BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Swallows' nests and neologisms: Ian Thomson discusses Italo Calvino with Tim Parks

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The Independent Culture
ITALO Calvino, always a stickler for exactitude, could be a torment for his English translators. He would become enamoured of a term and sneak it into the text; William Weaver had a running feud with him over 'feedback'. At other times, Calvino interfered for the better. In 1959 he wrote to his translator Archibald Colquhoun: 'On numerous occasions sparrow has been replaced by swallow. For goodness sake] Since when have swallows built their nests in trees?'

Tim Parks was not supervised in his translation of The Road to San Giovanni; Calvino died nine years ago. Parks is still baffled by a couple of words in the original: were they misprints, neologisms? 'Not even Calvino's widow could help.' But Parks is otherwise grateful that Calvino was unable to intervene. 'There was a danger in working too closely with him.' Parks has translated other Italian authors - Alberto Moravia, Roberto Calasso, Antonio Tabucchi. 'With each of them my aim was the same: render their books into good English prose - make a soft-landing from their language into mine.' But, he adds, 'Calvino is difficult to translate. There's a knottiness in his prose that evidently reflects the great effort he took in trying to understand the world.'

Tim Parks, himself a novelist, has lived in Italy for 14 years. He teaches at a private university in Milan, and agrees that you really have to grasp the whole life of a country in order to translate adequately. But difficulties remain. 'One of Calvino's sentences - a description of a fig tree - went on for more than an entire page,' Parks recalls. 'This was certainly not standard Italian. But how to domesticate the thing into English?'

Fiction is often a slippery issue with Calvino. He was the sort of writer who would enjoy the derivation of the word 'fiction' from the Latin 'fingere' (to mould or contrive). Tim Parks says: 'Many of the pieces in The Road to San Giovanni struck me as autobiographical, although I was aware that Calvino had manipulated reality to suit his own poetic purpose.' The book is made up of five brief 'memory exercises', exquisite excursions into the past. The title piece is a tribute to Calvino's father, a botanist who directed an experimental floriculture station, first in Havana and then on the Italian coast. On second reading, however, it could be an effective pastiche of Proust. Or simply an ironic fantasy. But then Calvino has always been hostile to definitive interpretations of his work. Elsewhere he has said, 'I am glad when no single key will turn the lock'.