Translator Richard Dixon talks about The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Erik Ketzan interviews Richard Dixon

Erik Ketzan: I see on your website that you used to practice as a barrister in England. How did you learn Italian and what prompted the career change to Italian translator?

Richard Dixon: I worked as a barrister in London for almost ten years, specializing in criminal law. It turned out to be an invaluable experience – lawyers and translators both have to get to the bottom of what people mean – and I enjoyed it very much. But it was a life that required total commitment, and as I became involved in more complex cases, appearing also in the higher courts, I had less time for other interests. I had begun writing plays, one of which was accepted by the BBC, and this gave me the courage to think about leaving the law to become a writer.

Moving to Italy happened almost by accident and, though I had studied French and Latin at school, I had to start learning the language from scratch. I live in a part of Italy where there are few foreigners and this has been a great advantage. I had to learn the language fast.

My best teachers have been the people living around me – first of all the neighbouring farmers who taught me the local dialect, then people in the nearby town, and a circle of friends which has widened over the years. That daily contact with the language has been fundamental.

How did you land the job of translating The Prague Cemetery?

In 2006 I was invited to become part of a team translating Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone dei Pensieri, a vast work, over 4,500 pages, by Italy’s greatest 19th century poet. It had never before been fully translated into English and one literary review has described it as the last masterpiece of Italian literature yet to be translated into English. It is a work of fundamental importance in understanding Leopardi’s poetry, but he also writes about philosophy, philology, Greek and Roman history and literature, and maps out many ideas for books he was unable to write before his death in 1837 at the age of 38. The translation, directed by the universities of Birmingham and La Sapienza in Rome, is now complete, and the critical edition should be ready for publication next year.

It was at a conference on Leopardi that I met Tim Parks, whose own translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince was about to be published. As well as an eminent novelist, he teaches translation studies at Milan University. He had been asked to find a translator for a book on psychology and I agreed to do it. Six months later, he gave my name to Harvill Secker. This time it was for Eco. I was asked to do a test translation of two chapters, and here I am.

How long did the translation process take you?

There were brief interruptions but altogether it took me about eight
months. I worked fairly slowly on the first draft because there was a lot
of research I felt I should do. That first draft is always the most
important – it’s the stage when errors creep in. I then worked through
another two drafts, trying each time to work on getting it to sound as
natural and readable as possible, especially the dialogue. After the third
draft I printed it all out, gave it a final read-through, made the last
few changes and sent it to Eco and the publishers.

What about The Prague Cemetery made it different from previous translation jobs?

The Prague Cemetery is a magnificent book from the translator’s point of view. It is full of Eco’s intellectual fireworks, an exciting challenge, and there is also plenty of dialogue, which I particularly enjoy.

One particular aspect is that the novel has three voices – those of the narrator, Captain Simonini and abbé Della Piccola. Each voice has its own distinctive quality and was sometimes quite hard to get right.

Then there is the research. It is a vast book, spanning a period of history from 1848 to 1898. We follow the exploits of the very unsavoury main character, Simone Simonini, through events leading up to the Unification of Italy in 1861, and then on to Paris, where he works as a freelance forger and fixer during the Paris Commune and the rise of anti-Semitism.

The extraordinary thing about the book is that all of the characters, apart from Simonini and two or three very minor characters, are real historical figures. And so we meet many of the participants in the Unification of Italy, we follow Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily, and meet the likes of Alexander Dumas and a young doctor at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris whose name, Simonini recalls, was something like Froïde.

You cannot translate properly unless you understand your subject well, so you might imagine how much research there was to be done.

All of Eco’s novels are made up of unattributed quotations from other
books, but this one seems like Eco has used the technique more than ever. Did you ever feel the need to consult existing English translations of texts Eco quotes, or did you just translate from the Italian as usual?

How did translators manage before the days of the Internet? These days you
can find almost anything and I felt it was important to go back to the
sources to avoid any danger of misinterpretion, especially where there is
only a passing reference to some fact or event. I didn’t have to quote
from other translations as such. My task was to translate Eco’s words and
to remain as close as possible to his text, but the research often helps
where a particular word has various shades of meaning.

I know Eco consults with his translators on English-language editions of his novels. How did you find this process?

Nowadays it is a very easy process. We correspond by email. There were several corrections to be made to the original Italian text and so some of his messages were copied to my colleagues working on the translations into other languages. And there was also some comparing of notes between translators, especially when it came to the more erudite references.

So far as the original Italian, Eco generally writes very clearly, but he was extremely helpful where doubts arose.

He also understands English perfectly, an enormous advantage for a translator, not least because the author’s final approval means so much more.

Eco apparently asked translators of Island of the Day Before to avoid
using words that came into existence after the 17th century. Did he make such a suggestion for Prague Cemetery and the 19th century? Did this ever create challenges for you?

He didn't specifically raise it, but it seemed natural to avoid any words
that Simonini couldn’t have used. Generally it caused no difficulty - when
in doubt the Oxford English Dictionary is invaluable in giving the
earliest uses of a word. I remember being unsure what to do when I
discovered that “umpteenth”, which is really the only translation for
“ennesimo”, was given as being a 20th Century word, but it fitted the
context so well that I used it regardless.

I’ve been really enjoying the book and the translation so far. I've
loved all of Eco's novels, but I think this one asks deeper, more difficult questions than any of his previous works. Thanks for taking the time for this interview. What are you working on these days?

I agree. The book touches on some very powerful issues which are as
relevant today as ever before. From the translator’s point of view, it was
certainly very challenging, but enormously enjoyable to do. I have just
finished translating Eco’s most recent book of essays which develops many
of the themes that appear in his novels – the need that every nation has
to create an enemy, the 19th century feuilleton, silence and censorship.
Then I will be working on his revised version of the Name of the Rose,
which is due to be republished in Italian at the end of this year. And
after that, something very different – a booklength essay by Roberto
Calasso about the ancient Vedic scriptures.

Additional Information


Richard Dixon Curriculum – The translator’s homepage.

The Prague Cemetery official site – includes the first few pages of the novel

Umberto Eco Wiki - A new wiki guide, in English and German, to Eco’s novels and ideas.

–Erik Ketzan Follow erikannotations on Twitter Follow Erik on Facebook Follow Erik on Quora Follow Erik on Avvo Follow Erik on LinkedIn
Contributing Editor, The Modern Word
6 November 2011

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.