonist’s life. In the Italian, the metaphor is actually a handrail, the sort you’d find in a disabled toilet. We thought that would sound a bit odd in English, so went for crutches, also because crutches conveys more of a sense of movement, and the sense of inevitably trundling along while things relentlessly happen is an important theme of the book.

LR: For me, the June story, “The New Job”, exemplifies Ruchat’s masterful treading of the line between what’s said and what isn’t. There is a moment in the story when an accusation is made, and the reader [doesn’t know] what exactly is being implied, and whether it is true or not. As translators, we felt a great duty not to add or take anything away from the [delicate ambiguity of the] original here. It would’ve been easy to accidentally insert our own suspicions; one word could’ve made a signpost clearer or less clear than it was intended in the Italian. The subtleties [of the Italian words used to describe the accusation] are not necessarily the same in both languages,  so we spent a lot of time defining, contrasting and second-guessing [the] subtleties to make sure we didn’t imply anything that wasn’t there.

Eleanor, you also do translation work for charities and NGOs and have worked on projects for UNESCO and the Italian trade union CISL. Does your work translating official texts for third sector organisations in any way influence how you approach your literary translation projects?

EC: I’d say so, yes. The main difference I’d say is that when I’m translating for third sector organisations and activist groups it’s often for a very international audience who don’t necessarily have English as a first (or second!) language. Especially when translating information for migrants’ rights organisations, I try to prioritise clarity over completely idiomatic and ‘natural’ sounding English. I think this is something that does influence my literary translation to some degree – it’s obviously a different ball game translating literature, but I still try to keep in mind various different types of English speakers.

I have so far focused almost exclusively on female authors in response to the fact that the majority of Italian authors, both in translation and being published in the first place, are men. Of the six finalists for the Premio Strega this year, only one was a woman! Same for the Premio Campiello (1 out of 5).


— Lucy Rand

Lucy, you publish reviews of untranslated Italian literature on your website. Are there particular genres of Italian literature or demographics of Italian-language authors that often get overlooked when it comes to texts that are translated into English? 

LR: Well, my aim is to provide a resource for English-language publishers and readers about new Italian books that are coming out. I have so far focused almost exclusively on female authors in response to the fact that the majority of Italian authors, both in translation and being published in the first place, are men. Of the six finalists for the Premio Strega this year, only one was a woman! Same for the Premio Campiello (1 out of 5). Lots of really talented Italian authors [also] don’t have agents, so the books that get presented to international publishers tend to be the ones who have agents or big publishing houses with international rights teams behind them. Unfortunately, these aren’t always the [authors] producing the best literature. So I’m always on the lookout for the hidden gems!

For Women In Translation month this August, what books or authors do you recommend, and what are you reading yourself right now? 

LR: As I’ve already mentioned, Maria Rosaria Valentini. Her writing is beautiful and she’s already well-loved in France and Germany. Francesca Melandri, who has already had one book translated into English (Eva Sleeps, Europa Editions, 2016), has another two novels that I think are fantastic. I would also love to see more of Igiaba Scego in English, and a new, young voice, Francesca Manfredi, whose debut novel Empire of Dust is really special.

EC: There’s a really interesting tradition of postcolonial female writers writing in Italian who I would recommend! Earlier this year I enjoyed reading Cristina Ali Farah’s Piccola Madre (Little Mother, co-translated by Giovanna Bellesia and Victoria Offredi Poletto, Indiana University Press, 2011), the story of the friendship between two cousins who grew up together in Mogadishu, were torn apart by the Somali war and eventually reunite in Rome. I loved Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis’s translation of Faces on the Tip of my Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano – another collection of co-translated short stories that reminds me a lot of Neptune!

LR: Oh yes, I was going to mention Igiaba Scego who [also] writes about the postcolonial relationship between Italy and the Horn of Africa. She’s becoming quite well-known in the UK and US since the very successful translations of Adua (Jamie Richards) and Beyond Babylon (Aaron Robertson).  I recently finished [reading] Breasts and Eggs by [the Japanese author] Kawakami Mieko (trans. Sam Bett and David Boyd) which I haven’t shut up about to my friends, and am currently reading the dark and grisly Out by Kirino Natsuo, (trans. Stephen Snyder).  My first book-length translation came out in June, which is also set in Japan, though by an Italian author. It portrays grief and hope after the 2011 tsunami, and I recommend it for anyone [experiencing] grief or despair. It’s called The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina (Manilla Press).


Interview by Cassandra Bertolini

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