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Interview with American wordsmith (and translator) Antony Shugaar –

Antony Shugaar is a literary translator who specializes in English translations of French and Italian. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.

Shugaar Jonathan
Anthony Shugaar - the interviewee Jonathan Goldberg - the interviewer


LMJ : Where were you born?

A.S.: In Hollywood, California. My parents lived in hot, unglamorous Encino when I was born, on a street named Babbitt, like the philistine anti-hero of Sinclair Lewis's novel. The only reason my parents were anywhere near Hollywood was that my mother wanted Chinese food. They went to a

Shugaar restaurant
Man Fook Low

Chinese restaurant called Man Fook Low, an improbably named but venerable old L.A. institution that closed recently, and my mother went into labor before the fortune cookies came. I later enjoyed putting Hollywood on my first application for a residency permit in Italy, until the policeman typing up the paperwork said, "Hollywood, eh? Born into the family business? Makes sense, you sort of look like Jerry Lewis." Which at the time I sort of did. I loved that irreverent but not cruel sense of humor. The Italian sense of humor is sharp and underappreciated.


LMJ : Do you come from a family of linguists?

Shugaar FiddlerA.S.: My father was no linguist, but he was born in a Polish shtetl [1] like the one in Fiddler on the Roof. (I saw the movie with him as a child, and he told me it reminded him very much of home.) He spoke Yiddish, read Hebrew, spoke Polish, and had a good smattering of German and Russian by the time he was ten. His town had been caught between Russian and German forces in World War One, and in Poland it was a good bet to know both languages, sort of betting both sides against the middle. At age 16 he moved to Canada, where he learned French and English. He became an American citizen in 1943, the night before enlisting in the U.S. Army, and he learned some Italian in World War Two. Spanish was his weakest language, but living in Southern California he picked it up. What is that, nine languages? I don't know how meaningful it is, but I remember the realization, at age nine or ten, that my father was not a native English-speaker. Probably when he said something like, "It's 7 o'clock kids, time to up-get!"

LMJ: How did you gain a grounding in French and Italian, two languages from which you translate into English?

A.S.: I've always been interested in language and wordplay, and in college I majored in classics, so I had Latin and Greek in my late teens. I studied with a remarkable pair of professors, Bill and Betty McKibben. Bill was tall and skinny and had a white goatee, and he looked like he ought to be wearing a chiton [2]. He knew Sanskrit and read about ten other languages. Betty was small and vibrant and spoke a lot like Julia Child, and until you've heard her reel off a line of Catullus in that voice, you haven't heard Latin. She told me about living in Rome in the late forties, and meeting a very upright-looking woman dressed in black on the stairs. One day, the two women were leaving the building at the same time and she heard the concierge call out, "Buon giorno, Signora Montessori!" Her stories made me want to move to Italy. And in the very early days of New Wave music, when I was living in Los Angeles after leaving college, I happened to see Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria. All Cabiria's low-life friends dressed just like the New Wavers I'd run into in the L.A. clubs. All these different clues were pointing me toward Italy, and once I got there, sheer economic imperatives made translating look like a good solution.

LMJ: Where did you study and where did you work during that period?

A.S.: My first couple of years at college were at Grinnell, in Iowa (where the tag line of the local radio station was "KDIC, 88.9 FM—Radio in the Cornfields." I felt a little isolated, and left Grinnell after two years. When I should have been studying political science, I dabbled in Italian, and took courses in Italian at UCLA, then left for Italy on an impulse and some savings from six months working as a short-order cook. After a few weeks in Rome. I headed for Perugia, and enrolled at the Universita per Stranieri di Pergia, an Italian school for foreigners. As I started to run out of money, I hung around the school's administrative office, asking about work tutoring or whatever else an American might be able to do. My first paid translation job was an incredible mess: done with a ballpoint pen on that distinctive Italian graph paper that students seem to use instead of lined paper, and—crucial detail—from English into Italian. Absolutely wrong on the first point: no translator can work from his or her native tongue into a foreign target language, any and all claims to the contrary. I had never even translated before, so I shudder to think what kind of Dada masterpiece I inadvertently produced. After that, I found work in a mid-sized town in the Italian Alps called Cuneo, translated in the proper direction (from Italian into English) for a company called Poliglot SpA, which offered translations at the very cutting edge of existing technology, via telex (their slogan included the memorable words—"con la banda perforata!" meaning that their telexed translations could be received and recorded on a perforated yellow strip of punch tape, a cross of ticker tape and punch cards that were a now forgotten predecessor of the floppy disk).

