How To Be A Literary Translator: Ask A Translator with Anna M. Appel

As Women in Translation Month celebrations come to a close, we sat down with World Editions’ translator Anne M. Appel to talk about her experiences as a woman working in translation, and how the next generations of literary translators can hone their craft.


Anne Milano Appel

Social media handles (optional):

Twitter: @AnneMilanoAppel

LinkedIn: Anne Milano Appel

Literary translations with World Editions:

Claudia Petrucci, The Performance, World Editions, 2022. (L’esercizio, La nave di Teseo, 2020)

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods, World Editions, 2021. (Il gioco degli dei, Einaudi, 2019)

Paolo Maurensig, A Devil Comes to Town,World Editions, 2019. (Il diavolo nel cassetto, Einaudi, 2018)

What drew you to working in literary translation?

A love of books and reading, and of the Italian language. I pursued those parallel tracks through graduate school, then temporarily set aside Italian for a career in library administration. When I left that field after many years as a library director, it felt like it was time to once again combine those two loves.

In retrospect, I realised that in many ways I’d been translating since I was a child, helping my Sicilian nonna navigate life in Little Italy (New York), without knowing a word of English. Ultimately, turning to literary translation was a natural progression, though not necessarily a conscious choice. I didn’t set out to “become a translator,” I just kept coming across so many writers whose books I wanted to translate, not only to share with those who did not read Italian, but because the act of translation brought me joy. It still does.

Which languages do you translate?

I translate solely from Italian, the only other language (besides English) that I feel intimately enough acquainted with to do justice to the texts I translate, and which on other occasions I have often referred to as my “nonna lingua.”

Do you remember the first project you ever translated?

I do! I’ll mention the first two, actually, one unpublished, the other partially published.

The first was Dario Voltolini’s Rincorsi (Einaudi, 1994). Dario was one of several authors I met on the old soc.culture.italian platform. At the time I was seriously thinking about leaving the library bureaucracy and thought I would try my hand at translating a book. So I took a sabbatical and spent several months at a friend’s apartment in Rome working on this ambitious, though fatuous, plan. Alas, the translation of Rincorsi was never published, not surprisingly since I really had no idea how to go about it. But years later my translation of Dario’s story “Beatrixpark. Un’illuminazione” was published in Chicago Review (Spring 2011) and Harper’s Magazine (October 2011). (You can read it here).

The second project I tackled was Enzo Fontana’s Tra la perduta gente (Mondadori, 1996), a novel about Dante’s life in exile. I corresponded with Enzo, intrigued by his work on Dante, whose Commedia had been the subject of my doctoral dissertation, and eventually visited the author at his home in northern Italy. Though I did not complete the translation of Tra la perduta gente, I did manage to publish my translation of a chapter of it in Beacons 5 (1999), a publication of ATA’s Literary Division. (A few passages from it can be found here). 

The Fontana project was pivotal for me in that, thanks to serendipity, fate, or good karma, it led to my first book contract with City Lights Press. Not for that novel, but for one then-editor Nancy Peters proposed: Stefano Bortolussi’s Head Above Water (2003). (An excerpt is found here).

For someone aiming for a career in translation, how can they get better at translating texts?

I’m usually asked how to get started in literary translation and my advice is to choose a text you feel passionate about and… translate it!  How to get better at it would seem to require a different answer, but in the end we learn by doing.  One suggestion might be to read other translations in your language combination and be aware of possible “clunky” parts – a phrase that doesn’t ring true to your ear, that sounds stilted or inappropriate to the context and register, that just doesn’t make sense, or that makes you wonder how the original was written. Then ask yourself how you would translate it. When I read a text that has been translated into English from the Italian, I usually keep the Italian volume near at hand for times when my curiosity is piqued and I am tempted to go back and look up how the troublesome phrase initially appeared. Warning: this is not a good way to read a book! It is distracting and disturbs the flow.

Do you have any favourite phrases that don’t have a simple translation into English?

I wouldn’t call them “favourites,” more like pet nuisances. Besides the numerous false friends and the often cited polysemous suspects like “simpatico,” there are the simple words like “centro” or  “bar” that are subject to lexical ambivalence (in the sense of ambi + valent). When the context is an old Italian city, it never seems right to translate “centro” as “downtown” or “city centre” or “old town.” And “bar” in English will suggest a drinking establishment – pub, tavern, saloon – more so than a café or espresso bar.

But rather than continue to torture these recurrent bêtes noires, I will suggest a list compiled by colleague Miriam Hurley: “Ideas for common, hard-to-translate words and phrases – Italian to English” found here.

Buy Anne M. Appel’s latest World Editions project – The Performance by Clauldia Petrucci

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