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Language arts

January 27, 2011

Italo-British author Simonetta Hornby spoke with DW about writing her latest book in her adopted tongue of English - and translating the Italian version herself.

Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Italian-born Hornby feels more comfortable writing about some subjects in EnglishImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Born and brought up in Palermo, Sicily, Simonetta Agnello Hornby has written four novels. Her first, "The Almond Picker," won two prestigious Italian literary awards and has been translated into 12 languages.

She originally went to England at the age of 17 to study the language. There, she met and fell in love with an Englishman, whom she married at 21. Hornby has lived in England since 1969 and has worked as a children's lawyer in London for the past 30 years. "There's Nothing Wrong with Lucy" is the first novel she's written in English, her second language.

Having completed the English manuscript, when it came to publishing the book in Italian, she decided to re-write it herself rather than have it translated.

Deutsche Welle: Tell me about your decision to translate this book yourself.

Simonetta Agnello Hornby: It's the first published work that I've done which was written in English, and I then had to decide whether I was going to have it translated or not. And I couldn't face being translated in my other language, if you like, so I decided to do it myself. And what I did is I re-dictated it to somebody from Feltrinelli, one of the top editors we have. She came and we spent four days: me looking at the English text and then speaking in Italian. And it was an extraordinary experience because I realized how the text changed.

Cathedrale of Palermo
Hornby grew up in Palermo and says Italian is the language of her childhoodImage: picture-alliance / Bildagentur Huber

I mean, there were bits of dialogue which didn't fit in Italian so I stopped it. And descriptions were different. I remember I was describing the sky in St. James Park. In the English sky I was talking about the color of the sky. In Italian I had to talk about the clouds, not the color of the sky. It's extraordinary. But when you think of it, logically, it's right because language is harmony and some words are more harmonious than others in a language or in a particular sequence.

Which is interesting also in terms of the title of this book because in English it's called "There's Nothing Wrong With Lucy," which in Italian has no relevance.

But that's the beauty of different languages, you see. "There's Nothing Wrong With Lucy" of course was the original title. Then I had to translate it and it couldn't read: "Non c'è nulla con Lucy, Lucy sta bene." You can't do it.

But there are lots of things, I mean, when you think of simple words - "I hate you" can be translated very well in Italian but you can't translate "I love you." You just have to use different words. That is the richness of a language. A language is the soul of a nation, of people. The language is not just the way of identifying a shoe or a microphone or a finger, it's just a way of expressing yourself.

So in a way, by writing this book in English, you were really identifying yourself with this world that you're writing about.

I was talking of the world which has been my life for the last 40 years.

"There's Nothing Wrong with Lucy" is based on the true story of a man you defended, who was accused of sexually abusing one of his daughters... I wonder if your career as a lawyer, which has always been in your second language, made it inevitable that you would write a book about one of your cases in English.

I couldn't have written it in Italian. It's not even automatic, it would have been impossible. The subject is English, the terminology is English, the tribunals are only English. I couldn't have written it in Italian.

I feel very British when I'm here, and I feel like a Londoner. And when I'm in Palermo I feel without doubt what I am: a Sicilian. What is good to write in English is that if I write on a subject on which I've worked, like court cases, children, sex, family life - all that has been primarily in English for me so that would be easier for me.

If I think I have to write about love of a mother for a baby and I think of my mother, then I will go into Italian. So I would consider Sicilian, which is my other language, as the language of affection, of sweetness, of softness, of love as child's love or mother and child's love. English is the language of my adult life; and Italian the language of my academic life because I got a degree in Italian and went to school in Italian.

I'm not a linguist, I don't have the gift of going from one language to another. That's why I have to stick to a language. And I've worked and lived in England so England is the country where I've read most and is the language I've spoken most.

You've said that re-writing the English conversations in Italian was one of your biggest challenges.

Clouds in the sky
A description of the sky proved difficult to translateImage: José Ospina-Valencia

Italians speak more than the English. […] While in English you can have a conversation all with one or two words, in Italian the reader will get confused. So I had to lengthen or take away. Also, the descriptions - in Italian you have very long descriptions which fit. If you translate them into English they look awful. So the result is that I had to lengthen some of the descriptions from English into Italian.

Are there any things that you discovered about either of the languages in this process?

I think I discovered that each of them has its own beauties. And I discovered that I feel more at ease with English because it's crisper, it's shorter, it's more to the point.

So it suits your personality?

I think it suits me. It would have suited me even if I'd never come to England but it suits me. Sicilian is like English: sharp, short, the less said the better.

So you actually feel almost more comfortable in English than in your mother tongue?

I certainly feel more comfortable in my work. English is very rich. It's a language that you can adapt. It has got more vocabulary, it's got tremendous constructions of the language. It's a rich language because it has got the Saxon and the Latin. It's ever changing, there are no rules. You go on and on and on changing things, while Italian is stilted in many ways. And the number of verbs that there are is just a joy.

Interview: Dany Mitzman / jen
Editor: Kate Bowen