LMJ: Were you able to complete your university studies in the USA?

A.S.: Yes. I came back and got a BA from UCLA in Italian studies and went on to get Masters from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

LMJ: With the experience gained in translating for the Italian agency, what were your next steps in the world of translating?

A.S.: One of the things I learned that's crucial to having a career in translation, at least I believe so, is that knowing how to get the work is almost as important as knowing how to do the work. I translated non-fiction, technical, commercial, and design-oriented material in the city where I lived Shugaar 2for almost ten years, Milan. I translated every issue of an Italian men's fashion magazine, MONDO UOMO, for I think three years. I worked for FMR, a fine-arts magazine published by Franco Maria Ricci, a charismatic and visionary publisher. I also started working as an agent in publishing, and attended just about every Frankfurt Book Fair for years. I've agented and scouted, and I've worked in every walk of publishing, from representing fine color printers in Italy to publishers in the U.S. and the U.K. to doing readers reports for American publishers. It's tinker's trade, but it's a way of keeping in touch with what's coming out and where publishing is going.

It's also very good, I think, to have experience in translating a wide variety of subjects. I've done histories of Ferrari, medical advertising, commercial bids for turn-key plant installations in third-world countries, fashion writing, design theory, art history, political economics: if you've worked through every field, you have a much better idea of the pliancy and tactics that a "foreign" language uses—say, Italian or French or, with me to a lesser degree, Spanish—and how it fits with the comparable tactics in the target language, English.

LMJ: What was the first book you translated?

A.S.: I don't remember whether it was "Material of Invention", from the Italian, or "The Deserter" from the French. The former described innovations in Italian product design at a time when designers were inventing not only products but the materials with which their products

Shugaar 3
Jean Giono

were fashioned. The latter was a lesser known work by the distinguished French writer, Jean Giono. My publisher used the translation to accompany a series of naif paintings of Limner art. (In early 19th-century America, a limner artist was one who had little if any formal training and would travel from place to place to solicit commissions.)




LMJ: Do you establish contact with all the authors whose works you translate.

A.S.: I don't go out of my way to do that. I believe that the source material should speak for itself and it is the translator's role to replicate its real

Shugaar 5
Massimo Carlotto

meaning, without excessive reliance on the explanations of authors. But I have met some of my authors, such as Massimo Carlotto (Bandit Love, The Fugitive, Bandit Love, Poisonville [with Marco Videtta], At the End of a Dull Day), Stefano Benni (Timeskipper, and the well-received Margherita Dolce Vita), and Valeria Parrella (For Grace Received).


LMJ: Do you recall any interesting impressions from those meetings.

Shugaar 4
Stefano Benni

A.S.: I went to Rome with my family when my daughter was eight, I think, and we met Stefano Benni for lunch. Benni is brilliant and funny and a born improviser. We had spaghetti of course, and in the Italian way, it was served in a bowl with a fork and a knife. My daughter had grown up twirling her spaghetti with a fork into a large tablespoon, and she was at a loss how to proceed. With a novelist's eye for situational detail, Benni immediately asked what was wrong, and my wife explained. With a grand sweeping gesture, Benni put up one hand in the international "halt" gesture, said "I'll take care of it," and hurried off to get a spoon. He returned with both hands behind his back, stood in a waiter's stance by my daughter's chair and leaned forward, then with a flourish and a proud smile, he produced a comically tiny espresso spoon. He waited two or three beats—it was truly virtuoso stagework—as my daughter's face fell and one thought clearly ran through her mind: How could you use such a tiny utensil to spin pasta? Then, with another, quieter smile, Benni brought out his other hand, with an almost equally comical outsized soup spoon. It was brilliant physical comedy, sweet and yet pungent. It's very much what's at play underneath the language in Benni's books.


This text © 2013 by Antony D. Shugaar

Blog footnotes:

[1] shtetl - a small Jewish town or village in eastern Europe. Origin: 1940s: Yiddish, 'little town'.

[2] A chiton (Greek: χιτών, khitōn, meaning tunic) - a sewn garment.
(In a different context it means a marine mollusk that has an oval flattened body with a shell of overlapping plates.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.