Enrico Terrinoni, translator of Joyce

This post is mostly an English exercise for me to try and see how good are my translating and writing skills, so which better way to attempt it by translating an interview made to a translator? If you want the original interview you can find it here. Of course, if you find some grammatical errors or you don’t understand the meaning of a sentence (this is bound to happen), feel free to tell me! Sorry in advance to English majors and grammar nazis, this will make you cringe a lot.


Enrico Terrinoni is an Italian teacher and translator. His translation of Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Newton Compton in 2012, won the Premio Napoli the same year, proving itself as a critical and commercial success. As of today, in addition to contributing with the Manifesto’ s cultural page and occasionally with the Corriere della Sera, he’s working together with Fabio Pedone translating the last two books of Finnegans Wake, never published in Italy.

We of Dude Mag asked him what it means to be a translator and, particularly, a translator of Joyce. In this long interview we also talk about the occult (as a cognitive system), of Marxism as literary criticism, of Ulysses as a simple book and the translators as an exploited class.

We noticed that every interview with a translator always ends with [ the assertion of] the impossibility of translation, reciting our saying “to translate means to betray“. Let’s start with this, what can you say about that?
This is a non-question because the possibility is stated in terms of factuality: translations have always been a thing. Other than that, there’s also the fact that communication is made by translation, I don’t have to quote Jakobson to explain that translation isn’t only interlinguistic (between different languages) but intralinguistic (in the same language): we’re talking to each others but we’re also translating.
We translate thoughts in words, but also words in actions, translations are everywhere. John Florio, scholar of the Renaissance and friend of Giordano Bruno, wrote “My friend Nolano taught me that knowledge is born from translation“. To translate means to transmit and betrayal is inherent to transmission: when I transmit something it is inevitable to betray, it’s a part of communication. Communication moves on fabrications, the very same language permits lies.
I’m going to London to present a conference by the name of Impossible Translation, with Susan Bassnett, an important theorist of translation, and Declan Kiberd, known scholar of Joyce. The title is provocatory because if something is impossible then it shouldn’t happen, but translations are there. Rather: the more a work is ambiguous, the more it is open and translatable.

Your translation of Ulysses came out in 2012 for the Newton Compton series of Mammut. Can you tell us about the origin of this edition?

It was born by chance, I received a mail by an editor who was known for its usual commercial approach asking me if I wanted to translate Ulysses. I was shocked, I thought that it was a joke. Only after a while they explained me that they were looking for a scholar of Joyce who published some works about him and was also a translator of Irish authors. I satisfied both qualifications.

I’ve been studying Joyce all my life, on one hand I was a student of Giorgio Melchiori’s apprentices, great deus ex machina behind the last translation by De Angelis, on the other I studied in Ireland with Declan Kiberd who is the editor of Ulysses for the Penguin. I belong to those two important branches of Joycean studies. The idea of publishing Ulysses, a book read only by a bunch of people, with an editor which applied low prices to reach a great amount of readers, was what I would’ve searched for, if I was the one who would have chosen to translate Joyce’s great book. But it was proposed to me, and I can’t say no to this kind of offers.


How did you distance yourself from the previous translation of Giulio De Angelis?

I shouldn’t be the one to tell you the difference between my version and De Angeli’s one, which is excellent and very valid. Critics said three things fundamentally.

The first is that my translation is more popular/demotic, it has a language closer to how it’s talked, De Angeli’s one was more noble and dignified. Was Joyce’s work noble or demotic? From my point of view, and many others’, Joyce’s language was mostly colloquial, a very basic languge which sometimes reaches some peaks. De Angelis, in consideration of the great writer, chose a dignified language.

The second thing they say is that mine is a comic text. De Angelis was more restrained. They even counted the amount of curse words in my translation, saying that Terrinoni doubled them. Another time we have to wonder: how was the original work? There were some curse words, but in the previous version some of them were adjusted, I don’t know if  it was because of censorship or jargon incomprehension. “Cock” became “uccellino”[“little bird”in Italian] in De Angeli’s version. Today, we all know that if someone calls us “cocksucker” they aren’t talking about little birds.

