By Steven Goldstein
Congratulations are in order for one of our very own, Anne Milano Appel, who has recently been awarded the Northern California Book Award (formerly the BABRA Award) in the translation category. Anne, holder of a doctorate in Italian literature, was recognized for her translation of Italian author Stefano Bortolussi’s debut novel, Head Above Water (Fuor D’Acqua), published by City Lights Books of San Francisco.
Presented by the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association (BABRA), the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, and Poetry Flash, the Book Awards honor excellence in a variety of literary genres, recognizing exceptional service to the literary community and to the broader culture. Anne’s translation— which competed with two other outstanding works—was described as “elegant and transparent.”
The road to the award was long, although—as many of Anne’s fellow translators might concur—perhaps not entirely atypical. After having her initial proposal to translate a different work rejected (it is difficult enough to have a proposal accepted at a large publishing house, let alone a small one—even one headed by a renowned translator of Italian poems, as is the case with City Lights!) Anne was referred by the publisher to a different author, who hired her for a completely different project—a collection of short stories. Although Anne’s translation of these stories was never published, it was only after completing this work that she was offered Bortolussi’s intriguing and beguiling manuscript about a man, his past, and the opportunity for redemption.
For reasons that largely have to do with the nature of the publishing industry in Italy—and in other European countries, for that matter, where the sheer volume of imported literature is enormous—Head Above Water was never published in that country. But inspired in part by the story’s blending of family, mourning, and renewal in 1970s Italy, Anne believed it was important to make the publisher feel that she was the right choice to bring this novel to an English-speaking audience.
Instead of merely agreeing to do the translation, Anne translated a prova, or sample, of what she felt was a pivotal part of the novel, and presented it to City Lights. Thus began what would quickly grow into a solid and ultimately satisfying relationship among all three parties: author, translator, and editor/publisher. While Anne’s translation proceeded fairly smoothly with very little interaction between her and the author, she nonetheless feels that the trust they shared—and the opportunity for her to have access to him—was very important.
In a moment of reflection, Anne touches upon the one-sided nature that translation can sometimes represent. “I feel it’s unfair for them,” she says, referring to authors, “because I get to know their minds—I get to know them from inside their heads—and they don’t get to know anything about me except the final product that I’ve created, which is their work.”
That the final product in this case satisfied the author, however, was never a question: Mr. Bortolussi—a translator himself— supported Anne’s work throughout the process and called her translation “masterful” in his generous acknowledgements in the preface to the novel.
What does the award mean to Anne? Aside from the niceties of an elegant reception and the nervousness associated with a formal awards ceremony (as with the Academy Awards, she did not know in advance whether she would win or not), Anne is appreciative of the recognition. She is, however, under no illusion that this will make her a rock star among translators.
“For me, just getting an article or a translation published is a reward,” she says. “So this was especially nice.”
Anne sees the award primarily as a validation from her peers. Whereas going to a conference and being part of a reading or panel is certainly satisfying, the recognition that comes from receiving an award is both deeper and broader at the same time. It also confers a sense of satisfaction for labors that go all too often unappreciated— and sometimes, unfortunately, completely unnoticed—in our larger culture.
“In addition,” she says with a smile, “the award meant getting away from the computer for a change and getting to talk ‘live’ with people who have similar interests! We translators live like hermits, so human interaction is always welcome!”
If her recent award is any indication, Anne may soon find herself getting out more: at the reception for the Book Awards, she was invited to an upcoming PEN-West-sponsored book party, at which all of the past year’s published authors will be gathered. Although she maintains she is not tempted to write her own book, her recent efforts may well translate into new opportunities in the future.