Words, Words, Words—The Man Behind the Curtain
Andrea Camilleri’s hardboiled detective mysteries featuring Inspector Montalbano have been one of my favorites since reading the first, “The Shape of Water.” Along with many other fans, I eagerly awaited the next one each year (sometimes more than one per year!) to immerse myself in these cleverly plotted stories and to let them transport me to the wonderful seascapes of Sicily. Although I love to accompany the craggy, sometimes cranky Montalbano as he unravels each mystery’s solution, I enjoy even more, sitting with Montalbano as he devours meal after wonderful meal. But without the good efforts of Stephen Sartarelli, an Italian American born in Youngstown, Ohio, these books would have remained a mystery to me, hidden by Italian language and Sicilian dialect, both beyond my capabilities to decipher.
Camilleri was already a well-known (in Italy), writer of historical fiction and more when he decided, upon retirement, to mine the landscapes of his childhood hometown of Porto Empodocole in Sicily for this series. The handsome, irreverent detective, Inspector Montalbano lives in fictional Vigata. The hero’s name, Montalbano, is an homage to a popular Spanish crime fiction scribe, Montalban. Camilleri has marched forward with Montalbano over twenty-five novels bringing the crimes of Vigata and their solutions to people all over the world. The books have been translated into many languages and have been made into a television series in Italy, (Available on DVD to English speakers with subtitles). It is no wonder that tears were shed all over the world when Camilleri died on July 17 of this year at age 93, just before the American release of the 25th Montalbano novel, “The Other End of the Line.”
Sartarelli has translated all of the Montalbano books into English, carefully crafting the blend of standard Italian and Sicilian dialect into fast paced reading that captures both the poetic essence of Camilleri’s prose and the hard-nosed patina of the world of cops and robbers, often expressed in the books, in Montalbano’s Sicilian dialect. How does Sartarelli achieve this miracle of words? He agreed to share his secrets with Strand readers.
Strand: Stephen, when did you begin to work as a translator?
Sartarelli: From a very young age, I aced as a “translator” in the family. Starting in my college years, professional translation had always seemed a way, however ill-paid, to earn a living while being a poet. It was a way of avoiding becoming a professor or teacher as most poets do, although I did that too, for three years at Bard College in the 1990s.
One of the published books I worked on was by Sicilian writer, Stefano D’Arrigo’s Horcynus Orca.
Strand: How were you put in touch with Camilleri?
Sartarelli: Camilleri fell into my hands when William Weaver, the brilliant translator of many now-classic Italian authors recommended me for the job after turning it down himself. He was too busy. I think he was translating Umberto Eco at the time; He knew about my work with Sicilian dialect (the D’Arrigo book) and thought I would be a good fit. We had also worked together on a translation of a difficult book by Roberto Colasso, the Ruin of Kasch.
I think at least four or five. of the series were already in print in Italian at the time.
Strand: You have been the translator for all the Montalbano books, right?
Sartarelli: Yes, and some of his historical novels as well.
Strand: In addition to working with the language itself, how else did you prepare for translating these books—to bring your English-speaking audience the nuances of an Italian detective’s process and life?
Sartarelli: Reading. I must confess, when I was a teenager I read some pulp stuff like Alistair McLean and Mickey Spillane, as well as classics of the genre like Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, but as I matured and became more interested in poetry and what I thought was more “serious” literature, I completely ignored the genre.
When I first read Camilleri, to see whether I would take the job or not, I loved his writing at once, so there was no problem there. But I was a little worried that my ignorance of the genre might prove a liability, so I immediately started boning up, reading some 20th century American classics such as Chandler and Hammett, as well as some of the popular Europeans of recent years, such as the French Fred Vargas, the Swede Henning Mankel, the Spanish/Catalonian Manuel Vazquez-Montalban (in homage to whom Camilleri named his chief detective). And I must say the American authors I read gave me a few ideas as to how to confer at least a suggestion of the “hard-boiled” style on Camilleri. Nowadays I will occasionally pick up a mystery novel—say, Dorothy Sayers, P.D, James…
Strand: We’ve heard there is a “final” Montalbano in a vault to be issued after Camilleri’s death. Will you be translating that one as well?
Sartarelli: As far as I know, he’s got two more Montalbanos in the vault, the last two in the series, which he wrote about ten years ago, so if he were to die the series could be finished. At any rate I’ll be translating them eventually. He was so prolific I’m sure he’s got a few historical novels in the vault as well.
Strand: Have you enjoyed the Montalbano books? If so, what do you like best about them?
Sartarelli: Of course I enjoy them. There are a great many things I like about them. The sense of humor, the impeccable comic timing, the wonderful Sicilian characterizations, the evocation of the atmosphere, the playful plots. But perhaps what I like best about Camilleri is the deep sense of humanity, and human warmth, that his voice and vision of the world convey. It is no small achievement, given the rather dark subject matter he almost always works with.
Strand: Thank you, Stephen, for the interview and for making it possible for English speakers to enjoy the Camilleri novels.
The latest Inspector Montalbano Mystery, The Other End of the Line, is out in the United States from Penguin Press.