The third particularity observed by critics is the attention to the Irish context, Joyce’s English is by adoption; he wrote in English almost as a revenge to the language and the literature of the oppressors. With his work he tried to close with a boulder the mouth of the whitened tombstones of English literature and stop with Realism. In Ireland, Gaelic Irish was extinguishing in the ’50 and Joyce belonged to the first generation that had English as their first language. Andrew Gibson maintains that Joyce wrote for revenge against this linguistic and literary tradition of the oppressors. As such, English was weirdly used in Dublin. There’s a whole lexicon of words that mean different things if used in Dublin. The previous translators, great Shakespeareans scholars, for example didn’t know Irish jargon and always translated the same way.
At the beginning of the text there is a fundamental word, “scutter”, which in Dublinian means “shit”. In the English vocabulary the same word is a verb which means “scappare” [run away]. There’s this character who doesn’t find something in his pocket and yells “scutter!”, and it was translated as “run away!” The problem here is hermeneutic because Joyce, aware of this duality, knew that by writing in Dublinian he was taking revenge on English people who didn’t know what he was saying. I have entire notepads full of examples like this.

Joyce’s way of writing is difficult not only for every reader, but also for every translator. Which have been the greatest difficulties you found in a work like Ulysses? How did you overcome them?

The greatest difficulty was rejecting the style. When Joyce, as I told you before, writes against a literary tradition. In a particular chapter, the 14th, he makes a parody of all of the styles of English literature. Beginning from Anglo-Saxon’s compositions to Medieval Homiletics, from Gothic literature to the Realist novel. Joyce is making a parody of a writer in every page.
How can we get it in Italian? If instead of Dickens we put a parody of Manzoni, we’d lose the political meaning of the work. It was done in Spain, where they mocked Spanish literature. But this is politically incorrect because Joyce not only wasn’t making fun of Spanish people, but he wasn’t either making fun of Irish people. If anything he was parodying English people.

As if Catalan people mocked Castilians.


How did you solve this problem?

With my first editor, Carlo Bigazzi, we parodied the styles, cronologically speaking. We started from an ancient Italian style and we show its progression. This way you can see our betrayal.

So, you also used the history of Italian literature, Starting from, I don’t know, Dante or Petrarca?

Yes, but without identifying it on the particular author. The important thing was to show the chronological progression, because one of the topics is how language is an embryonic path which starts from nothing and ends in a complete form.

In cases like these you acknowledge how betrayal is inherent to translation: you lose something.
A synonym of “tradurre” [to translate] is “rendere” [to give back], and every “resa” [restitution] is also “arrendersi” [to give up. This string of words is basically an untranslatable word play in Italian. And he knew it, given the topic].

The prose of Ulysses puts together an open dialogue, made by streams of consciousness and free associations. As a translator, did you feel the need to rationalize suggestive material, meaning to follow Joyce’s mental path, and then to propose it again in an equally suggestive form?

This is an interesting topic, because the previous translations, and also in Gianni Celati’s one, are very interesting and musical, often they correct the sentences, especially the streams of consciousness: when they found something strange, they put it back together. What seems chaos, is not chaos, but looks like it. And if it looks like chaos you have to leave it like that. Even at the level of grammar and syntax: when the subject of a phrase is uncertain, it isn’t uncertain because we didn’t understand it.
This happens particularly in the latest chapter, Molly’s one, which always comes to mind because there’s no punctuation. But this wasn’t the only problem, because he also took out apostrophes, and those are important in English. If you take those out, think about “he’ll” which becomes “hell”, or “we’d” becoming “wed”. When something like that happens, the text permits you to read it both ways. Then you must realize that you have to create that very same estrangement, but in Italian. In Joyce’s works (and even more in Wake) you never know what you’re reading.

And the author intentionally does this.

The author is a ghost, I won’t say that he died (as many others did), but the translator doesn’t have to understand the intention of the author, but the intention of the text.


How did you work on those words?

We had to create a double possibility, shift the words, making so that a sentence could go in both directions. Other that that I also made another effort that many loved and hated, that is taking away the apostrophes also in Italian. Example: “d’anni” [of years] becomes “danni” [damages].


You reproduce the same word play in another context?

Yes, but it’s clear that this isn’t an equivalent. Where there’s “danni” there is “years”, not “damages”. It’s a compensation, an attempt to create the effect.

I worked on auxiliary words also in Italian, always removing the apostrophes as Joyce did, and how Joyce suggested to do to whomever would have translated it in French. But since “cha” [colloquial word for it/he/she has] doesn’t mean anything [this word is only said, never written] and looks like Portoguese or Spanish, in cases like this I reproduce a strange Italian, “cià” with an accented “à”, which I also used indipendently, removing the etymological “h” and leaving some accented “à” as third singular person for the verb “avere” [to have, the correct third singular person is ha]. Some critics told me that I take too much liberty.

