Eddie Matthews interviews Albert Gatt on translating a memoir, the limits and fragility of translation, and its socio-cultural and political importance in today’s world.
Albert Gatt trained as a linguist and computer scientist. His research focuses on the use of language in artificial (AI) and human systems, and on the relationship between perceptual and symbolic data. He has translated poetry and prose by several Maltese authors, including Clare Azzopardi, Karl Schembri, Claudia Gauci and Achille Mizzi. Recent translations include Last-Ditch Ecstasy by Adrian Grima (Malta: Midsea Books, 2017 and Mumbai: Paperwall Publishing) and In the Name of the Father by Immanuel Mifsud (UK: Parthian, 2020). Excerpts from his translation of the modernist classic Nanna’s Children in America by Juann Mamo (1934) have appeared in the journal Countertext. He currently works at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and is also affiliated with the University of Malta.
Eddie Matthews completed his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Swansea University. His publications include Reed Magazine, Construction Literary Magazine, STORGY, The Cheval Anthology of Young Writers, and Zero Hours on the Boulevard, a Brexit short story collection. He has worked as an editor and marketing officer at the Welsh independent publisher, Parthian Books, where he edited Ironopolis, a novel that was nominated for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Portico Prize. He has interviewed winners of the Dylan Thomas Prize for Swansea University, creating a podcast out of the conversations with writers like Max Porter and Joshua Ferris. Currently, he serves as a fiction reader for The Rumpus and teaches literature and writing composition courses in San Diego.
With the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union
E: In the Name of the Father and Of the Son is a memoir told in the first person—Immanuel Mifsud often speaks directly to the reader, as if the reader were his father. Does the approach of translating memoir differ from fiction or poetry? Is there a heightened pressure knowing you are conveying real events?
A: I initially approached the text as if I were translating a highly personal document written by someone whom I have known for a long time, whom I consider a friend and a colleague, as well as a writer. I felt it was important to render the atmosphere and historical context in which the book finds its bearings. And yet, at some point, perhaps on the third or fourth reading, what really began to concern me was the text as text: its rhythms, its metaphors, the way it occasionally teeters on the brink of the hyper-emotional but always steps back and finds refuge in a language which is at once richly layered and precise. In retrospect, I could compare the process of translating it to the act of unravelling a piece of fabric and trying to weave it anew with threads whose colour and texture are different. The problem then was how to do this and still allow the reader to experience the feel of the original, its warp and weft. This process is probably part of every literary translation, but more so in poetry. Through the process of translating it, I began to look at the text in a different way. Considerations of genre—narrative, memoir—faded into the background, and increasingly it felt like I was translating poetry.
E: In the Name of the Father and Of the Son‘s polyphonic narrative seamlessly switches the point of view between father and son and other sources. Describe the process of translating these voices from the Maltese and recreating their interwoven style in English.
A: This was probably the most challenging aspect of the work. It is actually quite hard to identify a dominant narrative voice in this book. The voices are the father’s and the son’s, but the text segues seamlessly into citations and echoes of other works by Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Susan Bordo. One interesting question that arose for me as a translator was whether to retranslate these from the original (for example, from Kristeva’s or Cixous’s French) or whether to rely on existing English translations. Mifsud himself, of course, works these fragments into his own text in Maltese, using his own translation. In the end, I decided to seek out English translations, where possible, on the grounds that the English reader who has encountered them before will likely have encountered them in English. Part of the experience of reading this book is also to occasionally realise, in the middle of a paragraph, that one is reading Mifsud’s text and yet, in an important sense, also not.
E: What are some of the major differences in the Maltese language versus English, and how did these differences present certain challenges in translating In the Name of the Father and Of the Son?
A: Compared to English, Maltese is morphologically very rich, so that what would be rendered in a phrase in English can sometimes be a single word in Maltese. It also has a quite flexible word order, but since, for the most part, it lacks case inflexions, changing the order of constituents in a sentence can make it ambiguous in writing (in speech, one relies on intonation). There is also some reliance on context to resolve such ambiguity. And yet, such changes can be important, as shifting the order of constituents can give rise to changes in emphasis, putting certain things in focus.
But perhaps the most important difference between Maltese and English for the translator (or at least, the one I struggle with the most) is what linguists call “pro-drop”. Like many other languages, Maltese drops the subject of the sentence when the context renders explicit mention unnecessary. This enables many writers—and Mifsud is no exception—to rely on this as a stylistic device. For instance, it is not uncommon in Maltese prose to find sequences of short, declarative sentences sharing the same subject, all starting with a different verb. Rendered too literally in English, you end up with sentences that all start with the same pronoun, which comes across as extremely repetitive and tedious, when the effect in Maltese is rather different.
Ultimately, it’s a process of rummaging about in the toolbox that a language provides you with, trying to discover what works. The way I like to work is to start off with a “fast” translation. I think of it as the equivalent of a reader scanning a text quickly, just to get a first impression of what’s in there. Some phrases might pop out, but there’s relatively little attention to detail. It’s more about tone and rhythm. Once that is done, there are several more passes through the text, and I usually rework it beyond all recognition.
E: How do you balance making In the Name of the Father and Of the Son understandable to a foreign audience while preserving the cultural distinctions of the original?
A: I did rely a little on endnotes, just to give a bit of background on certain historical and political figures and some of the places mentioned. Mostly, though, you just have to trust the text and the reader. Sometimes things are foreign to us; they are different from what we’re used to. And that’s fine. Translation has its limits, and that is as it should be: our job isn’t to transpose a work to the extent that the reader is unable to tell anything about its origins. These limits are also what give the exercise its value, I guess.
E: I’ve heard you quote the saying: “The official language of the European Union is translation.” How do you interpret this quote?
A: That quote is by Umberto Eco; it was the title of a lecture he gave in 1993. I find that it captures something essential about Europe, as a continent as well as a political union. It’s a collective of nations with a history of mutual cooperation and dislike. Linguistically, it’s a Babel, not only because we speak so many different languages, but because even when our languages are closer to each other than we’d like to believe, our histories sometimes blind us to the fact.
Never has translation been so essential to the existence of a political entity. And that makes it incredibly fragile.
E: What should the translator’s relationship to the reader be? To the author?
A: In both cases, I want to say that the essence is trust. I hinted at this earlier. Trust the text: work with it, not in spite of it. If you don’t like it or find it wanting, then you probably shouldn’t be translating it. (Someone else might.) Trust the reader too: for the most part, they’re fully aware that what they’re reading comes from elsewhere and for the most part, they’re able to deal with that, especially now, in an age where Google can so easily fill in the gaps. As for the author: the best one can hope for is for them to trust you.
E: How has your approach to translation evolved over the years?
A: To put it bluntly, I think I’d hate to re-read something I translated twenty years ago. I started doing this out of curiosity, because the idea of recreating something in another language fascinated me. But this was a craft I learned by doing, so to speak. It’s hard to say exactly how my approach has evolved, but one thing that’s certainly happened is that I pay much closer attention to the details than I used to. The small things matter. I suspect that says more about how I’ve changed as a reader than as a translator. Perhaps there’s not much difference between the two.
In the Name of the Father by Immanuel Mifsud, translated from Maltese by Albert Gatt was published in 2020 by Parthian Books. You can order a copy here.