Meet the Translator: Interview with Clarissa Botsford (Italian to English)

Today’s Meet the Translator post is a follow up to my blog post where I reviewed Oxygen by Sacha Naspini and translated by Clarissa Botsford. I thought I would take the opportunity to find out more about not only the translating process but also more about the translator herself Clarissa Botsford.

First, could you please introduce yourself.

Hi, thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about my translating practice. I grew up in the UK and moved to Italy straight after my degree with a job teaching English and translation in Rome University. I would never have imagined at the time that forty years later I would still be here! I’ve brought up three bilingual children here, which, in addition to my teaching English and literary translation, has made me hyper-aware of the translation traps between the two languages. Many years of first-hand experience of the country and its quirks has also played a very important role. I’m an avid reader, a musician and a Humanist celebrant and trainer. All of these different strands, I feel, feed into my work as a translator.

What was your inspiration for pursuing a career in translation? And how did you get started?

Aside from teaching translation to generations of students, which is fantastic practice in collaborative language manipulation and thinking on your feet—as anyone who runs translation workshops will know—I also used to work at an Italian publisher’s. It was there that I first started translating non-fiction. I did this with my friend and colleague Charles Lambert, who then went on to become a very good writer. One of us would read the source text and produce an inchoate phrase which the other would put down on the (very early computer) screen in a form that approximated an English sentence. We would then have a great time perfecting the text. I think this was the best training I could ever have hoped for, though back then we were doing it purely for the money! I didn’t venture into literary publication until my children had left home and were already established in their careers. I think mental space (we live in a very small apartment in the centre of Rome) and time are vital factors, especially for women. I didn’t have A Room of My Own until that time, in fact. Another factor is confidence. Putting yourself out there, sending out proposals and not receiving a response, can be very dispiriting. My first boost came from a Pen/Heim award that ultimately led to my first book-length publication, Elvira Dones’s Sworn Virgin (And Other Stories, 2014), which I literally sent in blind. The translation received some great reviews and continues to be a “long seller”. Elvira and I became good friends; we did a Sworn Virgin book tour and also taught at the BLTC Summer School together in 2019, an experience I’d love to repeat. Since this “breakthrough” I have had a trickle of work coming in. It’s not enough to live on: there are not very many Italian books translated into English per year (compared to German and French, that is) as there is much less funding available, and there are some excellent, well-established translators out there (as well as a famous new player!), so I am grateful for what comes my way.

Why did you want to translate Oxygen?

I was approached by Michael Reynolds from Europa Books for the project. I’d been working on another book by Sasha Naspini called Le Case, published by the Italian mother company, Edizioni e/o, which had been optioned for TV. In some ways his style is typical of the bawdy Tuscan vernacular tradition from Bocaccio onwards — think Roberto Benigni. But there is a much more sinister element, too. In Oxygen, Naspini explores the dark underbelly (and psyche) of close-knit, provincial communities. His books are the perfect antidote to the romanticized Under the Tuscan Sun or Eat, Pray, Love vision of Italian life. And much more besides, of course. No spoilers! In any case, translating Oxygen and Nives was a challenge that I was excited to accept.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a translator?

First of all: read, read, read. Translators are the finest and closest readers any writer will ever have the good fortune to come across, but if you haven’t read widely and passionately you will not develop the malleability you need to tackle a wide range of styles. Second: practice. The more you do, the better you get. I tell my students to pick up any book and translate the first paragraph. One a day. Just to keep your hand in. Third: work collaboratively with others, ask people to read your work and give comments, don’t be scared to receive criticism or give it, and don’t think of your text as sacred. It can (and should) be changed. Fourth, be patient, build a portfolio of related skills. It’s very hard to get established, you’ll need other sources of income. Finally: believe in what you do and never give up!

What authors/translators do you like to read? And what five books do you feel have really shaped and inspired you as a translator and a person?

