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Translating Fear of Paradise

By Richard Kutner


Like any translation, Fear of Paradise was an artistic endeavor and an act of creation.  As always, I needed to maintain the author’s tone and voice and make the book sound as though it were written in English rather than translated.  But Fear of Paradise involved some extra challenges.


Most of the novel is set in Puglia, the heel of Italy, a rugged, sunbaked, glorious region of olive trees and fishermen, of blue sky and golden cliffs overhanging the green Adriatic.  It was important to keep the setting in mind at all times, because in this book it plays a key role in defining the characters’ personalities and directing their thoughts and actions.  Furthermore, Vincent Engel is a master at describing setting.  I therefore had to be very careful in choosing words that evoked the landscape just the way he wanted.  Vincent’s style is both realistic and poetic, and I worked hard to bring out both these aspects of it, fundamental to understanding the book.

European authors tend to write in long sentences and paragraphs (sometimes very long).  We avoid doing this in English, so I had to find where I could divide things while still maintaining the beautiful flow of the text.  French authors also tend to repeat words, even in close proximity, something we discourage in English.  That meant finding just the right synonym with the appropriate nuance to express Vincent’s meaning.  In many cases I changed the verb tenses, since they are not used the same way or have the same implications in English and French.  Sometimes I changed words altogether, because what sounded right in French sounded wrong in English.


Most of Vincent Engel’s books take place in Tuscany, where the characters are worldly and well educated.  In Fear of Paradise, however, the characters are poor, uneducated, superstitious, and uncommunicative.  They hardly speak at all, so whatever dialogue there is must sound realistic and fit each character and situation with no wrong notes.  I needed to penetrate the characters’ thinking so that I could use the correct language to express their thoughts and feelings even though they couldn’t.  This was a particular challenge.  Luigi does not talk like Valentina, and Basilio doesn’t think like Forza, so each person’s way of speaking had to capture his or her character perfectly even if they’re all taciturn.  Moreover, the action begins during the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s, continues to the 1940s, and jumps to the 1960s.  I had to make sure that the dialogue was always in sync with the times and that it reflected the changes in the characters’ ages and ways of thinking.

Fear of Paradise is a haunting book.  It stays with you for a long time after you finish reading it.  That was one of the reasons I wanted to translate it.  Because of the nature of his characters and setting, Vincent used language to create a special music in this book.  It was very important to me to keep this musical quality—the flow, the sound of the words, the rhythm.  I think that my training as a musician was helpful in this regard.  I thought about the cadence of the sentences, about the number of syllables in them, and a great deal about how they ended.  A sentence that ends in a vowel sound floats off into the air, while one that ends in a hard consonant has a sense of finality or even brutality.  One that ends with a word of two or more syllables makes a soft landing, while one that ends with a one-syllable word crashes down.  Faced with a choice of words, I chose the one that conveyed my sense of the author’s idea across most successfully. 

Translating Fear of Paradise was a privilege and a pleasure.  My wife and I read it and reread it so many times to make revisions and corrections that we both felt we had to go to Puglia to see the landscape we had inhabited for six months.  We weren’t disappointed.  I hope that when you read this wonderful book, you will think about my concerns in translating it and take the time to reflect on the choices both Vincent and I made.  Happy reading.