I have my reasons, the accented “à” without an “h” was a form used by low class people in the fifties, 60 years ago, the generation of our grandparents, but also by people like Dossi, Scarpigliati or Palazzeschi. This is both demotic and highly innovative.

Ambiguity is the principle I wanted to bring on: Joyce produced a text which is for everyone, that isn’t for intellectuals, but it is a Gramscian text, meaning that it can elevate the reader; if it talks to him in an apparently simple way, behind simplicity there’s difficulty. We don’t have to recreate a difficult work, as it was made, because Ulysses, in the way it uses its language, is a really simple book in English.


A Gramscian text?

Yes, I think it is [Of course, this doesn’t mean that Joyce was inspired by Gramsci, but only that it used a way of writing similar to Gramsci’s way of communicating]. But Gramsci didn’t limit to explain things in a simple manner, because he wanted us to elevate ourselves so that we could understand more complex things. Gramsci’s language isn’t immediate to understand, you have to follow it, but when you get the key everything becomes clear and simple. The democratic writer shouldn’t be the writes who gives simplicity, but he has to be the one who tries to elevate the reader, making him a more critical reader.


Technically, how did you find your way out in a fragmentary text of 800 pages? In translating, did you adopt a linear procedure from the first page to the last or did you identify coherent blocks of text on which you could work initially and then come up with a good Italian prose?

My Ulysses had at least six different versions before being published. I still don’t consider it definitive, and it changed a lot after the last 8 reprints. With the first version, the one revised by Bigazzi, I went at it chronologically because Ulysses looks chaotic, but it’s a really well-organized book that Joyce wrote chronologically. But the problem of this strange book which we could call a collection of 18 short stories, is that the chapters aren’t connected by a plot, but by recurring syntax, grammar and metaphors which return from page one to page 800.

In the previous translations, also because the translators of that time didn’t have the critical apparatus of today, they didn’t notice how the same word structure appeared in distant parts of the work. So  I started translating chronologically, taking plethora of notes, but when I realized Joyce’s revisions of his work while he was producing it, revisions which formed those strange matches, I also had to recreate them. Let’s say that starting from the second translation I began translating random. I passed to associative revisions, because Ulysses is a strange book, a book which teaches you while you read, a life-book.


Before starting the translation of the work, you studied for years the Irish culture and how it informs you on Joyce’s novel. What is the occult Joyce inside in Ulysses?

Occult Joyce. The Hidden in Ulysses is a book I wrote in 2007. I theorised a new subgenre of writing which is the hidden writing, in which the surface of the text is completely misleading because what counts is its unconscious. The versions are two, the Marxian one and the Freudian one. The Marxian version considers the couple latent/manifest, while the Freudian versions is similar but brings it to the dream plane. This duality is similar to the occult philosophy of the Renaissance.

Giordano Bruno, in “De umbris idearum”, talks about an hidden way of writing, which is mnemonics. He based this on the platonic duality of what’s hidden and can be unveiled but, in the moment it’s unveiled, it becomes another mask. It’s not possible to unveil it entirely, but it’s to be taken into consideration the possibility that everything we see is always behind a mask.


What’s Joyce’s role in this?

Joyce was a strange character and everything interested him, and also about occult philosophy. Very few critics talked about this, mostly because we see occultism as something retrograded. And yet the great philosophers and artist of the ‘500 were mostly occultists.


Joyce was interested mostly by the Occultism of the ‘500 or by the one closer to him, the occult rebirth of the ‘800, like Theosophy?

Joyce looked to everything. In the ’20, he had at home a book by Rudolf Steiner on the occult meaning of blood, some pamphlets of Annie Besant and a copy of the Occult Review. You have to consider that one of the first reviews of Ulysses was written by Aleister Crowley, the biggest Satanist of the world. He talks about it as a novel of the mind.

You can also consider the fact, but this is only a provocatory theory, that Ulysses takes place in the 16th of June, 1904 which is the day in which Joyce dates a girl who makes him a man and then marries etc. But the 16th of June, 1885 in Dublin was founded the Dublin Hermetic Society which then merge into the Theosophical Society of Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky. For some reasons our critics of the Enlightenment overlooked this particular, which is actually fundamental.

