Chilean writer and journalist Luis Sepúlveda (1949 – 2020) was the author of nearly twenty novels, articles, screenplays and a few unforgettable children’s books. Over a period of twenty-seven years, Ilide Carmignani translated every one of his works into Italian. They became friends. After Sepúlveda succumbed to Covid-19, in April 2020, Ilide decided to undertake something he had always refused to do: write his autobiography. And so, in Storia di Luis Sepúlveda e del suo gatto Zorba, she resorts to the help of Diderot (Sabelotodo in the Spanish original of Sepúlveda’s Story of the Seagull and the Cat who Taught Her To Fly, and Einstein in Margaret Sayers Peden’s English translation). Diderot, the feline keeper of the encyclopaedia.Diderot, who finally encourages the great “wandering Chilean” to tell his story as he types it on a typewriter that belonged to Hemingway…
A book for readers between the ages of eight and eighty-eight, Storia di Luis Sepúlveda e del suo gatto Zorba is not a biography based on dates and events alone, but on what made this Chilean writer so unique – on what made his books so magical and yet so real.
Three questions to the author:
KG: What inspired you to write this biography of Luis Sepúlveda in the form of a story suitable for readers of all ages, rather than a more formal biography?
IC: In a way I wanted to give Sepúlveda a voice. I know it may sound presumptuous but he’d always given a voice to others, always written about other people’s lives and never wanted to write his own autobiography. He gave a voice to those who didn’t have one. When he died, last year, at first I thought of writing something about him and me and explore our relationship as writer and translator, but then I realised that he couldn’t tell any more stories to young readers. To be honest, he never had an aristocratic view of literature, he was a writer of and for the people, one who didn’t want to address just his peers but everybody. So I decided to write a biography of Sepúlveda in which he could be a character telling his own story, and this could happen only in a biography aimed at young readers. Also I wasn’t interested in producing a formal biography based on research. I talked about my idea to Carmen Yañez, Sepúlveda’s wife, and she warmly welcomed it. She even sent me photos, the timeline of his family, told me stories about him and also contributed the beautiful poem at the beginning of my book. She said there was some poetic justice in my making him do something he’d always refused to do in his lifetime, recreating him as a character who writes his autobiography.
KG: You say that translating is a bit like stepping into someone else’s footprints. How did you feel when you actually recreated these footprints by adopting a style which – although very much your own – somehow echoes Luis Sepúlveda’s voice in his children’s books?
IC: I’d been translating Sepúlveda for twenty-seven years, I’ve translated twenty-six books, as well as articles, screenplays, etc. In addition, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know him personally, so I felt a little like his Italian doppelganger. Whenever he wrote in the first person, I also wrote in the first person, so it came very naturally to me to reproduce his voice, after all I’d been writing in his style for twenty-seven years – and been friends with him, so I’d heard him tell stories, family anecdotes, and was able to have all that wealth of information you get when you know someone personally and don’t just read about them. Sepúlveda may not have said exactly what my character says, but he absolutely could have.
After a while, I also realised that Diderot – the cat who is the first-person narrator of the novel – is actually me. I, too, know about the historical events experienced by Sepúlveda first-hand through books, through reading – I didn’t go through what he went through, though Diderot also shares many of Sepúlveda’s beliefs of liberty, equality and brotherhood.
KG: This book marks your debut as a fiction writer. How did writing your own words compare with translating those of others? Do you have any other writing projects in the pipeline?
IC: Spending time “on the other side” before a blank page instead of a ready-made printed book, was a brilliant experience. I loved the freedom that involved, since we translators are always dancers on a leash, in a way. I found this freedom at times terrifying but at times also wonderful because I was able to do what I wanted without the fear of somehow mistranslating another person. For example, at one point I use a Tuscan word which feels very right when I would never have used a regional term if I’d been translating instead of writing my own text. For some time now, I’ve wanted to write an autobiographical book about translation. One that explores what it is to experience a language as a translator, what language is, what a mother tongue is, what it means to devote your life to another language, what it means for a translator to spend their days living in the imagination of someone else. A publisher friend of mine says that translators tend to lead literary lives and their view of reality is therefore somewhat relative. After over twenty years as a translator, it’s a topic I’d love to explore.
By Katherine Gregor
STORIA DI LUIS SEPÚLVEDA E DEL SUO GATTO ZORBA (The Story of Luis Sepúlveda and his Cat Zorba), Fiction
by Ilide Carmignani (Salani, April 2021)
With warm thanks to Viviana Vuscovich, Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol, Milan.
Recently published in English translation: Cleopatra by Alberto Angela (HarperVia, April 2020), translated by Katherine Gregor
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series:
THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CON I PIEDI NEL FANGO: CONVERSAZIONI SU POLITICA E VERITÀ (With Your Feet in The Mud: Conversations About Politics and Truth) by Gianrico Carofiglio (with Jacopo Rosatelli)