Crime Time: Translating The Last Man Standing

Crime Time, the print and online magazine edited by Barry Forshaw, are hosting an interview with Silvester Mazzarella, who translated Davide Longo’s The Last Man Standing. It’s perhaps more of an article than an interview, actually, focusing on a number of specific difficulties in rendering Longo’s text into English . . .

Early in the book the hero, Leonardo, calls at a local vineyard in the hope of selling his grape harvest. He finds the proprietor, Cesare Gallo, sitting on a sofa drinking his own wine: “What Leonardo had taken for a cardigan flung on the sofa moved and he realized that it was a [certosino]. Which of the possible meanings of this word would fit? Carthusian monk? Hermit? A kind of chocolate bread from Bologna? No; it could only be the kind of grey cat known in English as a Chartreux – not a familiar word to me; perhaps safer to put ‘grey short-haired cat’.

A little later Gallo is murdered and the locals have the killers shot against the high wall of the ‘sferisterio’. This refers to a special court for a game extremely popular in Italy until ousted by modern football a century ago. Similar to ‘pelota’ but in no way Spanish or Basque. Best just to put ‘handball court’.

Sometimes English words are used in Italian with a special meaning. For ‘writer’ may mean graffiti artist. And a ‘beauty’ is a vanity case, though not necessarily feminine. On the second page of the book, Leonardo ‘went into the bathroom, took his [beauty] from the shelf and put it into the holdall he was packing.’ I decided on ‘washbag’ as more appropriate.

Occasionally the original text may need to be changed where an inconsistency in the original manuscript has escaped the Italian publisher. Leonardo, temporarily imprisoned in a cage with an elephant, notices that the man slashing branches off trees with a ‘roncola’ (billhook) to feed the elephant has lost three fingers from his left hand. More than a hundred pages later Leonardo takes the same knife from the man, but by now it has become an ‘ascia’ (hatchet), which is what it must have been from the beginning, since its other function throughout the story is chopping off fingers against the flat surface of a table or desk: impossible with a curved instrument like a billhook.

Sometimes a footnote may be useful where something familiar to an Italian reader may be obscure in English. On p 113, Leonardo plans a Christmas present for a boy of twelve: ‘his first thought had been a book by Salgàri then, thinking [the boy] would not have much use for it, he had added a small box of tools’. The books of Emilio Salgàri (1862-1911) have never been much read in English, but Wikipedia tells us he was an immensely popular (if ultimately tragic) author of action-packed adventure stories, revered to this day “as the father of Italian adventure fiction and Italian pop culture and the ‘grandfather’ of the Spaghetti Western.” In this case no footnote was added to distract the reader as the Christmas present is not mentioned again.

On pp. 317-18 Leonardo quotes for his friend Clarisse an inspirational poem written by a woman ‘a century and a half ago’. Longo does not name the writer so a footnote to the text by the translator would be intrusive, but I have identified her as Anna de Noialles (1876-1933), a French poet of mixed Rumanian and Greek extraction, though I made my translation (‘When I see minds that have no pride’, etc) directly from Longo’s Italian.

Many thanks to Barry Forshaw and Silvester Mazzarella.

The Last Man Standing is available in Trade Paperback for £12.99. It will be available on Kindle for a limited period for £2.09.


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