Fundamentally because Joyce writes a secret book which you can calmly read as a little story with a simple plot, nothing happens in Ulysses. But it’s important what’s behind it, what you can find behind a writing that needs to be unveiled, and “Isis unveiled” is a well-known book of Madame Blavatsky. You’re coerced into going always deeper because behind a mask there’s another mask, like Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”, author loved by Joyce.


Let’s talk about you, do you consider yourself being part of a specific school of thought regarding translation? You wrote about the “Discourse Analysis”, how can you explain this procedure to an amateur of linguistics?

This is difficult to explain because the “Critical Discourse Analysis” (CDA from now on) is a discipline that is between sociolinguistics and the study of the political science of the subject, basically, the field of Foucaltian studies. It only skims and peripherally the literary ground. In the end of the ’80, some scholars such as Roger Fowler created a discipline which didn’t last very long, the “Linguistic Criticism”, which consisted into the application of some of those that would’ve been the tools of CDA in literature.

Since literature is fiction par excellence, it’s complicated decipher it with the political approach of linguistic, i.e. to comprehend which is the balance of power that brings to textuality. But, Joyce is used to deconstructing this idea that literature is fiction: he decided that this book has to put an end to the story of the novel, he decided that the novel is a lie, that this representative chimaera, realism, is false. Realism makes ends meet, makes teleological something which is not. Joyce doesn’t write stories, he writes a day and reports the constitutive chaos of everyday. He tells us: novels are a lie, what I’m doing is transcribing life. This way we can apply CDA in his works because Joyce is a political writer.


A political writer?

Some critics considered him a coward because he didn’t participate during wars, he distanced himself from them, differently from Beckett who took up the arms. He thought about his family and moved it to escape conflict. Critics were wrong in their judgement because he was a political writer, a writer who wants his people to wake up. There’s an interesting piece by Tom Stoppard where this soldier provokes Joyce after the First World War, asking him: -During the war, what did you do, Mr Joyce?- And Joyce –I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?-


On one hand you took interest in an occultist Joyce, almost to a metaphysical point, on the other you explained us that yours is a foucaultian look, marxian, horizontal, which observes the concrete power balance placed as the basis of every act, even in the literary one. Isn’t there a contradiction between those two perspectives?

The contradiction is illusory. Firstly because knowing the occult in Joyce has a philological meaning: we have to comprehend why this writer so open and Enlightened had his house so full of Occult books. So I reread the source text of theosophy, those that Joyce had, to see how they connected with his work, it wasn’t a particular interest of mine. But I have to say that when we talk about literature and art, we must not be manicheists.

Joyce is Irish, just like Oscar Wilde. This one, Decadent and aesthete, had written “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” which places him in a totally different light. There’s a teaching of Wilde which identifies perfectly with Joyce: in literature something is true when also its opposite is true. A consideration which could also look commonplace, but it synthesize a cardinal point of Joyce’s writings, i.e. his belonging to the Brunian creed of the coincidence of the opposites. Forces that when they collide don’t annihilate each other, but reach a new form. Something that in Hegel and Marx is called Dialectic. [Umberto] Eco was right when he said that Joyce was a Medieval writer.

Because, if it’s true what Ellmann says, which is that we have yet to become his contemporaries, it’s also true that Joyce brought on an idea of humanism that we lost, an humanism in which you could be a poet, a mathematician and an engineer at the same time.

This is regarding Joyce. What about you? Was it difficult to compromise CDA with Occultism, with something that can’t theoretically be reduced to politics? If you talk to Aleister Crowley he won’t tell you that his text is a play on balance of power, he’d tell you that it is eternal.

This isn’t absolutely true. I’m not a fan of Crowley, I don’t care about him, nor about his friend of the Golden Dawn, MacGregor Mathers. The latter was one who really cared about the independence of Scotland, and walked around in a kilt. We must comprehend that when we enter the territory of literature, concept such as truth and logic become relative to its subject and to the use of its language.

I believe that Joyce is a similar writer to Lewis Carrol. His Alice could believe in six impossible things before breakfast.


But Alice in Wonderland has a long tradition of esoteric interpretations.

Yes, and this is becoming true also for Joyce, I’m thinking about the scholars who are working on the role of alchemy and the Cabala in Finnegans Wake, for example. We also find an analysis of this kind in Book of the Dark of John Bishop. Joyce takes a lot from the occult, but not because he believed on it, but because he used it as a cognitive system.