I must confess I find it really hard to read books in translation without thinking about the translation process, even when it’s from a language I don’t know. Often, they are a clear example of how not to translate, which is also useful of course. That’s not to say I don’t read any. I do. It simply confirms my idea that it’s a brilliant translation if you don’t realize it is one. I desperately miss my dear friend and translation mentor, Frederika Randall, who lived in Rome and died last year. We would always read each other’s work, and her award-winning translations of Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian (Penguin Classics) and Giacomo Sartori’s I Am God (Restless Books) are an inspiration. Ann Goldstein has been a great support and encourages me when I’m feeling like the going is tough. We’ve enjoyed a steady email correspondence during lockdown, exchanging comments on our work. Tim Parks has also been influential. Way back when, we were both “lectors” in the Italian university system and suffered the same ignominious discrimination there, but he started writing, translating and writing about translation, and showed me there was a way forward. I’m sorry, I seem to have talked more about translators and less about books! 

What books are you excited about or working on now?

I’m working on a wonderful novel based on a true story about the mysterious disappearance of twin girls and their mother’s desperate attempt to rebuild an existence without them, even though there is no word in the language for a mother who has lost her children. I don’t want to say more for now but it is bound to make a big impact. I’ve just had a project fall through that I ‘d been really hoping to be working on over the summer so … anyone out there looking for a translator? I’m available!

Are there any Italian books that you would love to translate in the future?

There are lots, and one of my biggest frustrations as a translator is trying to get proposals and samples “out there” when so many publishers don’t accept submissions and you can’t contact editors directly. When I do manage to get through the hoops, the gap of up to a year before hearing back (with a rejection!) is also really hard to factor in when you are trying to plan your life. I have a fantastic crime series set in the Basilicata region, whose main protagonists are a woman state prosecutor and a carabiniere sidekick, that I desperately want to get published. Two seasons of the TV series based on the Imma Tataranni books are already out and hugely popular here. Any suggestions welcome! I’m also pushing for two of Elvira Dones’s novels, especially one about human trafficking that a socially-minded, feminist publisher might be interested in. There’s a bilingual reading of Burnt Sun on the wonderful YouTube channel Translators Aloud. I have a sample ready of Giulia Caminito’s novel, short-listed for the Strega literary prize. There are several other proposals on my website (, including samples from two fantastic Swiss Italian authors with Pro Helvetia funding available for the translation: Fabiano Alborghetti (Maiser, the Corn Man) and Fabio Andina (Felice’s Pool, with a bilingual reading available again on Translators Aloud). Lucy Rand and I have also proposed and translated a sample collaboratively of a novel by Francesca Melandri called Higher than the Sea, set on the prison-island of Asinara. 

As you can see, I never stop looking around and proposing, translating samples and sending them out, but unfortunately it doesn’t always get the books where I want to them to be: published in English!

When it comes to the promotion of the books that you have translated how involved are you?

It depends on the publisher. For Viola Ardone’s The Children’s Train, I produced a video with the author (again on Translators Aloud!) and HarperVia shared it on social media. I’m now active on Twitter, though I was a late starter, and try to promote other books in translation from publishers I’ve worked with. Unfortunately, since Covid, I haven’t been involved in any actual presentations, even online, which is disappointing of course. Hopefully, things will pick up in the future. 

Has the perception of Italian Literature in translation changed during the time you have worked as a translator?

I think it has. There’s been the Elena Ferrante phenomenon for a start, which has translated into more interest for Italian authors. Jhumpa Lahiri has also raised the stakes by writing in Italian and then translating herself back again. The Italian literary scene is quite staid: the Strega prize-giving ceremony the other day was a case in point, a throw-back from the 50s! Italian authors don’t always have agents who know the international book market, and many publishers simply leave it to us translators to promote their authors abroad saying they have no contacts, without realizing how difficult it is for us to do that. This means that books that are a little different, or authors from outside the established literary circles— new voices from working-class or migrant backgrounds, for example—struggle to reach an English-speaking audience. 

Finally, what are you currently reading.

To be honest, in this intense summer heat, with a few deadlines coming up, I’m relaxing with the new Tom Benjamin crime novel The Hunting Season about counterfeit truffle- trafficking in Bologna. I’d just finished Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss and needed some light relief. Next on my list is Time Parks’ Italian Life.

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and I cannot wait to read more of your translations in the future.

(Photo of the book is my own and photo of Clarissa Botsford is the property of Clarissa herself so please do not copy/take without permission first).

One response to “Meet the Translator: Interview with Clarissa Botsford (Italian to English)

  1. Pingback: August 2021 Wrap-Up | Where there's Ink there's Paper·

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