It has been said that Joyce operated a translation [geometrically speaking] of Hermes Trismegistus’ Tabula Smaragdina. In this text is written “Whatever is below is similar to that which is above.” while Joyce said “As here is there” [sorry, I don’t want to search for the direct quote in a book of over 800 pages, my poor translation is all you get]. To translate [geometrically] horizontally and laically what was once vertical and metaphysical creates connections Engelsianelly social [I lost him there]. Occultism in Joyce is not a profession of faith, but a tool used to make us understand things.


Good. Let’s end this chatter with another topos of interviews to translators. What would you suggest to an aspiring translator of narratives?

My first thought would be: “Don’t do it”. Translators are very badly treated by the editorial industry, excluding those who already are well-known.


Are you talking about the current Italian situation?

Yes. When they asked me to do Ulysses, I was in Indiana, Lilly Library, and the curator of this library was Breon Mitchell, an American translator of Kafka. When we were talking he told me he made 100 dollars every page. At the time I made a fourth of that amount, and it was even a better sum than any other of my young colleagues.


How can someone not end up as one of your colleagues?

My advice is not to get taken advantage of, but also to think with solidarity and class, don’t accept contract at a minimum pay rate. Don’t take as granted that the editor knows more than you. Remember that the translators are the ones giving a job to editors, not vice-versa.

This doesn’t mean that you have to start a war with editors, but you have to be aware that you work in certain conditions and that you should not accept less than what you think you deserve. Unfortunately I see that young translators are treated really badly, and it isn’t a given that they’re worse than me, on the contrary…


Talking about English, is it because of the spread in schools of the language that aspiring translators today are finding more competition than ever before? How can someone young make his proposal be worth?

You have to become little experts in what you do. Making proposal to editors that seem conscientious. Being able to write a credible editorial proposal means showing to an editor that I am the expert, I am the one bringing a contribution, a contribution that will make you money. I don’t go around begging for work, I am the one giving work.

Part of this sagacity is also in how you choose the right editor: I can’t make a proposal of chick lit to Adelphi [publishing house for high literature], can I? So, we need to research both on the author we want to translate and on the editorial world. Sometimes young translators send curriculums everywhere and don’t know that this kind of candidacy are promptly rejected, or that they incur to someone who takes advantage of it and they get paid five or six euros per page. Knowing who you’re talking to a making timely proposals is fundamental.


Have you started like that?

Exactly. I was still in Ireland when I saw that in Italy a new publishing house was bor, which unfortunately had a short life, Giano Editore. They just published a book by Flann O’Brien. In that period I was studying with a writer coetaneous of O’Brian, a good friend of his, Brendan Behan. When the latter died, Flann O’Brian wrote a necrology: “This evening Dublin feels a little more silent than usual, the owner of the biggest heart that ever beat in Ireland in the latest forty years is now dead ”.

I thought about this: if the editor did Flann O’Brien it could also do Brendan Behan. I was right: I wrote to them, they were interested in it and then we published.

Do you think that this was another generation?

Another generation it was, but a close one, I’m talking about 2003, ten years ago.
There’s the crisis and everything, but translation are still going in Italy, just watch the influx to the “Days of literary translation of Urbino”. The problem is that there’s a market that wants to lower the prices. And the editors don’t notice how underpaying their translators doesn’t benefit: if you give me five euros per page, do you think I’m going to do a great work?


You’re confirming that the problem of low quality are underpaid translations.

Exactly, I notice this every day when I review books for the “Manifesto”. A great publishing house chooses a great author but gives him to an underpaid translator who is young. But this isn’t the fault of the translator, who is underpaid and knows that there will be a revision anyways, the fault is of the editor which chooses not to invest.




3 comments on “Enrico Terrinoni, translator of Joyce

  1. Frog-kun says:

    Reblogged this on Fantastic Memes and commented:
    A really interesting interview with an Italian translator, translated by @Sephyxer (https://twitter.com/sephyxer). Anyone interested in the art and industry of literary translation should check it out.


  2. (via Froggy) This piece was a fascinating choice for a translation exercise! I can barely even comprehend what a task translating Finnegans Wake or Ulysses would be. They’re cover-to-cover with wordplay and ambiguity and hard enough to parse out as it is. I wasn’t even remotely aware of the Occultist interpretations of Ulysses, either. Thanks!


    • Sephyxer says:

      Yeah, everytime I see a pun in a book I always wonder how it could be translated in another language, so it really fascinates me seeing how a work such as Ulysses could get adapted!

      Also, thanks for taking the time to read and comment, I really appreciate it 🙂


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